Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Wet, Wild And Wonderful

Water fights with my dad were epic. They all started innocently enough with squirt guns; someone getting a tad bit wet when they least expected it.  Then the strategy started as the game escalated.   The squirt guns were abandoned.  There were only two outside faucets which needed to be accessed for the filling of pails or buckets.  After that round of water wildness, when we were all nearly drenched, my dad would wait for one of us to round the house and then everything went crazy when he started using the hose.

In 1990 the first Super Soaker was sold.  Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson's Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions (Charlesbridge, May 3, 2016) written by Chris Barton with illustrations by Don Tate is an uplifting story of stick-to-itiveness and ingenuity.  My dad would have loved this toy and those epic water fights would have been magnificent. 

Every day brought a challenge for young Lonnie Johnson---the challenge of finding space for his stuff.

Lonnie Johnson was a thinker, an inventor and a doer which is hard to be in a small home with five other siblings.  He could take discarded bits and pieces and create a whole new something.  He had a passion for building just about anything but rockets were a favorite.  His father and mother supported him in any endeavor, even when his rocket fuel making burst into flames in their kitchen.

This boy dreamt of being an engineer.  Even though a test said this would not be a good career choice, Lonnie did not give up on his goal.  He worked for years to build a robot which might take a prize in a science fair.  Guess what a robot named Linex accomplished for Lonnie and his team in 1968?

At Tuskegee University Lonnie's gifts were noticed and his extra work earned him an engineering degree.  It was Lonnie Johnson who devised a system to keep the Galileo, the unmanned craft sent to study Jupiter, working at full capacity even if it lost power.  One day when Lonnie was exploring another way to keep the cooling portion of refrigerators and air conditioners working without the use of R-12, he made a surprising and rather fun discovery.  Right in his own bathroom, he felt and saw the first whoosh of air and water.

With his wonderful mind he fashioned a first, weird-looking but highly efficient water pistol.  When he tried it out at a picnic people couldn't believe how super it was.  It took years and years of highs and lows and never-let-go of your dream moments but Lonnie Johnson finally found a company, Larami, who agreed to make his toy.  (In the second year on the market 20 million Super Soakers were sold.)  From his success and the monetary results Lonnie Johnson built his best workshop yet. He's still dreaming.  He's still inventing.  He's still making a difference. 

Every time you read the story of Lonnie Johnson's life as told by Chris Barton you can feel your creative embers burst into flame.  You can't help but sense excitement in knowing how hard work, persistence and believing in yourself overcame challenges which might have defeated other individuals. Barton focuses on those moments in Johnson's life which will connect with his intended audience.

He presents Johnson's story in an easy relaxed style.  Descriptions of the specific parts Lonnie used to make his robot are sure to generate thinking; inspire "I wonder" and "what-if".  His repetition of just keep on flowing supplies a consistency and cadence. Here are two connecting sample passages.

Lonnie sometimes studied right in the middle of his own parties.  The extra studying paid off.  He became an engineer after graduation, and that took him beyond Alabama---way beyond.

When NASA was sending an orbiter and probe called Galileo to Jupiter, the space agency needed to ensure a constant supply of power to the orbiter's computer memory. The engineer who had to figure out how to do it was Lonnie.  

Rendered digitally using Manga Studio all the illustrations by Don Tate, beginning on his matching dust jacket and book case, are full of life, giving readers a true sense of a time period and the personality of Lonnie Johnson.  It's a brilliant layout on the front with the stream of air and water dividing a younger Johnson from the man who made the Super Soaker.  You can't help but smile at this genius of this boy and this man. On the back, to the left, an interior image shows the younger Johnson in full concentration working on one of his inventions.  On the opening and closing endpapers Tate has drawn representations of Lonnie's inventions (five different ones on each endpaper) labeled and numbered as blueprints. 

The verso and first pages hold the first two-page illustration of Lonnie's neighborhood with him leaning out a window in his home, demonstrating the lack of space for all his inventions.  Tate alternates his image sizes to generate a pleasing flow with the narrative.  His perspectives shift also to place emphasis on a particular potion of the story.  The clothing styles, architecture and items in each scene are in keeping with an era.  In a brilliant design moment Tate fashions a gatefold turning one word into another actually uttered at a demonstration.

One of my favorite illustrations (of many) is when Lonnie Johnson is working on his cooling project trying out a theory in his home bathroom. When the air and water whoosh across the room causing the curtains to billow, the look on his face is priceless.  It's one of those happy "yikes" moments leading to the next invention.  The sink with the separate faucets, clawed tub, toilet, waste basket, pull cord lamp for light, toothbrush holder on the wall and the rugs give a realistic vision to readers.   

Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson's Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions written by Chris Barton with illustrations by Don Tate is a stellar biographical picture book.  Regardless of their age readers will appreciate this man's success and admire his attitude.  Knowing Lonnie Johnson continues to pursue his passions to this day makes this book all the more powerful.  

To learn more about Chris Barton and Don Tate please follow the links attached to their names to access their websites.  Both Barton and Tate maintain blogs which you can access from their websites. These blogs contain posts about this book.  You can view my favorite illustration at the publisher's website.  Chris Barton chats about this book at Scholastic's Ambassador of School Libraries, John Schumacher's blog, Watch. Connect. Read.  Don Tate speaks about this title at the Highlights Foundation website.  You might enjoy reading these two articles about Lonnie Johnson at BBC News Magazine and Mental_Floss.

Make sure you visit Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to enjoy the titles selected by the other bloggers participating in the 2016 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.


  1. What a wonderfully inspiring story of an individual who never lost sight of his dreams, and never lost faith in himself. Super Soakers were such a big deal when I was a kid in the '90, but it sounds like the story behind these toys is even more amazing!!

    1. I am so thankful for the work of Chris Barton and Don Tate in deciding to highlight this man's life. I plan on sharing it as soon as I can with children.

  2. I'm a fan of Chris Barton's bios, though I haven't gotten to this one yet. I'm behind schedule! Thanks for the nice review, Margie :)

    1. If you are a Chris Barton biography fan Maria, you need this book. And you are welcome.