Quote of the Month

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

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Defy Definitions

It has been happening every single day for generations, hundreds of years. Women of courage and conviction defy the definition of dictated behavior.  They dare to be different.  They pursue their passions even if it means they are alone and are apt to face uncomfortable consequences.  Most of them do so without notice.

A few months before the ratification of The United States Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, a girl named Marie-Sophie Germain was born in Paris, France.  Nothing Stopped Sophie: The Story of Unshakable Mathematician Sophie Germain (Little, Brown And Company, June 12, 2018) written by Cheryl Bardoe with illustrations by Barbara McClintock chronicles and honors her life.  Page by page you will be inwardly cheering for this woman until you shout out loud.

Long ago in Paris, a young girl named Sophie Germain understood that math could do more than measure lengths of silk and tally accounts in her father's shop.  

People in Sophie's world held specific expectations for women.  There were boundaries not to be crossed.  Certainly Sophie's love of mathematics had no place in this particular society.  Her parents did everything they could to stop Sophie, trying to protect her from ridicule but Sophie did not give up.  Finally Monsieur and Madame Germain allowed her to study mathematics.

Initially Sophie studied from the safety of her home; the French Revolution made being outside dangerous. The more she learned the more her dedication to numbers grew.  When she was nineteen she posed as Monsieur LeBlanc so she could submit homework to a university's math classes.  Curious about this stellar student, Professor Joseph-Louis Lagrange came to Sophie's house for a surprise visit.  It was indeed a surprise!

With her secret revealed some welcomed Sophie to their social gatherings, others did not take her seriously and some refused to communicate with her because she was a woman.  When she was thirty-two Sophie witnessed an experiment involving sound, vibrations and patterns.  This phenomenon intrigued the entire science community. 

The prestigious Academy of Sciences offered a medal worth 3,000 francs to anyone who could find the mathematical formula that would predict patterns of vibration.

It took two years for someone to submit an entry.  It was Sophie but her solution was erroneous.  For two more years this woman persevered.  She tried again after the Academy extended the offer.  Do you think it was right?  Would they accept her reasons for it working?  In 1816 someone walked away with the grand prize.  Was it Sophie?  Nothing stopped Sophie.

It is the inclusion of particular items of interest by author Cheryl Bardoe which begins and increases our personal bond with this woman.  Key phrases allow us to understand the importance of mathematics in her life.  The repetition of the title words creates a cadence connecting a series of significant incidents.  These events build toward Sophie's amazing victory cementing her willingness to keep working no matter the obstacles.  She believed in the power of mathematics and we believe it because of her. Here is a passage.

Sophie discovered that mathematicians use numbers as poets use letters---
as a language to question, explore, and solve the secrets of the universe.  She
read how ancient Greeks wrote equations that made the impossible possible.

Water flowed uphill . . .

A lone man pulled mighty ships ashore . . .

A scholar measured the size of the earth . . .

Sophie longed to become a mathematician and write such poems of her own.

When you open the dust jacket you are presented with Sophie a young woman on the right and Sophie, a teenager, on the left. (I am working with an F & G.) In both illustrations brightly colored numbers figure prominently in the pictures.  In fact they soar repeatedly in other images in this title.

In the first visual Sophie has just viewed the experiment about vibrations producing patterns. She realizes every sound sends out vibrations.  Surely there is a formula for predicting patterns and vibrations.  We are closer to Sophie in the second illustration.  She is intently reading a book stretched out on a carpet with an oil lamp burning next to her.

The opening and closing endpapers show different mathematical equations in the same palette of vibrant hues.  The background mirrors old paper.  The title page is a panoramic view of Paris; tall buildings nearly covering a blue sky with a few clouds.  Large numbers of people, wagons and horses fill the streets and sidewalks.  Sophie strolls along on the right with numbers soaring from her mind.

Each illustration rendered by Barbara McClintock with markers, gouache, and collage in painstaking detail, eloquently portrays Sophie amid a historical and societal context.  Her altered perspectives from one double-page picture to the next elevate the narrative. Some of the visuals give us a broader view and others bring us near Sophie.  In these it's as if we are there right next to her.

Barbara McClintock gives us a large view of a Paris street outside an upper story window where Sophie studies in their library as the French Revolution chaotically unfolds in the streets outside.  Numbers, huge and bold float above the people.  Numbers are embedded in the architecture of Sophie's home.  In another illustration, an older Sophie sits at a desk working.  She is framed with replicas of correspondence; letters, envelopes and books, too.  Envelopes scatter to the right of her, beneath the text.

One of my many favorite illustrations shows Sophie's parents in their night garments fondly looking at her.  They are on the left of the illustration.  On the right Sophie, wrapped in a blanket, is sound asleep with her head resting on a desk.  Sheets covered with mathematical formulas are scattered on the floor and beneath her head.  Through a single window we can see it's snowing outside.  An equation is positioned in a thought above Sophie's head.  (It was so cold in the room; the ink was frozen solid in the pot.)

This book, Nothing Stopped Sophie: The Story of Unshakable Mathematician Sophie Germain written by Cheryl Bardoe with illustrations by Barbara McClintock, is marvelous.  The blend of narrative and artwork is elegant picture book biography perfection.  At the close of the book there are sections titled More About Sophie, Is This Math Or Science?, Discover The Effects Of Vibration For Yourself, Selected Bibliography, A Note From Cheryl Bardoe and A Note From Barbara McClintock. You will want to place a copy of this title in both your professional and personal collections. 

To learn more about Cheryl Bardoe and Barbara McClintock and their other work, please follow the links attached to their names to access their websites.  At the publisher's website there is an Author Essay, a video chat with Barbara McClintock and an activity kit.  Both the essay and video chat are fascinating.  At author, reviewer and blogger, Julie Danielson's site, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, Barbara McClintock chats about her process with supporting artwork.

Please take a few moments to visit Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to view the other title included by bloggers this week participating in the 2018 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.

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