Quote of the Month

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

Friday, May 15, 2020

From Many, One

The fascinating fact about picture book biographies about the same person is each new one makes the person more whole for readers.  Each author and each illustrator approach the subject from a different perspective, even if similar information is included.  Some picture book biographies focus on the person's entire life, from birth to death, focusing on their choice of accomplishments.  Other picture book biographies feature either their childhood, or adulthood.  Particular milestones reached by the individual, even a single event, are covered by other titles.

In a new title about Benjamin Franklin, we learn of a collective variety of incidents, contributing to a lifetime of remarkable achievements.  In A Ben Of All Trades: The Most Inventive Boyhood of Benjamin Franklin (Candlewick Press, March 17, 2020) written by Michael J. Rosen with illustrations by Matt Tavares, we become acquainted with a young man who had an intense focus.  His repeated attempts to prove a point, enhanced his future more than he could have imagined.

WHAT DID Benjamin Franklin love about books?  Each one was nothing like the other.

What did Benjamin Franklin not love about making candles?

Working in his father's candle making shop, Benjamin deplored the exactness of the trade.  Everything was always the same.  What Benjamin desired was to be a sailor.  His father would not agree to this.

He needed to find a trade for his son, this son preoccupied with swimming, reading and too much thinking.  His latest book fascination was a title from his library, The Art of Swimming. Josiah, though impressed with Benjamin's latest invention, paddles for his hands to make him swim faster, knew he must find something to peak his son's interest soon.

After several days working at a joinery, Benjamin and his father, on their walk home spoke.  Benjamin longed to go to sea.  Josiah, as expected, said no.  Even when Benjamin demonstrated a new swimming technique in the river, his father did not relent.  Two different and new apprenticeships did not appeal to Benjamin.  He was good at both, as he was with whatever he did, but he was bored.  Even after another swimming presentation, Josiah stood silent and firm in his resolve to forbid Benjamin to go to sea.

One day, using the acquired skills from his job training, Benjamin made an extraordinary kite.  With his sister, Lydia, and his friend, John Collins, they went to Mill Pond.  Suddenly an idea struck Benjamin.  It worked splendidly.  Eagerly, he, Lydia and John walked to his father's shop.  Even after an explanation, his father did not approve.

Benjamin was sent to work with his brother, James, who owned a print shop.  Benjamin was there for nine years.  In those years, this youth took what he knew and what he learned and melded them with the best parts of his personality.  Benjamin Franklin died more than 230 years ago, but his talents and his deeds remain.

With his first four sentences, author Michael J. Rosen presents readers with the essence of Benjamin Franklin's personality as well as how his narrative of this time in Benjamin's days will unfold in this book.  By moving back and forth between Benjamin's perfecting of his inventions and his swimming techniques and his father's attempts at finding him a trade, we feel the tension between a young man wanting something with every fiber of his being and a parent who will not allow it.  It becomes apparent, when reading the facts and dialogue as depicted by Michael J. Rosen, that even within the restrictions of this historical period, young Benjamin Franklin's mind was allowed to flourish, regardless of not pursuing the career of his dreams.

In his Notes About Young Franklin and About Creating This Book, Michael J. Rosen addresses what he did and did not include in this book.  This reinforces what readers discover.  Although Benjamin Franklin lived centuries ago, young people today can connect to a boy who took the best of every situation and used it to strengthen his gifts.  Here is a passage.

The two walked without speaking until they
approached the river.  "Father, I've learned the
Leap of the Goat.  It's the feat that shows true
mastery of the swimming arts."
"If you must demonstrate, then you must . . . "
Benjamin raced toward the water.  Floating on
his back, chest inflated, he thrashed his arms
against the sun-bright ripples until his feet
fluttered inches above the river.
Josiah applauded.
Benjamin dressed.
The two walked home in silence. 

In a breathtaking composition, beginning on the front of the open and matching dust jacket and book case, we see young Benjamin Franklin standing on a dock post looking out at the harbor in Boston.  Behind him are buildings and people portraying the architecture, clothing, and transportation of this period.  The scene extends beautifully on the other side of the spine.  A ship flying the British flag spans from the left to the right of this portion of the painting.  The use of light and shadow here is visible throughout the book.  You can feel the salty air on the breeze and hear the cries of sea birds in the distance.  The sound of the horses and wagon and voices of the people fade because you, as Ben Franklin, are looking out toward the sea and your future.

The rich velvety black of the title text is used on the opening and closing endpapers.  On the first page is a quote from Poor Richard's Almanack, 1750.  As referenced in the quote artist Matt Tavares has placed a sundial on a short square pillar among grass and foliage.  With another page turn we are standing behind Benjamin Franklin as he looks out at the harbor.  This view of multiple ships in the water against a golden sky awash is wisps of clouds is stunning.  The yearning of this boy is our yearning.

Rendered in pencil and painted digitally, these illustrations by Matt Tavares transport us to Benjamin Franklin's world as a youth.  When the focus is on Benjamin and his father, the image spans across one page and half of another page.  This creates a wide column for text which Matt Tavares frames in period lines.  He also places a smaller visual (or visuals) beneath or within the text symbolizing an item mentioned in the narrative.

When Benjamin is trying one of his inventions, the illustration is a double-page picture, edge to edge. The one exception to this pictorial rhythm is when Josiah tells Benjamin he is to become a journeyman in his brother's print shop.  It is a dramatic moment.  Another technique of Matt Tavares creating an interpretive cadence is how he shifts a visual's viewpoint.  We are brought close to Benjamin at times and then we are given a more panoramic view.  Sometimes there is a blend of the two.  One thing which is portrayed is the affection Benjamin has for his sibling, friend, and his father and how that affection is returned.

One of my many, many favorite illustrations is when Benjamin is experimenting with his kite.  This double-page picture shows the bank of Mill Pond with homes beyond it and the masts of ships rising in the harbor.  Shadows of tree branches play on the roofs from the sunlight.  Lydia and John are running along the path.  This scene is the upper one-third of the image.  The other two-thirds show ripples of water, left to right, as Benjamin is being dragged on his back by the kite.  Above the water on the right side is his smiling face, eyes alight with joy.  His arms are stretched out and up as he grasps the stick with the kite rope wound on it.

This point of view, this portion of this memorable man's life, will resonate with and inspire readers.  Ben Of All Trades: The Most Inventive Boyhood of Benjamin Franklin written by Michael J. Rosen with illustrations by Matt Tavares is a marvelous title.  You could pair it with Electric Ben: The Amazing Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin by Robert Byrd, Ben Franklin's Big Splash: The Mostly True Story of His First Invention by Barb Rosenstock with illustrations by S. D. Schindler and Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France by Mara Rockliff with illustrations by Iacopo Bruno.  In this title in addition to the previously mentioned author notes, there is a note From the Illustrator, and a Bibliography.  I highly recommend this title for your personal and professional libraries.

To learn more about Michael J. Rosen and Matt Tavares and their other work, please follow the links attached to their names to access their websites.  Michael J. Rose has accounts on Facebook, and Twitter.  Matt Tavares has accounts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.  At the publisher's website you can view an interior image.  At Penguin Random House you can view other interior visuals.  Matt Tavares chats on the A Bookish Home Podcast with Laura Szaro Kopinski.

Be sure to visit Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher, to view the other titles selected this week by other participants in the 2020 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.

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