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Studies show that gifted and twice-exceptional students often select biographies as a major genre of choice for their reading. In addition, many authorities in curriculum for the gifted suggest and strongly encourage that we use biographies with these students. The reasons are obvious: biographies provide role models and inspiration; biographies appeal to these students’ inclination to non-fiction (another favorite genre); biographies speak to their innate and natural curiosities; and biographies appeal to these students’ deep penchant to learn.
Regular readers of this column are well aware of my own penchant for using picture books with gifted and twice-exceptional learners — for all learners actually. In addition, some readers may be aware of my column, Books, Books, and More Books, in NAGC’s Teaching for High Potential. The whole thrust of that column is to encourage the use of picture books in all grade levels, but especially in secondary gifted classrooms. The genre of picture books has become quite sophisticated in the past few years, and I have had and seen great success in using picture books with our gifted and twice- exceptional students.
One area in which picture books excel is in biography. For resources, I often recommend Dr. Ann Robinson, a past president of NAGC and director of the Center for Gifted Education, University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Her Blueprints for Biography (www.ualr.edu/giftedctr/talentedreaders) are especially helpful in working with gifted students; and her extensive book list (which you can display when you follow the link by clicking on “Bibliography of Biographies” in the left-hand column) is truly a great resource.
However, one book has not yet made it onto Ann Robinson’s list — On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein, written by Jennifer Berne and illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky (2013, Chronicle Books, LLC). Visually, this is a truly beautiful little book. Radunsky, a well known and appreciated illustrator, has rendered the illustrations in gouache, pen, and ink. The illustrations are printed on a speckled, soft “golden-rod” background. The striking combination of artistic style and choice of background color greatly enhances the book. In addition, the use of the end pages is not only clever but adds details to the story line as well.
Berne has dedicated On a Beam of Light to “the next Einstein, who is probably a child now.” She begins her narrative with: “Over 100 years ago, as the stars swirled in the sky, as the Earth circled the sun, as the March winds blew through a little town by a river, a baby boy was born. His parents named him Albert.”
The text continues with stories of his early childhood, but it always comes back to the idea that Albert “Looked and wondered. Looked and wondered.” Berne tells how in his youth, Albert was riding his bike through the countryside and was inspired by a thought that dominated his whole life. “He wondered, what would it be like to ride one of those sun beams? And in his mind right then and there, Albert was no longer on his bicycle; no longer on the country road …he was racing through space on a beam of light.”
Berne ends her tale with a lesson from Einstein himself. She writes: “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”
This delightful book provides a great introduction to Einstein’s work, thoughts, and inspirations. The Author’s Notes at the end of the book provide extended information and some recommended references for further study. While Einstein’s slow development in his early childhood is mentioned, Berne does not develop the story of his early learning difficulties in school. As I am sure almost every dyslexic knows, when famous and successful dyslexics are listed, Albert Einstein’s name is always near the top of list. He certainly provides a wonderful and amazing model for our students.
While this book is certainly a tribute to the scientific contributions made by Einstein, its greater legacy is its dedication to creativity, imagination, and the big questions that he has left for us to answer. “Questions,” Berne writes, “that someday you may answer…by wondering, thinking, and imagining.” Certainly, this is the legacy that Albert Einstein would most like to leave to our youth today. I highly recommend this wonderful little book.
Professor Emeritus Bob Seney is retired from teaching in the Masters of Gifted Studies Program at Mississippi University for Women. At conferences, he often presents a session titled “What’s New in Young Adult Literature.” Reach him at email@example.com.