(This was first written for my History of Youth Literature class.)
Leonardo da Vinci was written by Kathleen Krull, the 2011 Children’s Book Guild of Washington, D.C. Nonfiction Award Winner for Body of Work. The book itself was named CBC/NSTA Outstanding Science Book of the Year, included on other notable lists, and received rave reviews.
When I first downloaded the eBook, I was expecting something more like the biographies of presidents that my students had to read last month for nonfiction month in the AR-based reading program at their school. The book I saw had a lot of pictures, but it read more like an encyclopedia or textbook than a story. It also had long, convoluted sentences with bigger words than necessary that made it hard for my students to understand.
On the other hand, Krull uses simple prose that reads like a novel, and the book itself feels much less like a typical (in my mind) nonfiction book and more like a book that I would normally read. I had to return some books anyway, so I ended up going to the library and checking out the physical book before I even had a chance to start reading the eBook. The only thing about the book that made me feel like it was a nonfiction book instead of a novel (other than the title) was the “Giants of Science” series name written across the bottom of the volume. Otherwise, the design of the book itself seemed very much like that of a middle grade historical fiction novel.
Although I don’t generally think of myself as a nonfiction fan, I can see myself reading a lot more of these narrative biographies after reading this book. It’s been a long time since I read a nonfiction book I couldn’t put down, but I had a hard time leaving for work today because I didn’t want to stop reading. I loved being able to read about what da Vinci was like as a person, and all the talk of his inventions reminded me of my visit to the da Vinci exhibition when it was in L.A. a few years ago. There was even a shoutout to my favorite of his inventions, a portable bridge made of sticks that could be fitted together when the army got to a river and then taken apart again afterwards. (As part of the exhibition, we got to try to put the bridge together ourselves and even walk over it once we were done.)
I do worry about the false impressions of people’s lives that narrative versions can give, though, even after reading this well-researched, well-written book. I think Krull did a great job of writing about the bad parts of da Vinci along with the good, but because of the lighthearted-tone of the book as a whole, I felt like it was playing down the bad and emphasizing the good. The overall effect made da Vinci and his life seem better than they really were.
Even so, I would definitely recommend this to all kids, even those who don’t usually like nonfiction (or maybe especially to them). I was only a few chapters into the book when I started planning ways to use these types of books in my lessons. I might not use this one in particular, but Kathleen Krull has written a lot of books (and from some of the other reviews in class, she’s not the only one who has written engaging nonfiction for kids).
I also loved the illustration on the cover by Boris Kulikov with da Vinci as an old man trying to fly with wings made of pages from his notebooks. The expression on his face is hilarious to me for some reason. (There was one illustration that caused a little bit of a disconnect to me with da Vinci writing “Notebook” backwards in English even though he was supposed to only know Italian and eventually Latin, but I understand how the illustration is trying to give students an idea of what da Vinci was doing using what they are familiar with.)
This post is my Blogging from A to Z entry for the letter L.