nonfiction nuggets…our kite-flying, wise-cracking, proverb-writing, patriot

electric ben cover imageElectric Ben: The Amazing Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin, written and illustrated by Robert Byrd

Benjamin Franklin was born in 1706, long after the Renaissance, yet if anyone could be called a true Renaissance man, it would be Ben. He was a scholar, printer, writer, entrepreneur, traveler, community organizer, philosopher, journalist, editor, politician, jokester, inventor, social benefactor, postmaster, publisher, scientist, diplomat, orator. How any one person could cram so much into one lifetime is truly astonishing.

Composing a biography of Franklin for children, then, is a demanding task. Robert Byrd’s book, new in 2012, does a beautiful job of displaying the breadth of Franklin’s interests and service, and revealing the motivations and aspirations of this incredibly hard-working person. In Byrd’s own words, he attempted to be

Franklin by Joseph Duplessis

Franklin by Joseph Duplessis

“evenhanded” as well as include what he guessed “Dr. Franklin himself might have considered worthy of telling.” These strike me as excellent parameters, and his book is clear, vivid, respectful and fascinating.

Byrd arranges his material on two-page spreads that explore a particular facet or period of Franklin’s life. He narrates the story of his life beginning with his birth in Boston, the youngest of fourteen children, and continuing with his schooling and poor richard's almanack 1733apprenticeships in which Franklin’s inclinations began to guide him, his  printing and writing,and the many reforms he instituted in Philadelphia. Byrd includes a hefty discussion of his scientific experimentation, his meetings with the Six Nations, the French and Indian War, the Revolution, and his lengthy diplomatic work, concluding with Franklin’s position on slavery and work for abolition. 

That’s a great survey. It’s a fairly lengthy book, geared for upper elementary and older.

It’s a beautiful book, too, and that’s a key point. Despite a considerable amount of text, this book has great visual appeal. Using ink and watercolor, Byrd has created elaborate, intricate illustrations that tremendously aid our conception of everything from the printing press to a Leyden jar, to the court of Versailles, to Franklin’s sedan chair. The paint colors and fashions and architecture and scientific equipment were all thoroughly researched. 

electric ben illus. robert byrd from bibliozealous dot blogspot dot com

Sprinkled here and there throughout the book in quaint frames are Franklin-isms, which are also printed en masse on the endpapers. There are some interesting Author’s Notes, a thorough timeline, and a very nice bibliography with suggestions for young readers as well. 

Many biographies of Franklin have been written. I love the scope of this one, the fact that Byrd does not talk down in the least to his readers, and the really, exceptional artwork here that enhances our understanding. Winner of a Sibert Honor for children’s nonfiction in 2013.

Here’s an Amazon link:Electric Ben: The Amazing Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin