by Jennifer Berne, illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky
I fancy myself a scaredy dad. My son, who has been with us now for approximately 750ish days, has managed to instill a deep rooted paranoia within me concerning every possible aspect of the human condition. “Is he choking or just laughing really hard?” “What was that, a poop or a toot” (please just be a toot!)? And something I’m certain every parent can relate to: “Why isn’t he deciphering complex algebraic proofs yet?” Unreasonable? Absolutely! Whereas I can look past perceived mathematical deficiencies, I worry away over words and speech.
Believe it or not, other parents have shared concerns for their child’s development. Case in point; THE EINSTEINS! Turns out, even the most (arguably) brilliant scientist ever took a while to blossom. Jennifer Berne’s book On a Beam of Light reveals a quiet, curious baby Albert who barely spoke at the age of three. He sort of took his time checking things out. Upon receiving a compass from his father, young Albert became mesmerized by the consistency of its northward pointing needle. This revelation developed a thirst for knowledge within him that would span a lifetime. Far more inquisitive than his classmates, some teachers believed he would be an utter failure in life. Unperturbed, he searched for answers in books on science and math. Tireless thinking and daydreaming led him to discover some of the most important concepts in scientific history.
Berne takes an interesting approach to Einstein’s story by focusing on his difficulties fitting in, his curious nature, and a love of simple pleasures. In a word: his normalcy. For all practical purposes this seemingly super-natural man was little more than a thoughtful boy who loved music, riding his bicycle, eating ice cream, and wearing shoes with no socks. The author’s clever references to activities children adore make Albert all the more appealing to young readers and listeners. Particularly keen observations and significant moments in Albert’s story are written in large, red ink to emphasize their meaning.
Vladimir Radunsky creates a whimsical mood with static pen drawings which are often colored with ink and gouache paints. Some of Albert’s thoughts and questions are drawn as word bubbles. Particularly effective are the freckled, parchment-like pages which are soft on the reader’s eyes. Images frequently portray Albert in a pensive pose. Depictions of his thoughts and dreams bounce across pages as if they were darting through his mind. One particular spread illustrating a scene made of atoms accompanies Albert’s understanding of nature’s building blocks. In another, mathematical formulas and sheet music spew from a violin played by the passionate genius.
On a Beam of Light is a unique middle grade picture book that allows young readers to indulge their inner mathematician and/or scientist without feeling compelled to learn. It feels complete in many ways. The exquisite, diverse artwork complements the energizing text creating broad appeal for a topic some young readers may consider bland. It even gives fretful parents food for thought. I take comfort in the realization that my boy is WAY smarter than Einstein was at his age. Fellow scaredy dads, there’s hope for us all.