What did inventor Thomas Edison, scientist Albert Einstein, and teacher Annie Sullivan have in common? As young people they all had a passion for reading and books.
Edison said that his mother “taught me to read good books quickly and correctly, and as this opened up a great world in literature, I have always been very thankful for this early training." Of course that quotation made it into my biography of Edison, Inventing the Future. A plug for books and for mothers! (Although I still wonder what he meant by reading correctly. Is there a wrong way to read?)
As you might expect, young Tom Edison was especially interested in books having to do with science. Inventing the Future notes that: "When a book on chemistry seized his imagination, Tom set up a laboratory in the cellar of his house and gathered a large amount of chemicals to stock it. He spent many an hour mixing acids and other chemicals and alarming his parents with the occasional explosion."
When Tom was 12 he took a job with the railroad, selling newspapers to passengers on the round-trip to Detroit. During layovers in the city, he often passed the time in the library, reading all the books he could find on science and technology. "His new job on the train didn't keep him from experimenting. He just performed his investigations in the baggage car. But when a chemical spilled and caught fire one day, the conductor put an end to his career as an onboard chemist."
As a child, Albert Einstein didn't care for school. German schools at the time emphasized rote learning, which turned him off, and he didn't put much effort into subjects that bored him. Math and science fascinated him, however, and he excelled at them. He soon surpassed what was being taught at his school, so to feed his appetite for knowledge he turned to books. He later recalled that he pored over popular books on science with "breathless attention." Breathless attention! You can bet that quotation made it into Genius, my biography of Einstein. Breathless attention. Don’t we writers dream that some fine day one of our books will command this?
But back to Einstein. When he was about 12 years old, he received a geometry textbook from a family friend. He later spoke of it as a "holy book" because of the powerful effect it had on his imagination. That imagination eventually led to scientific theories that transformed our everyday ideas of time and space and the way the universe works. (And no, I’ve never dreamed of writing a “holy book.”)
Annie Sullivan, the subject of my latest biography, Helen’s Eyes, had no books as a child. Her parents, poor Irish immigrants, were illiterate. As a very young girl, Annie contracted trachoma, which began to destroy her vision. At the age of nine, half-blind Annie Sullivan and her younger brother were sent to live at the state-run poorhouse in Tewksbury, Massachusetts.
Annie lived behind the Tewksbury gates until she was 14 years old. That’s when she finally got the chance to go to school. At the Perkins School for the Blind she quickly learned to read braille. With her fingers, she read such books as The Scarlet Letter, The Last Days of Pompeii, and The Old Curiosity Shop. Then she underwent two eye operations, which restored her vision to the point that she could read with her eyes. “Although her eyes tired easily, she began to devour book after book, and she developed a life-long passion for reading and literature.” She read Shakespeare and “for the first time I felt the magic of great poetry.” Annie passed her love of reading on to her famous student, Helen Keller.
Toward the end of her life, Annie gradually lost her sight. Helen tried to teach her to read braille—the system had changed since Annie learned it—but Annie would have none of it. “Helen is and always has been thoroughly well behaved in her blindness as well as her deafness, but I’m making a futile fight of it, like a bucking bronco,” Annie told a friend. “It’s not the big things in life that one misses through loss of sight, but such little things as being able to read. And I have no patience…for the braille system, because I can’t read fast enough.” These words broke my heart. Of course they found their way into Helen's Eyes.
As an author of nonfiction for kids, I strive to write books that will “inform and entertain,” the mantra imprinted on my brain during the years I worked as a writer for Time-Life Books. Breathless attention? It would be nice, but if my books truly inform and entertainment young readers, then that's no small thing.