Thursday, April 5, 2018

Ben Franklin's in my bathroom by Candace Fleming, illustrated by Mark Fearing

Candace Fleming, author of several excellent picture books and some really superlative biographies, combines her sense of humor and historical research in a new series of light-hearted, illustrated middle grade fiction; History Pals.

The first title features ten year old Nolan and his seven year old sister Olive. Nolan is struggling with his parents' separation and divorce - his dad has gone to live in London. Olive is an imaginative little imp and doesn't fall in line with Nolan's efforts to not bother his mom and help her come up with the next idea for her series of bunny books.

Almost immediately, things start happening. Nolan discovers a strange package on their doorstep, which has an old radio. He fiddles around with it and...suddenly a strange man appears! Nolan can hardly believe it, but apparently the man really is... Benjamin Franklin! Franklin is delighted by the many exciting inventions he sees - some of which he pioneered himself! Swimming pools (Franklin gives a dazzling exhibition of swimming skills), the fire department, public libraries, junk food, toilets, he's curious about everything. Olive immediately enjoys Franklin's company and decides he's her best friend. Both share a child-like enjoyment of everyday activities. Nolan is not so pleased with this strange incursion. He's worried that things will go wrong, that his mom won't get her inspiration, that the snooping neighbor will find out what's happening, in short he's just worried!

Disaster strikes when Franklin gets a little too curious about the fire station and snoopy Tommy steals the radio. If Nolan can get Olive to agree to send Ben back - can they even figure out a way to do it?

The book is illustrated with spot caricatures by Mark Fearing and short comics illustrating important experiments and moments in Ben Franklin's life. A final chapter (in Nolan's voice) talks about the truth behind the comic stories of Ben's life with humorous interjections from Olive. There is also a short bibliography and some web sources for more information.

I'm not sure how I feel about this. The thing is, I'm always a little leary about giving kids fictionalized history, especially when it's this quirky. Does this really give readers a genuine picture of historical figures? Especially when a lot of readers may not even know who Benjamin Franklin is in the first place (seriously, half of my book club kids didn't know who Martin Luther King was.... the week before MLK day... um...). Franklin is an easier personage in some ways to introduce in this fashion. As an inventor, scientist, and eccentric, his attitude of child-like curiosity is mostly believable and the time period he's supposedly brought from (1784) while putting him in his 70s, does date after he stopped supporting slavery. Fleming also includes some of the more serious aspects of Franklin's life, like his quarrel with his son. I can't help but wonder how she's going to handle some of the more controversial aspects of other historical personages though - and I feel that it's somewhat disingenuous to simply ignore Franklin's probable reaction to seeing people of other races (not to mention women) in a modern setting.

Verdict: In the end it's funny and I really like Mark Fearing's illustrations. The history is woven smoothly into the story along with just enough bathroom humor to make readers giggle. I'm not sure this has a definite audience - it's a bit too historical for the Wimpy Kid set and too light for the history buffs. However, the wacky sense of humor will probably appeal to readers of the Treehouse series by Griffiths and probably Captain Underpants. It might click with readers who enjoy fiction/nonfiction blends, such as Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales as well. It's probably not an ideal introduction to Benjamin Franklin, but combined with other sources it will hopefully get kids interested in learning more and will provide an amusing read with a touch of education.

ISBN: 9781101934067; Published September 2017 by Schwartz & Wade; Borrowed from another library in my consortium

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