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A perfect introduction to mathematical concepts for young readers, written by a Newbery honor-winning author!
This colorfully illustrated biography of the Greek philosopher and scientist Eratosthenes, who compiled the first geography book and accurately measured the globe's circumference, is just right for budding mathematicians, scientists, historians, and librarians! Filled with fascinating details about Eratosthenes's world (and in print since 1994), kids are sure to flip through the pages time and again.
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Kathryn Lasky has written a variety of books for children, including fiction, picture books, and many nonfiction books. She is the author of the Guardians of Ga'Hoole series and several titles in the Dear America series, and her book Sugaring Time was awarded a Newbery Honor in 1983. In 1986 she received the Washington Post-Children's Book Guild Award for the body of her nonfiction work.
Kevin Hawkes has written and illustrated many books for young readers, including Library Lion and Then the Troll Heard a Squeak. In illustrating The Librarian Who Measured the Earth, he was inspired by the Greek landscape and light, as well as the challenge of bringing a subject like ancient history to life. Kevin lives with his wife and children in Southern Maine.
Gr. 3-5, younger for reading aloud. Introducing a person and a period largely unknown to children, this picture-book biography depicts the life of Eratosthenes, an ancient Greek who eventually became the head of the famous library in Alexandria. His most notable achievement was a remarkably ingenious method for measuring the earth's girth. After determining the angles of shadows in two cities and the distance between them, he used geometry to calculate the circumference of the earth.
Illustrating the text with warmth and humor, Hawkes' acrylic paintings capture the period details of the setting and clarify the geometric concepts used in the measurement. The often dramatic compositions vary from page to page, while the sunlit reds, oranges, and yellows glow brightly against the cooler blues and greens. Even unnamed characters look like individuals, with their own concerns and personalities. Hawkes' attention to detail and his occasional visual humor will reward any child who studies the illustrations.
Entertaining as well as instructional, the text presents the man, the story, the geometry, the geography, and the ancient world itself in simple prose. Lasky can be commended for making history so readable. And yet . . . is it history? Is it biography? Or is it fiction?
In the introductory "Author's Note," Lasky explains that there are gaps in our knowledge of Eratosthenes and that "we cannot fill them in by making up facts, but we can try to responsibly imagine based on what we already know, which is what I've tried to do in this book." Unfortunately, the reader has no way of knowing what parts of the book are factual and what parts spring from Lasky's imagination. As a baby, was Eratosthenes really "curious and full of wonder"? Well, probably; most babies fit that description. Did he "crawl across the kitchen floor to follow the path of ants"? Maybe. Did he wonder "why there were beads of water on the cistern in the morning" and "why the stars stayed in the sky"? Or did the author "responsibly imagine" that part? How about the details of school life at the gymnasium in Cyrene? Was Eratosthenes "a real whiz in math" as a schoolboy? Or does Lasky imagine that he must have been a whiz as a child because of his later achievements in the field as an adult?
A more careful wording of the text would separate knowledge from supposition, a fundamental principle of scholarship. When she speaks of Eratosthenes measuring the earth's circumference, Lasky says, "Perhaps he imagined the earth as a grapefruit." The word perhaps makes all the difference. If she had taken that approach from the beginning, this book would be outstanding. As fragmentary as the record may be, there's something special about real history, and readers can sense it.
The old juvenile biographies with invented conversations fell out of favor for good reason. Readers count on nonfiction to deliver the truth: maybe not the whole truth, but nothing but the truth, within the limits of the author's knowledge. Eratosthenes sounds like a fascinating man, but it's difficult to sort out which parts of this book are historically accurate and which are not. The author's and illustrator's bibliographies of 25 books and articles reassure us that they know what is history and what is invention. But in calling the book a biography, the author has a responsibility to let readers know, as well. Otherwise, the book should be placed in the equally respectable category of historical fiction, which also requires enormous research but gives greater range for an author's imagination.
Although flawed in its presentation of the main character, The Librarian Who Measured the Earth belongs in many libraries because it contains an entertaining introduction to the ancient world, a clear explanation of Eratosthenes' measurement of the earth, and remarkably vibrant illustrations. Carolyn Phelan
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