Review of the Day – Neo Leo: The Ageless Ideas of Leonardo da Vinci by Gene Barretta
Even if you’ve never felt the slightest inclination to write a non-fiction picture book a day of your life, it’s still possible to take a gander at a book, blink twice, and say to yourself, “Now why didn’t I think of that?” Today’s example: Gene Barretta’s newest. When you’re an American child you are inundated with a lot of fancy names of folks, most white, many male, and almost all dead. Dead white men predominate and blend together. It’s hardest to remember them if they were simply aligned with concepts rather than things. This is why I think that most kids are taught about historical persons who invented or drew things. Inventors and artists make up the bulk of my library’s biography section and rarely do the two occupations intersect. By logical extension, then, Leonardo de Vinci should by rights be the most memorable man kids are taught about in school. And while there are some great Leonardo bios for youngsters out there (Leonardo: Beautiful Dreamer by Robert Byrd, Leonardo da Vinci by Diane Stanley, Leonardo da Vinci by Kathleen Krull, etc.) when it comes to making the man pertinent to kids today I can’t think of a smarter book than Neo Leo: The Ageless Ideas of Leonardo da Vinci. Read the concept, page through the book, and take in every last the word. Your conclusion? If you’re a kid it might be that Leonardo was one heckuva genius. If you’re an adult, it might be, “Now why didn’t I think of that?”
We all know that Leonardo was a fan of sketching ideas for inventions that were possible, but could not be created during his time for one reason or another. So were they just silly ideas or was there some merit to them? Gene Barretta singles out at least fifteen of Leonardo’s ideas and sketches, then pairs them with the inventions that would come later on down the road. The "Neo” of each two page spread is the inventor who created the invention that “Leo” (on the opposite page) surmised long ago. For example, 1891’s Otto Lillienthal and his first successful hang glider is paired with Leonardo’s thoughts about gliders inspired by watching leaves drift through the air. Everything from the helicopter to the aqualung to the automatic rotisserie are displayed. In the end we see some particularly new and contemporary inventions that are specifically based on Leonardo’s calculations. A Bibliography at the conclusion rounds out the text.
It’s not as if Barretta didn’t do this kind of book before, of course. Prior to publishing Neo Leo he produced the amusing, Now & Ben: The Modern Inventions of Benjamin Franklin. But Franklin, cool as he is, isn’t Leonardo. He didn’t anticipate the helicopter, for crying out loud. And while he was many many MANY things, an artist on par with Leonardo’s talents wasn’t one of them. Barretta’s real skill in both Now & Ben and Neo Leo comes in writing biographies about a great man in simple words that aren’t too hard for the child who has grasped the finer points of early reading but hasn’t quite yet come to terms with full-length chapter books. I’ve dealt with such kids before and finding them easy reading interesting books on non-fiction scientific topics is rarely easy.
The illustrations may prove a different kind of lure. The images in this book are watercolors on cold-press paper, but the colors are far more vibrant than your average fluffy bunny fare. The Bibliography, back publication page, and bulk of Leonardo’s ideas look to be written on a brilliant golden parchment. Characters are colorful and fun without ever becoming too cartoonish. And while it take a little getting used to, I didn’t mind the layout. For example, sometimes Barretta will place a later invention before Leonardo’s notes, but on the opposite page. This becomes all the more strange when two later inventions (the 1885 automobile and the 1940 robots) correlate to just one page of information that pertains to both on the opposite page. Once you know how to read the book this doesn’t become as much of a problem, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it intuitive. And generally Barretta’s art fits the pages, though there is one scene that is just the strangest imagining of a full-frontal dolphin I have ever seen.
Barretta’s art looks simple, but he’s a cheeky one. The opening two-page spread of Leonardo looking about and sketching may strike you as just a way of setting Leo within the context of his times. Closer inspection yields a treasure trove of rewards, though. I first noticed the fact that a woman in one of the windows bore no small resemblance to the Mona Lisa. And that cross hatched insert on the building above a window… isn’t that a rough approximation of his Vitruvian Man? Suddenly I realized that the whole spread consisted of hidden odes to Leonardo’s artistic work. A woman leaning of with a bird upon her back could easily become an angel. There are more too, so for any kid learning about Leonardo it might be fun to have them try and count how many homages they can find on a single spread.
Credit to Barretta, he takes time to also include moments when we’re not entirely certain that Leo was the one responsible for one note or another. The bicycle is a good example of this. “While historians agree that it is not his drawing, some think that a pupil drew it after studying a bicycle prototype in Leonardo’s workshop. Others say it was drawn as a prank by someone centuries later.” I like that the author is honest about this. Some correlations feel more of a stretch than others. Projecting images through a lens does not necessarily beat a straight path to movie projectors, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction. Of course, it is a little confusing when the “Neo” section doesn’t credit the creator of a particular invention while other “Neo”s do. The cooking rotisserie and the locomotive, for example, appear in a “Neo” section without much in the way of explanation, separating them from other parts of the book.
At the beginning of Neo Leo Barretta writes in his Author’s Note that Leonardo wrote backwards and no one really knows why. “Some suggest that he wanted to make it difficult for people to read his ideas and steal them. Another theory is that writing backward prevented smudging his ink.” Barretta then proceeds to put mirror writing on each page. Initially I found this tiresome, but eventually I came around to the idea. The book’s ultimate goal, aside from wanting to inform, of course, is to amuse and entice the child reader. And if that means coercing them into holding up a biography to a mirror every other page, so be it. After all, when I was a kid I loved those Encyclopedia Brown mysteries where you had to hold an image up to a mirror in order to get the answer to a crime.
If a children’s work of non-fiction highlights a historical figure’s work more than their life, that book tends to be written for older kids. I had a child of eight in my library just the other day desperate for any kind of non-fiction with a technical element that would pique his interest and discuss inventions in some manner. He wanted something interesting, easy enough to read, but with some complex ideas at hand. Had it been on my shelf, Neo Leo would have been my first choice for him. It’s the rare non-fiction text with an eye to the younger readers. A great idea for a book, and a truly enjoyable end product. Like no other Leonardo da Vinci title for kids out there today.
On shelves now.
Review copy from publisher.
Notes on the Smell: I only bring this up once in a while, but there are certain picture books that exude a certain smell that I cannot abide. It has something to do with the quality of the glue in the bindings, I think. Now granted, I was seeing a very early edition and maybe this was just a rush job done for the benefit of getting copies out early. Whatever the case, perhaps you might wish to sniff a copy or two of this book first before taking it home.
Podcast Reviews: Just One More Book!
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- It’s Non-Fiction Monday. High thee henceward to Simply Science for the round-up.
- Play a fun Neo Leo game where you have to reconstruct an image from the book.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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