Wednesday, August 28, 2013

2014 Contenders: Becoming Ben Franklin, by Russell Freedman

What can one say about Russell Freedman, the unquestioned dean of American children's nonfiction writers? The man could fill a room with his awards, which include a Newbery (Lincoln: A Photobiography, 1988) and three Honors (The Wright Brothers, 1992; Eleanor Roosevelt, 1994; The Voice that Challenged a Nation, 2005); a Sibert (The Voice that Challenged a Nation, 2005) and an Honor (Lafayette and the American Revolution, 2011); a ridiculous five Golden Kites; the 1998 Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal; and a National Humanities Medal (2007). We're getting to the point where you could tell me that he has a Nobel Prize stashed underneath his couch cushions and I'd probably believe you.

Anyway, one of the side effects of being the illustration that the dictionary uses for "acclaimed" is that expectations for your work become high. Very high. Maybe unreachably high, which brings us to Freedman's latest effort, Becoming Ben Franklin.

BBF covers Franklin's entire life, from his birth in Boston to his death 84 years later. Freedman tries to give a balanced view of Franklin's dizzying array of accomplishments as a statesman, scientist, inventor, author, and printer -- and he largely succeeds. I've read a good deal of Franklin-related material, including his Autobiography, and Freedman does about as well in condensing his subject's incredible life into a children's book of less than 100 pages as I think it's possible to do.

However, I do have some quibbles with the book. The first chapter seemed weak to me, as it didn't leave me with the knowledge of why I should care about Franklin's life. That's not a huge issue for me as an adult reader, but for a child, who may not know a whole lot about who Franklin was, I really feel like more of a clearly stated thesis would be helpful up front.

Additionally, there is at least one instance where I'm not sure about the exactitude of the facts. On page 75, Freedman states, "Slavery in the United States would continue until America's Civil War and Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1863." However, that's not actually true -- famously, the Emancipation Proclamation only freed the slaves in the Confederate states, and the Thirteenth Amendment, which ended slavery in the rest of the union, wasn't passed until December of 1865, months after the Civil War had ended. It's a small issue, but it does affect the Presentation of Information item in the Newbery criteria -- and it's especially odd coming from a writer who won the Newbery for his book about Lincoln.

Small issues aside, Becoming Ben Franklin is a very good book, a worthy addition to any library, and a fantastic introduction to one of the most wide-ranging American minds. However, I think it's a minor entry in Freedman's bibliography, one that doesn't quite reach the level of his stellar best work.

Published in March by Holiday House.

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