Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Wednesday, February 18, 2015: Kids' Maximum Shelf: Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France


Candlewick: Mesmerized by Kara Rockliff

Candlewick: Mesmerized by Mara Rockliff

Candlewick: Mesmerized by Mara Rockliff

Candlewick: Mesmerized by Mara Rockliff

Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France

by Mara Rockliff, illus. by Iacopo Bruno

Mara Rockliff (Gingerbread for Liberty!) and Iacopo Bruno, making his picture-book debut, combine a storyteller's lilt and an artist's flair for fashion in a mesmerizing story of history, science, personalities and the placebo effect.

A map worthy of a cartographer shows the route Ben Franklin took from Philadelphia to Paris in 1776 at the height of the American Revolution. When Ben Franklin arrives, he finds the city "all abuzz" with conversations about science. Bruno depicts with minute precision an electrostatic motor (with its Leyden jars, glass rods and brass thimbles), and a layout of Franklin's kite experiment so detailed children could conduct it themselves. Bruno adds just the right amount of humor, too: a hot air balloon rises to the chants of a duck, rooster and goat crying, "Oh la la!"

At the outset, Rockliff describes the Scientific Method. The explanation appears in a box directly below Franklin's kite experiment, and she uses that as her example. She touches on its four elements: observe, hypothesize, test, support. With the turn of a page, author and artist introduce Dr. Mesmer. His name dominates the spread and nearly breaks the borders of the frame Bruno has created. "But soon all Paris was abuzz about somebody new," Rockliff writes. "Someone remarkable--thrilling--and definitely strange." While Franklin's pages unfold in classic Bulmer and Officina fonts, Mesmer's pages look like gilded manuscripts hand-lettered by monks. In contrast to Franklin's bald spot and buckle shoes, Dr. Mesmer "wore a powdered wig and a fine coat of purple silk. He carried an iron wand. And he claimed to have discovered an astonishing new force."

"Dr. Mesmer was as different from Ben Franklin as a fancy layered torte was from a homemade apple pie." In Bruno's portrait, Ben wears a tasteful beige image of an "apple pie" like a peanut salesman at a ball park. Mesmer sports a purple sign with orange type and a "layered torte" as frilly as a wedding cake, its ends curled like wrapping ribbon. (Ben bears a look that says, "Is he kidding?") Rockliff artfully characterizes Mesmer's mysterious force in scientific terms: "Like a gas, this force could not be seen or touched. Like electricity, it held great power. Like the hot-air balloon, it made what seemed impossible come true." Then author and artist juxtapose its hocus-pocus side, as Dr. Mesmer emits bolts of energy from his fingertips: "Women swooned. Men sobbed. Children fell down in fits."

Every aspect of each spread's design serves to further the story and layer details that differentiate the two men. Examples of Dr. Mesmer's sway appear on a spread dominated by an entranced audience and a red embroidered stage curtain, "At last they came out and announced they were... cured!" Doctors were furious. Their patients all preferred "a wave of Dr. Mesmer's wand" to real medicine. They complain to King Louis XVI ("Dr. Mesmer's force was not like electricity, a gas, or the hot air in a balloon.... It wasn't there!"), who asks Franklin to look into the matter, but Dr. Mesmer won't see him, so Charles, Mesmer's helper, allows Ben to observe him in action. But while others "gasped and groaned--twitched and trembled" at Charles's waving of the wand, Ben does not. Bruno labels each stage of Ben's approach as "The Scientific Method" (e.g., Ben and Charles stand on a box that reads, "Ben observed the difference between the patients' reactions and his own"). When Ben tests his hypothesis ("what the patients felt was caused by their own minds, not by an invisible force"), Bruno stresses the importance of Franklin's discovery by slowing the pace and unveiling the experiment over two full spreads, before and after blindfolding a patient. (Ben "tested patient after patient, but it was always the same").

Besides successfully explaining the Scientific Method, and what we've come to call the placebo effect, author and artist give children insight into human behavior. In one of the most fitting pictures of how gossip spreads perhaps yet seen in a children's book, Bruno draws the king's and Ben's legs in the foreground and, seen through the spaces between, readers glimpse a mob "abuzz"; the words "Mesmer bzz bzz ha ha ha" wind like tickertape, over Notre Dame and above a fleeing Dr. Mesmer, with wand in hand. Children will connect this bzz bzz to the "abuzz" that contributed to Mesmer's rise and that now precipitates his demise.

Rockliff wraps up this charming, informative story with a coda: Franklin returned to America to win the Revolution ("with the help of France"), and his "'blind' test" is still in use. She further elucidates the placebo effect (Bruno cleverly places the text on bottle labels, with "placebo" most prominent), and explains the state of "hypnosis" and that "we still use the word mesmerized when somebody seems to be in a trance." For history buffs, science enthusiasts, and fans of a good story, this one hits all the marks. --Jennifer M. Brown

Candlewick Press, $17.99, hardcover, 48p., ages 6-9, 9780763663513

Candlewick: Mesmerized by Mara Rockliff


Mara Rockliff & Iacopo Bruno: Contrasting the Factual and the Fanciful

Author Mara Rockliff received an Ezra Jack Keats Honor for her book My Heart Will Not Sit Down. She lives in Pennsylvania. After two decades of illustrating book covers, Iacopo Bruno has now illustrated his first picture book. He lives in Italy. Both author and illustrator do their own research, and here they describe their process of working on Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France.

Mara, how did you come across this story, and what about it appealed to you?

Mara Rockliff: I first came across the story in an article by history and science writer Stephan A. Schwartz. I knew right away it was a winner. I mean, you've got Franklin, who was way more fun than any other founding father. You've got Dr. Mesmer in his purple robe, waving his magic wand and claiming to control a spooky invisible force. You've got all the glamour of Paris before the [French] Revolution, with the ladies of the court in those amazing wigs. And then, with all this color and excitement, you've got a truly significant moment in scientific history, and a fascinating way to introduce young readers to the scientific method. I couldn't pass it up.

Did you know from the beginning that you'd need to spell out the Scientific Method before you told your story in full?

MR: That might be the only detail that survived from my first draft! I knew the scientific method would be at the heart of the story, and I thought Franklin's kite experiment was a great way to show how the scientific method works.

Is this the first instance of the placebo effect, as far as you know?

MR: I think doctors always understood that if they couldn't cure their patients, giving them some kind of harmless pill or salve or liniment could make them happier. (Placebo is Latin for "I shall please.") But the Franklin Commission is credited with inventing the "blind experiment" to demonstrate the placebo effect. And, of course, this was also when the West first discovered hypnosis. So that's pretty cool, too.

This story has a fair amount of science in it. Did that make a difference in how you told the story?

MR: This story was very challenging to write. I went through seven drafts before it went out to my publisher, and most of them were just a total mess. What made it hard for me was finding the right balance. How much history and how much science? How much Franklin, how much Mesmer? How much could I simplify for kids while sticking to the facts? It's funny, because looking at the finished book, everything in it seems inevitable to me now. But I tried a lot of things that didn't work before it finally clicked into place.

Iacopo, how is making a picture book different from creating a book cover?

Iacopo Bruno: Book covers summarize everything in just one frame: you have to represent the essence of the story and the characters. In picture books, you have more room to represent the characters' personalities and the setting in different frames and pages.

I usually add many details to my illustrations, so in that respect the cover and interiors always maintain a strong similarity, but I think of the cover as a snapshot and the interiors as a short film.

How did you each conduct your research?

MR: I went at it from different angles to get as complete a picture as I could. Franklin biographies gave me good, solid background information, but they weren't very accurate or detailed when it came to this particular episode. Books about Mesmer, on the other hand, had plenty of detail but could be a bit, let's say, eccentric. I found some really useful articles in academic journals, and my most important source was an English translation of the actual report that Franklin and his commission gave the king.

IB: Mara's research gave me a lot of preliminary details. Then I began my aesthetic research, for clothing in particular. It takes a lot of studying to inform my illustrations--even the smallest details I wouldn't illustrate from memory. In this book, it's critical that the characters' clothing show their personality and attitude. After I had gone through Mara's narration, the personality of the characters and the scenes appeared to me at the snap of a finger because the story was really visual.

Mara, it sounds like you shared your research with Iacopo. I wondered about the level of detail in those early spreads, especially those featuring the electrostatic motor, the hot air balloon and the illustration of "The Ben Franklin Kite."

MR: I always share extensive research notes via my editor and the designer. I know Iaki did a ton of his own research, too. The electrostatic motor was entirely Iaki's idea; the balloon and kite were already in the story, but the beauty and accuracy of the images are, of course, all his.

IB: I felt that the text could be further enhanced by including more of Franklin's inventions which weren't explicitly mentioned. I thought that by illustrating the word SCIENCE along with images of some of Franklin's inventions, I could better describe his characteristics.

I decided to contrast the two personalities in a double spread with a scientific look for Franklin (the electrostatic motor and the kite). In the following spread, I represented Mesmer as a wizard standing in front of the framed poster of his show.

Iacopo, you are also a graphic designer. Did you come up with the type treatments for the pages? I'm thinking of pages 12-13, for instance, where Ben is described as "Plain and Simple" in Bulmer typeface, and Dr. Mesmer is "elegant and mysterious" in handlettered type that resembles latticework. Mesmer's descriptions also often incorporate the Bickham typeface.

IB: One peculiar aspect of my illustrations is that typography and illustrations live together. I work alongside young graphic designers passionate about type design in the editorial graphic design studio The World of DOT (which I co-founded with my wife, Francesca Leoneschi), and that helped me develop my love for type even further. I immediately thought that the elegance of George Bickham's writing could distinguish the French expressions that appear in the text. From the very first sketch, type found its place inside the illustrations and, in the ensuing stages, they both become more detailed.

Illustration and text are for me a sole means of expression, that's why I need to define at the same time the layout, the typography and the spaces for the scenes and the characters.

Mara, we liked the way you addressed "the elephant in the room," the impending French Revolution, in your endnotes.

MR: The judge who sent Lavoisier to the guillotine said, "The revolution has no need of intellectuals or scientists." Today, a lot of people distrust science and don't see any point in learning to observe the world carefully, think critically, keep an open mind while gathering information, and come to a conclusion that's supported by the evidence. I hope that kids who read this book will come away with a different attitude. --Jennifer M. Brown


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