Bonding With Books: Leonardo: Beautiful Dreamer

Every year at the start of school I gift my son his Schultüte, a small gift bag with goodies, school supplies, etc., a sort of “welcome to the new school year” packet of treats. It has evolved from the traditional cone to a gift bag, partly because he adores those sacks, but also because from the get-go books, which don’t fit into a cone very well, have always been part of the deal. This year I shopped at the eleventh hour, but got incredibly lucky.

One of the titles he hasn’t yet read, and two others, The Young Merlin Trilogy: Passager, Hobby and Merlin and Sword of the Rightful King, both by Jane Yolen, have been big hits. (Interestingly, the greater inspiration to read them came from the BBC Adventures of Merlin series.) The last book, admittedly, I chose purely for myself: the subject matter is one he’d never really brought up as an interest, though he did know about it. Moreover, I loved the sweeping beauty of the work and felt it crucial for my child to learn more about this significant figure in history. I try not to force particular books on him, and have learned that nine times out of ten, owing largely to his insatiable curiosity about the world, he will at some point make his way to a work I have chosen (and if he doesn’t, he doesn’t). In so doing I wonder: will he see himself in the book, possessing the same hunger for knowing and deep drive to understand the mechanics of the world, as did Leonardo da Vinci?

With this post I launch a new series called “Bonding with Books.” My intention is to highlight with each entry a particular book I find contains a sparkle that will mesh well with what Mem Fox refers to as “reading magic“: developing a continuing bond with children through reading to them, an act that from the time they are born does more to facilitate brain growth than any costly or elaborate educational tool parents could ever purchase. Each post will contain a relevant quote from Fox’s book Reading Magic: Why Reading to Our Children Will Change Their Lives Forever, aiming to spotlight the bond children develop with books they explore and love, as well as that achieved between parent and child when this event occurs on a continual basis. Though unseen, the magic that happens truly is larger than life. My own child is now ten years old; I’ve been reading to him since before he was born and today he and the process of reading magic continue to render me awestruck.

Leonardo: Beautiful Dreamer

by Robert Byrd

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When I first spotted Beautiful Dreamer, I was attracted straight away, though it didn’t initially occur to me to wonder why it was grouped with classics for young adults–its appearance, after all, is that of a picture book. In size it measures the standard 12″ by 9″ of a younger child’s book, and the cover bears loads of pictures drawn in a style generally attractive to and favored by the 32-page set. All of which is not to take away from its beauty: Leonardo, flying through the sky surrounded by a border of images reminiscent of his life. Of course the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, as well as pictures of the polymath studying, observing, drawing, appearing at court, and more, all feature on the spectacular front cover.

Once I turned Beautiful Dreamer open, I quickly found that every inch of page in this treasure is a feast: the first inside pages are a rich purple inlaid with da Vinci quotes in a soothing and delightful white font to contrast against the dark background. The body matter also supplies a number of quotes, one of which contains an especially wonderful message for children:

The earth is moved from its position by the weight of a tiny bird alighting upon it
The surface of the sea is moved by a small drop of water falling upon it

Perhaps it was this moment in which I knew I had to have this book, for this message is one that all children deserve to know, and how I wished to pass it on! Moreover, when part of a book read to a child, navigating through the metaphor alone could bring on a great sense of satisfaction. The genius of this particular phrase is that the amount of feel-good in deciphering the message is likely to be in direct proportion to how much it is needed. Surely Leonardo understood human nature very well, including those who may have more than enough self-esteem, and so the message is paired with the urging to act upon it: You can achieve great things, he seems to be whispering across time, along with: Do! Do!

The book goes on to introduce readers to Leonardo, his interests, habits, achievements, delights, talents and abilities–all from childhood to his later years and death, said to be in the arms of Francis I. Through a series of sidebars the author also presents readers with interesting facts about Leonardo and his times, such as the purchase of the Mona Lisa by Francis, hence why the painting today hangs in France, and not Italy. These and other bits of information presenting throughout the book provide absolutely perfect jumping-off points (or continuity) for children and parents to discuss in a relaxed and fun way what they are reading and the connections children will make. Leonardo’s interests also seem to bear an uncanny resemblance to those of most children: the natural world, animals, how things work and are made, mysteries, flight and grand plans to name but a few. Leonardo, like many children, dreamed of planning and doing a number of projects.

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Each section is arranged to take up facing pages before it moves on to the next, which renders the book utterly readable as bedtime material because in terms of length, it is most definitely not a picture book. The pages are set up to avoid formulaic or repetitive frame placement, which in itself makes the pages simply much more interesting as an exploration. Moreover the detail and vibrant, rich colors in the pictures engage the eye, offering a multitude of opportunities for children and parents to discuss details or make a game of finding or perhaps naming certain items–or whatever other games might strike their sharing fancy! For, as Fox points out:

The fire of literacy is created by the emotional sparks between a child, a book, and the person reading. It isn’t achieved by the book alone, nor by the child alone, nor by the adult who’s reading aloud–it’s the relationship winding between all three, bringing them together in easy harmony.

So have fun when reading with your child!

And what joy to be had! Reading for pleasure becomes (or continues) because it is something done together that provides for a safe and relaxed learning atmosphere, a non-threatening grand time that occurs for both readers when children share their thoughts, ask questions about the events or pictures, or make connections between what is happening in the book in their little hands and another book, or something they know of from their own lives. The book provides for easy stopping points as well, given the sidebars and sections laid out as they are. While the facing pages may be enough for one sitting, Beautiful Dreamer makes it easy for readers to choose whether to continue or to choose one item to explore.

“The Fantastic Notebooks” discusses and presents images of some of Leonardo’s observational records whilst in Milan: astronomy, measurement, achitecture, optics, physics, botany, mechanics, philology, mathematics, flight, power, the stage, military arts and science, anatomy and water, just to name a very few of the different topics da Vinci studied and wrote on in his lifetime. True to the book’s introduction, children could, especially when engaged in conversation about their own habits, see Leonardo as not unlike themselves:

…trying to follow an explanation of how something complicated, like a bird’s wing or a poem or the human eye, actually worked. Or perhaps you once tried to draw a leaf or a horse’s head or a hand, making every detail exact.

I was especially struck by the connection between these two sections because my own ten-year-old also has passions that he records in notebooks, and we talk about them periodically–or he even jumps up to record something very important in one of his notebooks–whilst reading together. Allowing children measure of freedom for movement, ideas and direction enables their learning, even though it may strike some parents as very informal and not at all educational, while in fact the absorption taking place is fairly astounding.

One of my favorite sections was that entitled “Strange Animals, Mythical Beasts.” Reminiscent to me of Sir John Mandeville and the famous stories he brought back from his world travel, as told in his Travels of Sir John Mandeville (c. 1357), it contains a selection of Leonardo’s sensational stories of exotic animals, some of which today are discernable to even very young children. One such might be the unicorn, delightful drawings of which grace almost an entire page and which some children, through discovering connections, may “recognize” as a rhinoceros. Conversations may tip towards medieval beliefs, African animals, even fabulous stories of children’s own making. Exchanges are limited only by the child’s own participation and grownup encouragement to seek links in our wide world, observations and dicussions in which Leonardo himself would surely have delighted.

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