Friday, September 13, 2013

Innovators! What Color Is My World? The Lost History of African American Inventors by Kareem Abdul Jabbar



Who was that informative home handyman?

(Hi Yo, Black Historian, AWAY!

Two rivalrous African American twins, a sarcastic girl and her trying-to-be-cool brother, are disappointed when they see their new house, somewhat in need of more than a bit of refurbishing, but when they meet Mr. R. E. Mital, a talkative handyman inside, he is eager to fill them in on history as well as household repairs.  This font of knowledge is not an exponent of the creative genius school of inventors, pointing out that invention is a cumulative human process, building on the work of predecessors, many totally unknown.  Mr. Mital even has a folksy analogy for Ella and Herbie to illustrate his thesis:

"See, inventing is like standing in a bucket brigade.

The last person in that line throws the water on the fire and gets all the credit for putting it out."

Quoting Isaac Newton's famous words about standing on the shoulders of giants, but skipping over the usual Black inventors, Mr. Mital tells the twins about such little-known incremental African American innovations such as James E. West, whose electro-coustic transducer made possible tiny microphones in many modern devices such as cell phones.  Such "innovators," as authors Jabbar and Obstfeld prefer to term them, may not be acclaimed for that big invention such as electric light bulbs, but like Edison, used previous discoveries to come up with innovative applications that made for significant advances, from Henry Sampson, whose binder for solid rocket fuel enabled improved rocket flight or James Lee, who invented the home bread machine which bakes a fragrant dinner loaf while the cook is at work. Such innovators changed their world in different ways--George Crum's "Saratoga" (potato) chips and Daniel Hale Williams' pioneering open-heart surgery techniques, Charles Drews' early blood banks and Dr. Percy Julian's synthesized, injectable cortisone, as well as Alfred Cralle's ice-cream scoop and Lonnie Johnson's indispensable  summertime weapon of choice, the "Super Soaker."

In their What Color Is My World?: The Lost History of African-American Inventors (Candlewick Press, 2013, 2012), co-authors Jabbar and Obstfeld utilize the device of the fictional frame story of a contentious pair of 'tweener twins and a mysterious, "ghost" tutor disguised as a friendly handyman to point up some little-known inventors and their creations and their sizable contributions to modern life. Mr. Mital (his name is an inversion of one of the inventors) is a pleasant phantom narrator; illustrators Boos and Ford interpose drawings which elucidate the various inventors and their inventions; and Ella's hand-written "Fact" notes and her spirited sniping at her brother add kid appeal to the narrative. Interactive book design, with informational gatefold flaps and varied fonts and visual placement adding additional pizazz to the technical content.

Whether readers enjoy the lively back-and-forth banter between the fictional siblings or find it mildly annoying, the solid non-fiction content of this book makes it a good choice for upper elementary and middle school readers. "... an entertaining and often surprising exploration of lesser-known innovators, past and present," says Publisher Weekly."  a trailer featuring the celebrity author Jabbar can be viewed here.

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