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Reviews of books by Robert Byrd

Robert Byrd’s Electric Ben: The Amazing Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin is the 2013 Boston Globe–Horn Book Nonfiction winner. Here’s how The Horn Book has reviewed some of the prolific author/illustrator’s other work.

Leonardo: Beautiful Dreamer
by Robert Byrd; illus. by the author
Intermediate     Dutton      48 pp.
7/03     0-525-47033-6     $17.99

Leonardo da Vinci was the original “Renaissance man,” passionately interested in painting, sculpture, architecture, science, and  technology. All these facets of his genius are explored in this oversize volume, crowded with intricate art, a thoughtful text, sidebars, and information boxes. Rather than giving the book a busy, fragmentary quality, the layout reflects Leonardo’s far-ranging enthusiasms and mimics the style of his famous notebooks in which “words and images are crammed together,  wasting as little space as possible.” Thus the double-page spread about the creation of The Last Supper features not only an explanation of how it came to be painted and an illustration of Leonardo standing before his masterpiece but also information boxes describing his painting techniques, his use of perspective, and his working habits; illustrated borders organize the presentation and prevent the lavish design from becoming chaotic. Perhaps inspired by his subject, Byrd creates some finely detailed tableaux, brimming with content, color, and, in his depictions of human figures, a hint of caricature. The basic facts about Leonardo’s life are woven throughout, but the real emphasis is on his work — his paintings, his anatomy studies, his designs for bikes and clocks and flying machines — making this less a complete biography than a celebration of his inquiring spirit and creative vision. An author’s note, historical timeline, and bibliography are included. [Peter Sieruta]

From the September/October 2003 Horn Book Magazine

The Hero Schliemann: The Dreamer Who Dug for Troy
by Laura Amy Schlitz; illus. by Robert Byrd
Intermediate    Candlewick     76 pp.
8/06     0-7636-2283-4     $17.99     g

Hero, crook, accomplished linguist, successful businessman, lucky archaeologist, storyteller — Heinrich Schliemann was all that and more. This irreverent biography of the nineteenth-century German who rediscovered ancient Troy attempts to disentangle the facts from the fictions in Schliemann’s life and work. By his own account, his was an exciting life, filled with adventure. By his own account, too, he pinpointed the location of the fabled Troy from his reading of the Iliad, dug down through the layers to the Bronze Age city, and discovered “Priam’s treasure.” Archaeologists mostly agree that Schliemann had the correct location, although he was not the first to claim it, and that he found treasure — but perhaps not all in one place and probably not Priam’s, since he dug down through Priam’s city to one that existed a thousand years earlier. Byrd’s cartoonlike illustrations add to the appeal of the gently humorous text but make it difficult to take Schliemann’s genuine accomplishments seriously. A world map shows his travels, and two helpful timelines place events in historical context, but there is no map showing Turkey or Troy to help the intended audience, who may also struggle with the complex sentences and unfamiliar vocabulary. Engagingly told and well documented, this will be particularly welcome where students already have some familiarity with ancient history. [Kathleen Isaacs]

From the July/August 2006 Horn Book Magazine

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices fropm a Medieval Village by Laura Amy SchlitzGood Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Village
by Laura Amy Schlitz; illus. by Robert Byrd
Intermediate     Candlewick     85 pp.
8/07      978-0-7636-1578-9     $18.99

Schlitz gives teachers a refreshing option for enhancing the study of the European Middle Ages: here are seventeen monologues and two dialogues that collectively create a portrait of life on an English manor in 1255. A plowboy, a knight’s son, and a sniggler (eel-catcher), among other boys and girls ages ten to fifteen, say their pieces. Rhythm and style vary to suit each role, from breathless, thrusting phrases as a knight’s son describes a boar hunt to the lighthearted rhyming of a shamelessly dishonest miller boy. Schlitz conveys information about class, attitudes, and social practices through the monologues, footnote-like sidebars, and six spreads titled “A Little Background” that offer fuller explanations of farming practices, the Crusades, falconry, and more. Schlitz acknowledges some of the nastier aspects of this oft-romanticized period (such as its persecution of Jews), but in gentle, moderate language. Byrd’s pristine, elegant pen-and-ink illustrations in opulent colors make the book almost too visually appealing, belying the realistically dirty, stinky conditions described in the text. [Deirdre F. Baker]

From the September/October 2007 Horn Book Magazine

Kubla Khan: The Emperor of Everything
by Kathleen Krull; illus. by Robert Byrd
Intermediate     Viking     48 pp.
9/10     978-0-670-01114-8     $17.99     g

Grandson of Genghis, the thirteenth century Mongol ruler Kubla Khan was no barbarian — at least, his favorite wife Chabi didn’t hesitate to yell at him when he acted like one. Krull presents a nuanced view of Kubla Khan’s surprisingly tolerant, even progressive, regime. He embraced outside ideas and “surrounded himself with those he deemed smart and trustworthy — Confucian scholars, Buddhist monks, Muslims, Turks, Tibetan lamas — a posse of some forty advisers from all parts of his empire.” Byrd’s tapestry-like ink and watercolor illustrations reflect the broad scope of the Khan’s reach as well as his receptive mind, which sought the latest advances in science, medicine, and agriculture to improve the lives of his people. A battle scene of the Mongols conquering China is followed by a lavish portrait of Kubla Khan on his throne in the Imperial City, having adopted the dress and architecture of the more “civilized” Chinese, whom he had long admired. Though Krull admits in an afterword that “information about Kubla Khan is sketchy,” she draws on what is known to pull a real man from the opium clouds of Coleridge’s poem. [Christine M. Heppermann]

From the November/December 2010 Horn Book Magazine

Katie Bircher About Katie Bircher

Katie Bircher, associate editor at The Horn Book, Inc., is a former bookseller and holds an MA in children's literature from Simmons College. She served as chair of the 2018 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committee. Follow Katie on Twitter @lyraelle.

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