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Nothing Stopped Sophie

Nothing Stopped Sophie: The Story of Unshakable Mathematician Sophie Germain (written by Cheryl Bardoe) is the story of the groundbreaking self-taught mathematician and physics pioneer Sophie Germain, whose work on the concept of vibration patterns made her the first woman to win a grand prize from France’s distinguished Royal Academy of Sciences. It’s a truly inspiring story of a brilliant woman whose gender, unfortunately, kept her on the fringes. We have Germain and her sound vibration equation to thank for the Eiffel Tower, as well as contemporary skyscrapers, bridges, and other marvels of engineering. Illustrator Barbara McClintock incorporates collages into her watercolor illustrations for Germain’s story — and on such a warm, lustrous palette that the art seems, in spots, to shine from the page.

The story begins in Germain’s girlhood in Paris during the French Revolution, where we learn that she had to be secretive about studying mathematics  and, later, was unable to attend university — all because she was a woman. She managed, however, to obtain notes and study on her own. She submitted her work via mail, signing her papers with a male pen name, and continued with this pseudonym (even after eventually being revealed in Paris as “the girl prodigy”) until her historic submission to the Royal Academy.

The author writes quite lyrically here about math, using repetition and bird imagery (“Telling Sophie not to think about math was like telling a bird not to soar”), emphasizing that math is a thing of beauty and wonder (math is no less, she writes, than solving the very “secrets of the universe”). Illustrator McClintock had a formidable task here — to translate into pictures the author’s imagery (and there are, indeed, some beautiful birds, including one moment where birds morph into pages and pages of math equations) as well as to capture the wonder of math communicated in this story. She does this — plus some.

And by “plus some” I mean that McClintock truly extends the text here by making math visible on the very page. That is, formulas, equations, and even the motions that send vibrations “surging through nearby objects” are all depicted here with eloquence. In the hands of a lesser artist, such illustrations could be too crowded and difficult on the eyes, but McClintock makes wise decisions about composition. All in all, she manages to capture not only the time period but also the complexity of mathematical work. In an early spread about the French Revolution, McClintock puts imagination, scale, and color to work to show numbers drowning out the sounds of upheaval outside Germain’s door; she depicts massive numbers themselves on the streets, numbers that protect the young Germain. Later, McClintock depicts a cloud of equations enveloping Germain at a dinner party, where she is surrounded by party-goers; eager to talk about math, she is brushed off, as that was deemed a subject not suitable for women. McClintock also paints — in an exuberant spread showing the moment that Germain has an epiphany about sound vibrations — Chladni plate patterns bouncing off the cobblestone streets. (On the book’s cover, these are replaced by numbers.)

One of the final spreads notes Germain’s historic award from the Royal Academy of Sciences. In the book’s closing illustrator’s note, McClintock writes about choosing to take a nonliteral approach to this moment, since women were not allowed into the Academy if their husbands were not with them. So, McClintock paints Germain standing on the steps of the building with her pen held in the air. Flowing from it, weaving in and out of all the male members of the Academy, is the formula that won her the prize.

In a July visit to my site, McClintock wrote about her decision to rely on visual metaphor: “If I’d used a strictly visual interpretation of the text, the illustrations would have been 32 pages of Sophie sitting at a desk, slowly getting older. Not very exciting, visually.” McClintock also talked about having incorporated into her collage illustrations (in particular, the visually striking spread where we see Germain at her desk submitting her work via mail as “Monsieur LeBlanc”) such things as old math books from the time Germain would have been studying, examples of her hand-written notes, old letters and stamps, and more. This is the first time McClintock has used collage illustrations in a picture book.

I love how all of these numbers and equations and symbols spring from Germain’s mind, from the streets, from objects, from buildings, and from her very pen. It’s certainly an exciting way to make visible something that is the domain of the interior mind. Will the Caldecott committee also be impressed? If we do the math, as Germain would undoubtedly do, we see that we have 80 days till the ALA Youth Media Awards when we will find out!

 

Julie Danielson About Julie Danielson

Julie Danielson writes about picture books at the blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. She also writes for Kirkus Reviews and BookPage and is a lecturer for the School of Information Sciences graduate program at the University of Tennessee. Her book Wild Things!: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature, written with Betsy Bird and Peter D. Sieruta, was published in 2014.

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Comments

  1. Victoria Stapleton says:

    OK, this may be a SHAMELESS act of self-promotion, but one of the most fun things I did this year as a Library Marketing person is work with Barbara McClintock to make this Book Chat with the Illustrator video, which you can see here: https://vimeo.com/271552442.

    It is about ten minutes long, yes. But I fell in love with this book over and over again as I recorded with Barbara, edited her sound, put her in-process images into the video. Barbara McClintock is an actual real genius. That is all.

  2. Reading a Barbara McClintock illustrated book is always an experience. Her delicate details create such warm settings and realistic characters. I’m especially impressed with the way in which the illustrations in Nothing Stopped Sophie are historically accurate yet at the same time there is a fantastical element to them as well. And as Jules notes, there’s movement, energy, and numbers on every page, but the illustrations never seem to busy or complicated. I think Barbara McClintock has fallen under the radar for way too long! I hope the Caldecott committee sees the beauty (and genius, really) that is found on every page of Nothing Stopped Sophie.

  3. Yes she has indeed fallen under the radar as Emmie states for too long, as she is unquestionably one of the greatest children’s book illustrators worldwide, a fact the Japanese will gleefully attest to. My absolute favorite of her many gems is My Grandfather’s Coat, her exquisite immigrant collaboration with Jim Aylesworth, but just about every single year she releases a work of Caldecott stature. True she is not the only great illustrator noticeably absent from the Caldecott equation (see Wendell Minor, Raul Colon, Sergio Ruzzier, the Fan Brothers and a few others) but so many of her tapestries are frame-worthy and beautifully integrated into the works she either writes herself or serves as illustrative collaborator. It is ironic she is not especially fond of math subjects (Ha, neither am I!) but this towering work may be the showcase for her most ravishing work of all. I am gathering my own notes on the book at this time, but am thinking this is a spectacular piece in the service of one of the real treasures of 2018. It would be so fantastic if Ms. McClintock ends up in the winner’s circle this year!

  4. Susan Dailey says:

    Thank you for the review and comments! I really like McClintock’s work, but didn’t fall in love with this book because I didn’t consider the difficulty of depicting math. My thought was “of course, this is how it should look.” But there really isn’t anything obvious about how math should be illustrated. I think that shows the genius of McClintock’s work in this book. Her decisions make it look obvious.

    What I remember (I don’t have the book at hand) were the endpapers. They started with simple numerals on the front endpapers at the top left, moving on to basic math functions and the back endpapers were filled with equations that might as well been Greek to me. (There’s a reason I’m a librarian and not a mathematician!)

    I can’t imagine the joy and excitement the “real” committee must feel as they deeply dive into these books’ illustrations. The epiphanies! The debates about details. The questions about whether artists made the right choices. The controversies? (I hope not) Good luck to this year’s committee. It’s another great batch of picture books.

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