Reviews of select titles by Deborah Heiligman

The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdős
by Deborah Heiligman; illus. by LeUyen Pham
Primary    Roaring Brook    48 pp.
6/13    978-1-59643-307-6    $17.99 g

Heiligman and Pham combine their considerable talents in this unique look at the “Magician from Budapest,” nomadic mathematician Paul Erdős (1913–96). A precocious youngster, Paul hates rules. Cared for by his doting mother and imperious “Fräulein,” young Paul is spoiled rotten — the two women “cut his meat and buttered his bread and got him dressed and tied his shoes.” But where the mundane details of daily life don’t do much for Paul, numbers are a different story. Paul “thought about math whatever he was doing, wherever he was” as he grows into one of the world’s renowned intellectuals. Not one for settling down, Paul travels the world, lecturing and attending math meetings, all while others “did his laundry and cooked his food and cut open his grapefruit and paid his bills.” Heiligman presents Paul as an appealing eccentric: for instance, Paul referred to children as “epsilons” (because epsilon “is a very small amount in math”). Pham’s artwork is inspired — her characters have a timeless quality, and each illustration is a puzzle for the reader to solve, with prime numbers hidden on buildings and complex numerical concepts seamlessly integrated into the fabric of many pictures. While the overall layout is high in reader appeal, the font size is far too small for the target audience. Especially tiny are the otherwise excellent author’s and illustrator’s notes, which further demonstrate their respect and admiration for Erdős and are well worth the potential eye strain. Design flaws aside, this is an infinitely creative and entertaining book for epsilons, numerically inclined or no. SAM BLOOM

From the May/June 2013 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith
by Deborah Heiligman
Middle School, High School    Holt    278 pp.
2/09    ISBN 978-0-8050-8721-5   $18.95    g

In 1838 Charles Darwin, then almost thirty, drew a line down the middle of a paper and listed the reasons for marrying on one side and the reasons for not marrying on the other. After much consideration, he opted for the former, and from his prospects he wisely chose his cousin, Emma, who was open-minded but devoutly religious. She supported her husband, even editing his work, but she feared for his eternal welfare should he follow his revolutionary theories to their logical end. Charles, in turn, was equally tortured, wanting to please his wife, wanting to believe in religion, but not at the expense of science. With great empathy and humor, Heiligman’s lively narrative examines the life and legacy of Darwin through the unique lens of his domestic life, an inspired choice that helps us understand that for all the impact his theory would have on the world, nowhere did its consequences resonate so loudly as within the walls of his own home. Here is a timely, relevant book that works on several levels: as a history of science, as a biography, and, last but not least, as a romance. A bibliography, an index, and notes are appended. JONATHAN HUNT

From the January/February 2009 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

star2 Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers
by Deborah Heiligman
High School    Holt    451 pp.
4/17    978-0-8050-9339-1    $19.99    g
e-book ed.  978-1-2501-0969-9    $9.99

Heiligman (Charles and Emma, rev. 1/09) again examines the impact of a family member on her main subject, this time unpacking the friendship between artist Vincent van Gogh and his brother Theo. After vividly setting the stage with brief sections that introduce Vincent and Theo near the end of their lives, Heiligman takes readers back to their beginnings. We learn of other siblings and of supportive parents; we gain a sense of their childhoods in their father’s parsonage. Structured as a walk through an art museum, the book proceeds through the years, each section a gallery: “Gallery Two: Dangers (1873–1875)”; “Gallery Three: Missteps, Stumbles (1875–1879).” We see Vincent moving restlessly from one job to another, at times acting and dressing oddly, walking huge distances when short on funds, coping with unrequited love, and slowly embracing the life of an artist. We see Theo, the art dealer, struggling with his own trials, consistently supporting Vincent throughout his life. Heiligman mostly employs a present-tense, purposely staccato narration that effectively heightens the brothers’ emotional intensity, their sufferings and pleasures (physical, emotional, intellectual, aesthetic, and spiritual), and, most of all, Vincent’s wild and original art. The layout, which incorporates sketches, subheads, and a generous use of white space, is a calming counterpoint to the turbulent narrative. Documenting the author’s research involving visits to sites, along with academic and primary sources, the extensive back matter includes a list of significant people, a timeline, a bibliography, thorough citations, and an author’s note. The result is a unique and riveting exploration of art, artists, and brotherly love. MONICA EDINGER

From the March/April 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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