Curie and Einstein Go To School

These are two of my favorite pictures from my research on children’s books about Einstein and Curie. (You can click on them to see the bigger images). They are I think, the most visual example of my thesis’s argument and I think they are also illustrative of exactly what we need to pay attention to in Children’s biography.

Stories about famous figures’ biographies are the most directly applicable aspect of children’s literature. This is the part of the story that with which children can most readily identify. Tragically, this part of the story of these lives is generally the thinest part of the historical record. Because children’s literature is so rarely reviewed by historians, this is not an issue for many children’s authors. They can simply invent the figures childhood.

Albert Einstein and His Tutor

The first picture is a picture of the young Albert Einstein terrorizing his baby sitter. Albert is described as cruel, and angry, he throws tantrums the text tells young readers that “His temper so terrifies a tutor hired to help young Albert prepare for school that she runs away, never to be seen again.” In the picture Albert and his anger are foregrounded as the tutor runs away in terror, apparently never to be seen again. You will be hard pressed to find historical precedent for this story: By all accounts Albert was a much more timid boy, but it is easy to see here how masculinity and power are imbued on this child.


The second picture is of Curie crying in the arms of her teacher. Before I get into the details, consider the differences between these two images. Notice the relative size of Curie and her teacher. Einstein is bigger than his tutor, while the small (and surprisingly Aryan) Curie is presented as significantly smaller. In the second picture, the teacher does not come down to her level and instead maintains her size and visual power. This story appears in almost every single children’s book about Curie. The young Manya Skłodowska was the youngest and smartest student in her class. Her school, which was run by Polish teachers, was under constant threat from the Russians who occupied Poland. The school was barred from teaching children in Polish and teaching Polish history. Instead, schools were required to have children memorize Russian history and learn Russian language. The school that Manya attended disobeyed these rules. When Russian school inspectors came to check on the school a look-out in the hallway would warn the class and the class would hide their Polish books. Once the inspector came in, the teacher would call on Manya to answer his questions. In the story, Manya succeeds by answering all of the Russian inspector’s questions in Russian to his liking. After he leaves she cries.

In this story it becomes apparent that while Manya is very smart and strong she still has a kind of frailty. Readers are told that Manya’s knowledge gives her a kind of importance. She is called on in class and because of her impressive memory; she saves the class from the inspector. While the stories of Einstein were exaggerate stories that stress his clashes with authority the story of the Russian inspector is usually treated in a way that is much more consistent with the authoritative texts. However, Eva Curie tells several other stories about Manya that only make it into one of the children’s books, and thus the picture of the young Manya is shaped more by exclusion than by exaggeration.

The following anecdotes come from Eleanor Doorly’s 1939 book, The Radium Women: Madame Curie. Doorly’s book went through many printings and was highly acclaimed, being recommended in three consecutive editions of the Children’s Catalogue. Doorly states quite clearly in the opening of her book that it is a children’s adaptation of Eva Curie’s biography of her mother. This book stays very close to Eva’s biography and offers insight into a different trajectory that could have been developed in accounts of Curie. These selections come from the second chapter of her book, appropriately entitled “Rebels.”

In the Russian-run high school Manya and her friend Kazia “took delight in inventing witticisms against their Russian professors, their German master, and especially against Miss Mayer who detested Manya only a little less than Manya detested her.” Their teacher Miss Mayer stated, “It’s no more use speaking to that Sklodovska girl,” she said, “than throwing green peas at a wall!” On one occasion Eva tells us of a time in which Manya was openly disrespectful, and witty. “I won’t have you look at me like that!’ Miss Mayer would shout. ‘You have no right to look down on me!’” Manya responded “‘I can’t help it,’ said Manya truthfully, for she was a head taller that Miss Mayer. No doubt she was glad that words sometimes have two meanings.”

In the second series of stories, the young Manya is openly disrespectful of her teachers. While the story of her crying in front of the Russian inspector is interesting it should be seen as just one of several stories about Manya’s school experience. Importantly, it is the only story that puts her in a position of weakness against the authority of both the teacher and the inspector. Other stories show the potential of portraying a Manya who is similar to the exaggerated Einstein, openly disrespectful of a rather hostile teacher.

Brown, Don. Odd Boy Out: Young Albert Einstein . Houghton Mifflin, 2004.

Doorly, Eleanor. The Radium Woman, a Life of Marie Curie; and Woodcuts. New York: Roy Publishers, 1939.

A Use Case for Playing History: Games for the Classroom

Kevin Ryan a 9th grade world history in Fairfax Virginia is planing out a unit on Vikings. Looking over his lectures and activities he realizes it would be great to have his students spend half a lesson using a game or interactive to introduce the subject . Kevin logs on to playing history and searches for Vikings, specifying that his students have 30 minuets for the game or simulation. Because he already has an account with Playing History the results are tailored for him, only returning games relevant to a 9th grade audience. The search returns several resources, each listing weather they have attached lesson plans or links to lesson plans in sites like Yahoo Teachers or Teach Ade. Because the searches privilege freely available web games and games with positive reviews from other teachers the BBC’s Game Viking Quest is one of the first search results. When the Kevin clicks on Viking quest he can see reviews from other teachers, the beginning of lesson plans from sites like Yahoo Teachers and Teach Ade, related content from Teacher Tube and the filtered by his ip address the Virginia State Standards and National Standards that the game engages with. The most salient feature of this page however is a screenshot of the game linking directly to the game, which Kevin can now preview. If he decides the game is useful he can email the games information to his class, save it to his calendar, or add it to his website or account with a variety of other teacher web services, all with just the clicks.

Time from Kevin starting his search for the resource to finding a game or simulation which fits his specific needs: Two Minuets.

Video Games In The Classroom: A look at Super Smart Games

Before coming to the Center for History and New Media I worked on the planing committee for the Games Learning and Society Conference, an annual conference on the role of video games in teaching and learning. For my project I am thinking about bringing my interests in games and education together with my background in history to create a web portal for teachers looking for games to integrate into their classroom. By walking through the educational games site Super Smart Games I can unpack some of the features that I think would more effectively position a site toward integrating games in the classroom.

Super Smart games offers reviews of educational games for Teachers, Students and Parents. Site visitors browse through various categories to find reviews of games dealing with different subjects, and do simple searches that search through the entire collection of game reviews. Visitors can then comment on the reviews but it looks like they cannot post their own reviews. (Thanks to Elle Sanders from Super Smart Games for correcting me, visitors can write reviews, see Elle’s comments below) Sadly the site does not offer any ways for visitors to do advanced searches through the games. For example teachers cannot search via state standards, the time it requires to play a game, the age level of students, or specify only free web games, games free to download, or commercial games. The site also does not interface with existing Teacher social networks like Teacher’s Ade.

My fundamental problem with the site is that it is really more of a game review site than a games site. If it were a game site it would connect visitors to games. While reviews are useful they are ultimately of secondary importance. If you are looking for reviews of games from an educational perspective, then this is a good spot, but I think this is a relatively shallow apreciation for what the web can do. For the sake of comparison consider the non-education games site Kongegrate. This site aims at gamers and game developers. One of the stated goals is that at any moment a visitor should be no more than a few clicks away from actually playing a game. Kongregate (warning this is a fantastically addictive site) offers a much more robust way to interact with games. Some of these features would transfer to a site dedicated to teachers, some of them wouldn’t, but all of the design choices clearly mirror the needs of the gamers and developers.

instead of reading about games at Kongegrate you get to play them and interact with a community built around those games. It would be interesting to consider if it would be possible to do something for teachers. Extract the things most meaningful to them and offer those features alongside the games. In my next post I will explore a use case for the kind of site I am imagining.

A More Scientific Aproach To Comics

banner1.pngWhile not exactly a historical website The Periodic Table of Comic Books is an interesting web resource which has historical value. Designed by a chemists at the University of Kentucky The Periodic Table of Comic Books allows visitors to see how elements have been used and in some cases abused by American comic books.

Be forewarned, the website is not attractive. There are a few typos and the repeating background is quite atrocious, but still I think the idea is ingenious!

The site offers the viewer an image of the periodic table of elements. When you click on any element you jump to a page offering small multiples of images excerpted from pages of comics that mention that element. The resource immediately suggests new avenues for thinking about the popular perceptions of the history of science.


When you look at the small multiples it is clear that these chemists get comics in a way that the Library and Archives of Canada does not. Instead of offering tiny images of full pages from the comics viewers are given little piece of the action in the thumbnails. The bibliographic information is still present but the presentation respects the artifact being presented.

For whatever reason the site does not appear to have a database back-end. Instead each page for each comic seems to have been individually added to the collection. While taking advantage of the non-hierarchical basis of the web page format the site does not take what would seem to be the natural next step and run the site from a database of comics and elements. I would hazard to guess that this is due to lineage issues. It is entirely possible that the site has retained its initial structure from 1996.

Old Media New in New Media Skins:

As an oft compelling blog notes, Comic Books are Interesting Except When They are Not Interesting, and there is no shortage of both interesting and uninteresting sites presenting the history of comics on the web. For my review I will be discussing two different approaches to presenting comics and their history. The first site, Beyond the Funnies: The History of Comics in English Canada and Quebec “explores the history of the graphic-narrative medium in Canada”. You can see a image of the home-page below.

beyond-the-funnies.pngThe site presents a engaging attempt to use the style of comics to present the history of comics. However it ends up looking a bit too busy for my taste. When you look at the header it is just too busy. What do you think the viewer is supposed to focus on? For me the three outlined pieces of text at the top of the header image are just too much. “About This Site” “Comics Gallery” and “Create Your Own Comic” just don’t fit into the style of the head image, I would like to see them either better integrated into the image or pulled out with the five text links at the top of the page.

On the side of the page, the site navigation through speech balloons works much better for me. Here we an see them repurposing the style of comics into the format of their page. I found myself immediately understanding both the reference and that these were links to navigate through the site and that makes for good design.page_text.png

When you click the “Introduction” link from the header, the link I felt most clearly denoted where I should start moving through the site, (It is the big bright and pushed to the top left of the screen) I could clearly see the site take on another traditional form, the historical paper. You can see the title, the page is dominated by text, leaving very small images, and footnotes hyperlinked to the bibliography at the bottom of each page. While I understand that there is quite a bit of value in publishing books online, it would seem that if a project, like this one, is “born digital” it would make a lot of sense to lose the trappings of the academic paper and embrace links, and in the case of the history of comics bigger images.

comics_gallery.pngThe site does offer a comics gallery, where viewers can engage with the books themselves more. But the page is de-emphasized, one of those small links that seems out of place at the top of the header. And even still when we get to 10 comics they offer us the images are still tiny. Completely overshadowed by their bibliographic information.

Instead of embracing the possibilities of the database structure of new media, by say offering visitors to search through comics the site models itself on a academic paper (understandably there is a rats nest of rights issues here but imagine a comic books site modeled off something like BYU’s Time Archive for comics) What do we gain from this being on the web as opposed to published in paper? As I see it not too much.

While the site is interesting, and believe me much more well organized and useful than a series of other amateur sites on the history of comics it is ultimately old media in a new skin, somewhat missing the point for the possibilities of the new medium. Nonetheless a solid attempt from 2002 and of-course we must thank them for not using Comic Sans in the main body.

History Through Children's Literature

sothatsmanborder.jpgThe stories we tell children are also very telling about our history. This blog will present brief examples of these telling moments. Points for consideration of history in children’s literature and facilitate discussion of the issues therein. Children’s books are a very visual medium, but sadly it is overly complicated to get pictures into print publications. Blogs work well for talking about other visual medium, like comics, so why not Children’s Literature.

Two years ago I took Marjee‘s advice to explore the history of children’s books about Marie Curie and Albert Einstein. In the process I came across a whole host of materials of historical interest that just didn’t fit into the project but nonetheless warranted discussion. Inspired by some of my colleagues at the Center for History and New Media‘s blogs I have been looking for a approach and topic for blogging and Marjee and I have been looking for projects to collaborate on. The blog will explore history in children’s books, from that perspective it will focus much more on ‘true stories’ (non-fiction) than on works of fiction. Our particular interest in the history of science will most likely translate into us spending more time on history of science topics. In particular you can expect to see a bit more of Curie and Einstein to begin with.

A bit about us. My name is Trevor Owens, I work as the Technology Evangelist for the Zotero project at the Center for History and New Media. Aside from that I am a graduate student studying American history at George Mason University. I graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a BA in History and the History of Science. My undergraduate thesis explored how children’s books about Albert Einstein and Marie Curie diverged from more authoritative biographies. My other work has focused on the history of school science fairs, children’s books about evolution, and creation/evolution discourse in online communities.

Marjee, works as a Associate Director for PBS TeacherLine, developing, directing, and facilitating professional development for teachers across the United States. Marjee taught high school physics and chemistry, and has studied the history of science education and educational technology. She has previously explored Sputnik’s impact on American science education, online creation science communities, and her work on scientific reasoning in video games has been cited in Science.

Our first experiences with history are crucial, while many of those experiences are impossible to capture children’s books provide a record of many of our first impressions of history. On some level these books represent our first past. Children’s books that make historical assertions and this blog is a attempt to start unraveling those assertions. To start taking a serious look at historical children’s literature. The study of Children’s Literature is in many ways in its infancy, and the study of its history even more so. The short pieces in this blog are intended as a way to help develop a dialog about these books.

Oh, and our views are our own, and in no way reflect the views of our respective organizations etc.
(image from Russell Ray Baker. So That’s Man!. Chicago: Reilly & Lee, 1949.)