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.

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