by Sam Juliano
Picture book lovers who hanker for something unique in their biographies will find a treasure trove of lyrical prose and magnificent splintered beige illustrations that bring just the right touch of humanist underpinning in On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne, with pictures by Vladimir Radunsky. While Radunsky’s noted flair for irreverence is largely held at bay by Berne’s rightful desire to give young reader’s a beginner’s course on the book’s venerated subject, there is a disarming tone in these marvelous illustrations by this master stylist that will leave art lovers in a sure state of ecstasy. But in what is surely a splendid wedding of words and images it is Berne who sets the celebratory tone at the start: “Over 100 years ago, as the stars swirled in the sky, as the Earth circled the sun, as the March winds blew through a little town by a river, a baby boy was born. His parents named him Albert” with a striking emphasis on red oversized typography that stands apart from the equally engaging black lettering.
Kids learning about one of the century’s most profound thinkers and the one person above all others seen as a consummate genius in the modern era, may not have known that young Albert did not speak until he was three, or that “he suddenly knew that there were mysteries in the world – hidden and silent, unknown and unseen, and he wanted more than anything to solve those mysteries to understand those mysteries” as a result of first pondering the the needle on a compass that always pointed north. But the biggest revelation of all, and the one that is most integral to the title of the book and the manner in which it is chronicled occurred when Albert was gliding through the countryside on his bicycle, and noted the beams of sunlight coursing through the heavens from the sun to the Earth. He considered what it might be like to travel on one of those beams, and suddenly abandoned the reality of his bicycle tour, envisioning instead what it would be like to travel on one of those beams. He was alas a thought that would launch his famed career, and one that inspired him to begin his lifetime of study and research. He commenced to engage with astronomy, mathematics and physics and ponders the effect of everyday endeavors like sitting down for some coffee: “Albert watched a lump of sugar dissolve and disappear into his hot tea. How could this happen?” and smoking his pipe: “He watched the smoke from his pipe swirl and disappear into the air. How could one thing disappear into another? Radunsky’s arresting art boasts some stunning set pieces in short order – one when Einstein realizes that everything is made of atoms (even this book!) – by designing trees, a house, a dog, people and even Albert himself in dots and then in a nighttime double page spread of Einstein in bed realizing that everything is always moving with marvelously animated pencil sketch illustrations over a light gray and green background, done, like the rest of this book in gauche, pen and ink.
Some of the images that are most unforgettable in the book include Albert wondering around town eating ice-cream cones (Radunsky’s striking panorama of the town with Albert leading a quartet of cone lickers is a joy) and another showing him moving along in four capacities of transportation in quarter panels. The entire book has a homespun look, one that you are always tempted to feel, and the line work has an appealing minimalism that will serve young readers with a less congested and more direct approach but will wow adults with brilliantly integrated and stylized illustrations that are never anything less than aesthetically beautiful and emotionally engaging. Radunsky’s recent Advice to Young Girls based on Mark Twain gleefully plums his sensibilities with reckless abandon and serves as a modest contrast to On A Beam of Light, where he must maintain considerable accord with Berne’s ordered prose.
Like most of the greatest picture books, this extraordinary collaboration features a stunning cover, one that rightly poses its subject center stage, but announces the stylistic minimalism that will sustain itself through its 50 pages. The back cover showcases a quote vital to Einstein’s philosophy and is adored attractively with the genius and his chargers. Various aspects of Einstein’s beliefs and personality are documented in paragraphs that follow the main narrative that the wonderful back end papers are adorned with the great man’s most famous formula, favorite violin and bow, favorite blue cup, shoes, compass, smoking pipe, baggy sweater and pants, that serve as a review of some of the plot points made previously.
The grainy paper (gray flecks embedded on the earthy beige texture) gives the book a singular look, and one that alone keeps one turning pages. It lends invaluable aesthetic enhancement to the humanizing of Einstein, one where his quirks and personality are as much a key to an understanding of the man as any intellectual prowess might unlock. The cartoonish visages of the figures in the book result in some welcome comic application, and the child’s eye look of the illustrations will (and have) pulled in the youngest readers. On a Beam of Light is one of the three finest picture book biographies of the past year (the others are A Splash of Red on African-American painter Horrace Pippin and Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? on the life of the first female American to study medicine, Elizabeth Blackwell) but perhaps more significantly it brings a stylish illustrative spin on an iconic figure too often spoken of and pictured as a complicated recluse.
Note: This is the twelfth review in an ongoing series focusing on Caldecott Medal and Honor book hopefuls in advance of the late-month announcement by the American Library Association.