by Sam Juliano
O, my luve’s like a red, red rose….. -Robert Burns, 1794
The final years of the Georgian Age brought great industrial and technological advancements to England, but the rapid and unregulated growth came at a price. Medical breakthroughs lagged fatally behind and social impoverishment was never so pronounced. As one of the world’s most celebrated authors was to pen in one of his most famous works during the upcoming reign of Queen Victoria, It was the best of times. It was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness. The story of one of the era’s most underappreciated intellectual adventurers is one wrought in equal measure with sagacity and tribulation, revelation and dominion, and opulence and calamity. That it was played out in the household of one of the most revered literary figures in history isn’t at all especially surprising, though the machinations that paved the way for it and the hybrid flowering that set the stage make it one of the most remarkable accounts for those fascinated by the beginnings of a technology that now has become a dominating force in our daily life.
Three picture books on the same subject have appeared in the last few years, with two of those releasing in 2016. Ada Lovelace: Poet of Science beautifully written by Diane Stanley, with illustrations by Jessie Hartland first appeared months ago, and it was followed recently by Ada’s Ideas: The Story of Ada Lovelace, the World’s First Computer Programmer by Fiona Robinson. In just over twelve months ago Laurie Wallmark and the wonderful illustrator April Chu collaborated on Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine. Ms. Robinson’s book is the only one of the three done by a single person and as such it is bolstered by a singular vision of how to connect the economically applied prose with the sumptuous art that places it squarely in the Caldecott equation. Robinson is a first-rate artist who for this book has created Japanese watercolor on Arches paper, then in an intricate process the paintings were cut out and glued to achieve depth and 3D before finally being photographed.
After clever overlapping end papers that replicate computer program punch cards strung together – the inside cover also displays the pattern- Robinson sets the book’s mise en scene with a striking illustration of the protagonist riding a steam-powered flying horse. We discover immediately on the first page that Ada would go on to become the world’s first computer programmer. On that first tableau Robinson demonstrates how effectively she is able to incorporate a ravishing shade of scarlet red throughout the book in both thematic and pictorial terms. The brilliant three-quarter flaming red slightly tinged with orange denotes fiery passion, and courage but also a biographical reference Ada’s renowned father, Lord Byron, whose adulterous affairs with men and women were sworn to by contemporaries. Robinson’s most extraordinarily beautiful tapestry -one that challenges for most exquisite for any picture book of 2016- depicts a regal clad Byron holding his hat and standing between two pillars adorned with forty-two roses propped on vines. For sure it is an ironic pose, since it contrasts with a famous earlier love poem by Robert Burns “A Red, Red Rose” that espouses eternal ramifications. Byron’s artistic inclinations are contrasted with those of his short-term wife Anne Isabella Milbanke, whom Robinson revealed is “wealthy, proper and ladylike.” A skilled mathematician, she is seen with some of the tools of her trade forging an antithesis of her husband’s inclinations with a more ordered and far less emotional propensity. Her husband called her the Princess of Parallelograms. for young readers the disparity couldn’t have been more strikingly applied to spell out the extreme divergence in world views: flowers vs. wooden rulers.
Alas, Byron never had a relationship with his daughter -the only one of his children not born out of wedlock – after the wealthy Anne left him only a month after Ada was born. Anne was fearful that Byron’s rakish ways would be a corruptible influence on the young child growing up, and she took her away, even going as far as to cover up his photograph with a cloth. Anne pressed forward, indoctrinating her toddler from a young age to study numbers. Robinson’s paper mache numerical jamboree leaves no room or opportunity for the study of poetry, though a subsequent dazzling two page spread asserts young Ada’s at home itinerary includes long sessions of French, music and exercise. Ada was rarely allowed to play with other children, and she considered her best friend her cat, Puff.
Then when she was eight her father died after contracting sickness during the war for Greek independence, which he joined. He was the victim of a seeming curse that also struck down his fellow Romantic poets Keats and Shelley at a very young age. Only Ada’s imagination of her father was left. Robinson’s depiction of the child’s academic day, is creative and sublime -a harp, a spool of thread, a locked closet and book spines bring the day into eye-catching focus. A double page spread of cotton mill smokestacks dotting the English countryside denote the Industrial Revolution in full gear, and then in a resplendent series of vignettes, Ada’s imagination is stoked by the astounding feats of engineering that produced machines that manufactured cloth, glass, paper and cement. Between her lessons, her mother’s sponsorship of her tours and the inherent propensity to invent she inherited from her father, an idea struck her as quick as lightning – a flying mechanical horse, which is visually ascribed in a jumbo illustration of Ada holding the wings of a dead crow. By this time Anne sensed that Ada was using the intricacies of math to follow her father’s example of poetical expression. But she was then immobilized for three years after a dreadful bout with the measles. Robinson relates this on a minimalist canvas with Ada and her cat in bed with geometrical designs on a paper covering. The black background surely implies the dearth of ingenuity at this time. But the gods were looking down on her and she recovered at age sixteen. Her mother coaxed her into meeting writers, artists, politicians and inventors for purposes of intermingling and perhaps igniting a romance. Charles Dickens, the scientist Michael Faraday, and most significantly for her, the engineer, mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage all met her.
Babbage introduced Ada to his latest invention, a steam-powered calculator called The Difference Engine that was known to be heavier than an elephant and taller than a horse. Babbage’s goal was to create a machine that would be infallible in giving right answers since humans would always be subject to unintended errors. Ada then married Lord William King, Earl of Lovelace, and they had three children. Yet, even with the demands of her new role in life she sustained her communication with Babbage who then showed her his latest creation, The Analytical Engine, which was described as “bigger and better” than the previous machine. As a result of its planned capabilities to store many more calculations and to print the results it was largely considered to be the world’s first computer design. One of Robinson’s most resplendent and flowing tapestries is the one where Ada is shown engulfed in an exquisite weaving pattern that was formed after the machine – an updated of The Jacquard Loon, invented in 1801 – was programmed to read the punched hole cards and then lift different threads that would form the pattern.
The algorithm maze, created to sort out the complications of the “Bernoulli numbers” gave the author-illustrator the opportunity to offer up more eye candy with a bevy of colorful circular configurations surrounding the numbers the computer would calculate. In the end it was the indomitable specter of Lord Byron who seemed to convince Ada that the Analytical Engine would not or should not be restricted to mathematics, but also to pictures, music and words. A hard copy of Ada’s Ideas is held up in the air by a young girl as the final canvas displays her first name in striking three-dimensional design, in mathematical terms. Like her father Ada did not live long after her thirty-sixth birthday, but one-hundred years later her pioneering work and futuristic inventiveness laid out the red carpet literally and figuratively for today’s sophisticated computer programming. It is easy to surmise that without Ada things wouldn’t quite be where they are today. Fiona Robinson has compelling brought a deep sense of humanity to her writing and exquisite art, in her biographical homage to a true visionary, and somewhere Lord Byron himself is proud as punch. It is strongly hoped that the Caldecott committee will also find much to cheer about in this moving and bodacious work by a preeminent picture book luminary.
Note: This is the eighth entry in the ongoing 2016 Caldecott Medal Contender series. The series does not purport to predict what the committee will choose, rather it attempts to gauge what the writer feels should be in the running. In most instances the books that are featured in the series have been touted as contenders in various online round-ups, but for the ones that are not, the inclusions are a humble plea to the committee for consideration. It is anticipated the series will include at least 30 titles; the order which they are being presented in is arbitrary, as every book in this series is a contender. Some of my top favorites of the lot will be done near the end. The awards will be announced on January 22nd, hence the reviews will continue till two days before that date.