When I was a teenager I was a a fan of a rock band called Tesla. They had a big hit with a song called Love Song, and a few smaller hits as well.
I still like their music, but they prompted in me a life long appreciation of their namesake, Nikola Tesla, the inventor whose considerable innovations were unjustly over-shadowed by those attributed to his former boss and adversary, Thomas Edison.
When Monica Kulling and Bill Slavin’s young readers biography of Tesla, Zap!, came across my desk I was very excited, and the book, for the most part, did not let me down.
Covering the period from Tesla’s arrival in New York (there’s some brief coverage of his birth, but in no great detail) through his harnessing the power of Niagara Falls, turning it into the most famous and powerful power generator in history, Zap! is written in an admirably non-pandering style. Kulling wisely resists speaking down to her audience, treating the subject with the intelligence that he deserves, and the reader with the respect they do. She portrays potentially dull periods and events with verve, never allowing them to live up to their potential sluggishness.
The trade-off to the brisk pace is that some things are treated with something less than the detail and heft they might otherwise deserve. Incredibly important moments in his life pass almost as though they were being checked off of a list, without taking a moment to put them into perspective. This is a small criticism, however, and does little to dull the effectiveness of the narrative.
Zap! isn’t a children’s biography with the poetry or innovation of, say, Laurel Snyder’s Anna Pavlova bio, Swan, or Enormous Smallness: A Story of E.E. Cummings by Matthew Burgess, but it educates with verve and stands alone as an engaging story book, which is no small feat.
Bill Slavin’s illustrations are remarkable. The muted palette and pen and ink drawings contain an extraordinary amount of movement; each spread feels like a captured moment.
Which brings us to the primary criticism of Zap!, and of the Great Idea book series to which it belongs in general: The cover designs are terrible. Just terrible. In fact, referring to them as designs is generous: They are the absence of design. They look like educational books from the sixties or seventies, devoid of personality and conveying nothing of the excitement contained within. With such amazing illustrations and a great title, an engaging cover should have been a slam dunk. My only hope is that the power of the book can transcend this marketing oops, because it certainly deserves it.
Kinderlit requested and received a copy of Zap! Nikola Tesla Takes Charge in exchange for an honest review. Read about our Review Policy HERE.