Leonardo’s Monster


Leonardo’s Monster, by Jane Sutcliffe

Reviewed by Susan Fry

Introducing kids to historical figures can be tricky. Far too many biographies can be dry or preachy. The events that grownups find interesting, such as revolutions, political reformations and . . . yaaaaaaawn! Oh, sorry! I guess those can bore even grownups. Plus, many high achievers accomplish their greatest feats as adults. Adults,honestly, just aren’t as interesting to kids as, well, other kids.

Leonardo da Vinci is one of history’s most fascinating people. But summarizing his life in a children’s book, especially one for younger children, seems impossible.

Luckily, in Leonardo’s Monster, Jane Sutcliffe brilliantly decides to focus on one small episode from da Vinci’s childhood.

According to legend, the young da Vinci was asked to decorate a shield. He painted it with a monster so frightening and lifelike that his own father fled in fear. “Flames darted from its eyes like lightning bolts. Smoke curled from its nostrils, and the very air around it seemed to be on fire.” The shield was later sold to a duke, and then it disappeared. “But who knows? Perhaps somewhere the shield is waiting to be found.”

It’s a simple story. But the simplicity gives Sutcliffe the space to explore da Vinci’s personality. She offers a likeable portrait that may help kids think of da Vinci as a person as well as a genius. “For a start, he was the kind of boy who was good at everything . . . . Being so good at so much and not being a show-off about it is pretty unusual.” Sutcliffe’s informal language and humorous asides make the era and da Vinci himself feel approachable.

Kids will adore the fact that da Vinci is smarter and more talented than all the grownups around him. His own teacher even stops painting because da Vinci is better.

My boys begged me to re-read the page on how da Vinci created his monster. Sutcliffe shows the boy collecting all the disgusting animals he can find, such as lizards, newts, and bats, and then drawing all their scariest parts. Grownups, of course, can use this to introduce the concept of the scientific method.

Da Vinci’s hard work and determination – drawing and re-drawing so many times that he doesn’t even notice when the animals start to stink – can be an inspiration for adults as well.

Well, maybe without the stinky part.

Susan Fry is a writer and mother in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s written for Stanford Magazine, salon, the San Jose Mercury News, and many other publications.

You can check out the Sweet Peas & Stilettos’ children’s books page for quick access to all of Susan’s wonderful children’s book reviews.

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