Book of the week
Off the Charts: The Hidden Lives and Lessons of American Child Prodigies
Piano prodigy Marc Thu in 2008
“The question of child genius is almost universally intoxicating,” said Rachel Sugar in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. What is the source of prodigies’ unusual abilities? Do virtually all children have a similar capacity to excel at one pursuit or another? If we cultivated the outliers properly, what miracles could they perform once they reached adulthood? Ann Hulbert’s nuanced study of 15 child prodigies makes little attempt to teach parents how to raise baby Einsteins. The book instead is “something infinitely richer”: a collection of “decidedly unsentimental” mini-biographies that show how every era creates its own breed of prodigy and yet how every prodigy’s story is unique. “While Hulbert valiantly offers an epilogue laced with lessons about the importance of patience and resilience, the richness of the book, and the pleasure of it, is in the human stories.”
“What all the children have in common,” said Nancy Rommelmann in Newsday, “is a remarkable curiosity and stubbornness.” Consider Hulbert’s first subjects: Norbert Wiener and William Sidis, the so-called wonder boys of turn-of-the-20th-century Harvard. Both raised by highly educated, overzealous eastern European immigrant parents, the boys as toddlers were avid readers who showed intense interest in acquiring academic credentials on the way to enrolling in college at 11. But like many other prodigies, Wiener and Sidis neglected to develop life skills, contributing to adult depression in one case and deep alienation in the other. Wiener’s and Sidis’ parents had made the same common mistake: They decided when they witnessed blinding early talent that they were more obligated to nourish the talent than the child.
Others among the book’s prodigies fared better in later life, including Shirley Temple and onetime whiz kid Bill Gates, said John Donvan in The Wall Street Journal. But all had to confront the problem that prodigy status “comes with an expiration date.” Hulbert works so hard to let her subjects speak for themselves that her writing at times becomes stilted, said Amanda Ripley in The New York Times. Still, her diligence produces “a surprising payoff.” What her stories tell us is that all children do best when they’re allowed to be who they are. When children show unusual determination to gain mastery in one pursuit or another, that can be encouraged—so long as they’re allowed to feel that the struggle for mastery is their own and is fueled by their own energy and curiosity. ■