One of my favorite STEM-themed picture book biographies is Hedy Lamarr’s Double Life: Hollywood Legend and Brilliant Inventor by Laurie Wallmark and Katy Wu.
Here’s a brief description:
To her adoring public, Hedy Lamarr was a glamorous movie star, widely considered the most beautiful woman in the world. But in private, she was a brilliant inventor.
During World War II, Hedy collaborated with another inventor to develop an innovative technology called frequency hopping. It was designed to prevent the Nazis from jamming torpedo radio signals to make the weapons to go off course. Frequency hopping is still used today to keep our cell phone messages private and protect our computers from hackers.
When Hedy was finally recognized for her incredible accomplishments in 1997, the 87-year-old had just three words to say: “It’s about time.”
Why do I love this book so much? Because it does a phenomenal job of explaining some pretty technical physics concepts in a way that any upper elementary student can understand. The text, art, and design work together to show and describe how Hedy’s brilliant idea — frequency hopping — works and why it’s so important.
The text makes use of meaningful, kid-friendly comparisons and includes plenty of details to bring Lamarr to life as a character. It also includes some superb text scaffolding — a technique in which the author slowly builds an explanation with a series of connected sentences that act like building blocks to guide students in gradually developing an understanding of the concept.
The illustrations seamlessly integrate diagrams that show how changing frequencies can thwart an enemy’s efforts to tamper with torpedoes.
The design incorporates quotations from Lamarr that highlight her passion for science and inventing, and make the presentation more personal.
I can’t help but gush about a few of the nonfiction craft moves author Laurie Wallmark deftly employs to make the technical information in this book easy to understand.
First, Wallmark doesn’t use unnecessary technical terms. For example, she writes, “Hedy made a flavor-cube that changed plain water into soda,” instead of “Hedy found a way to carbonate water.” The science of carbonation has nothing to do with Hedy’s story, so there was no reason to include that high-level vocabulary word.
Second, when Wallmark does use a technical word, she provides a definition immediately instead of only in a glossary or in a sidebar. For example, she writes, “The speed of the [piano] wire’s movement, or its frequency, produced the correct note for that key.” Without disrupting the flow of the story, Wallmark gives readers the info they need to understand what the term “frequency” means.
Third, Wallmark uses comparisons to help readers understand technical concepts. For example, to explain how missile guidance systems work, she compares them to walkie-talkies. And in case some kids don’t know what a walkie-talkie is, she provides a quick in-text definition — a two-way radio.
I encourage you to get a copy of this wonderful book. Not only can you share the incredible true story with kids as a read-aloud, you can also use it as a mentor text in writer’s workshop.