Swimming with Ben

 
Rosen, Michael J. A Ben of All Trades: The Most Inventive Boyhood of Benjamin Franklin. Illus. by Matt Tavares. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2020. 
 
In his 500-plus page biography, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (Simon & Schuster, 2003), historian Walter Isaacson concludes that Franklin was “...the most accomplished American of his age and the most influential in inventing the type of society America would become.” (p. 492). He would become the first true Renaissance man in America. Considering that Franklin’s contemporaries included John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington, that is high praise.
 
The vast majority of biographies of Benjamin Franklin, including those written for children, focus upon his very long and impressive adult life. Happily, Michael Rosen and Matt Tavares shine their biographical spotlight upon Ben’s high-spirited childhood in Boston where he was born on January 17, 1706.  
 
In an era when even sailors did not know how to swim, young Ben (who could read almost as soon as he learned to speak) read his father’s copy of The Art of Swimming and taught himself to be an expert swimmer. He lived in the busiest port city in the American colonies where he was never more than two blocks away from water. His childhood was highlighted by his two favorite past times, reading and swimming. Even as a boy, Franklin sought to improve himself. He invented paddles to wear on his hands and feet while swimming to make more powerful strokes. He was able to double his previous fastest time crossing Mill Pond. The problem for the young boy was that swimming, reading, and daydreaming (aimless woolgathering) would not pave the way to a successful adult career. Young Ben’s greatest desire was to go to sea, but his loving father, Josiah, believed that he had lost his eldest son and namesake to the sea, steadfastly refused to allow Ben the life of a sailor.  
 
Young Ben served a short apprenticeship with his father who was a candle maker. He also tried brief apprenticeships as a shoemaker and wooden lathe turner, but he was bored with the never-ending sameness of such work. Even though his first apprenticeships were brief, young Ben – always a quick study – learned valuable lessons associated with each trade that he later incorporated into his inventions. Josiah Franklin finally found a match for his youngest son as an apprentice with his own oldest surviving son, James, who was a master printer. A printer’s apprentice needed to be able to read, write, and spell, all traits young Ben possessed. The new apprentice was immediately successful. Young Ben read every new document he printed and he also became (secretly) a proficient writer. 
 
As much as young Ben liked the printing trade and as long as his hours of work were, he also treasured the time he spent reading, swimming, experimenting, and inventing. Famed for his later scientific experiment (1752) that used a silk kite, string, and a metal key to prove that lightening and electricity were one and the same, the youthful Ben loved to build kites. He even found a way to combine his love of swimming with his inventive kite production. He attached a long string to his strongly built kite, the opposite end of which he wrapped around a wooden stick that he held. Once his homemade kite was flying, the young Ben quickly tied it to a stake, stripped, jumped into Mill Pond, and held tightly to the cord-wrapped stick. Free wind power made it possible for the kite to pull him fully across Mill Pond in record time and with no physical effort on his part. 
 
The true-to-life paintings of Matt Tavares perfectly depict Boston in the early decades of the 18th-century. His double-page spreads are rendered in primary colors, especially yellow and blue. His paintings are suffused with a golden glow. He portrays the exuberant young Ben Franklin as a boy who appears more at home in the water than on land and who was a born inventor and problem solver. 
 
The teamwork of the author and artist is readily apparent. Rosen’s stirring narrative is super-imposed upon the luxuriant paintings of the illustrator. Tavares, in turn, uses antique book pages and small pen-and-ink drawings for the author’s informative text panels. 
 
The Author and Illustrator Notes are illuminating. Rosen states that his primary source was The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, published after Franklin’s death in 1790. He also drew upon details found in copies of Poor Richard’s Almanac published by Franklin from 1732 to 1758. Tavares reveals that Boston in Franklin’s childhood was the busiest port city in the American Colonies. The harbor is filled with as many as one thousand tall ships. The narrow cobblestone streets, clapboard buildings, and manner of dress in the Massachusetts Bay Colony are spot on. 
 
A Ben of All Trades: The Most Inventive Boyhood of Benjamin Franklin is a brief glimpse of the robust and rousing childhood of a man who became a towering figure in his own time as America’s finest printer, best scientist and inventor, greatest statesman and diplomat, and the young nation’s first popular and successful writer. 
 
 
Home Activities 
 
Draw a cartoon based upon an event in the childhood of Benjamin Franklin. One example might be an illustration of young Ben making a durable kite strong enough to pull him from shore to shore on Boston’s Mill Pond. 
 
Historians have written that of all the American Revolutionary heroes Benjamin Franklin would fit most easily and comfortably with everyday life in the 21st century. Compose an email to a very modern (and perhaps young) Ben Franklin. List five questions you would like to ask him. To earn an A+ grade, pretend to be Dr. Franklin and write replies he might share. 
 
Make a kite that serves as a tribute to Benjamin Franklin. What icons and symbols highlight his childhood or adult life? When it is safe to do so, go FLY A KITE!

 

Benjamin Franklin could read and write at a surprisingly early age. Write a journal entry that he might have penned when he was just a boy growing up in Boston. After reading A Ben of All Trades: The Most Inventive Boyhood of Benjamin Franklin, create a journal passage that describes the day he invented paddles and fins to help him swim across Mill Pond with greater speed. 

 

Collect three to five facts about the life of Benjamin Franklin. Write them in a journal. Next, use the facts to create a “Who Am I?” game to be shared with others. A “Who Am I?” biography game might read as follows.

 
Who Am I?
 
I was born in Boston in 1706.
 
I taught myself to be a strong swimmer.
 
I founded the first lending library in the American colonies in 1731.
 
I invented the lightening rod.
 
I invented bifocals.
 
Who Am I?
 
Almanacs were both popular and profitable in the 18th-century. They featured the year’s calendar including important dates, observations, and holidays, tidal schedules, weather predictions, times of the rising and setting sun and moon, and the best time of year to plant crops. Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac was unique as the annual editions (1733-1758) included the printer’s pithy sayings: “Haste makes waste” and “Never leave till tomorrow what you can do today.” Invite children to design their own modern-day editions of Poor Richard’s Almanac. What contemporary information will they include on the leaf pages of their original almanacs? Do they know the possible future schedule of their favorite athletic team? List the birthdays of family and friends. Can they think of clever words that readers might include for do-it-yourself greeting cards for birthdays and holidays? What recipes can they include that are their favorite homemade meals? What are popular Internet sites? List homeschooling activities that are creative? What cover designs, cut from cardboard stock, will they choose to make their almanacs attractive? Children can also wrap their front and back covers in colorful wrapping paper. In Franklin’s lifetime, printers had to create almanacs one at a time. Today, using home computers and printers, children can easily make duplicates of their finished almanacs. They can make duplicate copies of their almanacs and mail them electronically or by land post to much loved relatives and friends.