Published April 2021 by National Geographic
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through TLC Book Tours, in exchange for an honest review
Publisher's Summary:Yo-Yo Ma's ear for music emerged not long after he learned to walk. By the age of seven, he was performing for President Kennedy; by fifteen he debuted at Carnegie Hall. Maya Angelou, by contrast, didn't write her iconic memoir, I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings, until she was 40. What propels some individuals to reach extraordinary creative heights in the earliest years of life while others discover their passions decades later? Are prodigies imbued with innate talent? How often are midlife inspirations triggered by propitious events, like Julia Child's first French meal at the age of 36? Do late bloomers reveal their talents because their skills require life experience and contemplation?
Through engaging storytelling and intriguing historical and cutting-edge scientific research, best-selling author and acclaimed journalist Claudia Kalb explores these questions to uncover what makes a prodigy and what drives a late bloomer. In this series of linked biographies, Kalb follows the journeys of thirteen remarkable individuals—from Shirley Temple to Alexander Fleming to Eleanor Roosevelt to Bill Gates—to discover the secrets behind their talents. Each possessed a unique arc of inspiration. Each—through science, art, music, theater, and politics—reached extraordinary success at different stages of life. And each offers us a chance to explore the genesis—and experience—of genius.
I jumped onto this tour and when the book arrived I thought it looked interesting. Then, when it was suddenly time to read it, I found I didn't want to read it. I have no idea why not. But I figured perhaps I'd bounce around the book, reading a few of the chapters and call it good; I was a little put off when Kalb, in the introduction, suggested that the book should be read straight through. Who was she to tell me what to do? Yeah, I know, I was channeling my teenage self quite a lot there. Here's something you rarely heard me say when I was copping attitude, though. Kalb was right.
Kalb first introduces readers to people who excelled early in life; then she moved onto those whose talents became clear when they were between 13-27 and finally she moves onto those whom she calls the "late bloomers." That order allows us to see that while many people seem to be born with genius, childhood prodigies don't necessarily show continued excellence in their fields; that for some, a certain amount of learning, encouragement, and an ego that has not yet been crushed result in extraordinary achievements; and for still others, life lessons learned and personal growth are essential to attaining full potential. Perhaps it's not too late, a reader may conclude.
Of course, I had some subjects I was particularly interesting in reading about: Maya Angelou, Yo-Yo Ma, Eleanor Roosevelt. Others I was tempted to skip over Isaac Newton, Bill Gates, Alexander Fleming. What was Kalb - ancient guy who discovered gravity, guy whose business ethics I question, and guy I thought I'd never heard of. Kalb made them all worth reading about and I learned a lot what made them tick and what made them special. Fleming? Yeah, he's the guy who accidentally discovered penicillin but who could not have discovered it if he had not put in the hard work before that and who could not have discovered it without working in the exact way that he worked.
Kalb doesn't just talk about each of her subjects but explores the research behind what we call genius and what each person had that helped them to excel where so many other fail. Nature vs. nurture? Both, says Kalb. It's about being born into the right family — not necessarily the rich family but the family who encourages a child's passion and those who live the lives that model that passion (Picasso's father was an artist, Ma's parents were both involved in music). Many of these examples had incredible memories. Many were inherently creative. Some required hardship growing up to develop into the person they became.
Thanks to the ladies at TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour. For other opinions, check out the full tour here.
CLAUDIA KALB is an award-winning author and journalist who reports on a wide variety of health and science topics. She is the author of the New York Times bestseller Andy Warhol Was a Hoarder: Inside the Minds of History’s Great Personalities. A former senior writer at Newsweek who has also contributed to Smithsonian and Scientific American, Kalb has written cover stories for National Geographic that explore genius through the lens of biography, history, culture, and science. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia. Find out more about Claudia at her website, and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.