Quick. Name a genius. Pause. Did you say your own name? Why not?
What or Who do you think a genius is? If you’re a parent, can you raise a prodigy?
In her book Spark: How Genius Ignites,From Child Prodigies to Late Bloomers Claudia Kalb studied the lives of thirteen individuals who have shaped the world with their mastery of a skill and presents them according to when in their lives that stroke of genius seemed to have appeared. Prodigies are thought to have developed unexplainable talent during youth, displaying skill that could not have resulted from years of focused study simply because they hadn’t been alive long enough yet to have put in that time. Kalb also explores the work of later-in-life masters whose second and third career choices are what they are best known for.
Spark is a wonderfully inspiring and entertaining read, containing biographical data and anecdotal nuggets that make each chapter read like a sagaciously drawn sketch of a well-known character. In the introduction, the author shows parallels and links connecting some of her subjects – biographical similarities like the almost identical birthdates and deaths of Shirley Temple and Maya Angelou – but also reflects on the environmental impact that promotes a child becoming a prodigy.
In discussing the classic Nature vs. Nurture argument, Kalb shows how talents like Shirley Temple’s were possible because of the burgeoning movie business that came at a time when Americans were recovering from a war and needed innocent entertainment; however, the drive required to memorize lines before one is able to read and to focus on all-day rehearsals and acting gigs at a time when her peers were able to engage their whims and fancies on the playground, are skills that cannot be taught, they must be innate. Spark also highlights the impact of pandemic-like issues on Isaac Newton whose awe-inspiring work came during a quarantine from the bubonic plague. In showing that work Kalb also invites readers to connect with the possibilities of our times.
Although each of the subjects’ lives could be studied in isolation and still provide insight, the author invites readers to go through the material in Spark in sequential order, which allows for seeing some of the connections she makes. This, I thought, made the stories that much more engaging, and useful as part of my toolbox as a parent. By reading the child prodigy stories one after another, it is impossible to miss the roles played by their parents – both Pablo Picasso and Yo Yo Ma began training with their parents by the age of four, and Shirley Temple’s mother enrolled her in dance classes at the age of three because her own dancing career had been discouraged.
Spark gives us a plethora of examples of what to do and what not to do to help instead of hinder our children’s progress. The author shows that despite early starts, many child prodigies do not appear to be successful adults, and conversely, that it is possible to sidestep early challenges to become brilliant stars later in life. Spark is a well-researched and beautifully organized book and one that will definitely ignite a fire in you to think about how you can pursue your own passions with the drive and destination of a genius.
- Title: Spark: How Genius Ignites, From Child Prodigies to Late Bloomers
- Author: Claudia Kalb
- Publisher: National Geographic
- Publication Date: April 27, 2021
- Format: Hardcover
- Page Count: 368
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?
About The Author
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.