OFF THE CHARTS by Ann Hulbert


The Hidden Lives and Lessons of American Child Prodigies
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A journalist vividly portrays the positive and negative impacts of being a child prodigy.

Literary editor of the Atlantic, Hulbert (Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children, 2003, etc.) follows her previous examination of the challenges of child-rearing by homing in on a special population of children: prodigies. She begins her sympathetic, sharply drawn profiles early in the 20th century with William James Sidis (his godfather was philosopher William James), a mathematics genius who entered Harvard at the age of 11, and his contemporary Norbert Wiener, the founder of cybernetics, who at the age of 15 arrived at Harvard as a graduate student in zoology. Other prodigies include the talented and adorable child star Shirley Temple; African-American pianist Philippa Schuyler; irascible chess champion Bobby Fischer; eccentric computer whizzes such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Jonathan Edwards; and several astonishing pianists: Jay Greenberg, who produced a staggering number of compositions by the time he was 8; Matt Savage, who transferred his love of numbers to the piano keyboard; and Marc Yu, who performed with Lang Lang at Carnegie Hall when he was 10. Investigating the correlation between genius and autism, Hulbert cites the observation of one Juilliard teacher: “Genius is an abnormality, and can signal other abnormalities,” such as “A.D.D. or O.C.D. or Asperger’s." Yet parents are apt to focus on the outsized talent, while often failing to help the child deal with social and emotional problems. Growing into adulthood, many prodigies experience depression and lash out in rebellion; early mastery “may become shadowed by anxiety, blocking the engagement with a wider world that helps gifts and creativity flourish.” Hulbert intends these portraits to serve as cautionary tales in “an overachiever culture of hovering adults and social media-saturated youths,” and she counsels parents against “the impulse to herald children’s talents” at the risk of “inspiring swelled heads and raising sky-high hopes that are likely to be disappointed.”

A persuasive argument for nurturing “childhood normalcy” even for the stunningly gifted and talented.

Pub Date: Jan. 10th, 2018
ISBN: 978-1-101-94729-6
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 2017


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