Ben Franklin's Fame is the sixth book in the Blast to the Past series, by Stacia Deutsch and Rhody Cohon. This is an early chapter book with occasional illustrations, perfect for 7 to 10-year-olds who like reading about historical events. The premise is that an elementary school teacher, Mr. C, has created a time machine.
"It looks like a hand-held video game with a larger screen and extra buttons. When we put a special cartridge in the back, a glowing green hole opens and we jump through time. Taking the cartridge out brings us home again." (Prologue)
Here "us" refers to a group of four third-graders, Abigail, Jacob, Zach, and Bo, who help out Mr. C by going back in time and troubleshooting for him. You see, an evil former assistant of Mr. C's (Babs Magee) is using her own version of the time machine to go back in time. Babs hopes to convince some famous historical figure to give up on his or her own dreams, so that she can take their place, and be famous. The kids have to go back and talk with the figure that she's targeting each week, and try to convince whoever it is not to give up. They call themselves The History Club.
In this episode, Babs has her sights set on Ben Franklin. In fact, as the story begins, Ben has already disappeared from the history books, to be replaced by a picture of Babs. The History Club has to go back to several points in time, until they can find the place where Babs influenced Ben Franklin to step off of his own path, so that she could step in. They start out at the signing of the Constitution, and move backwards through other milestones in Franklin's life.
Each of the four kids has some special skill that he or she brings to the mission. Zack can relate to Ben Franklin because he, too, has trouble deciding what he wants to do with his life, and wants to keep trying out new things. Jacob needs his computer skills to tweak the time machine, and allow the kids to visit the different time periods and places in Franklin's life. Bo's encyclopedic knowledge about Franklin guides the kids to where they go. And Abigail is the documenter of incidents and follower of clues, who comes up with a critical brainstorm near the end of the book.
This book is a lot of fun. It's filled with facts about Ben Franklin's life that I think kids will find interesting, like the fact that he had 16 older brothers and sisters, and once invented a pair of swim fins for his hands. The description of the signing of the Constitution is both reverential and humorous. For example:
"We knew our time was ticking away, but not one of us could move. We were frozen to the floor. This was it! The signing of the Declaration of Independence." (Chapter 4)
And when Thomas Jefferson is inadvertently knocked to the floor by Zack, Bo steps in.
"Bo knew that this was his chance to help his hero. He straightened his backbone, puffed out his chest, and stepped forward, hand outstretched. Thomas Jefferson took Bo's hand and pulled himself off the floor. "Thank you, son," he said to Bo.
Bo didn't reply. He just stared down at his hand. He was still gripping Thomas Jefferson's fingers. I had to give Bo a little reminder to drop Thomas Jefferson's hand. "Time to go," I whispered.
Bo let go of the future third president of the United States and said softly, "You're welcome." (Chapter 4)
I think that the book strikes a nice balance between making the kids realistic and making them excited about history. I'm interested to go back and read an earlier book in the series in which they apparently meet Walt Disney. What kid wouldn't be excited about that?
In this particular story, I liked the parallels between Zack's inability to focus on a single passion, and Ben Franklin's success in many different fields. I think that a book like this gives kids permission to be third graders, and try out different things, without having to always know exactly where they plan to end up.
Oh, there are some questions I bring to the logic behind the story, reading with my adult eyes (Why can they only time travel on Mondays? Why is Babs limited to visiting a particular list of historical figures in order, that Mr. C can track? If Ben Franklin really ceased to exist as a famous figure at the beginning of the book, why could they all remember him?). But I think that questions like this are inevitable in any time travel story, and it could be that some of these points were clarified in the earlier books. And it doesn't matter anyway. I think that kids will find the story fun, and will pick up some miscellaneous tidbits about history, too. There's a nice letter to readers at the end that clarifies what is fact and what is fiction in the story, and a timeline showing the major events in Ben Franklin's life. I definitely recommend this series for the early elementary school set.
Book: Ben Franklin's Fame: Blast to the Past
Author: Stacia Deutsch & Rhody Cohon
Original Publication Date: September 2006
Age Range: 7 to 10
Source of Book: Review copy from Rhody Cohon
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.