Joseph D’Agnese portrays young Leonardo as a boy who daydreams about numbers; he also happens to be a genius, but he has humility, for he introduces himself with the nickname that is presumably what others may have cruelly called him. The nickname, Blockhead, comes from the name Leonardo signed for himself in some of his manuscripts, Bigollo, which could mean “airhead,” or “good-for-nothing.” It takes strength of character to accept – even embrace – a misconception others have of you and by will prove them wrong.
Bigollo can also mean “traveler,” and D’Agnese shares that Leonardo did indeed travel extensively with his father to Africa. Unfortunately, his father is determined to make him into a merchant like himself. I was pleased that D’Agnese characterized Leonardo as disappointed in this career choice forced upon him, for I, too, imagined that he was most likely more interested in math and measurements for reasons other than making money. Perhaps he had wanted to be an engineer or architect; the famous tower of Pisa was in the midst of construction during his childhood, after all.
As Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci progresses, we, of course, learn that Leonardo is inquisitive and sensitive and he is definitely not an airhead. Interestingly, D’Agnese adds the classic literary trope of a “Guide” for our young hero; Alfredo is an advisor to Leonardo’s father who mentors the young man throughout his life, and even offers inspiration and wisdom to him in the form of a “spirit guide” after he is gone. Their discussions are the vehicle through which we learn how Leonardo discovers numeric patterns and designs in Nature. Happily, the book includes the famous riddle about the reproduction rate of rabbits.
This book is delightful and I highly recommend it for young and old alike because it shows the curious, humble genius of Leonardo. It is a very pleasant read and I believe it is accurate, for Leonardo of Pisa proved in his autobiographical paragraph in Liber Abaci that he was indeed humble, thoughtful, and kind.
O’Brien’s illustrations are as endearing as D’Agnese’s story! There are many details on every page and you can find little “clues” hidden everywhere! There are swirls galore and objects (such as the house and the farm land) which clearly display the Fibonacci spiral; even the quantities of objects on every page are Fibonacci numbers – 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, or 21. I love all of the illustrations depicting what medieval towns and Italian people were like, and the Rabbit Problem pages are the best and most comprehensible depiction of the riddle I have seen yet. Finally, all of the drawings are full of surprises; they are fun as well as informative. The buildings, maps, animals, and objects of nature have riddles in them, which is just as I imagined Leonardo would have liked.
Joseph D’Agnese is a writer and journalist with a charming sense of humor (josephdagnese.com/about) who lives in North Carolina with his wife, the author Denise Kiernan. His writings for both adults and children have received honors and awards and have appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, The Wall Street Journal, Discover, Wired, and This Old House. blockheadbook.com
John O’Brien is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and has illustrated many popular children’s books, including Did Dinosaurs Eat Pizza?, The Beach Patrol, and This Is Baseball. John divides his time between Miami, Florida, and the New Jersey Shore, where he is a lieutenant lifeguard during the summer.
D’Agnese, Joseph; John O’Brien (Illustrator). Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci. Henry Holt and Co., 2010.
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Paperback: 128 pages
Author: Shelley Allen, M.A.Ed.
Publisher: Fibonacci Inc.; 1st edition (2019)