BookTalk: Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France

by Sharon Kane

benfranklinI have been following Ben Franklin for decades. I am amazed each time I hear of a new biography or historical novel with Ben in a starring role. Why so many? Why the continuing popularity? He even landed a chapter in Historical Heartthrobs: 50 Timely Crushes from Cleopatra to Camus, by Kelly Murphy and Hallie Fryd. In a VOYA Magazine review of that book, teen reviewer Twila Sweeney wondered (rhetorically, I believe) who would ever think about Ben Franklin in terms of dating. Her observations prompted me to write the article “Dating Ben Franklin: Investigating the Early Years of Historical Figures and Classic Authors” (published in the January 2015 issue of English Journal).

Given my fascination with Ben, I was delighted to discover Mara Rockliff’s Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France (2015, Candlewick Press). Don’t be deceived by the book’s compact 45-page length or the fact that it’s a picture book. It is filled with historical and scientific information that will appeal to older readers while still being accessible to young readers. Set in 1776 Paris, the story tells of Ben Franklin’s popularity during his visit abroad to request France’s help with the American Revolution. King Louis XVI asked Ben, whose scientific discoveries were well known, to help with a conflict between French doctors and a visitor from Germany. This Dr. Mesmer was curing patients in a quite nontraditional way, one that involved staring into his patients’ eyes and waving an iron wand that purportedly carried an invisible force that had streamed from the stars.

As we follow Ben, we see the scientific method in action. Ben observed, hypothesized, tested, and got results that led to a conclusion. Readers may also learn new vocabulary, such as mesmerize and placebo, as well as some handy French phrases.

After the main story ends, an additional section expands on Mesmer’s claims and procedures. A detail I found fascinating is that as Mesmer treated patients in a fancy hotel, he created a mysterious atmosphere with haunting music from a glass instrument called an armonica. The inventor of that instrument? You guessed it—Ben Franklin.

I was impressed with the illustrations, starting with the end papers. After reading on the back jacket flap that Iacopo Bruno’s work appears on over 300 book covers, I had a great time exploring his art. No wonder Bruno was chosen as the illustrator of this book—his pictures are absolutely mesmerizing!

 

Appropriate for intermediate, middle, and high school grades

(science, history, French, art, ELA)