March 30, 2005

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Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight Became an Inventor, by Emily Arnold McCully (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2006)

The subtitle says “how Margaret E. Knight Became an Inventor” but it sounds like she already was one, inventing a foot warmer for her mother and a special kite for her brothers when she was a child.

Mattie was a real person, a mill girl whose family moved from Maine to Manchester when she was 11, around 1850.

“Manchester was a brand-new brick town. With her family gone for thirteen hours every day, Mattie was lonely.” – these words accompany a two-page watercolor of a dirt road that looks like an in-progress Commercial Street, with young Mattie staring up at red brick buildings, some men standing around and a couple horses with a cart.

But lonely young Mattie kept busy, and took it upon herself to invent a special guard for the mill machinery after a workmate of hers was injured by a wayward shuttle that rocketed off a loom. Mattie’s gizmos were eventually installed on all the looms in Manchester.

Later, as a young woman in Springfield, Mass., in her spare time she invented the flat-bottomed paper grocery bag. A man offered her $50K for it, but she got a patent and set up the Eastern Paper Bag Company. So every time you choose paper over plastic, give a nod to Mattie

Emily Arnold McCully tells all this in a comfortable storytime style, colorfully enough to keep kids’ attention even though it’s all a true story. Each page has lush, detailed watercolors, and some pages include, in the margins, McCully’s renditions of schematic drawings for the inventions.

McCully has written many children’s books based on real historical figures, as well as some children’s historical fiction, and has illustrated more than 100 children’s books. She is the author of Squirrel and John Muir, The Ballot Box Battle and the Caldecott Medal-winning Mirette on the High Wire.

Marvelous Mattie is an impressive picture book, all the more so for those of us who live right here where it happened. A

Lisa Parsons


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