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Genius! Prodigies and the Gifted: a Booklist
by Chris Wayan 2010-2018.
Expand this list! What books (or films) have helped you? Send me your recommendations (pro or con): firstname.lastname@example.org
- The Bell Curve by Herrnstein and Murray
- A study of IQ in society. Accused of racism, the book actually argues that severe segregation by IQ & other standardized testing is only decades old and probably a bad idea; it advocates flattening the wage spread on the grounds our society overpays the elite, retaining affirmative action (though advocating a smaller "boost" to nonwhite SAT scores, more like 50 points; now it can range up to 150), nutritional programs for poor kids, and loosening elitist school policies.
- Burden Of Genius in US News & World Report Dec 15, 1980
- This article publicized the problems of the severely gifted as opposed to the normally gifted. Most scathing example: a highly creative girl scoring IQ 177 who lived in a housing project. Parents and teachers colluded to suppress her imaginary playmate. They slowly succeeded in squashing first her creativity, then her test scores. She dropped out in 10th grade to care for her siblings. Today she says "I know Iím not very smart, but I'd still like to finish high school and go into nursing."
- Buried Alive by Myra Friedman
- The biography of Janis Joplin, or, what's a sixties girl to do with an IQ of 170? She started out as a painter, but soon figured out paint wouldn't win her fame. Music could. Even if a musician's life might kill her...
- Children above 180 IQ by Leta Hollingworth
- The seminal book on the severely gifted. Decades old but still relevant--a dozen portraits of child prodigies, plus advice on care and feeding of geniuses. Of all ages.
- A Class Apart by Alec Klein.
- Gifted students in Stuyvesant High School (NYC) flourish even with nongifted teachers (union rules made staffing basically random), proving it's not mentors but peers that nourish genius--or stifle it. A portrait of a subculture lacking that delightful American obligation to act stupid in the name of equality. Weakness: Klein finds us gifted so exotic his perceptions of gifted life are superficial: "gee whiz, they like Japanese and calculus and stuff!" But the conclusion's convincing: bullies, bad teachers, even bad parents cripple you less than trying to fit in with brainless "peers".
- The Day I Became an Autodidact by Kendall Hailey
- Kendall, gifted child of two gifted writers (by an amazing coincidence, she writes well) graduates high school early, refuses to go to college, and sets out to educate herself. She makes a strong case that college discourages originality & initiative as badly as high school. She's not totally self-taught; she paints a portrait of supportive if eccentric parents reminiscent of Gerald Durrell's memoir My Family and Other Animals, or Dodie Smith's novel I Capture the Castle. If your family's unsupportive--or abusive--college can look pretty good. Depends on the family--and the college.
- Dibs In Search of Self by Virginia Axline
- A case study of a neglected/abused child prodigy. What happens when parents have no idea how to love--or at least love a kid like that?
- The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller
- Despite the title, not about the gifted so much as the creative nonconformity of all kids--their potential for giftedness, and how that's usually crushed. Good on those terms.
- Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon
- Ten ways to be unlike your parents--autistic, deaf, gay, dyslexic, a prodigy... But the prodigy chapter's weird--100 pages on classical pianists! Oh, wait--for breadth, he includes a classical VIOLINIST. Well, that covers us all! Hollingworth said up to a third of her Children above 180 IQ chose fields with set rules, like classical arts, theology or law, avoiding the risks of originality; fine for those individuals, but if ALL geniuses took this path, who'd innovate? Yet Solomon writes as if Dickinsons, Teslas and Darwins don't exist. Further flaws: for deafness etc, Solomon outlines subtypes, community, worldviews, support groups, identity, prejudice, minority pride, separatism vs integration... Prodigies alone are shown alone--except for whip-cracking parents! You'd think no other family pattern exists. In short, Solomon shows nine minorities in their full diversity--but not the tenth. Why?
- Fire in the Crucible by John Briggs
- Briggs argues that geniuses aren't so much better or faster thinkers as people who organize their entire world differently--rather like autistics, but more diverse; each uniquely. I'd concur. I have yet to meet a prodigy who construes the world in anything like a normal way. Many, including me, are more like aliens in human bodies. Gail Saltz makes the same case with better data behind her in The Power of Different: the Link between Disorder and Genius, below.
- Genetic Studies of Genius (5 vols; often called "The Terman Longitudinal Studies" or "Stanford Longitudinal Studies") by Lewis M. Terman
- His famous study of over 1000 gifted kids over 35 years. Full of disturbing tidbits for prodigies. If you can't find it, at least read Joel Shurkin's Terman's Kids, detailing his sexism and racism but also confirming some of his findings, and Grady Towers's online article The Outsiders, challenging Terman's claim the gifted are well-adjusted successes (in brief: it's true up to IQ 140 or so, but the brightest have a hard time indeed).
- Giftedness, Conflict, & Underachievement by Joanne Whitmore
- Many gifted kids disrupt their classes. Why? Counselors and therapists assume problem kids have FAMILY troubles, but with gifteds, the problem is often not the family but school--both teachers and so-called peers. Shows teachers & counselors how to figure out disruptive gifteds' needs.
By the way, it's not just true for kids! Gifted adults will find most therapists & counselors focus on family roots, when the problem's often your current milieu--narrow standards, stifled ambitions, misunderstanding, and simple isolation from other gifteds.
- Hereditary Genius by Francis Galton
- About the earliest book on giftedness as such. Galton was the first to look back into the childhoods of historic geniuses; he found they showed precocious skills predicting their later fame. Could these be tested for, could prodigies be nurtured? He also argued prodigies may have a distinctive character (for example, more social protest and political imprisonment suggest more idealism) and distinguishes types of giftedness (more visible precocity in philosophers than painters, whose early spatial gifts are less showy--or does good art take less wattage?) Galton's 19th Century genetic determinism looks racist now, but consider how our genetic theorizing may look in 140 years! Or 40.
- How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker
- Not on giftedness per se but argues plausibly that intelligence isn't unitary but a lot of small processes/abilities. Soon as Pinker strays from normal people into describing minorities I belong to, he's just wrong. One page on autism--he repeats cliches about asocial unemotional robots, ignoring what autistics themselves say. Insulting. True, the book's from 1997. But I read Grandin's THINKING IN PICTURES in '96; why hadn't Mister Brain Expert?
Then, two pages on genius--the Romantics were wrong, it's not weird viewpoints or passions, it's just hard work. Prodigy as drudge! Stupid. Yeats DID rewrite relentlessly, but that's just professionalism; his worldview was so mystical & weird his biographers range from baffled to mocking to clueless. Neither Einstein nor Hawking were math grinds; they visualized scenarios others just hadn't considered. Viewpoint matters! Even if Pinker's blind to it.
So... does hard work plus originality equal genius? If so, extra helpings of drudgery would compensate for being a hack, and zillions of wacky ideas would compensate for laziness or incompetent follow-through. Sorry, nope. I'd propose hard work TIMES originality equals genius. That 'times' sign matters: it means both need to be solid--or at least nonzero.
- Love is Not Enough by Bruno Bettelheim
- Case studies, like a gifted boy who sees himself as a locomotive, tracks steering him mechanically (ha! career tracks?) Bettelheim emphasises that with gifteds, delicacy and sensitivity are needed; complex characters with complex ambitions means more ways to screw up! So gifteds and those who love them should be wary about conventional parenting models or glib & inexperienced therapists treating gifteds in ways that work for the majority (and when that fails, blaming gifteds for resisting or sabotaging).
- The Mad Genius Controversy by George Becker
- Ideas of genius vary culturally and over time:
- Classical: genius is outside you! It's a daimon, a spirit haunting/riding/driving/protecting/afflicting an otherwise normal person.
- Medieval: part temperament (melancholic) part cleverness. A genius is one who masters the classics, not an innovator. They're just barking mad.
- Renaissance: genius does innovate! Michelangelo and Leonardo fought hard to prove it.
- Enlightenment: genius is reason. A well-taught kid becomes a mental gymnast. Imagination's dangerous without good judgment, but rational judgment sans imagination seemed safe--till those French heads rolled! Oh well.
- Romantic: devalued in conformist society, geniuses claimed madness to get attention and win tolerance. Balance? Pointless! "We're exceptions, so let us drink and fuck a lot and insult you. We'll write better for it." Ludicrous, except... it kinda worked.
- Modern: Largely genetic--dismissing rare experiences, senses, passions or worldviews. "G" a measurable substance--as if idiocy, normality and genius were just little, medium and jumbo scoops of generic braaains! Might as well go back to Greek demons. Or better yet, zombies. They're all around you, right?
- Nom de Plume by Carmela Ciuraru
- Rather sad capsule biographies of pseudonymous writers who might not have dared to write at all without a mask. The Brontes, the Georges (Sand, Eliot, Orwell), Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, James Tiptree. A great premise, but Ciuraru's sketches are superficial; like A Class Apart's Alec Klein, she seems to find geniuses bemusing, alien creatures--and that gets in the way.
- The Outsiders, online article by Grady Towers
- Towers makes a compelling case that Lewis Terman, above, was wrong: geniuses, as distinguished from the modestly gifted, are indeed often isolated and maladjusted, and that's hard to prevent entirely. Some social marginalization may even be optimal for creative achievement--just not for happiness! An uncomfortable read for prodigies, but a necessary one with large implications.
- Per Amica Silentia Lunae by W.B. Yeats.
- Yeats's advice to fellow geniuses on authentic creativity and the pitfalls along the path. His four imperatives:
- Tell your discontents and limitations and yes, sins--deprivation, suffering, and inner war DO make better art. Art without it is just good craft. It can entertain (and sell) but not transform.
- Push toward the exact opposite of yourself, your Jungian Shadow, all you deny and dread.
- Imagination is misunderstood. It doesn't take will, but relentless patience. The images want to tell you things you don't expect or even desire. Get out of the way, go where THEY want, and don't panic when they take you along. Not easy.
- And after all that comes the craft--37 rewrites! (Yeats practiced what he preached. The first draft of his signature poem, The Second Coming, stinks. He just hammered away. 10,000 hours!)
- The Power of Different: the Link between Disorder and Genius by Gail Saltz
- Like Solomon's Far from the Tree above, Saltz covers a spectrum of mental 'abnormalities'--dyslexia, attention and mood isorders, schizophrenia, autism--arguing that modest difference spurs originality (though extreme difference hinders it); the same thesis as John Briggs's Fire in the Crucible though Saltz has way more hard evidence.
Best advice: successful weirdos spend 80% of their time following passions & talents, and just 20% on remedial drills to fix deficits. "Focus on fixing disability means neglecting talent; that's discouraging AND unproductive." Amen!
The book omits one abnormality that fits Saltz's theory quite well: intelligence itself! For mood, she covers both lows and highs; why not IQ, too? If autism and dyslexia are 'disorders', isn't retardation? Saltz sees high IQ as an unmixed good, always helping weirdos achieve. But is it? Giftedness is useful, but genius is painfully isolating; see The Outsiders above. Why no chapter on unusual intelligence as an abnormality in its own right? Strange. Far From the Tree's weakest chapter was on prodigies, too. Why this blind spot?
- The Secret Loves of Geek Girls: edited by Hope Nicholson
- Autobiographical tales (both comics and plain text) of (nearly all) gifted girls and love/sex/romance. Focuses on f&sf fans, gamers and techies; compare to Geektastic's or She's Such a Geek's inclusion of art, theater & music geeks. But the writing's solid, the art impressive and varied, the confessions real, the analysis of relationship problems serious and insightful.
- She's Such a Geek! ed. by Annalee Newitz and Charlie Anders
- Funny, bizarre and raunchy little autobiographies. The cover implies they're all scientists; not so! The book has girl geeks of all flavors--drama, band, art--it's really about the deeper issue of growing up smart in an anti-intellectual culture. For art weirdos and sex deviants just as much as techies. For geek boys too (here's a subset of girls who speak your dialect!) If you like this, also try Geektastic in the fiction section--short tales with an even broader definition of geek--and Secret Loves of Geek Girls above.
- Smart Girls, Gifted Women and Smart Girls Too by Barbara Kerr.
- Two solidly enraging studies on the pressure girls face to tart up and dumb down (they peak in high school--survive that intact, and you own the world!)--and how many give up their souls (and brains and earning power) for acceptance into the herd. The mainstream version of She's Such a Geek.
- Sparks of Genius by Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein.
- A dull bran muffin of a book. The portraits of geniuses are mere raisins lost in the bran. Brief, out of context, they omit geniuses' own views on creativity--just shore up the authors' thesis that imagination and empathy are good. Uh... okay. And?
- "The Stanford Longitudinal Studies" or "The Terman Longitudinal Studies": see "Genetic Studies of Genius" above.
- Sybil by Flora Rheta Schreiber
- While this is the classic popular work on multiple personality, it's often overlooked that Sybil's IQ was 170 and that most multiples are not just gifted but highly so. It's easier to timeshare on a supercomputer! (Or is that the only reason? My suspicion: if you can't find peers, do you split so as to create them?)
- "The Terman Longitudinal Studies" or "Stanford Longitudinal Studies" see "Genetic Studies of Genius" above.
- Terman's Kids: the Groundbreaking Study on How the Gifted Grow Up by Joel Shurkin
- A summary, follow-up and critique of Terman's study (see Genetic... above), revealing Terman's sexism and racism. But Shurkin's own biases lead him to skip hard data when he thinks Terman's theories are silly, so we don't get to decide for ourselves. Grady Towers' thesis still seems valid: most of the over-170 group end up disappointing to tragic--by the standards of the world at least.
- Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin.
- Focused on autism, but very much about giftedness too; she shows how deep the linkage is. Her picture of high-functioning autism from the inside isn't so far from John Briggs's theory of genius: it ain't processing power, it's that weird way you see the world. Difference leads to insight.
- Through The Keyhole by Joanne Denko
- Gifted women hide their brains to be accepted. They may be themselves with a few friends, but hide around men and in large groups. And having to be amphibious, always popping the mask on & off, is exhausting...
- Uncommon Genius by Denise Shekerjian.
- Interviews with 40 winners of the Macarthur "genius" award. I hoped for wild conversations veering wherever her brilliant subjects want to go. Nope. She shreds their ideas into soundbites and collages them into a how-to-succeed book--better work habits, taking risks, yadda yadda. The point of writing a book not an article is having the time to go deep, let these bright minds explore... and she wastes that opportunity, much like "Sparks of Genius" above.
- 23 Women Talk About Work
- Focused on sexism not IQism, but one horror story shows how they synergize: the chapter on the physicist. Harvard was easy: all rote! They didn't go beyond formulae and told her it was impossible to visualize, "you just don't understand" (as she effortlessly gets As in Harvard physics classes.) Her male "peers" go from cold and unsupportive to sneery to leering and smutty. Even strangers came by to see the dancing bear--and insult her, based on gossip. Ugly.
I did warn you it was a quick & dirty list. Send me your additions!
- Stupid, stupid rating system! Except for the minuses. Those, I mean.
- ++ = wow!
- + = worth reading
- - = don't bother
- + Abrahams, Peter: Reality Check.
- High school quarterback Cody is barely passing classes in his hick Colorado plains town; his girlfriend Clea is gifted. Her town-boss dad sends her to a Vermont prep school partly to break them up--though I think Dad cares more about the gulf in class than IQ. Anyway, at school, Clea vanishes. Manhunt! Cody heads east to help search, and makes progress where the cops don't. Readers will see that the investigation's head must be corrupt long before Cody does--he really isn't that bright--but the book shows just how far legwork, persistence and motivation can compensate for smarts. "Perseverance furthers"! Abrahams's Echo Falls mysteries (Down the Rabbit Hole, Behind the Curtain, and Into the Dark) have a genuinely gifted but equally naïve hero, 13-year-old Ingrid, whose innocence nearly gets her killed. That trilogy makes it clear Abrahams sees brains and grit not as rival virtues but synergistic.
- - Anderson, M.T.: Feed
- A teen dystopia. Violet, gifted, dies slowly and tragically of malware infection--it's just Love Story with techno-frosting. Win our hearts, kill her off! Eh, what else are those gifted good for, anyway? Violet herself says sheís trapped in a fable with the tribal morality of horror fiction: she wants just a taste of normality, to fit in and dance for just one night. The penalty's death. OK, Feed does shows the majority as vapid, and the afterword urges you to fight peer pressure, explore your own weird tastes. But Violet did that, and her slow death teaches the opposite: stay in your ghetto, geeks! Go dancing? You die! Contrast this with Cory Doctorow's Little Brother, whose geeks fight for their freedom. Anderson writes well--sunset on the meat farm!--but the vision's cliched and the outcome undercuts the intended message.
- + Barbery, Muriel: Elegance of the Hedgehog
- I'm reading this now. Stereotype alert! Didja know geniuses are tragically alienated, suicidal/homicidal? ("I thought people like that killed themselves." Oh wait, that was queers.) But both main characters do illustrate Grady Towers' thesis in The Outsiders of the Marginal Strategy--that many geniuses live on society's margins for good reasons. I may upgrade this to ++ when I finish. But for now...
- - Beresford, J.D.: The Wonder or The Hampdenshire Wonder
- A 1911 novel on a prodigy in an English village with its head still in 1811. Jack Chalker's introduction says "read this book not as a historical curiosity or a psychology lesson but as a very good story that's quite well told." No. It IS just a historical curiosity. It's badly told--ponderous prose, clumsy structure (opens with 50 pages on cricket!), giving the Wonder barely 300 words in 300 pages--and it IS "a psychology lesson"--not of genius, but of small-town bigots, one of whom finally murders the boy. The book's only strength is its dismally accurate portrait of a world well lost. If you want early SF on prodigies, read Olaf Stapledon instead.
- + Brink, Carol Ryrie: Caddie Woodlawn
- Caddie is a gifted frontier kid who befriends the local Indian tribe. Her idealistic, democratic family sounds anachronistically modern, even hippie--but Brink says this "novel" is really a pretty straight transcription of her grandma's real family history.
- ++? -? Card, Orson Scott: Ender's Game, Xenocide and Speaker for the Dead
- Ender's Game addresses two big prodigy issues. 1: if you're pushed mercilessly, are you being abused or educated at your real pace? Card didn't toss in the harsh training for drama either, as I felt C.J. Cherryh did in Cyteen (below); Card's obsessed with the issue, as in his early book Wyrms. 2: Are you responsible for how others (mis)use your abilities? The latter two books explore this--the short answer being yes. Thoughtful books, empathetic toward AIs, prodigies, OCD sufferers, religious minorities, alien bugs...
...but not, apparently, those god-awful faggots. Card's rants that "gay marriage will be the death of democracy" make me mistrust his empathy and moral questioning. I won't go see the movie(s); I don't want to fund his hate speech. Mind you, I still read Kipling despite his imperialism; the books aren't the man. Yet isn't Card the writer responsible for the (mis)use of the royalties and the pulpit he's given Card the man? What would Ender do?
- + Cary, Joyce: The Horse's Mouth
- Twists the cliches of Starving Artistic Genius--not a young romantic in an attic but an uncouth old trickster on a houseboat. A challenging read--we see through his eyes, and this guy's a painter not a writer--we get fragmented notes as he's distracted by cool shapes and colors. If you prefer movies, the film version is equally entertaining.
- - Cherryh, C.J.: Cyteen
- Ostensibly a portrait of a girl engineered to be a genius, but her dystopian world is absurd--high tech alongside slavery, militarism, imperialism, corporate clans and no privacy. You can't act, talk or even think without fear of retaliation; ten minutes of these people and you'd start a revolution. For the sake of drama, Cherryh pretends physical science can advance indefinitely without social freedoms essential to progress. She's not alone of course; dozens of SF epics of empires and space wars share the flaw. But this is egregious.
- - Clements, Andrew : The Report Card
- Unconvincing fable of a closet prodigy who finally comes out to lead a boycott against the reduction of ALL students to test-taking machines. Well-meant kids' book, but unreal--this girl's an authorial mouthpiece. In a rotten school you might fake normality a while, but at the very least her parents would catch on--you can't hide your interests ALL the time. The geek details are off, too. In one key scene she says our sun'll die in 100 billion years. No way this kid would be so wrong.
- + Clifton, Mark: Star Bright and other short stories.
- In the early/mid 20th Century, Clifton was an industrial psychologist able to read others so clearly he believed in ESP; he wrote science fiction fables openly aimed at isolated prodigies. His writing's amateurish, but his stories pioneered discussion of all the key issues--how to live with extreme, isolating gifts, what to hide, what to reveal, how to work, how to find others like yourself.
- + Conford, Ellen: And This is Laura
- Shadowed by her more conventionally gifted siblings, Laura develops a strange psychic gift. Good portrait of a whole family of diverse gifteds, where most books focus on a lone prodigy (statistically the most common family pattern, but so?) A more pedestrian group portrait than Madeline L'Engle's saga of the Murrys or Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle, (or portraits of the Mitfords or the Durrells or Bachs) but quite good on its own terms.
- + Dahl, Roald: Matilda.
- A shy math prodigy sets out to save her beloved teacher from a fascist principal. When I say fascist I mean fascist... as in deathcamps. An unrealistic fable, but not so exaggerated that most prodigies won't recognize these adults (sigh!)
- + Dean, Pamela:
- + Tam Lin: an urban (and urbane) fantasy based on the ancient Scots ballad, Tam Lin's set in a modern college among highly gifted characters; it's as much about the seductive power of art and intellectuality as about magic or myth. Read what these characters read, and you win a free Ivy League education!
- + Juniper, Gentian and Rosemary is also based on an ancient ballad. Sisters Juniper, Gentian and Rosemary are precocious, autonomous and trusted by their academic parents. Enter an inhumanly brilliant trickster...
- + Diaz, Junot: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
- A fantasy-reading misfit in a patriarchal Dominican family. Oscar's abuse is painful--gave me flashbacks. And he's doomed from page 1. But the writing's so strong! Some great nerd metaphors (my fave is using Bradbury's tale of Margot locked in a closet on Venus.) But also some not so great: Diaz has Oscar reading/loving Margaret Weis, who's pretty awful; not a gifted kids' kinda writer.
- ++ Doctorow, Cory: Little Brother
- Gifted kids in a San Francisco high school fight (and defeat) the Department of Homeland Security. Local setting and cybergeek subculture are authentic (I live on the fringe of it). Astutely political, funny, empowering, and vividly written--couldn't put it down. It doubles as a field manual on how to fight oppressive adult organizations. Brains versus brawn...
- + Feuer, Elizabeth: Paper Doll
- Les is a prodigy who loves music--but is her family pressuring her into a one-sided life? When she gets a boyfriend, she sure finds out. Good stuff on creative blocks--sometimes it's not blockage but a picket line! Your soul's on strike.
- + Fitzhugh, Louise:
- ++ Nobody's Family Is Going to Change and
- + Harriet the Spy and sequels like The Long Secret.
- Nominally kids' books but speak to all ages. Sharp funny portraits of gifted kids in often unappreciative families. Fitzhugh shows how sexism, racism and agism interact with stupidism... and makes it all funny.
- ++ Geektastic: edited by Holly Black and Cecil Castelucci
- Short stories of (nearly all) gifted kids/teens. Includes many geek flavors beyond tech/math: art geeks, theater geeks, band geeks, gamers, boffers, Buffers, Horrors and Trekkers. Tones vary from John Green's everyday horrorshow in Freak the Geek, Tracy Lynn's cross-clique comedy One of Us; Barry Lyga's ugly revenge tale The Truth about Dino Girl, or (my fave) Kelly Link's subtle, big-hearted Secret Identity. Similar nonfiction: The Secret Loves of Geek Girls.
- + Hey, Hey, It's Esther Blueburger (film)
No masterpiece, but has its moments. Esther's stuck in a conformist Adelaide private school. Smallest and smartest in class, she's ostracized. Parents won't listen. After classmates kill her duck, she just quits. Sneaks into the local public school instead. Acceptance is enough at first, but not for long. Who does she like, what does she like? Ends up with one real friend, though her parents remain nightmares. Giftedness issues are secondary here; parental abuse/neglect is central.
- + Gifted (2017 film)
- Florida kid Mary (McKenna Grace) is a math prodigy whose mom, a math prodigy too, killed herself. Her uncle (Chris Evans) keeps her in public school; Grandma (Lindsay Duncan) aims to develop her talent at any cost--lies, lawyers, whatever. Vivid performances make this highly watchable. But the dilemma's a bit fake--a prodigy this bright wouldn't fit well into a normal first grade, OR be a performing seal content to do only math. But writer Tom Flynn treats genius as a sort of isolated gem set in a matrix of normality, not a difference permeating one's life. Flynn hints that's just an elitist myth; but is it? I sided with Mary's uncle, but not because he's egalitarian; he gives Mary the love and flexibility she'll need. And grandma can't.
- - Glynn, Alan: The Dark Fields
- Man finds smartpills, acquires languages and whole sciences in a day. The price is hangovers and blackouts. This part was convincing--I get nearly this manic myself (without pills). Many prodigies do. Flaws: pre-Pill, our man's a writer obsessed with an ex-lover, yet on the Pill, rather than write great stuff and win her back (and tweak the drug to give safe, permanent smarts) he becomes a reckless financier dealing with gangsters in between drug-induced homicidal rages; he wakes to the pill's risks way too late. Because geniuses aren't just selfish monsters but stupid selfish monsters. Please.
- + Green, John: An Abundance of Katherines
- An insecure prodigy (who always dates Katherines) tries to predict the factors for stable love after being dumped for the 19th time. A relationship-obsessed parody of T.S. Spivet? Or a comic version of The Short, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao? Green's no prodigy, but he writes very funny dialogue, and he WAS dumped 53 times...
- - Greenland, Shannon: Model Spy
- Hacker girl with IQ 190 but (of course) a lovable klutz just like you. Oh, and she's blonde and tall and thin despite eating those things hackers eat. Oh, and she's a superspy too. Sufferin' stereotypes, Batman!
- + Haddon, Mark: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
- A mystery solved by its gifted autistic narrator. Warning for gifted autistic readers: Haddon assumes his readers are normal, and elbows you about all the human stuff his poor autistic narrator misses. Well, half of it left me baffled too. Had those crazy humans been truly explained in autistic terms it'd just as funny AND a better bridge. But I'm carping; still a good read. Still, Aspies wanting to learn from fictional rolemodels might prefer Elizabeth Moon's The Speed of Dark or Reif Larson's The Collected Works of T.S. Spivet.
- + Hahn, Mary: Daphne's Book
- A gifted girl scrounges to feed her little sister and demented grandma. If her secret gets out--that she's the underage head of her family--they'll all end in institutions. She holds it together, but has no life of her own...
- + Hamilton, Virginia: The Planet of Junior Brown
- So what happens if you're gifted in a subculture that absolutely devalues brains--at least yours? You end up hiding in a basement, apparently. Not a happy read. But it reminds prodigies growing up in an anti-intellectual, fundamentalist age that the know-nothings' war on us is not new.
- + Heinlein, Robert:
- kids' novels
- Have Spacesuit, Will Travel (two child prodigies),
- Podkayne of Mars (a gifted girl with prodigy brother),
- Starman Jones (math prodigy in a class-bound society),
- The Rolling Stones (gifted family. And a lot of tribbles.)
- adult novellas
- Waldo (how a genius inventor sheds his misanthropy) and
- Gulf (on a secret society of geniuses).
- All these (and his others) encourage the gifted to steer their own path and warn of the dangers of conformity (and soft-heartedness: Podkayne, often seen as simply sexist, was meant to show that sentimentalizing can kill. Podkayne died in the first draft; editors protested.) Heinlein is abrasive, but intentionally abrasive--and never more so than about stupidism. A harsh antidote to all that wholesome, sanctimonious stuff out there for gifteds.
- + Henderson, Zenna: The Anything Box, The People: No Different Flesh and others
- The People are alien refugees living quietly on Earth, hiding their abilities, mostly psychic. Henderson's psychological/moral tales wrestle with the issue of geniuphobia and the fantasy of a community of geniuses. Sort of an early Eureka but way better written.
- + Jinks, Catherine: Evil Genius
- I opened this book a skeptic. Figured it was another Model Spy (see Sharon Greenwood above. Better yet, don't). But this works. Hypothesis: what if mad-genius stereotypes were true? A hacker kid tries to escape bad adoptive parents, (criminally) bad teachers, (homicidally) bad classmates, a (flamboyantly) evil real dad, and a (transcendently) evil psychologist 'helping' him to be a... well, read the title. A dark comedy of moral suspense. The sequels, though vivid suspense yarns, are weaker; less to say than book one.
- + Jones, Diana Wynne:
Year of the Griffin
- This is Jones's take on the magic-school tale, and it's far subtler than Harry Potter, whose nemesis Miss Umbridge was a parody of Maggie Thatcher, with a openly sadistic glee. But Jones's academic hacks are passive, rationalizing, empty men, and her portraits of mediocrity punishing talent are scathingly realistic--I actually faced some of their tricks at my college.
The ending feels a bit too neat--everyone falls in love at first sight more or less. I always read Jones's characters, especially nonhuman ones, with an eye toward learning how to handle relationships. But here, love gets handed out as a Shakespearean reward--comedies end as lovers kiss. I want to see how to find/win love, and unearned love doesn't teach me.
Or does it? First time I read this, I overlooked a love-lesson I spot now. Elda and friends risk a lot to get to their continent's best magic school, where others share their passion--where finding a soulmate is possible. Jones argues that great mentors are rare even at prestigious schools; what you can hope for are friends, lovers, peers--and that's enough.
In contrast, I saved time & money by finishing my degree at a cheap commuter school nearby with a good reputation. But my classmates mostly planned to be teachers, not artists or scientists. Not passionate--not peers! Fight for funding to a school where you live with others who share your passions. Or forget college, just follow your passion, and pull peers to you.
- + Ken Akamatsu: Negima!
- Lots of manga are nominally about genius. Negima really is, under its gleefully tacky surface (robots, Martians, ghosts, vampires, drooling boys, kinky schoolgirls, uncouth foreigners, hotheaded dog-demons, time paradoxes, escapist magic, escapist technology, ridiculous martial arts--every manga cliché is fair game). But nearly all the main characters are gifted, their issues real, the writing intelligent. Your library may file him under A or K, try both...
Send me YOUR manga/comix picks for the gifted! email@example.com
- + Kimmel, Elizabeth Cody: Suddenly Supernatural: School Spirit
- At 13, Kat starts seeing ghosts, like her mom, a professional medium. Can she hide it? I don't know why she bothers--her other gifts are all too public (she effortlessly gets straight As). But our double-gifted Kat's ambition is to fit in and have normal friends! She courts a popular girl who's spoiled and dim. (Bad taste, Kat! Got me mad.) Later she meets Jac, a cello prodigy. That friendship works. Duh! I liked Jac--follows her own path. Much better role model.
- + Konigsberg, E.M.: Father's Arcane Daughter
- A gifted, rich, troubled family whose story's told by an unnamed insider--you get to guess who! Peculiar writing style, but that's one of the clues to the narrator. Fun.
- + Korman, Gordon: Ungifted
- Bad paperwork sends a normal boy from a crappy school to an all-gifted one where stuff works. He can't do the work, but makes friends he didn't expect to. Nuanced and fun, though some details falter. Ungifted's told in multiple first-person, and the voices range from realistic (Donavan, Chloe) to unconvincing (like Noah the genius, scheming to get back to regular school. First, he wouldn't; he's cut a lot of slack here, and not bullied as he would be in a regular school. Second, if he DID want to, he'd be long gone.)
Ungifted repeats the myth that gifteds get better schools. False! My old school district was as big as Ungifted's, richer and more liberal--and they still had no gifted school. Anti-elitism made it politically impossible; plus it takes a huge district to fill a whole school. Only a handful exist in big cities; the logistics get hard in the burbs and hopeless in rural zones. Most bright kids end up in honors classes in the same old schools. And gifted programs aren't well funded; slow students get more. Historically, the gifted were the least served school population, not the best--just warehoused in classes teaching them nothing. Oh, it's improved some--but not enough. For prodigies, gifted classes aren't much better than warehousing. Fight to be schooled at your actual level, no matter how socially fish-out-of-water it leaves you. You'll face isolation and estrangement all your life anyway. Might as well have it out in the open...
- ++ Lalwani, Nikita: Gifted
- A math prodigy whose very bright dad drives her mercilessly to develop herself. In college she rebels at last. Family meltdown! Religion, racism and sexism interact with the problems of prodigies in this very sharp, intelligent book. My only quibble is the title. She's not just gifted, she's a genius, and her problems around intelligence--extreme isolation, social and sexual starvation, being misperceived even by gifteds--are the problems prodigies face.
- ++ Larson, Reif: The Collected Works of T.S. Spivet
- Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet is a 12-year-old science prodigy stuck on a ranch. He thinks in patterns, maps and charts. His journey from Montana to the Smithsonian as a hobo-geek is funny but genuinely heroic too. Reif Larson's maps and charts are brilliant--and central to the character and the story, not grace notes.
So--a question for y'all. T.S. Spivet, like Temple Grandin, thinks in pictures and patterns--he is his graphics. So isn't this really a graphic novel? One denying its bastard medium?
- + Larsson, Stieg: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl who Played with Fire, and The Girl who Kicked the Hornets' Nest
- Lisbeth Salander is a pretty convincing abused Asperger genius--speaking as one myself. I was sure Larson couldn't get all three of those aspects right, but he does, showing how they potentiate to make Lisbeth who she is. He deserves a ++ for that--and for his savage portrait of oh-so-enlightened Sweden. But I grade him down for mechanics: the trilogy's massively bloated--Tolkien built a whole world in fewer pages! Still, they're compelling reads. I don't buy the complaint that the books advocate vigilantism--any more than the average spy thriller or mystery. At least Lisbeth is actually vigilant.
- + The Last Mimzy:
- Film version of Lewis Padgett's story Mimsy Were the Borogoves. Child prodigy Emma and big brother Noah get their brains expanded by a cybertoy sent back in time. Weak plot: why would sending Emma's genesample to the future save the world? But it plays fair with both the kids' and adults' viewpoints, and neither worships or fears genius per se. For Hollywood that's progressive.
- + Leinster, Murray: The Planet Explorer
- Marketed as a novel in the 1950s; really a sequence of short science fiction fables about a low-key science genius who finds techie solutions to problems others see as social or ecological (and unfixable). A hymn to the geek mentality--Star Trek before Star Trek!
- Le Guin, Ursula K.
- ++ The Dispossessed: a physics genius becomes an inadvertent revolutionary twice--first in his native anarchist culture, then on an Earthlike world. When he goes home, will it be thrice? One of her best.
- + Gifts, Voices and Powers, 3 teen fantasy novels. Ostensibly on psychic gifts, but the overlap with giftedness is quite explicit. One tribe believes books and readers are demonic. We've all met those people...
- + L'Engle, Madeleine: A Wrinkle in Time and sequels:
- Under their fantasy/science fiction skin, these kids' novels form a multifaceted, longitudinal portrait of a highly gifted/prodigal family. The early books are pretty simple, but they grow in complexity over the decades L'Engle has been at it. The 2018 film is weak; nice eye-candy, decent acting, but the writing's bland and undercuts the books' theme: "gifteds and prodigies must fight conformity even if it's dressed as egalitarianism. Fight with love, but fight." We're told but not shown that Charles Wallace is a prodigy; Calvin and Meg have mediocre grades. I assume Disney dumbed them down and prettied them up because "a mass audience won't relate to gifted weirdos" ...like Hermione or Sheldon, or Rocket Raccoon and Twilight Sparkle for that matter. Feh.
- + The Third Eagle: a Sioux bodyguard bums his way between the stars, meeting moviemakers, bodysnatchers, monster mathematicians, alien pimps, miners and zillionaires. A quite funny book about going for what you truly want, with a highly nonstereotypic social genius for a narrator.
- + The Lens of the World: a pint-size Renaissance genius struggles to create a humane oasis in his harsh society. Very likable character (and book)
- McCaffrey, Ann:
- + Dragonsong and its sequel Dragonsinger
- Kids'/teen science fiction. Menolly, a musical prodigy punished for composing, runs away from her fishing village. She finds a place for herself at last in a music school, but her scars don't heal overnight. Thinking small can be surprisingly persistent... Dragondrums, third in the set, follows her best friend; less relevant to the gifted.
- + Moreta, Dragonlady of Pern
- A study of a prodigy's fall due to simple overwork and overcommitment. Unexpectedly subtle, for McCaffrey. Later generations romanticize Moreta as heroic, but she's just a natural organizer who works herself to death. A warning for all manic geniuses--and that's pretty much all of us. You won't like the message, but you need it.
- McKillip, Patricia:
- ++ Alphabet of Thorn
- Three brilliant women stuck in the wrong careers (a foundling librarian, a geek princess, and a wizard in drag) try to feel their way out... psychologically deep fantasy-comedy.
- ++ The Forgotten Beasts of Eld
- Sybel's a brilliant researcher who grew up alone; she has to learn to be human through trial and error. And quite a trial of fire it is. Strong love story with vivid characters, both human and not. Stunning language too: the dialog has a hallucinatory clarity and power.
- ++ The Riddlemaster of Hed; Heir of Sea and Fire; Harpist in the Wind
- The equation of magic and giftedness is clear from page one. At college Morgon grew beyond the traditions of his farm family and soon uncovers more than he wished for. Meanwhile his fiancee discovers gifts that mark her as not quite human... As with Eld above, this trilogy is all about coming to terms with unique abilities.
- + McNeil, Carla Speed: Finder
- Series of graphic novels set in a polycultural science-fictional world crawling with gifted characters, from Jaeger himself (the "finder") to Marcie (fledgling writer) and Magri White (virtual-world composer). Sharp adult writing and deep, complex worldbuilding that gifted readers will enjoy.
- ++Moon, Elizabeth: The Speed of Dark
- The narrator is an autistic prodigy who climbs step by step out of his autistic isolation, risking the loss of his known self for growth. It's sharp and unsentimental; I found this near-future science fiction more realistic, sympathetic and powerful than Mark Haddon's better-known The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Moon's the mom of an autistic and knows her stuff. Strongly recommended for gifteds with even a mildly geeky edge; required reading for prodigies and aspies.
- - Padgett, Lewis (pen name for Henry Kuttner): Mimsy Were the Borogoves
- An early, talky science fiction story arguing kids can become geniuses if they can avoid adult brainwashing--but it's too late for the rest of us. A more feelgood film version: The Last Mimzy.
- + Pears, Iain: The Dream of Scipio
- An uncomfortable novel about two balancing acts--one in late Roman times as the Goths and Huns invade, one in World War II. Should educated intellectuals withdraw, flee or fight? Or is the least evil choice to collaborate, compromise and save what lives and knowledge you can? Gifted adults living under corrupt governments will like this one. Well, like isn't quite the word.
- + Pratchett, Terry: The Wee Free Men, Hat Full of Sky, Wintersmith, I Shall Wear Midnight, and The Shepherd's Crown
- Tiffany Aching thinks outside the box: a problem in the know-nothing sheep country she grows up in. But she manages to become a mostly-self-taught witch in these rather wise and very funny books about the responsibilities of the prodigy. Wintersmith, the third, sags a bit for me, but is still fun; I Shall Wear Midnight is quite strong, and the last, Shepherd's Crown, moved me almost to tears. Pratchett knew he was dying; Granny Weatherwax's farewell and funeral are really his own.
- Robinson, Kim Stanley
- + Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars. Deeply idealistic after a cynical first chapter that put off some readers. Keep going! Vivid, nearly all gifted characters, particularly Ann and Sax, the archetypal Red and Green. Strong nature/landscape writing too--YOU try describing places you've never been, using only satellite photos!
- ++ The Years of Rice and Salt: a wild alternate history in which the Black Death wiped out Christendom. We follow a circle of gifted revolutionaries as they reincarnate over and over down the centuries, trying stubbornly for Utopia.
- + Robson, Justine: Silver Screen
- Science fiction thriller about prodigies and the pitfalls they face. Roy's a bitter flesh-hating obsessive who dies from a reckless experiment; his sister Jane drops out, sick of working for a corporate state; lonely, insecure nerd Anjuli feels stupid next to them, though she's brilliant; her sort-of-boyfriend Augustine fuses himself with dangerous software that turns him paranoid; their friend 901, an artificial intelligence, gets idealistically martyred; only their quiet, undramatic friend Lula seems normal until her secret's revealed in the last few pages.
- + Rowling, J.K.: Harry Potter series
- Giftedness issues? Of course. What do you think magic is? Anti-Muggle prejudice can be read as a critique of class and wealth too, but the series at heart is about extraordinary abilities, their responsible use, knowing/seeing too much, hiding and outing, and how to live among Muggles--sorry, normals. Even if you insist magic is code for ESP not IQ (and my experience is they overlap a lot: wild talents cluster), what of Hermione? A research geek who's unapologetic, sympathetic... and hot! Not to mention Luna Lovegood. Is she crazy? If you're reading this, you're Luna--to normals, all of us are Lunas, babbling about quarks and snorkelwhackers.
- Shakespeare, William: Hamlet and As You Like It
- + If you want brooding intellectuals, why not go to the source? Hamlet's a wonderful case study of why college is bad for you. OK, OK, not college--Puritan dogma. Just as toxic as fratboyism. Hamlet hates the body--ironic, since his squeamishness creates so many of them by the last act...
- + But genius can be fun. In As You Like It, Rosalind even has fun as a refugee. And as a drag king/queen--at one point R is a boy playing a girl playing a boy playing a girl... (the relevant word here being play...)
- + And Much Ado About Nothing stars two bitchy gifteds who loathe each other. You know they'll fall in love--with a little help from their frenemies. Joss Wheedon's recent film of Much Ado is quite a fun version.
- - Shiras, Walter: In Hiding
- A short science fiction story on a child prodigy's survival strategy--til he's unmasked by a well-meaning school therapist.
- + Smith, Dodie: I Capture the Castle
- A loving, very funny portrait of an impoverished family of brilliant, impractical English eccentrics by the author of 101 Dalmatians. Spot-on characterizations.
- + Smith, Greg Leitich: Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo
- Eliasís dad forces him to enter the science fair. He repeats his big brotherís experiment from years ago "proving" that classical music makes plants grow better. Elias find no such effect. His teacher flunks Elias for sloppy science. Like Galileo, Elias wonít recant--results are results--and starts suspecting his brother faked HIS results. Scientific showdown! I wish the three narratorsí voices were more distinct, and their romantic-triangle subplot better developed. But their passion for truth (AND for fair adult treatment of gifted kids) is vivid.
- + Sones, Sonya: What My Girlfriend Doesn't Know
- A teen novel in free verse about gifted highschool pariahs in love. Robin gets to audit an art class at Harvard, where he's (gasp!) accepted. A gifted love-triangle develops, with a shadowy fourth partner: ostracism. Gave me flashbacks! Shows how prodigies (even more than the gifted) are taught to expect rejection.
- + Stanley, Diane: The Mysterious Case of the Allbright Academy
- A black-humor kids' novel about a private school for the brilliant. The kids' rationalizations for their competitive, drug-fueled workaholism were disturbingly familiar to me, and probably to you, too. Compare to the real-life A Class Apart above. Or to Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern. Then prove you can learn and read at the same time: go apply the lesson. Take a vacation, refuse to listen, toss your medication, burn down the system! Ooh, that sorta rhymes.
- + Stapledon, Olaf:
- ++ Last and First Men: A science-fictional history of the next two billion years, with 17 species of humans, most of them MUCH smarter than the current clunky prototype,
- + Odd John: a mutant human genius,
- + Sirius: an engineered dog genius, who despite normal human intelligence suffers all the isolation/dislocation problems of human geniuses,
- ++ Star Maker: a biography of intelligent life in the universe as a whole. Visionary.
- Stapledon's central issue was the purpose of awareness itself. But he had much to say to individual geniuses too: on difference and isolation, and on balancing mind & body. Very early science fiction, yet his sense of the big picture and of deep time are eerily modern.
- ? Tabloid
- This hard-to-find film (I still haven't seen it) is a biography of prodigy Joyce McKinnon, a Miss Wyoming with a beehive hairdo who kidnapped her boyfriend and chained him to a bed in mink-lined cuffs to deprogram him from Mormonism. She says, "I'd have skied down Mt. Everest nude with a carnation in my nose for him." Ah, geek passion!
- + Tangherlini, Arne: Leo@fergusrules.com
- Leonora's a brilliant Filipina geek in what others call real life. But she's never there. Webside, she's on a quest to save, well, everything. Leo's kinda the bastard love-child of Junot Diaz (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) and Jorge Luis Borges. A pretty realistic portrait of a likable prodigy; sadly, she's all we'll ever get from Tangherlini, who died just before publication.
- + Tolkien, JRR : Smith of Wootton Major
- A fable written in Tolkien's old age, as he felt his own gifts and energy waning. It tells of a gifted man who must pass on his gift--condensed to a talisman--to the next generation.
- + Yee, Lisa: Millicent Min, Girl Genius
- A kids' book from the viewpoint of a math prodigy skipped years ahead, and her struggles with isolation and boredom. Way more authentic than Andrew Clements' superficially similar The Report Card. The geek details are funny and right--like Millicent's yearbook inscription, "Quantum materiae materietur marmota monax si marmota monax materiam possit materiari?" Somewhere a marmota monax is laughing. Or upchucking. Woodn't you?
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