Friday, March 16, 2012

Books of a Feather: Smart Kids

Since it's been a while, and I have a fair amount of ground to cover, I came up with a snappy way to combine a couple of books, and resurrect an old feature at the same time.

During one of my February posts, I mentioned about all of the fabulous books I got from the library. Two in particular had similar themes: "The Selected Works of T.S Spivet" by Reif Larson and "Gifted" by Nikita Lalwani.

Both deal with smart children, and the tension between their intellect and natural inclinations. T.S. Spivet's particular gift is cartography. He makes maps of everything, not just physical surroundings, but relationships of things to each other and actions. Rumika Vasi's gift is mathematics.

The two couldn't have grown up in more different environments, though. Young T.S. Spivet is the child of oddball parents. His father is a literal cowboy, owner of a working ranch in Montana. His mother, Dr. Clair, is a biologist who has spent her life trying to find an elusive species. His father is rather disdainful of intellectual pursuits (specifically him), and his mother is too wrapped up in herself to pay too much attention to him. He's been more or less left to his own devices, and has had a secretly flourishing career illustrating things for various print media. He's stunned to learn that he's won a prestigious fellowship from the Smithsonian, and decides to stow away on a train to go accept it.

Rumika's story, by contrast, will probably make you want to throw things. The PC way to put it would be that it's a case of culture clash, when Indian natives try to translate their way of life to Wales and to the rearing of a genius daughter. The un-PC way to put it would be that Rumika is the child of an overbearing control freak father and a spineless, submissive mother, and a child you can't help but feel immensely sorry for throughout her tale. From the moment her gift is detected, Rumika's life is math, math, math. Her father makes her study in summer clothes with the windows open so she concentrates better, denies her all outlets and chances for a social life, and then packs her off to Oxford at an early age, with...rather predictable results.

Based on these two books, it seems that genius and a harmonious home life are not compatible. "Gifted" totally plays to all stereotypes about genius children, and quite a few about Indian families, too. "T.S. Spivet" is a lot less claustrophobic and rage-inducing, but his family still did not quite know how to cope with him. In fact, the two books are the two most common narratives of genius children: "T.S. Spivet" deals a lot with ostracism, how his gift alienated him from most people he knew and prevented him from forming many close relationships; while "Gifted" is about the pressures believed to be placed on these children from society and their families.

There's no doubt about it: "T.S. Spivet" is the more creative work, featuring many of his drawings and several twists and turns. "Gifted" has a lot less joy, a lot less character development, and is much more straightforward, and less fun to read. Rumika is alienated from her gift to the point where she doesn't even like math at all anymore and doesn't succeed at Oxford. T.S. loves his maps the way a musician loves her instrument or an artist delights in drawing. No one makes T.S. do anything.

But I wonder which is closer to the more common experience of a genius child. Are there other narratives out there besides Rumika's and T.S.'s? Do any grow up to be happy, well-adjusted adults from households that could integrate them into normal family life and society? I don't know. But it makes me wonder now.