Off the Charts – Ann Hulbert


The subtitle of this book is “The Hidden Lives and Lessons of American Child Prodigies.”  Sounds interesting, doesn’t it?  I thought the subject matter was fascinating and I had high hopes for it.  As a parent (NOT of prodigies [no offense, kids!]) finding out how parents dealt with extraordinary kids in some extreme circumstances sounded like fun.

But alas, I was disappointed.  The book was pretty dry.  The author went into great detail about each kid and each type of kid (music, math, entertainment, technology, etc) and tried to incorporate so many stories into each section that it all became pretty tedious.  I found that I couldn’t keep all the names straight and as she referred back and forth between people I lost track of who was what.  And since she was so intent on discussing the experiences of the people involved, she didn’t do a great job of just telling their stories and why they were so accomplished (which is what I wanted to hear).

That said, there were some interesting things.  Bobby Fischer (of chess champion fame) was raised in a totally dysfunctional family that explains a lot about why he grew up to be a massively paranoid wreck of an adult (his mom basically left him to live alone in an apartment when he was 14).  Shirley Temple was the top box office star from 1935 to 1938, made more money than any other actor in Hollywood in 1938 ($307,014), was photographed more often than anyone else on the planet (according to Time Magazine), and received over 3000 fan letters a week – all by the time she was 10 years old (the studio actually publicized that she was two years younger than she actually was, so the world thought she was 8 in 1938).

The parents in the book ran the gamut (note the blog reference!).  Some were taskmasters who pushed their kids relentlessly (one Chinese parent told his son – who later moved to America – to kill himself after he was rejected by a prestigious piano teacher), some were planners and developers who took credit for their kids’ accomplishments (one father of an early prodigy who entered Harvard at age 11 publicly said that his kid wasn’t special, it was just a matter of exposing him to the right stimuli when he was young and then making sure he developed – any parent could do it), some were totally hands-off, some were hippies who essentially let their kids raise themselves, and some – especially those whose kids were born in the nineties and the early 2000s – helicoptered all over their kids.  What you learn throughout the book is that there isn’t one model that you should follow if you want your kid to be a prodigy.

The other thing you learn is that you probably don’t WANT your kid to be a prodigy.  As a kid, you don’t want to be one and as a parent you don’t want to have one.  Too strange a life and too fraught with peril.  The risk of becoming a totally screwed-up adult looms large because of such a strange childhood along with the pressure to continue to be something great as you grow up.  There’s also the pressure on the parents to make sure their little Jimmy who’s a genius in some area doesn’t waste his talent and/or waste an opportunity for fame and fortune (when Shirley Temple reached her twenties she asked her parents for the money they had set aside for her when she was making the huge income as a kid – they had to tell her that they had spent it all – she had made several hundred thousand dollars a year DURING THE DEPRESSION and they blew through all of it – “Sorry honey!”).  The whole thing isn’t a situation to be envied in most cases.

So my recommendation on the book?  You’ve read this review so I think you’re good.  It’s a slog to get through (the book, not my review) and really not worth your time.  It promised to be fascinating and it shone in places, but it’s not worth 300 pages you could spend elsewhere.

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