Hammer? Check. Screwdriver? Check. Pinafore? Wait a minute. Pinafore? Well, it was the 1840s. But the incongruity won't be lost on readers when they open Emily Arnold McCully's Marvelous Mattie to a portrait of inventor Margaret E. Knight, clad in a dress and pinafore – and surrounded by tools.
Such contradictions characterized Mattie's life from the outset. Her family was poor, but, as McCully puts it, "Mattie didn't feel poor. She had inherited her father's toolbox."
Mattie had early success at inventing, but she faced skepticism from those who doubted that such ingenuity could be the product of a female mind. She received only an elementary school education, but ended up with 22 patents to her name and over 90 original inventions.
What's delightful about this book is the way it balances the blood, sweat, and tears aspect of Mattie's work as an inventor with the sheer joy and creativity that infused her inventing even into adulthood.
Although she clearly had a proclivity, even a passion, for invention – as a young girl, Mattie's "brainstorms" included a foot warmer, the fastest sled in the neighborhood, and a loom safety device – becoming a bona fide inventor meant just plain hard work. Not to mention years of practice and refinement. Inventing also took pluck, especially in the face of blatant prejudice in an era that sought to keep women in the domestic sphere. "I sighed sometimes, because I was not like other girls," says the historical Knight via McCully's author's note, "'but [I] wisely concluded that I couldn't help it, and sought further consolation from my tools ... I'm only sorry I couldn't have had as good a chance as a boy.' "
But Mattie did profit from the times in which she lived. As the Industrial Revolution revved up, she found work in factories, and then designed plans to improve their machinery – starting when she was only 12.
One of her most famous patents (for a better paper-bag-making machine – a process still used today) was stolen but she did win her rights back in court.
In spite of the challenges Mattie faced, there's nothing the least bit heavy about this story of "the Lady Edison," as the press later dubbed her. Delicate pen-and-ink sketches of Mattie's designs, which border some pages, convey Mattie's vitality and energy – and give a window into her constantly whirring, highly-engaged mind.
Soft watercolor illustrations lend warmth to the depictions of Mattie's early years – especially her relationship with the two supportive males in her life: her brothers. And later, McCully's artwork brings just the right color and jubilation to Mattie's long-awaited moments of success.
Girls are sure to love "Marvelous Mattie" for its real-life spunky heroine and her triumph in a male-dominated world. But boys and girls alike will love it for its celebration of curiosity and persistence – and the joy that comes from following your heart.
• Jenny Sawyer reviews children's books for the Monitor.