There are few secrets here for raising a genius, or for being one. That’s good news. Instead, Ann Hulbert...delivers something infinitely richer — a nuanced study of the lives of 15 child prodigies, as well as the parents and mentors who shaped them, and the theories that (tried to) explain them. Hulbert has chosen her wunderkinds carefully, recognizing them not only for their individual brilliance but also as pint-size portraits of their eras … While Hulbert valiantly offers an epilogue laced with lessons about the importance of patience and resilience and a strong sense of self, the richness of the book, and the pleasure of it, is in the human stories.
Child prodigies are exotic creatures, each unique and inexplicable. But they have a couple of things in common, as Ann Hulbert’s meticulous new book, Off the Charts, makes clear … Hulbert attempts to capture the complicated lives of child prodigies without descending into voyeurism or caricature. She has tried to ‘listen hard for the prodigies’ side of the story,’ to her great credit. This is an arduous task, and it sometimes shows in the writing, which can be stilted in its reliance on quotes and documentation … The most vivid section of the book comes at the end, when Hulbert reunites with the musical prodigy Marc Yu, a decade after first interviewing him at age 6...Yu’s story reinforces one of Hulbert’s central, if unsatisfying, findings: Children’s needs change.
…[an] engaging and insightful account of American childhood prodigies … The sample size of super-talented children who achieve mass recognition is vanishingly small, so Off the Charts could never be a data-driven book. That is fortunate, however, because Ms. Hulbert approaches her dozen or so subjects not as a social scientist but as biographer and essayist, where her skills are superlative … Ms. Hulbert sees the urge to dissect as one among many misguided responses to these children and their talent. Never did the simple thought arise to let these kids be kids...But then the kids grow up. That’s when it becomes evident that prodigy status comes with an expiration date.
The major theme is childhood brilliance, of course, but equally compelling are the minor ones: alienation, wonder, preternatural focus and discipline, misunderstandings, rebellions, often-tragic adulthoods, and, inevitably, the minefield of parenting … In many ways, Off the Charts completes a story that Hulbert began in her previous book, Raising America...Could genius be far away? Well, as we see in this book, yes … But all the earnest and exhaustive research Hulbert delivers sometimes has the feel of requisite boxes being checked, a conscientious compendium of necessary information where some omissions might have better served the narrative.
Ann Hulbert shares the intriguing but cautionary tales of 15 exceptionally gifted children. The cast includes many types: virtuoso musicians, math whizzes, chess champion Bobby Fischer, movie star Shirley Temple, celebrated child writers of the 1920s, computer programmers of the ’60s and ’70s, autistic savants, and offspring of ‘Tiger’ parents … Off the Charts contains both biographical sketches of these figures and Hulbert’s analysis of their meanings, but it separates the two kinds of work rather abruptly. Biography fills the main chapters, interpretation the book’s prologue and epilogue. The effect is notably disjointed … She resolves to tell the stories ‘as unsentimentally, and unsensationally, as possible,’ but that restraint comes at the cost of emotional vividness and poignancy. But if the prose is aloof, it’s nonetheless clear that an ethical passion animates Hulbert’s work.
No one should be mystified that Hulbert, who has already displayed her expertise in writing about child-rearing in Raising America, has come through again with a sophisticated, well-researched, and thought-provoking book. In Off the Charts, Hulbert, literary editor at The Atlantic, offers up the compelling stories of 15 nonfictional young virtuosos … One of the best aspects of Hulbert’s book is that she shows the prodigies’ own perspective of their experience, revealing the pressure that accompanies being labeled exceptional at an early age … It’s a cautionary tale for domineering parents who may not be playing the long game wisely.
A fascinating if at times disturbing chronicle of how 15 prodigies came to the world’s attention — and at what cost. Hulbert disabuses readers of the romantic notion that prodigies are born and not made, introducing us to the cast of supporting characters that push the child’s star … Hulbert shows how often the prodigy serves as surrogate for adult ambition, as well as a symbol for what the culture deemed of value at the time … Hulbert...makes clear, in this nuanced and meticulous book, that when it comes to the prodigy’s gift, the peril is indivisible from the glory.
In Off the Charts, [Hulbert] peers into the formative years of 15 individuals, combining lively biographical sketches with serious analysis of the factors that contributed to their ascendancy in the public eye. Most of these prodigies we know, while some—such as precocious novelist Barbara Newhall Follett—have been virtually lost to history, but all offer important lessons … Wisely, Hulbert downplays judging the children’s genius and lets the facts—and often the prodigies—speak for themselves.
…sympathetic, sharply drawn profiles … Hulbert intends these portraits to serve as cautionary tales in ‘an overachiever culture of hovering adults and social media-saturated youths,’ and she counsels parents against ‘the impulse to herald children’s talents’ at the risk of ‘inspiring swelled heads and raising sky-high hopes that are likely to be disappointed.’ A persuasive argument for nurturing “childhood normalcy” even for the stunningly gifted and talented.
Along with profiling individuals, Hulbert explores various aspects of the experiences of child prodigies as a whole, including their tendency to ‘thrive on receptive culture,’ the connection of young genius to autism and autism-spectrum disorder, and the drive and extreme focus common to gifted children … Although the subjects and material are intriguing, Hulbert’s writing can be academic, keeping the reader at an arm’s length from the children’s stories.