Although his is a prolific and much loved author, I had not read any of Dan Gutman's books until my son and I started reading The Genius Files together in 2014. We were both immediately hooked by Gutman's sense of humor and I was especially impressed with the amount of fascinating factual information he packed into his books. Taking a cross country trip from California to Washington D.C. in a motorhome with their parents, twins Coke and Pepsi (of course there is a funny, interesting story behind their names) see some of the stranger (real) sites in the U.S., like the Pez Museum, the world's largest ball of twin and the House on the Rock in Wisconsin. With his new series, Flashback Four, Gutman brings the same sense of humor and way with the fact to this story of four twelve-year-olds from Boston who get the chance to travel through time, with great cover art by Scott Brundage. For years I have wondered why no one has taken the formula of the Magic Tree House books and applied it to middle grade novels, which is what I think Gutman is brilliantly doing here.
Gutman begins Flashback Four: The Lincoln Project with and introduction that gives readers a peek at the climax of the book. It's Thursday, November 19, 1863 and Abraham Lincoln is delivering the Gettysburg Address. In the crowd, a boy holds a small device in his hand, "silvery and metallic, it's small enough to fit in one hand, but powerful enough to change every history book ever written." Chapter one introduces the four main characters, David, Luke, Isabel and Julia, each of whom receive a mysterious yellow envelope that contains an invitation to a meeting with the CEO of the Pasture Company and four crisp five dollar bills. Assembled in the office of Chris Zandergoth, the four are a bit surprised when the CEO turns out to be a woman. Gutman writes, "Although we've come a long way in the last fifty years, here in the twenty-first century, most of us still assume that any rich, powerful person is a man." And the assumption is an accurate one: as of this writing, there are only 23 women who are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, making up a whopping 4.6%. But, that's pretty heavy for a kid's book. And hopefully Gutman and his very cool character Chris Zandergoth, a prodigy who dropped out of Stanford to start Findamate, helping people find their "love match" by hacking into the computers of the NSA, will inspire young readers to break through the glass ceiling.
Julia, Isabel, David and Luke learn all this about Zandergoth when they Google her while she is, strategically, in the bathroom. Returning, she tells the kids, "I figured that letting you kids do a little research would be a lot easier than telling you my own boring life story." She goes on to tell them that she has chosen them very carefully using her powerful software algorithms. This revelation is followed by my favorite scene in the book during which Gutman brilliantly uses his characters to directly address a somewhat cynical observation I had made. David somewhat sneeringly responds, "Two boys. Two girls. I guess you picked me because you needed a black kid?" Isabel chimes in with, "I suppose I'm the token Hispanic?" Luke caps it by saying, "What, no Asian? How do you expect to win Multicultural Humanitarian of the Year?" Miss Z laughs it off, telling the four that she matched them up for their, "compatibility, not your ethnicity." Diversity in kid's books is a front burner issue these days, especially with Matt de la Peña becoming the first Latino to win the Newbery Medal for his picture book Last Stop on Market Street. de la Peña has said that this book is representative of his new approach to featuring diverse characters in his books, where he strives to continue to feature diverse characters but "now I try to place them in stories that have nothing to do with diversity, not overtly anyway." Not only is that what Gutman is doing here, but he is also letting us know that he is doing it in a very funny way that I think is great.
Miss Z., who has a passion for photography, a love of history and a great collection of photos from important moments in time, has enlisted the four kids to travel back in time and take pictures of monumental moments using a very smart smartboard, known as the Board, that she and a team worked years to perfect. The first assignment for the Flasback Four, as they name themselves: travel back to the Gettysburg Address and take a picture of Lincoln as he delivers it. This is not as easy as it sounds since the speech lasted less than three minutes. And, understandably, David has some serious concerns as an African American, despite the fact that he will be traveling to the Free North, saying, "I saw that movie Twelve Years a Slave. That guy was in New York when he got kidnapped. I'm not about to get myself sold into slavery just to take a picture." Miss Z. reassures him and prepares the kids for their trip, giving them a list of expression from the era and, of course, clothes. She also gives them a Text Through Time device that looks a lot like a smartphone and allows the kids to communicate with Miss Z and a snazzy new Nikon camera. Everything should go swimmingly.
But it doesn't. Miss Z. makes a typo and sends the Flashback Four back in time a day early. Instead of spending a couple of hours in 1863 they now have to spend twenty-four. Then there is the problem of Julia, who seems to be a bit of a kleptomaniac who is obsessed with making money, even though her family is wealthy. She manages to sneak into the home of David Wills, the man responsible for creating a cemetery honoring Union soldiers who died in the Battle of Gettysburg, and the place where Lincoln spent the night before the address. Luke, David and Isabel stop her from stealing Lincoln's draft of the speech, but not before they encounter Tad Lincoln and his toy gun.
I learned quite a bit reading Flashback Four: The Lincoln Project, and not just boring stuff like dates and places. At one point, the kids end up in jail next to the town drunk who just happened to be one of the civilians who tried to bury the dead after the battle. He tells the kids of the gruesome facts of the battle, the amputations, and worse. Gutman includes a "Facts & Fictions" at the end of the book where he sheds more light on interesting aspects of the book and fesses up about some liberties he took. Does the Flashback Four get the picture? Do they make it back to Boston safely? And where are they headed next? I can't wait to find out!
Source: Review Copy