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Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by Iacopo Bruno



I am almost two years late in reviewing Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France written by Mara Rockliff and illustrated by Iacopo Bruno. I have long been a fan of the art work of Bruno, and I knew that Rockliff's book was something special the minute I held it in my hands. And what a magnificent surprise when I finally did read this superb example of narrative non-fiction. Thinking that Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France was a book about hypnotism, I was supremely delighted to find that this beautifully designed book is really a book about the birth of the scientific method.


Well known and loved by the French, Ben Franklin was an old man when he answered the call of King Louis XVI to travel to France and investigate Franz Anton Mesmer. Mesmer  was a Viennese doctor who was miraculously curing the nobility with seemingly invisible forces. Franklin made the trip, knowing that he would need to ask the King to help fund the coming war against a common enemy, Great Britain. Rockliff sets the scene well, describing Franklin as being as "plain and simple" as an apple pie, while Mesmer was as elegant and complex as a "layered torte."


The King provided Franklin with a group of scientists and doctors to help him investigate Mesmer, including Antoine Lavoisier, now known as the father of modern chemistry for discovering and naming hydrogen and oxygen, and Dr. Guillotin, who was know for opposing the death penalty. While he opposed the death penalty, Guillotin also advocated for more human methods of bringing about death, including an invention that was named after him and, as I learned in the extensive and fascinating Author's Notes, the means of death for Lavoisier - the guillotine. 


Rockliff sets the stage well, describing the frenzy Mesmer creating in Paris among the nobility, establishing that, like the electricity that Franklin discovered, Mesmer's healing force was something that could not be seen or touched. Conceptually, this is pretty abstract stuff, but the text and illustrations make it perfectly understandable for readers. Franklin makes the hypothesis that, "what the patients felt was caused by their own minds, not by an invisible force" controlled by Mesmer. She goes on to show how Franklin tested his hypothesis by blindfolding patients and how results supported his hypothesis. Rockliff closes the book by telling readers that, "Ben's 'blind' test was such a good idea that it's still in use." This text is accompanied by illustrations of a variety of medicine bottles with labels explaining the placebo effect.

In my adult life, I am not a fan of non-fiction. However, I find books like Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France completely engaging and inspirational. I often end up reading more about the subject of the non-fiction picture book I've been reading and love sharing the curious facts of history, science or nature with my students, in turn, inspiring them to pick up a book they might have otherwise overlooked.

Source: Review Copy

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