What Color Is My World?
The Lost History of African-American Inventors

written by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld
illustrated by Ben Boos & and A.G. Ford

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld's What Color Is My World?
illustrated by Ben Boos & and A.G. Ford

Children's book review by Steve Barancik

Ages 8-13

The Lost History of African-American Inventors

It's not hard to imagine that a lot of African-American inventors overcame great obstacles to invent important things. Nor is it surprising that they often received less credit than they should have...or none at all.

Despite that, the tone of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's What Color Is My World? is overwhelmingly positive, very much "Look what our people have done!"

I found out about the book when I saw Abdul-Jabbar being interviewed about it. I'm not in the habit of going out and buying children's books written by celebrities - quite the opposite! - but hey, we're talking about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar here. (An author of numerous other books that happen to have made the bestseller lists.)

Putting his money where his mouth is, Abdul-Jabbar promotes science

The book is rather unique in presentation and organization. The framing device is that a family with approximately 12 year old twins is moving into a new (fixer-upper) home. Mom leaves the kids with a handyman, Mr. Mital, while she goes shopping for supplies.

The boy is an eager seeker of knowledge. The girl, well, let's just say that when we first meet her she has her arms crossed and her eyes rolling. But Mr. Mital wins her over, as well as the boy, by using everyday objects in the home as a jumping off point for an exploration of little known African-American inventors.

Mr. Mital actually makes a case against the use of the word, "inventors," preferring to see invention as a process that takes place over time and typically has numerous contributors. So here's a very partial list of the inventors we meet and what they contributed so significantly to:

  • Dr. Henry T. Sampson - gamma electric cell
    (essential to nuclear reactors)
  • Granville T. Woods - induction telegraph
    (made train travel much safer)
  • George Crum - potato chips
    (great name, huh?)
  • Dr. Valerie L. Thomas - illusion transmitter
    (3-D projection)
  • Lewis Howard Latimer - the light bulb
    (yes, the light bulb)
  • Lonnie Johnson - the super soaker
    (inventions can be fun!)

The authors (Abdul-Jabbar had a co-writer) give us six chapters with the twins and Mr. Mital, interspersed with fold-out profiles of the various African-American inventors. Then, at the end of the book, a list of books, videos and websites for further exploration.

This is a great book for kids going through a "Did you know?" phase. (Which, hopefully, they never outgrow. Mr. Mital is a "Did you know?" grown-up who serves as a terrific example of how much richer the world looks when you take an interest in it.)

Hearing Kareem interviewed about the book, I learned that what he's trying to convey to African-American children is that there are arenas to succeed in beyond sports and entertainment, and that a lot of the world we live in and the things that surround us are attributable to black men and women. (The authors make a point of making gender part of the dialogue as well.)

So the answer to the question the title poses - What Color Is My World? - is, "Not as white as you thought!"

What Color Is My World?: The Lost History of African-American Inventorson Amazon.

More picture books about important African-Americans.

More children's books celebrating science.

Read more of Steve's reviews.

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