In her new book, “Off The Charts,’’ 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. The subtitle, “The Hidden Lives and Lessons of American Child Prodigies,” points to Hulbert’s dual objective. On the one hand, she wants to penetrate the glossy surface of feel-good stories about geniuses and stars and delve into the real, often troubled, lives of these gifted children. On the other, she wants to extract lessons about pedagogy and parenting, our culture and our country, from these kids’ diverse yet similar experiences. Although this is a book of high intelligence and integrity, Hulbert is more successful with the second aim than the first, and the integration of the two strands isn’t as seamless or compelling as it could have been.
Hulbert has a longstanding interest in child-rearing — her previous book was 2003’s “Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children’’ — and here she homes in on genius as a way of tackling our current overachiever culture. Throughout “Off The Charts,’’ she explores the structures of achievement: questions of nature vs nurture (the title of the book’s first section), diligence vs. talent (“perspiration vs. inspiration”), the benefits and drawbacks of hands-off vs. helicopter parenting, progressive vs. traditional educational systems. She helpfully underscores the role of serendipity in thrusting some gifted children into the limelight while consigning others to obscurity. Her characters include not only the children but also the parents, psychologists, and teachers who pushed and protected, hectored and nurtured them.
According to Hulbert, child prodigies are both awe-inspiring anomalies and inspirational figures; they owe “their allure not simply to exceptional talents” but to their status as “harbingers of a future.” A newspaper headline to an interview with Shirley Temple’s mother blared: “Your Child, Too, May Be A Star,” stoking fantasies that any adorable child with grit and gumption could enjoy the same meteoric rise and astronomic fame as “ordinary, middle-class Shirley.” The “Wonder Boys of Harvard” — Norbert Wiener, who attended Harvard as a graduate student at 14 and later founded cybernetics, and William James Sidis, who enrolled at age 11 — were held up as models to emulate. A kind of World’s Fair gleam of straight-from-the-lab-of-the-future optimism highlighted their public presentation.
“Off the Charts’’ contains both biographical sketches of these figures and Hulbert’s analysis of their meanings, but it separates the two rather abruptly. Biography fills the main chapters, interpretation the book’s prologue and epilogue. The effect is disjointed: a series of detailed historical studies, interesting in themselves, that don’t build the progressive argument Hulbert evidently seeks to import at the beginning and end.
And the lives are handled with varying degrees of narrative skill. At times, “Off The Charts’’ reads like a summary of books already written by or about the gifted, especially in the chapter on programmers (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Jonathan Edwards) and the one on autistic savants. Hulbert is at her best when the subject engages her imagination: as in recounting the fascinating sagas of two young girl writers, the poet Nathalia Crane and the novelist Barbara Follett. Championed by the likes of J.M. Barrie and Amy Lowell, these kids’ weird combination of stylistic maturity and personal innocence made for an intoxicating if sometimes dubious appeal. Were these girls really writing? And what would youthful success mean for their adult lives?
There’s a curiously staid, even flat quality to the book, due in part to much of the material’s being familiar and in part to the almost academic tone of Hulbert’s prose. 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. She emphasizes the strains and difficulties that accompany prodigious gifts; most of these children are socially awkward, lonely, “shadowed by anxiety.” A Juilliard teacher’s remark — “Genius is an abnormality, and can signal other abnormalities” — resonates throughout. Many of the children profiled have OCD, ADD, or are on the autism spectrum. Hulbert is careful to underscore the costs of relentless achievement: exhaustion, burnout, a disconcerting gap between public persona and private reality, a lack of autonomy. It is the “goal-driven hurry” of high-achieving children that worries Hulbert most, and she convincingly catalogues the costs and losses that gather in its wake.
OFF THE CHARTS:
The Hidden Lives and Lessons of American Child Prodigies
By Ann Hulbert
Knopf, 400 pp., $27.95
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’