The Last Notebook of Leonardo
A Novel by B. B. Wurge
Watch an interview with B.B.Wurge on "The Balancing Act" (preview will show until air date of May 29)
First-prize winner, 2011 Moonbeam Children's Book Awards pre-teen fiction
To tell you my story, I have to begin with my father. His name was Carl. For a long time, he worked for
the government in a secret building underground. I
think his office was in the sub-basement of a skyscraper
in Manhattan. But he never told me exactly.
He also never told me what he worked on. I am
pretty sure he worked in a science lab discovering
important and amazing things, secret things that the
government wanted to keep for its own use.
One day he came home with a giant acid hole in
his shoe. The entire front half of his shoe was gone.
He seemed happy about it. Whatever had melted his
shoe must have been an exciting discovery.
School Library Journal
Gr 4-6–This is a funny, unique, wacky story. Ten-year-old Jem’s dad is a scientist who idolizes Leonardo da Vinci. He has also happily turned himself into a seven-foot-tall, five-foot-wide, incredibly hairy orangutan. Carl can still talk in his normal voice, but the change appears to be permanent. He is fired from his job and kicked out of restaurants, and finally the landlord orders the pair from their no-pets apartment. Jem and Carl quickly rally with a plan to visit da Vinci’s grave. According to Carl’s calculations, Lenny’s final resting place is in America. Thus begins their madcap journey from Manhattan through the Catskills, living out of a wagon and camping alongside snowy roads. The characters are wonderfully developed, especially the lively Native American woman who stops to pick up Jem and Carl. The father-son relationship is warm and realistically portrayed. By the end of the tale, readers can understand how Jem so readily accepts his dad’s orangutan state. Humorous accounts of Carl trying to eat or wear human clothes add more spice to this already charming read. Think Barbara Park’s The Kid in the Red Jacket (Yearling, 1988) meets Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth (Random, 1961). Stick drawings are scattered throughout. The novel would be fun to pair with a nonfiction book about da Vinci, or the story could be used as a jumping-off point for a creative writing assignment. This is a delightful book that readers will be unable to put down.
New York Journal of Books
Once there was a little boy named Jem (short for Jeremy). His father was a loving, brilliant, and eccentric scientist. During an experiment, Jem’s dad turned himself into a huge orangutan. For dad, the advantages of this change were obvious: increased physical prowess and the ability to go undercover on top-secret assignments and not be recognized as a person. Unfortunately, the people of New York City were not impressed with this transformation—Jem’s dad lost his job, was harassed by animal control, and the family was evicted from their Manhattan apartment. Jem and Dad came to the realization that they had to leave New York City. They embarked on a quixotic search for Leonardo Da Vinci, whom Dad believes lived out his last years somewhere in upstate New York. Unlikely? Sure, but, then again, Dad’s an orangutan.
B. B. Wurge’s The Last Notebook of Leonardo is a fun, light read targeted at preteens and ambitious younger readers. Like most young adult books, it relies on a fantastic event to propel the plot. In this case, Wurge relies on two: the orangutan transformation of Jem’s father and the unraveling mystery of Leonardo Da Vinci’s life in northern New York (before Da Vinci relocated somewhere truly exotic). As with J. K. Rowling in the Harry Potter books, Wurge explains the fantastic with restraint, avoiding heavy sci-fi explanations. This allows Wurge to paint New York realistically. Jem and Dad trudge through snowstorms and small towns, meeting with a mix of intolerant and friendly people. The air of realism helps readers accept that a man can become an orangutan and that people can live on the moon.
As part of reviewing the Last Notebook of Leonardo, the book was shared with an intrepid 10-year-old reader, Ellie. From Ellie, the reviewer learned that the book “was funny and interesting.” The illustrations at the start of the chapters were appreciated. Elle also said the book reminded her of Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. She was happy the book taught her a little about Leonardo Da Vinci and orangutans.
A few interesting facts aside, The Last Notebook of Leonardo is primarily for entertainment. But even in entertaining stories there are lessons. Wurge gently instructs young readers not to jump to conclusions based on appearance—the smartest person you might ever meet could turn out to be an oversized, hairy, orange primate. Probably unintentionally, the Last Notebook of Leonardo puts a modern, tolerant spin on the Frankenstein story. Frankenstein’s monster was ugly and different, but never evil—at least not until ugly overreactions from ignorant people pushed him toward homicide. In contrast, Wurge’s monster meets several fair-minded people who can see past the orange fur and 500 pound body—and only with their critical assistance can a brilliant scientist (who just happens to be a primate) unravel the secret life of Da Vinci.
This reviewer does not make a habit of reading young adult books. I concur with Ellie; The Last Notebook of Leonardo is a funny and interesting little book.
"This book would be fun to pair with a nonfiction book about da Vinci... a delightful book that readers will be unable to put down."--School Library Journal
Also by B.B. Wurge: