It’s Elementary, in More Ways Than One

Arthur Who Wrote Sherlock – written by Linda Bailey, illustrated by Isabelle Follath
Tundra Books, 2022

Children love stories, and often mysteries, whether or not they are familiar with the great fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes.  Linda Bailey and Isabelle Follath have used this elementary truth to devise a rational, beautiful, and entertaining introduction to the inventor of one of literature’s greatest sleuths (Bailey has previously written a picture-book biography of Mary Shelley).  Their picture book biography of Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) begins with the premise that young Arthur was always drawn to stories, carrying that quality into adulthood as he added to the pantheon of fictional problem solvers. 

The book begins by posing a question: Wouldn’t it be wonderful, Bailey asks, if you created one of the most popular characters in literature? “Or…would it?”  Holmes’s famous profile, as well as his pipe, violin, and a magnifying glass, accompany this challenge.  Young readers are now prepared to consider the premise that even when dreams are fulfilled, problems may follow.  Arthur’s childhood is not perfect.  His father is severely compromised in the parenting department.  Bailey is careful not to assign blame: “He has problems with alcohol, and when he can’t work, there is even less money.” But, as children no doubt realize, all of these issues have an impact, and young Arthur’s life is tough and unfair.

Fortunately, Arthur has a mother as enraptured by fiction as he is.  Follath (who has also illustrated the great Aggie Morton Series) shows this Victorian mom preparing supper, a book stuffed in her apron pocket, as she regales Arthur and his sister with “thrilling” stories narrated with sound effects. Even the family’s cat pays attention, as fantastic images of knights and mythical beasts emerge from her the steam in her soup pot. Evidently, domesticity is not a barrier to imagination; it’s appropriate to be reminded how much influence a bright and compassionate parent can have on her children.

Eventually, Arthur has to leave the hearth and attend boarding school, in an environment that may not be familiar to young readers. Those equations on the blackboard look rather challenging for the young students, and the teacher’s motivating techniques involve physical punishment and humiliation.  Follath draws this with restraint, but the sadness on Arthur’s face, and the protective way he attempts to cover his slate, make it clear that he is miserable. 

Eventually Arthur becomes a role model to younger children, and then attends medical school.  He is resilient and determined, and still enraptured by books. Bailey connects the disparate parts of his life into a continuous search: studies, a whaling voyage, and the beginnings of his medical practice.  How will an intelligent and rational man reared on tales of wonder put the pieces of his life together? It’s elementary.  He will construct a detective as unique as himself. Holmes will be “brilliant and scientific.” He will observe the world like a hawk and “even look like a hawk.” Surrounded by books and inkwells, Conan Doyle is a seemingly modest and hard-working author. Yet Holmes emerges dramatically, consuming most of the space on the two-page spread. 

Arthur will be persistent in the face of rejection, continually trying new approaches to his literary project.  Eventually, when Holmes stories are serialized in magazines, Conan Doyle finds the success that had been elusive.  (Here is good opportunity to explain to children what serialized magazine fiction meant in the pre-social media era.).  But even success leads to problems.  The now-famous author learns that he is not in complete control when he tries to end his character’s life and career.  Follath drawing literally renders the mechanism Conan Doyle used to bring Holmes back to life, a clearly labeled series of figures making clear that his resurrection was not magical. Once again, reason triumphs, although Bailey points out that the gullibility of fans has played a part.  (There is another good lesson to discuss with kids.)

At the end of the book, Arthur Conan Doyle is an old man, tremendously successful and still surrounded by books. Two young would-be Holmeses follow in his footsteps, literally and figuratively.  Whatever the goals of the children in your life, Arthur Who Wrote Sherlock encourages them to both dream and pursue what they love.  The book includes a wonderfully readable and informative author’s note and a list of sources.

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