Neo Leo: The Ageless Ideas of Leonardo daVinci by Gene Baretta

2009, New York: Henry Holt & Company


What do you think of when you hear the name Leonardo da Vinci? The Mona Lisa perhaps–or  even The da Vinci Code! Likely you know that this incredible Rennaissance man, who lived more than 500 years ago, was not only an artist, but a remarkably creative inventor. What you may not know, however, is that he single-handedly came up with preliminary designs and complex descriptions for hundreds of ahead-of-their-time devices, ranging from contact lenses to helicopters, cooking rotisseries to hang gliders, tanks, and robots. Seemingly, there was no end to his imagination, to say nothing of his range of interests. This was a person who most surely did not know what it meant to be bored. Of particular interest is the author’s underlying understanding of just how observant da Vinci had to be to create his various prototypes. His ideas came from everywhere. Studying turtles, he thought to design tanks. Watching leaves fall one day, he came up with a model for a hang glider. Surely this is the mark of an extraordinary mind. We also learn that da Vinci was a mirror writer–that is, he wrote right to left, and backward, so that his writing can best be read by looking at it in a mirror. Barretta surmises that da Vince may have done this because he was left-handed and didn’t want to smudge the ink. Or perhaps, he didn’t want to make those notes too easy to read! He wrote (and drew), it’s estimated, over 20,000 pages of notes, only about a third of which have been found and deciphered. Undoubtedly, this mastermind was the true “father” of many more inventions for which he has never received true credit because, in the end, so much remains to be discovered about his life. A thoughtful book design presents the “Neo,” the modern version of a given invention, on the left panel, and the “Leo,” Leonardo’s original version, on the right, making comparisons easy–and often striking. The book is filled with mirror writing examples, making us feel as if we’re peeking right into the master’s notes.

Ages: Kindergarten through elementary.

Genre: Nonfiction biography.

In the Classroom

1. Begin by introducing the name Leonardo daVinci. Ask students if they have heard of this person–and if so, what they know now. Make some notes! How many know when Leonardo daVinci lived? With older students, you may wish to allow 10 minutes or so for some brief pre-research to set the stage for this intriguing biography.

2. Talk about biography as a genre. What is it? You may wish to discuss how biography combines informational writing with narrative. It’s filled with facts and usually based on research (That’s the informational part), but also tells the story (or in this case, many small stories) of a person’s life. Encourage students to watch for other writing that combines forms.

3. Share the book–and make sure you have a mirror handy! Students will enjoy reading the mirror writing. Think about having them take turns so several students can be involved with this. Have your students heard of mirror writing before? Why do they think a person might do this? Was daVinci being careful–or secretive?

4. Add to the preliminary notes you made earlier. What did you learn about daVinci from reading this book that really made an impression on you?

5. Talk about the organizational and artistic design of the book: Neo versus Leo. How might we describe this organizational structure? (Comparison-contrast.) Does it help the reader to have the “Neo” and “Leo” information on a two-page spread, so comparisons can be made right away? On a scale of 1 to 10, how would your students rate the overall design of this book?

6. Leonardo daVinci is often described as a “visionary.” Talk about this word and what it might mean or what it makes your students think of. Refer to some examples from the book to expand this discussion: For example, daVinci designed his model of a tank based on his observations of turtles; he watched fish swim through the water prior to designing boat hulls. Is this ability to notice things and then apply what you learn in a whole new way part of what it means to be a visionary? DaVinci was both an artist and scientist. Do the two go together? What’s the connection?

7. Some biographies begin with someone’s birth–and continue through to his or her death OR (if the person is still living) to the present time. This one focuses on daVinci’s inventions, rather than trying to tell the whole story of his life. What do your students think about this very focused way of writing? Is it OK to leave out some information? Why? If the writer did try to cover everything, how long might this book become?

8.  This book includes a very thorough bibliography. Have a look! Talk about why it’s important to document sources–even if you don’t quote a single word from any of them!

9. Do some additional research on Leonardo daVinci. Use the information you find to enliven a discussion of his life and inventions–or to write about him further. (You might focus on early or end of life experiences that this author leaves out.) Also consider writing “What if?” pieces. What if daVinci lived in current times. What might he be working on? What might he be famous for?

10. Have students write a short biography about any person of their choice. They should plan to do a little research, but if the person is someone they know, the research might consist of a personal interview.

11. If you have access to one of the videos listed in the bibliography (or to any video on daVinci’s life), consider sharing it with the class to reinforce information gained through this book. Why is it important or beneficial to have more than one source for information?