Review of Hubert Invents the Wheel
Reviewed by: Marianne Dyson, June 17, 2006
Hubert Invents the Wheel is a tale of cultural change that results from the inventions of a gifted fifteen-year-old whose father Gorp would prefer to continue doing things the traditional way. Gorp is a muscle man who makes a living hauling materials for the construction of a ziggurat in the prehistoric city of Ur in Sumeria (now Iraq). He uses oxen to drag a sledge because wheels haven't been invented yet. Hubert's best friends and lab assistants are an onager (donkey) and a lizard. Hubert inherited his creative gift from his mother whose umbrella invention caused her to be blown away on a windy day. The story begins with a test of Hubert's mousetrap that nearly destroys the house. Other similar incidents show Hubert's persistence and his father's frustration mirroring the timeless clash of children and their parents. Hubert gets the idea for the wheel when his onager falls into the river and stays on a floating log by making it spin. He then puts wheels on this father's new sledge (Hubert wrecked the last one demonstrating his invention of the yoke). The first test nearly ends in disaster as they speed downhill with no way to steer or stop. Gorp orders Hubert to sell his wheels at the market. Uma, the daughter of the sledge "dealer," tries to help and talks Hubert into a race between her father's sledge and his wheeled cart. Hubert wins this race and becomes an instant hero. The Queen puts him in charge of the ziggurat. Using wheels for carts and pulleys, Hubert speeds up production by years. Soon everyone has a cart and Hubert has to invent the traffic circle to prevent gridlock. To smooth the way for him to date Uma, Hubert builds her father a chariot. The father uses it to show off in front of their enemies, the Assyrians, who steal it from him and copy the design. Soon they invade Ur. Hubert is blamed for causing this problem, and the military leader forces him to invent weapons. He runs away, but discovers the Assyrians have used the wheel to invent a weapon of mass destruction. Not wanting to spoil the ending, all I'll say is that Hubert, his animal assistants, and Uma save the day, but cause another problem. Hubert must come up with another invention to allow the Sumerians and Assyrians to live in peace.
Hubert invents the Wheel is hilariously funny. Young people and old alike will enjoy the creative innocence of Hubert, the silliness of his animal pals, and the forbearance of dimwitted Gorp who must deal with a gifted teenager.
The story aptly depicts the way real inventions come about through trial and error and the often outright rejection of their utility by the inventor's peers. I am not a historian, but the invention of the wheel being in Ur around 5,000 years ago "give or take a few millennium" is consistent with sources I checked. One of the oldest ziggurats is there, though it was built about a thousand years after the invention of the wheel, and used as a temple to the moon goddess, Nanna. Perhaps the Queen's plan to use it for a day care center is an inside joke on this name? I would have preferred that the superstitious Queen act within the proper historical mythology of that time and region instead of using astrology that was not "invented" until much later. (The first horoscope was supposedly around 410 BC.) The mythology followed by prehistoric people of that region (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mesopotamian_mythology) was complex and interesting, though maybe not to children. (I realize that modern sensibilities imposed on prehistoric people result in a lot of the humor in the book, but I don't personally endorse making fun of anyone because of their beliefs, no matter how silly they may seem.) Other inventions attributed either to Hubert or his mother did not check out for the time period, including the fork (1,600 BC), yo-yo (500 BC), horse shoes (possible but not likely by 3,500 BC), tap dancing (modern!), and certainly not the skateboard (1978)! The umbrella was supposedly invented in China but used in Assyria in 4,000 BC. Irrigation was apparently invented long before the wheel, around 8,000 years ago, though I do not know when it was first used in Sumeria. This latter issue gives the authors a lot of leeway because who can say if an invention was forgotten because it didn't come into commom practice at the time? But because this book is about inventions, an appendix with an annotated timeline of all the inventions mentioned in the book would have been a good addition.
Terra-cotta (baked glazed brick) and hod (wooden trays for carrying bricks) are examples of words not likely to be familiar to kids (and many adults). These terms were not defined in the book. Also, math and physics concepts such as conic sections and friction are introduced without much explanation. I don't know if children will realize that advanced math and the physics of forces are modern "inventions."
I give this book a half point for consistency with facts, a half point for the clarity of descriptions and terms, 1 point for a new perspective on the history of science, 1 point for readability, 1 point for science use in the plot, and 1 point for very lovable characters. Total: 5 points. Recommended. Hubert Invents the Wheel will encourage kids to see inventing in a positive way and to deal with their creations and those of others with patience and a sense of humor.
Title: Hubert Invents the
Author: Claire & Monte Montgomery
Illustrator: Jeff Shelly
Number of Pages: 192
Publisher: Walker Books for Young Readers
Date: September 2005
Retail Price: $16.95