By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
Everyone has a moment in their life that they wish they could revisit either to change it or simply just to relive it. Sadly, to do this would require a time machine, an object which although exists theoretically has yet to exist in actuality. Dr. Ronald Mallet’s desire for a time machine to exist is so strong he has dedicated his entire life to it. In the children’s book Ronnie’s Great Idea, author Dr. Jomo Mutegi explores Mallet’s early childhood to adulthood on his journey to create the world’s first time machine.
Ronnie’s Great Idea opens with Ronnie’s life after the death of his father. In his heart, Ronnie believes he could save his father’s life if only he could go back to that moment. His great idea is to create a time machine that will allow him to travel back in time. From there, the story tracks Mallet on his journey to becoming a physicist.
Mutegi is an Associate Professor of Science Education at Indiana University. He has authored eight children books so far with plans for a ninth one to be released this December. Although a scientist himself, Mutegi chose to write about Dr. Ronald Mallet an African-American physicist at the University of Connecticut.
“The first reason is the sheer novelty,” Mutegi said. “African American men are more likely to become professional athletes than they are to become theoretical physicists.”
As Mutegi put it, it is a big deal that Mallet is a physicist at such a prominent research university. In addition, he wanted to write about a scientist who was living and “currently doing great work.”
In addition to the book following Ronnie’s childhood dream to a professional job it also explores how he navigates life’s many obstacles including racism, the Civil Rights Movement and adolescent love.
For example, the second chapter takes a look at one of Ronnie’s earliest encounters with racism.
While walking with his mother, Dorothy, past a group of neighborhood boys they hear one of them shout a racial slur. At that moment, Ronnie’s first thought is to defend his mother which leads to a physical altercation with another boy. In later chapters, Ronnie interactions with racists change as he grows up and becomes more aware of segregation and discrimination. Instead, he uses his words to stand up against racism.
Mutegi wanted to include these moments in order to show readers that among the many obstacles Mallet had to overcome, racism was one of them. He stressed though, that the purpose of the book was to give black children an image of an emotional and positive affirming space.
“My goal is to contribute positively to the lives of Black children by creating books that provide positive images of Black families working together as they live, work and play,” Mutegi said.
Books like Ronnie’s Great Idea encourage children to consider science in a new light. It certainly inspires them to steer toward careers and future in the world of science.
Mutegi believes that in addition to reading books like Ronnie’s Great Idea, parents and teacher can affirm and encourage children’s natural curiosity. They can do this by giving children time to explore nature and the world around them, to ask a question and take a guess, to interact with actual scientists.
He said that when students, like those in high school, have the opportunity to interact with chemists or STEM professionals they can gain a better understanding of what that career is like.
Ronnie’s Great Idea is a step on the journey to fostering children’s interest in science including the professional path and is an ideal book for elementary students.