Kid Lit Review of “The Vast Wonder of the World: Biologist Ernest Everett Just” by Mélina Mangal

Ernest Everett Just, born in 1883 in Charleston, South Carolina, overcame a background fraught with hardship and heartbreak to become a pioneering African-American biologist, academic, and writer.

Ernest Everett Just

His primary contribution was the recognition of the fundamental role of the cell surface in the development of organisms. His scientific techniques were also new: Working with marine biology and collecting his own specimens, he studied cells as wholes under the microscope in their natural environments, rather than in parts in a laboratory.

This book recounts all the obstacles Ernest faced as, after having typhoid fever, he lost the ability to read and write, which he had to relearn; how he became the sole supporter of his siblings after the death of their mother; and most of all, the discrimination as a Black man that confronted him at every turn. In fact, the latter situation became so intolerable to him as an adult that he moved to France to do research. No American university would hire him. As the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine reported, “In 1929, the administration of Brown University found Professor E. E. Just ‘quite ideal except for his race.'” In Paris, however, he was asked to present seminars at the prestigious Sorbonne University. In the Author’s Note at the book’s conclusion, the author reports that Ernest returned periodically to the US, each time ruefully observing, as he saw the Statue of Liberty, “This is where my liberty ends.”

Ernest eventually wrote two science books and more than seventy journal articles, some in German. He had to flee Europe when the Germans invaded France in 1938 and he was briefly held in a Nazi detainment camp. A year after his return to the States, he died of pancreatic cancer in 1941 at age 58.

Notably, in 1915 Ernest received the first Spingarn Medal, now awarded annually by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for outstanding achievement by an African American.

Back matter includes the author’ note, illustrator’s note, more about Ernest Everett Just’s science, timeline, glossary, and list of sources.

Illustrations by Luisa Uribe reflect her research into the time period and science relevant to Just’s story. In an interview Uribe explained her palette choices:

“As water is a constant presence in the book I wanted to use it as a reference, and thought that building the color palette around it could work. I realize that water is not always blue or green but it was also meant to be a space of safety and wonder for Just, something bright and alluring, as pictured in the spread where he looks out the window at the water. From there, I followed my usual instincts and taste, as I like to use teals, corals and other similar tones.”

Evaluation: Ernest Just’s story for readers 7 and over is not only inspirational for his persistence in the face of multiple obstacles, but exemplary for providing an example of Black achievement in scientific endeavors.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Millbrook Press, a division of Lerner Publishing Group, 2018

Ernest Everett Just at Dartmouth (Class of 1907)

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2 Responses to Kid Lit Review of “The Vast Wonder of the World: Biologist Ernest Everett Just” by Mélina Mangal

  1. harvee says:

    Looks like a wonderful book and way to have young children learn important Black history figures.

  2. sagustocox says:

    This sounds so interesting!

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