Meltzer’s A Light in the Dark is young adult biography at its best. It is extremely readable, never talks down to its audience, and treats a subject whose life is interesting for a number of reasons. Howe’s passion for social causes of all kinds—particularly his idealistic support of the Greek Revolution, his effort for the abolition of slavery, and his work with the blind—will keep the interest of readers, both young and old. Meltzer also knows how to tell a good story, using conversation sparingly to make certain events more lively and providing the reader with background material on various people and historical events as needed. While he occasionally fills in his sometimes general narrative with fictionalized scenes and dialogue, Meltzer’s apparent research is convincing. This fact is evident in some of the details about Meltzer’s own life and in the chronology that he includes at the end of the book.
For the most part, Meltzer allows Howe’s amazing accomplishments to speak for themselves. The picture that comes across is of a dynamic, idealistic man who is more concerned with others than with himself. Meltzer obviously has a great respect for Howe, which is borne out by a comment in his acknowledgments suggesting that he talks about Howe incessantly. What most interests Meltzer is Howe’s concern with social change, something that he notes is a major concern in almost all the biographies that he has written.
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Almost all of Meltzer’s books deal with social activists, people who stand up and fight for their ideas. Among others, Meltzer has explored the lives of Winnie Mandela, Betty Friedan, Langston Hughes, Margaret Sanger, and Thaddeus Stevens. As with many of Meltzer’s subsequent biographies, A Light in the Dark celebrates those who battle racial and political oppression. The book also blends carefully documented facts with enough fictionalized narrative to give young readers the sense that they are participating in historical events.
In some ways, Meltzer’s biography is a series of separate stories closely related to several subgenres of young adult literature. Howe’s unpopularity at school and his subsequent practical jokes are reminiscent of a number of school stories, beginning with Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s School Days (1857). Howe’s involvement in the Greek Revolution and his imprisonment in Berlin has all the elements of good adventure and hero tales, while the section about the education of Bridgman, which closely parallels Helen Keller’s The Story of My Life (1902), is an adventure or accomplishment romance that shows how dedication can overcome extreme obstacles.
Unlike the subjects of many biographies, Howe is not especially well known. Moreover, the books about Howe that are cited in Meltzer’s bibliography are not directed at young adults. As a result, A Light in the Dark is the definitive work on the subject for younger readers. To those who read this biography, Howe’s life and achievements will gain great significance. When the book was first published, it was universally praised for bringing excitement and interest to a life that was virtually unexplored.