Perkin’s Perfect Purple: How a Boy Created Color with Chemistry

Little, Brown. Oct. 2020. 56p. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9781368032841.
Gr 1-5–This nonfiction picture book provides a factual but lighthearted snapshot of a discovery that had far-reaching consequences. A chemist by trade, white Englishman William Perkin attempted to create a synthetic version of quinine, a medication used to treat malaria. The book’s nostalgic, comic-style images and old-fashioned font convey Perkin’s disappointment. Readers see a dejected Perkin in his dress coat and high-collared shirt, sitting with a beaker against a completely black background. Small white type reads, “But the experiment was a failure. Quinine couldn’t be made from coal tar.” When cleaning his equipment, he discovered the leftover sludge was purple. Perkin’s discovery may have been accidental, but the chemist knew it would become a hot commodity. More important, his method of discovery led to breakthroughs in science and medicine. The pages and endpapers are awash in various hues of purple and evocative of England’s Victorian era. The final pages depict people from across the globe attired in purple, a color previously unaffordable by average citizens. An extensive author’s note, resources, and instructions for a simple color experiment offer more substantive information about the impact of Perkin’s discovery that, at first blush, appeared to be trivial.
VERDICT This pleasant narrative detailing an unexpected discovery could appeal to readers interested in a variety of subjects: history, science, fashion, and uplifting stories of perseverance.

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