Imagine you invented a time machine but, because a disease has condemned you to a wheelchair, you can’t use it yourself. Whom would you send in your place, and where?
If you’re a billionaire young woman named Chris Zandergoth, who combines the high-tech genius of Tony Stark with a body afflicted by ALS, you recruit four 12-year-olds from Boston and send them on quests to take photographs of events never captured on film or memory card.
That’s the setup of author Dan Gutman’s latest series of chapter books, aimed at children ages 8 to 12. The “Flashback Four” books — a series name that Gutman credits to fellow Jewish children’s author David Lubar — begin with the just-released “The Lincoln Project,” in which the demographically diverse heroes travel to November 1863 to get a photo of Abraham Lincoln delivering his two-minute Gettysburg Address.
As Gutman explained in an interview in advance of a visit to Atlanta, Lincoln’s speech was so short in an era when orators routinely spoke for hours and when cameras took a long time to set up that no one managed to capture an image of the address.
“I was intrigued,” said Gutman, who decided the effort to get such a photo would make a fantastic story.
He has written dozens of children’s books, including such series as “My Weird School”; “The Genius Files,” which includes a visit to the World of Coca-Cola by twins named Coke and Pepsi; and the time-traveling “Baseball Card Adventure Series.”
The latest series, planned for at least four books, gives him a chance to write about photography, a youthful hobby that he taught at summer camp, while also mixing education with entertainment.
“It’s a great way to slip a little history lesson into a story and let kids learn something about history without really letting them know you’re teaching them anything,” Gutman said.
Not that he sticks strictly to historical fact. The time travelers have run-ins with young Tad Lincoln and with John Wilkes Booth, neither of whom was in Gettysburg for the dedication of the military cemetery in 1863. They even thwart a Booth assassination attempt on the president.
Fortunately, Gutman said, most young readers don’t think too deeply about the potential paradoxes of time travel. “Every so often there’ll be some genius smart-aleck kid who will raise his hand and say, ‘Wait a minute. On Page 56 it says that blank, and if that happened, then on Page 150 this couldn’t have possibly happened,” he said about his appearances with young fans. “And I say, ‘Security, take this kid away.’ ”
Such appearances at schools helped Gutman expand his repertoire. When he was writing for fourth-graders and older, he found that he had nothing to say to younger children even though he was expected to spend time with students as young as kindergartners. “That’s why I started the ‘My Weird School’ series. It turned out to be the most popular thing I ever did.”
He has finished the second “Flashback Four” adventure, which takes the kids to the Titanic to try to photograph the sinking ship, but Gutman said he’s open to suggestions about where in time the quartet should travel next. Perhaps Pompeii during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius or some pivotal moment of the Revolutionary War. The only limits are time and imagination.
Who: Dan Gutman
What: Author appearance and book signing
Where: Little Shop of Stories, 133A East Court Square, Decatur; Foxtale Book Shoppe, 105 E. Main St., Woodstock
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 1, in Decatur; 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 2, in Woodstock
Admission: Free; dangutman.com