Hothouse Kids: The Dilemma of the Gifted Child
By Alissa Quart

The sideshow fascination with so-called prodigies, wunderkinds and phenoms dates back to the Old Testament, when Joseph was interpreting dreams and David slew Goliath. Alissa Quart explores this "carny" or "freak" element of giftedness in her thought-provoking, if uneven, investigation–the terrifically titled "Hothouse Kids."

Despite being a former writing prodigy herself–she churned out novels as a seven-year-old–Quart hasn't grown up into the most captivating storyteller. Like her well-received 2003 skewering of advertising culture, "Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers," "Hothouse Kids" would have been better served by more anecdotes and fewer statistics. When Quart is telling us about particular children–a four-year-old painter whose work has fetched more than $300,000, three teenage siblings who take apart clocks and read Aristotle for fun–her book is rollicking, even jaw-dropping; but much of "Hothouse Kids" is bogged down by facts and figures, quotes from (too many) experts, and generalizations about the trend of manufacturing genius.

And why doesn't Quart relate more about her own giftedness? The tantalizing two pages devoted to herself in the first chapter are frank and brave ("because I did not live up to my precocity, I experience it to be like a cross between being a has-been and a never-was"), but leave us wanting more.

That said, Quart is to be commended for her diligence. Her exhaustive research hits all the gifted bumpers–among them the Terman kids (a.k.a. "Termites"), named after Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman, whose 1920s studies of California schoolchildren with IQs of 135 and up remain the best-known examination of exceptional intelligence; Jan and Bob Davidson, founders of the Davidson Institute for Talented Development; and Harvard psychology professor Howard Gardner, originator of the concept of multiple intelligences. But the parade of names lends the narrative a dry, term-paper feel. And Quart undermines her authority by sometimes providing too much information, other times not enough: Excessively detailed descriptions of people mentioned in passing ("His nanny–a youngish white woman with incredibly long hair, a 1990s grungy demeanor, and a tattoo of a wedding ring around her fourth finger") illogically pull focus; on the other hand, an explanation of the credentials of companies producing "prenatal enrichment products," educational toys, and turbo-charged baby formulas is one of several missing crucial bits of information.

The second half of the book picks up steam, as Quart gets more personal. She also casts her net wider, luring in unusual subsets of giftedness: an eight-year-old skateboarder with nine corporate sponsors, evangelical preaching competitions, and, most intriguing, spoken word contests, which incorporate lower economic brackets (an aspect sorely lacking in the rarefied, Prada-draped environment of "Branded").

Quart also covers smart disadvantaged children (kids with "buried promise") in her examination of accelerated programs in the public school system, blaming their decreased funding on the No Child Left Behind campaign with its damaging "one-size-fits-all practices." Making a strong case for providing appropriate enrichment for exceptional kids–"Entropy and a lack of interest can lead gifted children to perform poorly and ultimately drop out; an improperly nurtured gifted child can die on the vine"–Quart ably balances the (valid, but repetitive) critique of "extreme parenting" that dominates her earlier chapters. And she also skillfully acknowledges the complexity of this debate–that intelligence testing can be seen as "a tool for promoting individual merit over racial or economic privilege," or, conversely, as enforcing ethnic distinctions, as posited in 1994's "The Bell Curve." "It's an American knot," Quart says eloquently, "where impassioned ideals of individual excellence and exclusiveness are tied up with our pride in egalitarianism."

Quart touches on what happens to gifted children when they become adults, with examples ranging from Vezen Wu, 26, a former medical botany whiz who is now a vice president at Morgan Stanley, to George Spaeth, a quirky actor and amateur pianist who, in his 40s, still seems emotionally damaged by his relationship with his demanding father. Ironically, being urged to excel in childhood can provoke underachievement and low self-esteem later on, and the isolation that accompanies constant study and practice can lead to social difficulties. Quart could have delved more deeply into this transition from controlled gifted child to independent adult at large. In her positive portrait of the Besses, a vibrant, alternative Virginia family, she explains that the mother, who homeschools her three children, "believes that her approach will insulate them from what she sees as American toxicity–America at its most superficial, and its most ordinary." As much as the Bess children are thriving now, how will they fare when they have to move out of this sheltered utopia and make their way in the real, messy, perhaps inferior, larger world?

Quart has taken up a fascinating, complicated topic. The conflict between supplying gifted children with the intellectual stimulation that they crave and pushing them unnaturally hard is gray and layered, and the questions it raises–Why is early achievement better? What is true success?–are compelling. But "Hothouse Kids" is an instance of the individual trees being more interesting than the whole forest: Quart offers us a thorough overview with some intriguing highlights, but ultimately, she could have put her story across more engagingly.