Reading nonfiction for Cybils this year has been really enjoyable and it’s been really neat to not just see the range of topics covered, but it’s been neat to think about the connections between and among them. What do these connections say about the things we’re thinking about on a broader cultural level?
A number of the books have fallen into the broad category of science, and this is an area of nonfiction I love. But saying that books fall into a “broad category of science” doesn’t quite nail what these books have in common — rather, these books look at the side of science concerned with making our world a better, safer place for human and animal kind. They marry science and history in smart, accessible ways.
Here’s a look at a handful of those books, which tackle topics of disease, global warming, extinction, and and more.
This middle grade title explores the third “wave” of bubonic plague, which made its way to America in the early 1900s in San Francisco. Picking it up, I didn’t expect to take away as much as I did about the disease — this was a topic I wrote a lot about in high school and felt like I’d learned enough about and yet, this was an entire aspect of public health and history I didn’t know happened. I suspect a reason for this lack of knowledge might come from what Jarrow touches on (and ultimately doesn’t dig into as much as I wish): racism. Those most susceptible to America’s bubonic plague were Asian immigrants, and the choices politicians made to slow down the spread of the disease targeted Chinatown specifically.
The book isn’t entirely about the disease in America though, and it was fascinating to see the history of bubonic plague traced back into three distinct waves. It’s my suspicion most people, self included, are familiar with the second wave which hit Europe and less aware of the first and third waves. Jarrow does an excellent job telling the history of this disease not just through science and discovery, but she makes it into a mystery. She explores what caused the disease, why it happened in waves, and the roles scientists played in trying to figure out the reason behind the disease, who it targeted, and how to put an end to it. I found much of the discussion of trying to find an immunization for the disease to be some of the most interesting material in the book.
In terms of design, this is a visually appealing book. It’s full color, with thoughtful use of images and sidebars that highlight, rather than detract from, the greater text. I do wish there was a different trim size, since it’s one of those books that is odd to hold and read, but I also understand that to get the visuals to look great, that was likely a necessary choice.
The back matter is excellent, and I found the FAQs that Jarrow chose to include at the end of the book really thought-provoking. It was clear she anticipated some questions from young readers and she addresses them succinctly and smartly.
Fun fact: I knew the plague was still a thing in the American southwest; in mid 2007, my husband and I were driving from Las Vegas to Austin and stopped one night in a New Mexico town, where the lead story was about a small local outbreak. I was surprised, but learning about the fact that it’s rodents and fleas associated with them that can cause the illness makes that make more sense. Likewise, this book will likely heighten fear from the hypochondriacs out there, since this is a disease that’s still possible and Jarrow doesn’t ignore that.
This YA nonfiction title is for those who love their science with numbers, figures, and graphs. It’s a well-argued book about the impact of climate change and the need to get serious about protecting our planet. Heos hedges her arguments very well — she clearly delineates the scientific evidence from the political aspects of the global warming argument and then further provides a point for readers to ponder over as she notes that GMOs are also in one of those personal/political/science gaps where science says GMOs are totally fine but individuals find a lot more to chew on with them than they do with things like global warming…also backed by science.
There are times this goes on too long and the middle gets a little boring. Readers who are really into sustainability and global warming will likely love this length, though. This is full-color throughout and the format is a traditional novel trim, making it read really well and look really great. It’s appealing on every level and the use of images and side bars to break up text was well thought out and added, rather than detracted from, the text.
Heos goes further to offer ways for individuals to do better with their impact on the Earth. These tips aren’t hard and don’t cost money, and Heos addresses both of those issues before providing the tips, too.
It’s smart how she sets up her arguments and defends them, and it’s done in a way that would make this an excellent read for those teens looking to learn how to craft an argument and support it well. There are discussions of both sides of the issue but the counter argument is picked apart because of science, numbers, and data. For the general reader, though, it might be overwhelming to sift through.
This is another read with good backmatter, so it will work not only as a solid nonfiction read for leisure, but it also serves as a great resource for those doing research or who want to dig even further into global warming.
I read this one a few weeks back, and even though it did drag for me, I find myself returning to some of the points Heos made. In early November, I sat on the beach, here in southern Wisconsin, and realized it was absurd and terrifying to be doing such a thing. The beach was packed, people were putting their feet in the water, and everyone carried on like it was a perfect summer evening. That was why I was there, and yet, I couldn’t stop thinking about how global warming was to thank for such a gift. . . if it could be considered a gift at all.
An engaging, at at times difficult, YA title to read about a number of “giant” species that have gone extinct in the last 500 years. Campbell explores the whys and hows of the extinctions, with some interesting — at times slightly judgmental — ways that humans have impacted these natural beasts. “Giant,” as Campebell explains early on in the text, not only refers to size, but it also refers to species like the passenger pigeon in the US which were abundant one day and then completely gone the next. As a reader, I found reading that section particularly difficult, as it highlighted the brutal ways humans interacted with nature.
Some of the most fascinating pieces of this book were the descriptions of islands that, while populated today, were once ecological wonders. Campbell describes an unbelievable world in New Zealand, where giant birds were abundant and wild; he also digs into the amazing ecoculture of Madagascar and how humans arriving in both islands invariably changed the natural habitats and livelihoods of many creates. Some we know the stories of and others we’ll never quite know.
The backmatter is great, and I turned to one of the videos referenced back there about the Tasmanian tiger and definitely got a little teary-eyed. I do wonder, though, if more of the backmatter could be better integrated into the text or into footnotes in instances like this, as it was not easy to flip back and find the video being referenced in text because there’s so much backmatter.
My biggest criticism, besides perhaps the book being a bit lengthy, is that the layout is bizarre. The pull quotes make no sense and take up way too much room in spaces where it was unnecessary. I’d have liked more sidebars and more “did you know” kind of things sprinkled throughout that would make the text a little more digestible — perhaps those could have been places where “check out these videos” or other round-ups to juicy backmatter could be highlighted in text.
This isn’t a book that can be read easily in one sitting for that reason, especially for those who get heated up about animal rights, climate change, or other similar natural issues. There were times I had to stop because it made me a little weepy. Likewise, this is a book that’s just a bit long, and readers will want to take their time to digest what they’re reading. Picking this book up prior to the Heos book in my reading pile made me appreciate both a little bit more, as it was impossible not to see how the things Heos talked about mirrored some of what Campbell talked about, especially in regards to the disappearance of some of Earth’s richest and most diverse ecosystems.