Fuse #8

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Review of the Day: Deadly Invaders

I was at the American Library Conference in New Orleans scoping out various publisher booths when I found myself at the Kingfisher location in possession of a nice hot pink non-fiction tome with the vibrant words, “Deadly Invaders” popping out of the cover. I knew that the New York Times had started publishing books for children, much as National Geographic has, but this was the first of its kind I’d had a chance to handle for myself. So for three or four nights in a row, I used this title to cautiously immerse myself in every dangerous virus outbreak from AIDS to SARS. The book is a fascinating look at how our ever-shrinking world may someday face a pandemic of the worst possible nature. For the kid that wants some info on deadly diseases that kill with no cure, I can’t think of a better book to hand them. Just don’t be tossing this title casually to any child prone to apocalyptic fears.

Author Denise Grady is a science reporter for The New York Times and has been so since 1998. In the eight years since she joined the Gray Lady, Ms. Grady has had the mixed honor of being in a position to learn as much as possible about some of the deadliest diseases in the world. Grady begins “Deadly Invaders” with in-depth study of Marburg Fever. To study the effects of this viral hemorrhagic disease, Grady traveled to Luanda, Angola to view the doctors working in the area. She then traveled to the much smaller and, to be frank, filthier city of Uige and the province of the same name. Grady recounts both these experiences with the professionalism of a true reporter, then fills out the book with summaries of six other deadly diseases. The effect is simultaneously devastating and gripping (in a way that differs not too greatly from watching an informative but nasty car wreck on the highway).

To be honest with you, I had never even heard of the Marburg Fever until I read Grady’s account of it. Now that I have, I am under the distinct impression that it is going to kill me. No no, I’m kidding you. In fact, if anything, Grady’s story comes across as a rather hopeful piece on the competence of contemporary doctors. Sure there have been outbreaks and deaths all over the world from various viral amalgamations, but not one has ever turned into a full-blown pandemic. This is, to my mind, nothing short of amazing. Take, for example, the book’s account of SARS. Providing a particularly useful little map o’ infection, the reader is able to see how a single traveler from China managed to infect four hundred people when he stayed at a single hotel. Yet for all this, we are not currently walking around with masks on our faces. Well done us.

And well done, Ms. Grady. Her writing in this title for youth never patronizes her younger readers. She has the singular ability to make complex ideas and issues simple without being simplistic. In the book’s introduction, for example, she is able to synthesize the “Why should I care about viral outbreaks?” question into a succinct chunk: “Whether or not you believe that a humanitarian responsibility exists, there is also a practical, perhaps selfish reason for the rest of the world to try to stop or prevent epidemics in seemingly remote places: nowhere is truly remote anymore.” Most admirable, however, is Grady’s ability to humanize a story of a dehumanizing disease. When she visits a clinic in Angola to follow the trials of a man in an isolation unit, she learns that his family provides food for him and brings it to the doctors. Unfortunately, all food must be placed in plastic bags, an act that would be considered humiliating in Angola. At one point we hear of a family who has placed the bagged food in a box contained within a beautifully embroidered piece of cloth. And then the man dies alone and without getting to see any of his relatives anyway. The reader hurts to hear this, but is able to stand outside the situation as well. I also enjoyed Ms. Grady’s willingness to talk about how she had to convince The New York Times that this was a story worth reporting in the first place. And considering that that’s their name on the cover, this comes across as mildly gutsy.

For kids, the book even has small tidbits of info that provide fascinating back-up to the larger story. At one point we learn that there is a theory that viruses are “scraps of rogue genetic material that somehow escaped people, animals, plants, or bacteria.” Or how about the fact that many of this awful viral diseases come from eating monkeys? In May of 2002 more than seven hundred primate carcasses were tested for disease and they, “found SIV infection in 20 percent of them. More than thirty primate species were known to carry strains of SIV.” Oog. And ick.

We would be amiss if we did not offer kudos to Anthony Cutting’s book design as well. What could easily have ended up as a dull dry text punctuated by the occasional photograph becomes instead a lively book with the visual equivalent of sound bites popping up all the time. Maps, full-page info boxes, and mock index cards pepper the pages in such a way that the eye is forever flitting from interesting factoid to the main text. The color photographs, Source Notes, Bibliography of articles organized by date (with additional notes on books of particular interest), Internet Resources (thank heaven), and Index are enough to assure any non-fiction junkie that Ms. Grady knows from whence she writes.

Ms. Grady writes this book for a teen readership, but I feel "Deadly Invaders" will garner just as much interest from science-hungry tweens as well. It’s a riveting account of those diseases we hear about all the time in the news, but in a way that makes them feel immediate and pressing. The hypochondriac kids you know may not be able to handle what Ms. Grady has to say, but for anyone else this book is a window into a world that our future scientists may someday wish to conquer. Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I shall go and wash my hands.

Notes On the Cover: Actually, this is probably why I even picked up this bit of non-fiction goodness in the first place. Look at it. A hot pink (let’s call it “fever pink”) background sporting two gigantic glowing green germs. They would look like highly toxic inanimate carbon rods, if it weren’t for the fact that just staring at them makes me feel a touch queasy. Turns out, this is a shot of the Marburg virus magnified over 100,000 times. Ewwwwww. Non-fiction covers are a touch and go lot at best, but this puppy seems to have a nice and firm grasp on what makes a person want to read a book. Well played, Kingfisher. Well played, Mike Buckley.


At 5:28 PM , Blogger Little Willow said...

I wonder if Scott Westerfeld has read this book yet.

At 5:32 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

Hee hee. Probably not. And perhaps that's for the best.


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