Fuse #8

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Review of the Day: Something Out of Nothing

The biography for children is rarely done well, if at all. It’s too easy to take the life of someone famous, slap a few facts together, and then sell copies of your newest creation to countless school libraries around the country. When it comes to bios for small fry there are two modes of thought. Either you’re going to do the least interesting, simplest biography (thereby boring both your child reader and yourself), or you’re going to put some work into your creation and place the subject of your biography within the context of their times. Ms. Carla Killough McClafferty has opted for the latter. “Something Out of Nothing: Marie Curie and Radium” starts slow and then builds and builds until you find yourself in a remarkable world of radium drinks, pills, and miracle cures. McClafferty is no stranger to the world of radiation, having penned a history of the X-Ray for kids before. Now she turns her sights to one of the greatest female scientists in the history of the world. From stage frightened Polish child, to Parisian researcher, to her death at the age of sixty-six, Marie Curie’s life is propped before us with just the right combination of kid appeal and facts.

She was born a poor Polish girl on November 7, 1867. Smart from the start, Marie Curie, born Marya Sklodowska, dreamed of someday being given the chance to study at the University of Paris. After many years of saving and unpleasantness, she was able to come to France to fulfill this dream. While there, she met and married Pierre Curie and together the two of them set about discovering a couple elements and the true nature of that most mysterious of substances, radium. Author Carla McClafferty takes Marie’s discoveries and counterpoints the rise in radium popularity with the high-profile Marie reluctantly had to adapt to. She was a celebrity of her time so that just as radium caught on with the public, so too did Marie’s personal life. Remarkable in more ways than one, this is a story of a scientist who broke with convention to become extraordinary. This telling matches her in magnificence.

I admit that in my ignorance I didn’t think there’d be much to say about Marie Curie in a book for kids. I mean, she grew up, married Pierre Curie, discovered radium, and died of radiation poisoning, right? I thought maybe Ms. McClafferty would have a chance to make a long book if she simply stretched out Marie’s early life for as long as possible. So when I got to page 32 and found the book’s subject already studying uranium rays, I couldn't help but yell at the narrator, “Slow down, McClafferty! There isn’t much more to say! You’re going too fast!” Of course, she wasn’t. This book goes at exactly the right speed, never dwelling on a dull factoid or pulling to inordinate length a moment in Mrs. Curie’s life that needed no stretching. And while I knew the basic “first woman” facts surrounding Marie, I had no idea what a great person she was as well. This is someone who refused to patent radium because she felt the element belonged to the world and not just the people who happened to find it. A woman who drove mobile X-ray units into war zones to aid doctors. Who named a new element Polonium after her beloved Poland. I knew none of this before and with McClafferty’s snappy writing helping me along, I feel any kid that reads this book will learn so very much.

A couple years ago I had a chance to visit Minneapolis, Minnesota’s now defunct Museum of Questionable Medical Devices. Besides the exhibits featuring ear candles and phrenology machines, there was a large section of the museum dedicated to the radium fads. It never would have occurred to me to think that Marie Curie had an indirect connection to the bottles of Radithor or the Revigator jars on display under glass cases. Even the Museum, though, didn’t have half the fascinating items shown in photographs in this book. Radium was the original glow-in-the-dark paint, making everything from watch dials to crucifixes shine when the lights were low. The most frightening of all of these? The “Atomic ‘Bomb’” ring. Says the book, "You could see tiny flashes of light come and go as individual atoms of a radioactive material gave off energy and lit up the zinc sulfide in the ring." McClafferty knows to pepper her book with stuff of this nature, giving the book just the right amount of zing and zazz for the kiddies reading it.

One problem I do have with the book is that McClafferty doesn’t really drill home the danger of all these radioactive consumer products. Take, once more, the Atomic Bomb ring. Was it really dangerous to kids or was it as harmless as the manufacturers said? Obviously McClafferty wouldn’t be able to say just how harmful each and every product shown in this book was (there are, after all, quite a lot of them) but I would have liked a little clarification on a couple points. It isn’t until we get to the end of the book that we learn exactly what it is that radium poisoning does to the human body. Even then, to what degree is radium outside of the body dangerous? We hear that when someone wants to view the original notebooks of the Curies they must, “sign a form releasing the library from responsibility for any ‘possible risks of radioactivity’”. But to what extent would those notebooks be dangerous? A little more clarification on contact with radium without ingesting it would be welcome in this title.

And yet nothing eases my fears faster than an author who knows the importance of displaying their source materials. Right from the start a "Note to the Reader" explains why the author chose one spelling of Marya Sklodowska over another. Later on, Ms. McClafferty gives us copious Source Notes, a rather impressive Selected Bibliography, Illustration Credits, an Index, and (most impressive of all) a wonderful list of well-selected Recommended Web Sites. Kudos all around. What I want to get through to you is that this book is equal parts fun writing and great factual info. Sure it’s chock full of great info about this great woman. But it also happens to be a gripping read and a great story to boot. Marie Curie appears here to be the kind of woman authors dream of writing biographies about. Ms. McClafferty just happened to be bright enough to tie in Mrs. Curie’s life to the world around her and the fads that came about due to the radium hype. A great book and well worth adding to any and every collection in the country.

Notes On the Cover: They wanted to put a photograph of the subject on the cover. Fine. They wanted to tint the image so it looked old. Fine. They wanted to tint the image mustard yellow since that was obviously the color (circa 1973) that kids today would gravitate the quickest towards? Um... not fine, guys. I understand what you were doing. It was sepia-toning but with just a dash more color than your average dull brown covers out there. Only, see, here’s the thing. Marie gets kind of washed out in the image and the cover is just a touch forgettable as a result. What if you’d put the atomic bomb ring on there? Or one of the crazy faux-radium “cures”? What if you’d gone the opposite route and just rendered the cover black and white? This is fine and all, but I’m not sure if this color's star has risen high enough to render it a stand-alone shade at this point. Actually, the photo I have of the cover here looks nice enough. Maybe my book was just a particularly atrocious shade. Hm...


At 10:42 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I totally agree with you about the dearth of decent middle-grade-level biographies. The teachers in my district (state?) require their students to read a 100+ page bio in the 5th and 6th grade. I am always on the lookout for books that are not written like overblown encyclopedia entries. Keep 'em coming...

At 1:42 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

You betcha. Have you seen, "Onward" by Dolores Johnson? Apparently it's a fabulous bio of Matthew Henson that came out this year. Once I locate a copy I'll try to review it.


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