Fuse #8

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Review of the Day: The Invisible ABCs by Rodney P. Anderson

The Invisible ABCs: Exploring the World of Microbes
By Rodney P. Anderson
ASM Press
ISBN: 978-1555813864
Ages 5 and up
On shelves now

It would be an understatement to say that the American Society For Microbiology is perhaps not amongst the most prolific publishers of children’s books. You can imagine my confusion then when I learned that they not only had a book out, but one of an alphabetic nature. There are more alphabet books on this earth than grains of sands on the shore. Yet for every one you see, huge debates probably went into its making. Take The Invisible ABCs as your example. If you’re going to create the greatest scientific abecedarian text ere conceived, you need to know who your audience is. Any parent, teacher, or librarian will tell you that at a certain point alphabet books are NOT cool anymore. Kids with their rudimentary reading skills in place will avoid “baby” books like the plague. And sadly, anything with the word “ABC” in its title may apply. The trick is to sell this book to them on its scientific foundations. Fortunately, this book doesn't exactly come across as a hard sell. With images that burst from the pages, fun facts, riddling every letter, and more sheer information than you'll know what to do with, Anderson gives us the ultimate in learning about infinitesimal microbes in a truly engaging fashion. And the purty pictures certainly don’t hurt.

Each letter is shown on a two-page spread. In the upper left-hand corner, a small box shows each letter as formed by some preternaturally talented microbes (in photographs of them no less). Then we learn a little something of our invisible-to-the-human-eye neighbors. Did you know that microbes help us make chocolate and are the reason termites are such a pest? Have you ever seen a jaw-droppingly gorgeous microbe or peered at a real strain of the ebola virus? From gross to great and everything in between, author Rodney P. Anderson gives the average everyday alphabet books out there a definite run for their money.

The text accompanying the letters is always informative, even when it initially comes off as lame. “C” is for cows? But then you learn of the special bacteria that allow cows to eat and live off of grass. Even the endpapers of the book are cool when they begin by showing how small a virus is (if it was the size of a grain of sand then YOU would be the size of Mount Everest). Less effective, perhaps, are random question bubbles that pop up with every letter. On occasion the questions are of the, “Would you rather have a shot or be very sick with a preventable disease?” variety. Other times they become thoughtful, asking dreamy hypotheticals like, “Aren’t we lucky that microbes help clean our dirty water?” Not really a question, that one. Finally, some are so obvious that you seriously wonder what kids would say when asked something like, “What would happen to wolves if they couldn’t eat deer, or to deer if they couldn’t eat grass?” On the whole these questions are interesting, but the strain of creating 26 of them creeps out at awkward times. There is also the odd statement along the lines of, "Moms think mold in the bathroom is disgusting and try to scrub it away." Do they now? I suppose Dad's think it's peachy keen. This was such a weird throwback of a statement, I half-wondered what the author was trying to imply.

Of course, the first thing anyone does when they see a new and interesting alphabet book is to flip to the letter “X” to see if the author cheated. A “cheat” is when the writer has proffered a word that has an “X” in it, rather than one beginning with that letter. I thought that with a book of microbes, this letter would be fairly safe. For crying out loud, where else are you going to find Xanthidium lying about? Admittedly, making “X” part of the word, “eXtreme” makes a certain amount of sense here, but a part of me still yearns for a xanthidium explanation.

Facts are all well and good, but when a publisher sits down and takes the time to include lush full-color photographs of every ciliate, arthroderma, zygnema, and rotavirus that comes their way, you know that someone really cared. It’s hard to pooh-pooh a book that’s not only overflowing with fabulous facts, but has the visuals to back those statements up. When Anderson begins by saying, “There is an unknown world too tiny to see”, and follows that up with, “It is a hidden land where monsters with oozing feet catch and eat their smaller neighbors”, you’re gonna want to see that. And see it you do as page after page is packed with images that a number of talented photomicroscopists allowed Anderson to use. Every letter of the alphabet is represented by a microbe in that letter’s approximate shape (with some more approximate than others). Kids will marvel at the forms and colors of things too tiny to ever see with the naked eye. Best of all are the truly beautiful images. Anderson does diatoms right, calling them, “tiny glass-like boxes that look like colored jewels in different shapes and sizes.” They’re triangles filled to brimming with remarkable hues and patterns. They are circular actinophtychus, colors spiraling out, and later in the book a diatom arranged in a rosette looks more snowflake than tiny critter.

Credit where credit is due, not all the pictures in this book are of microbes. There are stock photos of a 1970 “Rubella Fighter” and an 1802 anti-Dr. Jenner political cartoon of a disgusting (not to say mesmerizing) nature. Contemporary images of scientists, animals, places, and objects are all sharp, clear, and colorful. The photographs are amazing, but there is the occasional non-sequitor. Consider, for example, the letter “B” for “Bacteria”. On one page we learn about how useful bacteria can be and where it exists. On the opposing spread there are photos of crackling staphylococcus aureus, zig-zaggy leptospira, pickle-like vibrio, frightening spirillum volutans, a decaying tree, a microscope, and . . . wait for it . . . a bighorn sheep. A completely random bighorn sheep. There is no mention of how bacteria affect sheep in the text. No specific attention paid to the bacterial properties of their horns or whether or not their wool is a particularly effective carrier. A closer examination of the text shows a description of a microscope, saying that it, “makes small things look big.” But that still doesn’t really apply to the creature in the lower left hand corner. Little things like that occasionally pop up in the text, and while they aren’t ever distracting, you may find yourself scrambling to explain to your scientifically-minded tot why the book’s creators saw fit to squirrel that photograph into the narrative.

The best thing you can say about this book is that it leaves you wanting more. When you hear that microbes “help clean up pollution from our environment, and they’re used to help remove copper and gold from the rocks that miners dig up”, it’s hard not to want to yearn for a couple more details. And what are ice bacteria or the bacteria that live in hot springs? In its alphabetic format, The Invisible ABCs is only able to tantalize budding scientists with this info. Let us hope it tantalizes them straight into scientific careers of one sort or another. Behold before you a book that, for all its eccentricities, deserves attention and inclusion in every proper library.

On shelves now.

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