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Fun Fiction can Sell STEM, a guest post by Susan McCormick

How to stimulate an interest in STEM and health-related fields? My middle schooler’s science class was waiting to be dazzled by the chicken wing dissection. As a doctor, writer, and mother classroom volunteer, I was certain this demonstration of the exciting connection between muscles and tendons and bones would lead to awe and wonder and a gush of queries about the wide world of science and scientific careers. I opened and closed the wing, placed it in their hands, showed them the thin strips of tissue coordinating all the action. Did I see sudden passion? Fascination? Jumping-over-the-desk enthusiasm? No.

They would definitely want to hear about my journey to becoming a doctor, then. And they did. They had polite questions and inciteful comments. But they never showed the same interest in chicken wings or medical school as they did about another topic they were studying. Mythology. Greek gods. Beasts with multiple heads. Fathers who swallowed their children whole. The kids learned it in humanities, but they already knew everything there was to know and then some. Why? Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief series. If there was an obvious career path involving mythology, it would be flooded.


The author with medical school books from the preclinical years.

Fiction offers a framework to package knowledge into an engaging read. Most information is interesting in its own right but enticing and engrossing when embedded in a story. Add adventure and suspense and humor and a kid who could be any of us, and it is no wonder why The Lightning Thief is such a success.

Was there such a fiction series about medicine? The human body? Ailments and health? The excitement of biology or chemistry or engineering or math? Excluding books that deal with video games, very few.

Who would have thought mythology could be so popular? A good story provides the bridge. Books can make science and medicine appealing, too. Cool. Popular. Kids know about scientists and white coats and laboratories. Boring stuff. Savvy kids even know about years of laboring at an experiment before it comes to fruition, if it ever does. Endless learning in medical school, then residency, then fellowship. Multiple botched rocket launches until one finally takes to the skies. Medication trials that look promising, only to close at the last minute due to side effects. Kids also need to know the flip side, the importance, the relevance, the satisfaction that comes from small successes and all those years.

The need for the objectivity and critical thinking that science provides has never been more glaring than today. The demand for future scientists, for inventors, for health-care workers is great. We children’s authors can embrace our role in the challenge. I set out to create a thrilling tale weaving in maladies much like The Lightning Thief weaves in mythology. In The Antidote, Alex Revelstoke discovers a family secret. He can see disease. And not just disease, but injury, illness, anything wrong with the body. He sees skin melt away to reveal the organs beneath, much to his shock and horror. He comes from a family of doctors with this extra gift, going back generations, helping, healing. But Revelstokes are locked in a centuries-old war with ancient evil itself, an entity called ILL, the creator and physical embodiment of disease. Alex is the last Revelstoke. Alex, plus a special dog and a mysterious girl, must battle ILL and his new super disease, worse than polio, worse than smallpox.


The author’s dog, Albert the Newfoundland, who was the inspiration for the dog in the story.

Kids learn about polio and smallpox in school through FDR and through the devastation infections brought to American Indians. Kids have encountered disease. A grandma had a heart attack, an uncle had an ulcer, a friend has a food allergy. They hear about appendicitis and diabetes and sudden death in young athletes. These illnesses appear in The Antidote’s adventure, described and explained even as the action unfolds. I threw in hidden safety tips like how to do a Heimlich maneuver and when to use an AED, an Automated External Defibrillator. Young people can only gain by understanding more about the body, health, and medicine.

In no other time in recent history, not since the polio epidemic of their grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ generation, have the world’s children been directly, incredibly affected by disease, death, and the fear that accompanies it. The Antidote speaks to this, not with anything specifically about the current COVID-19 situation, but with the story winding through pandemics and infectious diseases of the past like plague, polio, smallpox, Spanish flu, measles, leprosy, etc. An added informative section at the end describes these diseases in further detail for curious readers. The COVID-19 pandemic is horrific, but not unique, and it helps knowing there have been times in history like this, and that science came through and the world prevailed.


The author heading out to give COVID-19 vaccines at a mass vaccination site

The events of 2020 have forced kids to experience disease firsthand, but also see firsthand the healers and scientists who are heroes and who have sparked a worldwide interest in science. Whole career fields were revealed to young people who knew nothing of them before. Frontline responders, EMTs, doctors, nurses, and technicians all helped diagnose and treat. Mechanical engineers designed negative pressure rooms in hospitals overnight and refitted schools and buildings with new airflow systems. Biomedical and other engineers rethought ventilators and oxygen saturation monitors. Research scientists, vaccine makers, and virologists discovered the virus, created the testing, produced the vaccines. Computer scientists developed programs to register people for vaccinations, then worked out the bugs and the crashes. Kids saw science save the world, and many will choose a career in science themselves.

Now is the time. Young people are interested in science. Children’s authors and books with engrossing STEM stories can encourage this interest. While steeped in science, though, at heart The Antidote is an adventure, with good vs. evil, and I want kids to enjoy the story. Enough to be part of the inspiration.

Meet the author

Susan McCormick is a writer and doctor who lives in Seattle. She graduated from Smith College and George Washington University School of Medicine and served as a doctor for nine years in the US Army before moving to the Pacific Northwest and civilian practice. In addition to The Antidote, a timely middle grade medical fantasy, she writes The Fog Ladies cozy murder mystery series. She also wrote Granny Can’t Remember Me, a lighthearted picture book about Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. She is married with two boys, neither of whom can see disease. She loves giant dogs and has had St. Bernards, a Mastiff, Earl, and two Newfoundlands, Edward and Albert. Unlike the dog in the book, they had no special powers, except the ability to shake drool onto the ceiling.

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About The Antidote

Twelve-year-old Alex Revelstoke is different. He can see disease. Also injury, illness, and anything else wrong with the body. This comes in handy when a classmate chokes on a hot dog or when the janitor suffers a heart attack unclogging a gooey science experiment gone awry. But Alex soon learns his new ability puts him and an unsuspecting world in peril. Throughout time, Revelstokes have waged a battle against ancient evil itself. A man, a being, an essence–the creator of disease. Alex has seen its darkness. He has felt its strength. He does not want to fight. But Alex is the last Revelstoke. The war has just begun.

ISBN-13: 9781509235667
Publisher: The Wild Rose Press
Publication date: 05/05/2021

Middle Grade

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