Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

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.

Social Media Links

Website

Facebook

Twitter

Instagram

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

Book Review: Bold Women of Medicine: 21 Stories of Astounding Discoveries, Daring Surgeries, and Healing Breakthroughs by Susan M. Latta

Publisher’s description

ra6Meet 21 determined women who have dedicated their lives to healing others. In the 19th century, Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton—the “Lady with the Lamp” and the “Angel of the Battlefield”—earned their nicknames by daring to enter battlefields to aid wounded soldiers, forever changing the standards of medicine. Modern-day medical heroines such as Bonnie Simpson Mason, who harnessed the challenges of her chronic illness and founded an organization to introduce women and minorities to orthopedic surgery, and Kathy Magliato, who jumped the hurdles to become a talented surgeon in the male-dominated arena of heart transplants, will inspire any young reader interested in the art, science, and lifechanging applications of medicine. Lovers of adventure will follow Mary Carson Breckinridge, the “nurse on horseback” who delivered babies in the Appalachian Mountains and believed that everyone, including our poorest and most vulnerable citizens, deserve good health care, and Jerri Nielsen, the doctor stationed in Antarctica who, cut off from help, had to bravely treat her own breast cancer. These and 15 other daring women inspire with their courage, persistence, and belief in the power of both science and compassion.

Packed with photos and informative sidebars and including source notes and a bibliography, Bold Women of Medicine is an invaluable addition to any student’s or aspiring doctor or nurse’s bookshelf.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

bold womenThis is a great book to have on display during Women’s History Month, or as part of your science display, or to have at the ready for students needing to do a biographical report on someone possibly less well known. Have a careers section in your library? Stick this face-out there. Does your school have a health careers class or track, as the high school I used to work at does? Make sure that teacher and their students know about this book. While some readers will likely read this whole thing from cover to cover, it will probably be most useful for those looking for information about one specific woman or time period. Though the biographies are brief and include pictures as well as sidebars, it’s still a lot of information to absorb. The book includes the women many have heard of, like Elizabeth Blackwell, Clara Barton, Florence Nightingale, and Virginia Apgar, but also includes many more that may be less well know. One chapter is dedicated to Rebecca Lee Crumpler and Rebecca Cole, the first African American women physicians (circa 1860-ish). Others include Civil War surgeon Mary Edwards Walker; Native American (Omaha tribe) doctor Susan LaFlesche Picotte; Catherine Hamlin, a gynecologist who worked in Ethiopia from 1959 on; Edna Adan Ismail, a Somaliland pioneer in the movement to end female genital mutilation, and many more. An interesting, thorough look at the lives, careers, and achievements of these inspirational women. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781613734377

Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated

Publication date: 09/01/2017

Series: Women of Action Series

Sunday Reflections: Mental health medications are not your enemy

On Tuesday, I’ll be sharing my review of The Last Time We Say Goodbye, by Cynthia Hand. For the most part, it was a book I really liked. But I had one MAJOR issue with it: the main character’s attitude toward taking medicine to help with the panic attacks and depression she’s feeling in the wake of her brother’s suicide.

 

After Alexis, the main character, tells her therapist about her panic attacks, he says, “There’s a medication we can get you for that.” He goes on to tell her about SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), and she refers to as him “waxing poetically about drugs.” Alexis goes on to explain Brave New World to him, telling him about soma, the drug that’s supposed to make everyone happy in the book. She says, “That futuristic society where everybody is drugged to be happy, all the time, no matter what happens–it’s horrible–monstrous, even–it’s like the end of humanity. Because we are supposed to feel things, Dave. My brother died, and I’m supposed to feel it.” She also reveals that her brother, Ty, had taken antidepressants for two years and “a fat lot of good it did him.” Alexis calls Dave a “drug pusher.” So, giving up on this train of thought, Dave instead prescribes her to write in a diary. This attitude of being anti-medicine, of medicine not letting you “feel” whatever it is you are supposed to feel remains consistent through the whole book. 

 

Here’s my issue: I like medicine. I believe in medicine. It’s what’s kept me a mostly functioning human being for 19 years. I have generalized anxiety disorder. If I didn’t take the host of pills in my cabinet every day, I would probably do nothing but obsessively ruminate my way through worrying about every single issue that has ever and may ever occur in the history and future of humanity. I would not be able to get anything done because I’d be too busy listening to my brain obliterate every good thought or idea I have. I would be busy listening to the lies that my unmedicated brain loves to make up–everything is actually awful, nothing good will ever happen, everything good is actually bad, etc. I would not be able to drive my car, because of my terror of being trapped in a moving metal box and my distrust of everyone navigating their little metal boxes (a fear that existed long before my dad was killed in a car accident two years ago). I would not be able to parent my kid because I’d be too busy crying and panicking and falling apart. I would not be able to sleep because nighttime is anxiety’s favorite time to eat my brain. The list goes on forever. The bottom line is that I would not be able to. Just to. To anything.

 

At the library, I spent a fair amount of my day hearing from my teen friends about their own mental health struggles. Being readily approachable and being a mandated reporter, I’d listen to them, give them a book either reflecting their experience or distracting them from it, and then turning around, filing a report, and worrying about them. The common theme in all of their stories: they didn’t want to be put on a medication. What I always, always, ALWAYS did was tell them that I have taken medication forever for my anxiety. That some days are terrible and I take three different medications just to be able to function. That going on medicine was hands down the best choice I made for myself in my entire life. I don’t walk around feeling terrible. I sleep. I breathe. I don’t usually have panic attacks. The kraken that is mental illness can’t reach its nasty tentacles quite as far into my brain because of medication. 

 

I know my teenage attitude was also, “Oh, I would never want to be on medication. It just makes you a zombie.” Apparently my teenage self thought being a complete basket case was preferable. It’s not. Medicine isn’t your enemy. Untreated mental illness is your enemy. Therapy is fantastic, but therapy combined with the right medicine–that’s your ticket. Getting help, in all forms, is good. Being open to help, in all forms, is good. It is good, it is necessary, and it is OKAY. If your medicine makes you feel funky, keep trying other medicines. Something will help.

 

I so deeply dislike and worry about the message in this book: Ty took meds and he still killed himself, so they don’t work. Alexis claims to generally not feel anything at all. “I don’t need drugs to numb the pain.” She has panic attacks and suffers terrible dreams for weeks after her brother dies. When her mother offers her a Valium, Alexis barks at her, “What is it with people trying to force-feed me drugs?” The only time she even in passing considers medication is when she’s having a panic attack at school and thinks “maybe this drug thing Dave suggested isn’t a bad idea after all.”  Alexis is an extremely smart girl. She excels in math and science and will be attending MIT, but she has a fundamental misunderstanding about mental health medicines.

 

An author’s note at the end explains that Hand’s brother committed suicide when they were teens. What I really wanted at the end was also some kind of list of helpful resources (helplines etc) or acknowledgement that while Alexis chose not to take any medications, they can greatly help people suffering from a variety of mental health issues. Do I think all books need to be instructional? Of course not. But I don’t like seeing a very common notion about medication perpetuated in a book like this. The best thing we can do to help not just teenagers but everyone suffering from mental illnesses is to be open and honest, to remove the stigma (of the illnesses and the various treatments), and offer hope. For many teens, the only places they might find these conversations may be in books. Let’s not let them walk away thinking, See? I told you. Nothing can help.

There is help. 

 

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255

The Trevor Project hotline 1-866-488-7386

Trans Lifeline 1-877-565-8860

 

As always, we welcome your thoughts. Talk to us in the comments or you can find me on Twitter–I’m @CiteSomething.