Spooky and Scary Science

STEM Tuesday — Spooky and Scary Science– Interview with Gail Jarrow

Welcome to STEM Tuesday: Author Interview, a repeating feature for the last Tuesday of every month. Go Science-Tech-Engineering-Math!

Happy Spooky Season! What better way to celebrate this deliciously horrific month than with a book that’s TERRIFYING?!

American Murderer: The Parasite That Haunted the South is a riveting tale of an unwelcome guest that wreaked havoc in the 19th and early 20th centuries by boring into unsuspecting bodies through the skin and leaving its human hosts with wrecked bodies and brains.

Horrifying! Let’s dig in with Gail Jarrow!


American Murderer

Included on NPR’s 2022 “Books We Love” List Finalist, 2023 YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction ALSC Notable Children’s Book

Andi Diehn: My first question feels a tad obvious, but why did you devote a whole book to hookworms?!   

Gail Jarrow: Gross and disgusting appeals to many  in my audience of ages 10+. You can’t beat a vampire creature that clings to the inside of your intestine wall with its suction-cup mouth and sucks your blood until you get sick or  die. And what’s more disgusting than a discussion of leaky outhouses? But beyond that, my account of hookworm disease in the U.S. is a little-known story showing  the  changes in medicine and public health that occurred in the early 1900s. I also was drawn to the subject because it dramatically illustrates how  researchers used the scientific method to make medical discoveries.

AD: Arthur Looss and his accidental discovery of how hookworms entered the body – wow! What does this tell you about the courage of scientists (or at least that particular scientist!)? 

GJ: You have to admire them!  Looss made a dangerous lab error that he recognized as an opportunity. In  research for my books, I’ve encountered several scientists who have intentionally put themselves at risk. Sometimes they’re so sure of themselves that they don’t consider their experiment to be reckless. But in other less certain situations,  they decide that being a human guinea pig is the only way to test a hypothesis. In Bubonic Panic, I tell how Waldemar Haffkine injected himself with the first plague vaccine in 1897, keeping records of his physical reaction. In Red Madness, Joseph Goldberger swallowed a “pill” made of feces, urine, blood, and saliva from pellagra victims to prove that the disease wasn’t contagious. His 1916 experiment put the infectious theory to rest. (Pellagra is a vitamin deficiency disease.) In 1984, Barry Marshall successfully tested his hypothesis that a bacterium caused stomach ulcers by swallowing a beaker full of the microbe. He did get an ulcer, which he cured with antibiotics, but he also received the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery.hookworm

AD: Stiles’s name for his newly discovered hookworm – the American Murderer – is chilling! Why do you think he gave it such a chilling moniker?

GJ: Stiles wasn’t a subtle man. He knew this human hookworm killed people, and he gave it a name to communicate that fact. The name certainly brought attention to the parasite, and it gave me a good book title.

AD: Your descriptions of how people with hookworm were treated – even by medical professionals – is heartbreaking. What’s the lesson here? How can we use that moment in American history to improve current medical practices?hookworm victims

GJ: Having written a few books about the history of medicine, I’ve learned that  “accepted” theories can be wrong. Patients suffer when the mantra is “everyone agrees that. . ..”  As part of my research for American Murderer, I read medical books from the late 19th/early 20th centuries. According to the experts, human hookworm disease didn’t exist in the U.S. except in recent migrants. But Charles Stiles proved that was incorrect and that millions of southerners were infected, probably for generations. He had studied in Europe, where the disease was recognized and easily treated. The American medical establishment, particularly in the South, was slow to go along because Stiles was a parasitologist, not a physician. They also didn’t want to admit that, because of their ignorance, they’d misdiagnosed and failed to treat their patients for years. The sick people were dismissed by  their communities as lazy and stupid. And because victims were usually infected by hookworms at home,  it appeared as if these undesirable character traits simply ran in the family.  The lesson for today is that the medical community must be open to new ideas, knowledge, and approaches and should not dismiss them for the wrong reasons.hookworm education

AD: The cotton mills and Stiles’s narrow focus on hookworms – how might history have been different if Stiles had entertained the idea that other issues affected the mill workers?

GJ: Perhaps that  would have sped up reforms, especially concerning child labor. Still, just a few years later, in 1916, Joseph Goldberger and the U.S. Public Health Service investigated the health of mill workers and identified poor nutrition as a pervasive problem. These studies, as well as Lewis Hine’s photographs of child laborers, helped to bring reforms.

AD: The story of the hookworm is the story of public health – what did we learn from that era that we’ve put to use in more recent times, like with covid?

GJ: The hookworm campaign that started in 1909 demonstrated that in order to reduce or eliminate a disease,  it’s important to educate people about prevention and treatment. The information must be explained clearly and accurately without being condescending. In the early 1900s, newspapers were key to disseminating that information.The articles were written by Stiles, the Public Health Service, and doctors. Today we see similar efforts to transmit facts about COVID, influenza, prenatal care, vaccines, and other health concerns. But times have changed. People no longer have just one reliable source to keep them informed, such as their local newspaper. While additional kinds of media are available to educate the public today,  more unvetted, confusing, and false information is readily available, too.

before and after hookworm victim

A before and after image of a boy cured of hookworms

The hookworm campaign also showed that people are more likely to accept and act on information when they hear it from someone they trust. That meant keeping the  campaign local, at the county or state level and even in the schools and churches. The strategy was to reach people where they were, no matter who they were in terms of socio-economic status or race. The clinics  were staffed by local doctors and community volunteers known by the visitors. Today we see a decline in trust of public health institutions like the CDC and FDA–for many reasons. That’s proving to be a problem.

AD: It’s wonderful to see the before and after photos of victims who were cured, but I also worry about longterm effects on their mental/emotional health – did officials do anything to support individuals once they’d been cured of hookworm? 

GJ: Judging from the personal testimonies I read, I’d say that people who had been cured felt so much better physically that they were  happier and more positive about their lives. With energy to work and learn, they could support and care for their families. Rather than focusing on emotional support (an approach which is more of our time than theirs),  the campaign’s follow-up plan was to stop reinfection by educating hookworm victims about how the parasites spread and helping to install effective waste disposal systems at homes. State education departments added hookworm to the curriculum so that students learned about the disease’s cause, prevention, and treatment. Laws  in southern states required well-maintained outhouses in schools. Eventually, sewers were built in most towns and cities, which stopped the spread of hookworm and other intestinal diseases. But even today, many rural homes like mine are not hooked up to a municipal sewer, and it’s up to the homeowner to have a safe system. newspaper clippings

AD: Why was it important to you to bring readers to the present time to see what the worm situation is like today?

GJ: I always aim to convey hope in my endings.  Hookworm infections were significantly reduced in the United States. Research brought better treatments. The recognized importance of proper waste management spurred  infrastructure improvements.  At the same time, I tried to get young readers to think about what happens when they flush  a toilet and how their health can be affected by tiny parasites. I even included some advice about wearing proper footwear on our southeastern beaches to avoid infection by dog hookworms. 

I also wanted young readers to be aware that at least 1.5 billion people worldwide are still afflicted with soil-transmitted worms, including hookworms. These infections negatively impact a country’s economy and political stability.  It’s essential to know what’s going on in the world beyond. Sooner or later, these things affect all of us.


Gail Jarror headshot

Gail Jarrow is the author of nonfiction books and novels for ages 8-18.

Her books for young readers have earned the Winner of the Excellence in Nonfiction Award from YALSA-ALA; the Robert F. Sibert Honor Book Award; Orbis Pictus Honor; Children’s Book Guild Nonfiction Award; the Jefferson Cup; Grateful American Book Prize Honor; Golden Kite Honor for NF for Older Readers; Eureka! Gold Award; ALA Notable Book; Notable Social Studies Trade Book; the National Science Teaching Association Outstanding Science Trade Book and Best STEM Book, Best Books awards from Kirkus Reviews, School Library Journal, Booklist, Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, Bank Street College of Education, New York Public Library, Chicago Public Library, and NPR. She has received additional awards and recognition from the American Booksellers Association, American Library Association, Public Library Association, the Society of School Librarians International, and Junior Library Guild.


Andi DiehnAndi Diehn grew up near the ocean chatting with horseshoe crabs and now lives in the mountains surrounded by dogs, cats, lizards, chickens, ducks, moose, deer, and bobcats, some of which help themselves to whatever she manages to grow in the garden. You are most likely to find her reading a book, talking about books, writing a book, or discussing politics with her sons. She has 20 children’s books published or forthcoming.

STEM Tuesday — Spooky and Scary Science– Writing Tips & Resources

The Lizard Brain & the Science of Fear

Spooky and scary! What a great October theme for STEM Tuesday. I’ve been looking forward to this month for a long time, especially that awesome book listOctober or not, we can’t really look into the spooky and scary without taking a step back and taking a dive into why they are appealing and how they work on our brains.  

Many people are drawn to media and entertainment that contain a scary or spooky element. The scary and the spooky are all around us. Movies, TV shows, games, music, haunted houses, and literature. Fear sells!

We don’t think much about nonfiction when considering things that scare us but, as our book list exhibits, nonfiction can also use the power of the scare to entertain and inform readers. To put a fine twist on an old saying, the truth is scarier than fiction.

It all starts in the brain. In the limbic system to be exact. It’s a neurological system so inherent in biology that it is often termed the “lizard brain”. The scare (the stimulus) triggers the amygdala in the brain to signal the ancient fight-or-flight response. Motor functioning is put on high alert, the sympathetic nervous system goes into action and there is a release of stress hormones. 

SoniaM2020, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

You are ready to respond physically to the scare just as eons of biological organisms have responded. Our primal response is primed! 

  • The brain becomes hyperalert.
  • Our pupils dilate.
  • Breathing accelerates.
  • Heart rate and blood pressure increase.
  • Blood flow to the muscles increases bringing more fuel (glucose) to them.
  • Digestion and other systems that are not immediately needed for fight or for flight go into a reduced-function mode.

At the same time, the amygdala communicates with another part of the limbic system, the hypothalamus. Now is the time for the brain to think and analyze the potential threat the scare brings. The hypothalamus and the prefrontal cortex rapidly take in all the perceived data, assess it against memory and learned behavior, and then process whether the threat from the scare is real. If no real threat exists, the lizard brain shuts down the flight-or-fight response and we can now relax after the zombie character who chased us in the haunted house.

Young, Art, 1866-1943, artist, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

With literature and other media, this fear response can actually be a positive experience, which provides one explanation for why so many people love the spooky and the scary. There’s also research showing that controlled fright situations can actually benefit cognitive and emotional well-being. When the limbic system kicks in, the external stressors currently causing anxiety and lowering cognitive abilities get biochemically shoved to the back burner. The individual is given a respite from their problems for a period of time and is able to function again at a higher emotional and cognitive level. We feel better and perform better after a controlled fright!

See? Scary and spooky–in an appropriate and non-threatening manner that is unique to each of our individual brains–are actually good for us. Scary and spooky fiction AND nonfiction fit this bill perfectly. Children’s fiction and nonfiction allow readers to experience and learn in an age-appropriate way.

How about that? The trash in/trash out theory my mom used to preach to me when I read scary things, watched scary movies, or dissected frogs and examined roadkill was not 100% true. I was training my lizard brain! (I do believe Mom would agree with the labeling of my adolescent brain as a “lizard brain”.)

As writers, readers, and consumers of all kinds of media, we can learn to use the tool of fright in our work to enhance, entertain, and educate at a higher level. We first must learn to tap into and put to work our limbic system. Knowing how the brain works can help creators appeal to the brains of our audience. Fear can be a powerful thing.

Have a great October 2023 and enjoy a fright or two! I know I will. Bwahaha…



Mike Hays has worked hard from a young age to be a well-rounded individual. A well-rounded, equal-opportunity sports enthusiast, that is. If they keep a score, he’ll either watch it, play it, or coach it. A molecular microbiologist by day, middle-grade author, sports coach, and general good citizen by night, he blogs about sports/training-related topics at  www.coachhays.com and writer stuff at  www.mikehaysbooks.comTwo of his science essays, The Science of Jurassic Park and Zombie Microbiology 101, are included in the Putting the Science in Fiction collection from Writer’s Digest Books. He can be found roaming around the Twitter-sphere under the guise of @coachhays64 and on Instagram at @mikehays64.


The O.O.L.F Files

This month’s version of the O.O.L.F.(Out of Left Field) Files creeps into the dark and dank cellar to explore the scary and spooky side of our brains and how fear works to manipulate our behavior.

What Is The Limbic System? Definition, Parts, And Functions via Simple Psychology

TED talk Dr. Margee Kerr: Why do we like to be scared? (2018)

5 Things You Never Knew About Fear from Northwestern Medicine

Smithsonian Magazine


Hidden Brain podcast The Science of Fear (2015)


Sympathetic vs. Parasympathetic Nervous System


And finally, where would Spooky & Scary Science Month be if I didn’t include my scariest movie scene of all time?

(Thank you, John Carpenter for understanding how my lizard brain works!)




STEM Tuesday — Spooky and Scary Science– In the Classroom


I admit it, I’m a wimp. There were some books on this month’s list that I didn’t even attempt. I read a book about yellow fever years ago, and it kept me awake at night. There was no way I was going to try tackling American Murderer.

I’ve also learned that you can’t always predict what’s going to make you squeamish. I researched different animals for a book series a few years ago. I thought the spider book was going to be a problem – it wasn’t. Turns out peacock spiders- and jumping spiders, in general – are super cute. I didn’t anticipate having a problem with walking stick bugs. They ended up sending shivers up my spine and getting visions of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom stuck in my head. (Don’t know what I’m talking about? Check out this clip: https://youtu.be/WQXqhk-8h7o?si=fjxkqXlLPKXBBc5B.)

As you work with this month’s list, don’t forget that everyone has different phobias as well as different spook thresholds. Here are the books I read.

Zombie makers: True Stories Of Nature’s Undead
by Rebecca L. Johnson

This book explores what can cause a variety of animals to behave like zombies. This was definitely the creepiest of the books I chose to read this month. In addition to interesting info about zombie-makers, it’s got lots of photographs and information about the scientist who discovered and/or studied the creatures.


Spi-ku: A Clutter of Short Verse on Eight Legs
by Leslie Bulion, illustrated by Robert Meganck

I love creative ways to convey facts. So, of course, I had to read this book. I loved learning about different types of spiders. I also enjoyed seeing all the different poetic forms used to describe them.


Yuck, You Suck!: Poems About Animals That Sip, Slurp, Suck
by Jane Yolen & Heidi E. Y. Stemple, illustrated by Eugenia Nobati

Here’s another book that uses poetic form to present information. This one focuses on animals that suck, one that doesn’t (although people think they do), and another that has suckers but doesn’t suck.


Monster Science: Could Monsters Survive (and Thrive!) in the Real World?
by Helaine Becker, illustrated by Phil McAndrew

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book, but the title had me intrigued. Turns out, it mixes history, mythology, and science, which makes it a winner in my mind. It had some added bonuses, too, First, it has lots of variety – both in monsters and in the science covered. Second, all the science cast doubt on the existence of all the different monsters covered in the book.


As always, I can think of lots of great things to do along with reading these books. Here are a few that really struck a chord with me.

Explore Spiders

Spi-ku includes lots of different spiders. Pick one of them – or one of the many spiders not covered in the book – to research. Then create a poster or slide show to convey what you learned about it.

Print or color a life-size picture of the spider. (This might be difficult with the tiny ones.)

Find different ways to group and order the spiders.

Line them up from smallest to largest or vice versa.

Place them on a map of the world so you can see where they live.

Figure out their leg to body ratio (size of leg: size of body) and order them that way.

What other ways can you come up with?

Get Poetic

Both Yuck, You Suck! And Spi-ku use poetry to present information. I love that Spi-ku includes back matter that explains the poetic forms used in the book. I thought it would be fun to explore some poetry as an activity.

Turns out, there are some great resources for poetry.

First, I found a collection of Halloween related poems that – according to the Academy of American Poets – are good for young readers. Here’s that list, with links to the poems: https://poets.org/text/halloween-poems-kids

I found another post that provides a list of easy poetic forms, along with examples of each. This is from Teaching With Poetry and can be found here: https://teachingwithpoetry.com/easy-poetry-forms-for-kids-grades-1-6

If that’s not enough, check out a list of 168 poetic forms, compiled by Robert Lee Brewer on Writer’s Digest: https://www.writersdigest.com/write-better-poetry/list-of-50-poetic-forms-for-poets. Each of these includes a link to a more detailed post about the poetic form.

So now that you have the details on different poetic forms, here’s the challenge. Pick a spooky, scary topic – perhaps something from one of this month’s books. Do some research on that topic. Then present what you’ve learned in a poetic form.

You might want to start by writing down words and phrases that capture the most important – or interesting – things you learned about your topic. Then reword and reorder those thoughts into your chosen poetic form.

Monster Ethics

While reading Monster Science, several ethics questions were raised. In several places, there were mentions of the ethics of genetic engineering. I also remembered having heard some controversy around HeLa cells.

Before delving into a specific topic, it might be good to talk about what ethics are.

There’s an interesting worksheet from Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs that looks at norms, morals, and ethics. That can be found here: https://www.carnegiecouncil.org/explore-engage/classroom-resources/lesson-plan-ideas-film-reviews-syllabi-and-more/normsmoralsethics

There’s also some good information on New Zealand’s Science Learning Hub: https://www.sciencelearn.org.nz/resources/2150-teaching-ethics.

On to the specific topics from Monster Science.

There is a whole section of the Johns Hopkins website dedicated to Henrietta Lacks: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/henrietta-lacks. This includes a page called “Upholding the Highest Bioethical Standards”: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/henrietta-lacks/upholding-the-highest-bioethical-standards. This shows how things have changed between the 1950s – when Henrietta Lacks’ cells were taken – and today.

There are also questions about the ethics of genetic engineering. Here’s one summary of the ethical concerns of genome editing from the NIH National Human Genome Research Institute: https://www.genome.gov/about-genomics/policy-issues/Genome-Editing/ethical-concerns

If you’d rather have a philosophical debate, how about discuss/debate the following.

What is a monster?

Are robots alive?

Or maybe there’s another topic in these books you’d rather sink your teeth into (pun intended).


Janet Slingerland is the author of more than 20 books for young readers. To find out more about Janet and her books, check out http://janetsbooks.com.