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STEM Tuesday – Diseases and Pandemics — Author Interview

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

Today we’ve the pleasure of revisiting Gail Jarrow, author of the highly acclaimed Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary. Although this is a historical medical thriller its exploration of the opportunities and ethics of public health resonate in today’s COVID-19 reality.

Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano: Thank you for joining STEM Tuesday again. I hope you are doing well during this pandemic. Fatal Fever takes readers to a time when typhoid fever outbreaks were not uncommon in the U.S. and elsewhere. What would you say the book is primarily about?

Picture of the cover of fatal fever. Gail Jarrow:  The book is part of my Deadly Diseases trilogy, which focuses on early-20th-century medicine.  I consider that period a turning point. After the acceptance  of  germ theory, scientists and physicians were looking for ways to prevent, treat, and cure diseases. I wrote Fatal Fever to explain how typhoid fever was tackled, and I chose Mary Mallon, aka Typhoid Mary,  as a way to tell the story.

CCD: The opening scene, in which Mary Mallon seeks to escape from health officials and the police, is full of suspense. It’s a gripping beginning and it flows smoothly to the rest of the book’s structure. It makes me wonder how the book’s narrative arc took shape in your mind. Can you fill us on in some of that process?

GJ:  I think it helps readers to understand unfamiliar information, such as a disease, when I approach the subject through personal stories.  Because Mary Mallon was an asymptomatic typhoid carrier,  I couldn’t show the disease’s horrible toll by only telling  her story.  I found another way.  I discovered that George Soper (the sanitary engineer  who tracked her down) had helped to clean up a typhoid epidemic in my hometown of Ithaca, New York, in 1903.  Early in my  book, I use details about that episode to introduce readers to the biology of the disease, the ways it devastated the bodies of individual Ithacans, and the fact that there was no cure or treatment.  When Soper starts his search for Mary Mallon in New York City just three years later, the reader understands why he believes it is critically important to find her before she can sicken and kill others.

CCD: This book brings in various disciplines and topics –history, human rights and civics, and public health and the biology of disease all come into play. Yet it’s a tight story. Did you ever struggle with drafts that were too complex or too rambling a book for your readers?

GJ: My biggest hurdle is the jump from researching to writing. I’ve read thousands of pages of historical background, past and present scientific literature, and primary documents. From all that, I have to figure out the most engaging, accessible, and accurate way to present this knowledge in abbreviated form. One thing that often helps is to remember my days teaching middle-school science. If I were conveying this information to my students, how would I do it?  As I write, I keep an eye on vocabulary as well as sentence, paragraph, and chapter length. I read everything  aloud so that I hear how it sounds. I’m not afraid to slash my prose. When I hand my manuscript to my longtime editor, Carolyn Yoder, I always ask her to look for spots that drag or confuse.

CCD: How did you decide which scientific information to include and what to leave out?

GJ: I consider how much science background my typical readers probably have. Do they know enough that I can build on that foundation to explain new information?  I’m careful not to simplify so much that I make incorrect statements.  Sometimes, after reading many scientific papers and talking to experts, I realize that parts of the science aren’t settled. Depending on the topic, I might explain the debate. But if it’s too technical and in the weeds for my audience, I might not include that aspect. I ran into a different problem with my book about plague, Bubonic Panic. I came across a recent controversial hypothesis about the history of plague. Though intriguing, it was based on very weak evidence. If the evidence had been stronger, I might have mentioned the idea. But I decided it would be irresponsible to perpetuate what might turn out to be speculative balderdash.

CCD: I have experienced similar decisions in my own writing. Deciding which new ideas to include can be a tough call! Moving on…Obviously, as a book that features a dangerous infectious disease, there are parallels to our current COVID-19 pandemic. Which Fatal Fever themes and issues resonate most strongly for you as the world faces and attempts to cope with COVID-19?

GJ:  In my Author’s Note to Fatal Fever, which I wrote several years ago, I raised the issues that arise when a deadly, highly contagious, and untreatable disease strikes.  I was thinking about typhoid fever in 1900 and the plight of Mary Mallon when quarantines and contact tracing were part of the story. But what I wrote then applies to any epidemic:  What do we expect health authorities to do? What government actions would or should we tolerate? Does protecting a city/state/country override the rights and freedoms of an individual?  You can’t get any more relevant to COVID than that!

public health poster/cartoon

 The numerous historical images and documents in FATAL FEVER, such as this cartoon (Page 115), help to bring readers back to the early 20th century and better understand the tale and its context.

CCD: In Fatal Fever, you point out that science understanding that asymptomatic individuals can spread typhoid fever was new at the time when Mary Mallon was identified as a carrier. Today, we are facing a new disease, and information about its transmission has developed and evolved over the months. I wonder if you see anything in the story of Mary Mallon and her intersection with disease, transmission, and public health that might be of use in our individual and collective responses to COVID-19?

GJ: I personally learned several lessons from Mary’s case and typhoid outbreaks. People whose job it was to worry about public health (officials, medical personnel) had one agenda. People who had to make a living to support themselves and their families (Mary, other typhoid carriers) had a different agenda. The goals and needs of these groups ended up in conflict.  Compromises had to be found.  They have to be found today, too.

World Health Organization slide about how COVID-19 is spread.

An early 21st-century public health slide about how COVID-19 spreads. Note that as of this posting, WHO and the US Centers for disease control acknowledge that asymptomatic individuals can also spread the coronavirus. (Source: World Health Organization)

 

Another lesson is a hopeful one. The diseases I’ve studied from 100 years ago have been controlled and, in some cases, conquered.  We have witnessed amazing discoveries in COVID treatments and vaccines in nine or ten months. It took years, even decades, to make that progress with earlier diseases. Our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents suffered through much worse times—disease-wise—than today, and they coped and survived. History gives us perspective.

CCD: I appreciate that hopeful, historical angle! As you explain in a short video on your website, you write about history. Yet science themes come into your books. What thoughts do you have about how these historical stories might impact readers’ relationship to science?

GJ: First, as I mentioned above, I think personal stories make scientific topics more relatable.

Second, the history of science shows that understanding and “theories” change as we gain more information. In the past, scientists and physicians  fervently believed in ideas that we now know were absolutely wrong, and the scientific/medical establishment criticized and ridiculed anyone who challenged those ideas. Two examples of 19th-century mavericks who are relevant today as we deal with antiseptics and handwashing: Lister and Semmelweis. Scientific views change. Careful observation and proof from unbiased tests are essential.

CCD: Stepping away from history—what’s new for you as an author, and what we can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?

The cover of Gail Jarrow's most recent book, BLOOD AND GERMS.

Gail Jarrow continues to write about the intersection of history and medicine. BLOOD AND GERMS is her most recent book.

GJ: In keeping with my interest in history and the evolution of medicine, this fall I launched my Medical Fiascoes series with Boyds Mills & Kane. The first book, BLOOD AND GERMS: The Civil War Battle Against Wounds and Disease,  came out last month. The second book, AMBUSHED!: The Assassination Plot Against President Garfield, will be published next fall, and it explores the way medical ignorance led to his death. I’m currently in the midst of research for the third book in the series.

CCD: This is exciting! I’m sure we all look forward to exploring more medical history with you as our thoughtful, informative guide, Gail. I want to thank you for your wonderful writing and for this interview. Stay well.

 

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Win a FREE copy of FATAL FEVER: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary!

Enter the giveaway by leaving a comment below. The randomly-chosen winner will be contacted via email and asked to provide a mailing address (within the U.S. only) to receive the book.

Good luck!

Photo of Carolyn DeCristofanoYour host is Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano, founding STEM Tuesday contributor, STEM Education Consultant, and author of STEM books for kids. Her books include A Black Hole is NOT a Hole, Running on Sunshine: How Does Solar Energy Work?, and National Geographic Kids Ultimate Space Atlas.

 

 

 

Gail Jarrow is the author of nonfiction books and novels for ages 8-18. Her nonfiction books have earned numerous awards. Photograph of author Gail Jarrow

 

 

Mini-Museums for Middle Grade Favorites

Hello, fans of Middle Grade! I hope the school year is running smoothly for your students, your readers, or your own kids, whether they are learning in-person, remotely, independently, or in a hybrid or homeschool environment. While online learning and the use of technology are certainly helpful in this time of Covid, I know my own kids sometimes grow weary of screens and keyboards in their current environments. So I wanted to share a fun and engaging reading activity that can work equally well in both the home and classroom: A Mini-Museum display based on a great Middle Grade read.

As a teacher, librarian, or homeschooling parent, you can pose this idea before readers start or finish a book, or encourage readers to choose a favorite story with which they are already familiar. The Mini-Museum employs reading, writing, and creative/critical thinking skills, and culminates in a hands-on and 3-D product. You can include teamwork and presentation/delivery skills if you choose. The steps are simple and the supplies minimal—and the search for objects gets a reader out of his or her chair and away from the screen.

Step One – After (or while) reading a novel, the reader lists notable and important physical objects mentioned in the book that have some significant relevance and/or symbolic value to the plot, characters, theme, point-of-view, or setting. Eight to ten objects make a nice-sized museum collection, but the suggested or required number would be determined by your readers’ abilities, your environment, your time, and the book choice.

Step Two – Readers gather household, three-dimensional objects that are the real thing, a replica, or a constructed facsimile of each object on his or her list.

Step Three – Readers choose and prepare a display space. This can be a shelf, tabletop, or windowsill in the classroom, or a table or empty corner at home. Use cardboard boxes, recyclables, or piles of books to create museum stands and exhibit spaces. A variety of sizes and levels makes the overall look of the display more interesting and easier to see. Readers can cover these items with plain fabric or paper for a clean “museum look.”

Step Four – Readers fill the museum with their objects. Objects of greatest significance get the choicest spots in the display.

Step Five – Readers write brief descriptive captions to display near each object, like you’d see in a real museum. These can include the object name, the date of use (setting of book), the materials that form the object, and a few sentences on the object’s significance to one or more story elements in the book. Mount the typed and printed (or handwritten) captions on folded index cards and place each free-standing description near its object.

Step Six –Optional share and tell with the class! Thanks to smart phones and cameras, most readers can find a way to show their display distantly to their teacher and classmates.

If you’ve read or taught the excellent Stella by Starlight by Sharon M. Draper, you’ll recognize how these real objects make great representations of the novel’s important character and plot points:

  • Notebook (Stella uses one to practice writing late at night.)
  • Cigar box (Stella keeps her collection of inspirational newspaper articles in one.)
  • An edition of the Star Sentinel (This is the newspaper Stella creates.)
  • Small, unmarked bottle (Stella buys medicine for her sick brother Jojo.)
  • Clean rags torn into strips (Stella tends to her mother’s snakebite.)

Students can manufacture some objects when necessary, like Stella’s original newspaper the Star Sentinel, which she types on a donated typewriter. A description for the torn rags might be something like: “Extra wound dressings, circa early 1930s; wool and cotton. Stella uses dressings like these to help treat her mother’s snakebite. When she finds Mama unconscious in the woods, Stella brings water, whiskey, and dressings to clean and wrap the wound. Mama survives in part due to Stella’s quick actions.”

Benefits of a Mini-Museum Display:

  • It’s highly flexible with strong potential for individualization.
  • Visual-spatial learners will enjoy creating the display space.
  • Readers can work in groups or independently, depending on their situation and capabilities.

Thanks for reading and sharing this idea! Enjoy the holidays, keep safe, and stay well.

STEM Tuesday – Diseases and Pandemics — Book List

From the first sneeze to the last wheeze, these books explore diseases and the scientists who study them.

 

All in a Drop: How Antony van Leeuwenhoek Discovered an Invisible World by Lori Alexander; illus by Vivien Mildenberger

When Antony van Leeuwenhoek read a book showing plants and insects as seen through a microscope, he decided to build his own. Antony is considered the “father of microbiology” and his work with microscopes laid the foundation for (100 years later) understanding that microscopic germs were responsible for disease.

 

 

Science Comics: Plagues: The Microscopic Battlefield by Falynn Koch

Imagine Jules Verne meets Miss Frizzle. In this book, a scientist uses interactive technology to communicate with bubonic plague and yellow fever germs. Readers learn how bacteria and viruses invade our bodies, elude our defenses, and how immunity works. There’s a good explanation of vaccinations and virus mutation (why we need a flu shot every year…).

 

 

Outbreak: Disease Detectives at Work by Mark P. Friedlander, Jr.

What happens when a strange new illness affects entire swaths of people all at once? You call on the “disease detectives” – epidemiologists – to investigate. In this book you’ll learn about the history of plagues, ancient and modern, as well as how epidemiologists study diseases such as Lyme disease, SARS, and AIDS. This book has already been updated twice; I predict in another couple years we’ll see a newer edition that includes Covid-19.

 

Outbreak! Plagues That Changed History by Bryn Barnard

Here’s an extensive evaluation of the causes and human reactions and interactions (from the 1300’s to the present) to bubonic plague, smallpox, yellow fever, cholera, tuberculosis, and the 1918 influenza pandemic. This book examines how these diseases changed societies and what it will ultimately take to eliminate cholera worldwide. It also looks at how wealth, bias, and prejudice continue to affect governmental reactions to microbial evolution.

 

 

Plagues, Pox, and Pestilence by Richard Platt, illus by John Kelly

In an ironic twist, a lab-coated rat, Professor Ratticus, and his cockroach and mosquito assistants lead the reader through a comprehensive look at diseases and epidemics. Comic-like illustrations (like war rooms mapping the spread of germs) and a browseable nonfiction format combine with entertaining graphics, facts, and history to provide a great overview of the world’s worst epidemics and illnesses.

 

Bubonic Plague & Yellow Fever

 

The Horror of the Bubonic Plague (Deadly History series) by Claire Throp

This book provides a concise overview of the history of bubonic plague from the Sixth century to present. Readers learn about causes and cures and some historical context. Some things will sound familiar: the use of quarantine and lockdowns, wearing masks and protective clothing, peddling fake cures, and suffering economic losses. It ends with mention of where plague still exists, but forgets to include the U.S.

 

 

The Plague (Deadliest Diseases of All Time) by Lawrence Andrews

Andrews provides a straightforward examination of the origin of the bubonic plague, methods of transmission, historic effect around the world, and its continued existence. He explains why the plague still affects 1,000 to 2,000 people a year, including within the U.S., and the race to limit its spread and find a way to eliminate the disease.

 

 

Bubonic Panic: When Plague Invaded America by Gail Jarrow

Written as a gripping medical “who-done-it,” this book introduces the ‘phantom killer” and explores the earliest plague pandemics through 1722. When this menace resurfaces in China, India, and Honolulu in the late 1890’s and then San Francisco in 1900, scientists scramble to identify the cause and find a cure, public health officials fight to finish it, and politicians hurry to hide it. This fascinating tale of how the plague settled into American and continues to infect a handful of people each year, includes a “frequently asked questions” section, timeline, and author’s note.

 

An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 by Jim Murphy

This book dramatically examines another “invisible stalker.” Using both first-hand witness and medical accounts, newspaper clippings, and contemporary images, it follows yellow fever’s arrival and spread throughout Philadelphia. Detailing the social, political, and medical conditions and struggles to combat this disease, this book examines the changes that the plague brought to modern medicine and the fear that it could reappear.

 

Typhoid Fever 

 

Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America, by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

This book is not for the squeamish – but if you don’t wash your hands after using the toilet and eat cookies that fell to the floor (5-second rule!) then you should be OK. Mary Mallon cooked for some of the wealthiest families in New York and was well- known for her hand-cranked ice cream topped with fresh fruit. Somehow, her families came down with typhoid fever. George Soper was the epidemic detective on the hunt to find the person making people sick. At the center of it all the question of civil rights and asymptomatic carriers.

 

Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary, by Gail Jarrow

When typhoid fever breaks out in New York, medical detective George Soper traces the outbreak to Mary Mallon. His job: to prevent her from infecting others. But Mary refuses to comply with quarantine and other medical directives. After all, she isn’t sick. So she continues cooking and passing on the disease. Questions of personal freedom versus public health are once again relevant as we deliberate quarantines, lockdowns, and contact tracing.

 

Flu Pandemic

 

Influenza: How the Flu Changed History, by Barbara Krasner

In 1918, people didn’t know the exact cause of the flu. But they knew the germs spread through the air. Some families sealed up their windows, and public health officials ordered people to wear masks. From initial outbreak to development of a vaccine to future epidemics, this book provides a good overview of the flu.

 

 

The 1918 Flu Pandemic: Core Events of a Worldwide Outbreak (What Went Wrong?) by John Joseph Micklos Jr.

Tracking the spread and undulation of the three waves of the 1918 Flu, from March 1918 to June 1919, this book explores the potential causes, actions that facilitated its expansion (such as WWI, armistice celebrations, and soldier’s returns), and lack of a cure that resulted in over 40 million deaths worldwide. Published in 2016, one of the critical thinking questions at the end asks how well the world may be prepared for another flu pandemic.

 

Fever Year- The Killer Flu of 1918 : A Tragedy in Three Acts by Brown, Don

Presented in a graphic novel format, this book tracks the course of the 1918 flu from Camp Funston, Kansas around the world. Many images look eerily familiar – empty streets and masks. A very accessible examination of the politics and science involved in battling the spread and ultimate containment of this flu. Additionally, it comments on current scientist’s desire to discover why this flu was so deadly, by recreating it.

 

 


STEM Tuesday book list prepared by:

 

Sue Heavenrich writes about science for children and their families, from space to backyard ecology. A long line of ants marching across the kitchen counter inspired her first article for kids. When not writing, she’s committing acts of citizen science in the garden. She blogs about science for kids and families at archimedesnotebook.blogspot.com.

 

 

Maria Marshall is a children’s author, blogger, and poet passionate about making nature and reading fun for children. She’s been a judge for the Cybils Awards from 2017 to present. Her poems are published in The Best Of Today’s Little Ditty 2017-2018, 2016, and 2014-2015 anthologies. When not writing, critiquing, or reading, she bird watches, travels the world, bakes, and hikes. Visit her at www.mariacmarshall.com/blog.