Learning from Mother Nature

The following high-interest, engagingly written, STEM-focused titles explore natural history and the natural world for young adults. For slightly younger teens (and tweens), see also How to Build a Human: In Seven Evolutionary Steps by Pamela S. Turner, illustrated by John Gurche.

Duet: Our Journey in Song with the Northern Mockingbird
by Phillip Hoose
Middle School, High School     Farrar    160 pp.    g
9/22    978-0-374-38877-5    $24.99
e-book ed.  978-0-374-38878-2    $12.99

Hoose chronicles the unique relationship between humans and the northern mockingbird in this medley of natural history, political history, mythology, and folklore. He demonstrates humanity’s early links with the mockingbird by recounting stories from Pueblo, Mayan, and Hopi cultures. From there, he discusses how the bird was misidentified by Columbus, appreciated by Jefferson, painted by Audubon, studied by Darwin, and more. The book does not shy away from the uglier aspects of history, from Jefferson’s reliance on enslaved people to the cruelty of the captive bird trade, with a thread of environmental concern running throughout. Hoose also highlights popular culture, including American songs featuring mockingbirds; and modern science, with new discoveries about their intelligence and capabilities. Back matter includes detailed source notes and suggestions for how readers can help preserve the northern mockingbird and other songbirds. While this book lacks some of the immediacy and firsthand observation of Hoose’s other titles (Moonbird, rev. 7/12, among others) — a note acknowledges pandemic-related research obstacles — it compensates with breadth of scope and liveliness of prose and will likely leave readers with new appreciation for this common backyard bird. K RACHAEL STEIN

American Murderer: The Parasite That Haunted the South [Medical Fiascoes]
by Gail Jarrow
Middle School, High School    Calkins/Astra    160 pp.    g
9/22    978-1-68437-815-9    $24.99
e-book ed.  978-1-63592-829-7    $14.99

Zoologist Charles Stiles discovered a new species of hookworm: Necator americanus, the titular “American murderer,” which affected a large portion of the population in the American South during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Hookworms pass through the skin into the blood, lungs, and small intestines where they can feast, sometimes by the hundreds, on their unsuspecting hosts, leaving them emaciated, feeble, and dull-witted. Eggs pass out of the body with feces, and since many people defecated in the woods surrounding their homes and went barefoot during that period, it’s no wonder hookworms were widespread. The cure was simple and inexpensive, but local doctors did not recognize the symptoms or treat them properly. Moreover, many people did not trust Stiles, despite his position at the U.S. Public Health Service: he was a scientist, not a doctor, and he wasn’t a Southerner. It would finally take a partnership with the Rockefellers’ philanthropic organization to properly amplify his message. Jarrow (Blood and Germs, rev. 3/21), who has carved out a niche for herself in the history of science and medicine, here adeptly weaves solid research, primary-source quotes, and historical artifacts with elements of mystery for a compelling read. A glossary, an author’s note, source notes (with primary sources indicated), bibliography, and an index are appended. JONATHAN HUNT

Buzzkill: A Wild Wander Through the Weird and Threatened World of Bugs
by Brenna Maloney; illus. by Dave Mottram
Middle School, High School    Godwin/Holt    384 pp.    g
10/22    978-1-250-80103-6    $19.99
e-book ed.  978-1-250-80105-0    $10.99

In this wide-ranging, amusing, and informative investigation of the insect world, Maloney features the ways in which insects are remarkable unto themselves as well as in relation to humans and the environment. The book opens with a chapter on the basics of insect anatomy and characteristics, with plenty of examples to illustrate their remarkable diversity, then turns to chapters that center on particular insect themes and meander into related topics. A chapter on the role of insects in decomposition includes discussions about forensic entomology, poop-eating dung beetles, and an escapade involving deer skull scavenging, for example. Maloney herself is the central character: an enthusiastic, unflinching, and unfailingly curious explorer of all things insect. She cooks with cricket flour; mail-orders painted lady butterflies, hissing cockroaches, and an ant farm; conducts citizen science insect counts in her own backyard; and interviews scientists to gather information about cutting-edge insect investigation. Her friendly, engaging text includes many analogies (exoskeletons as “the ultimate power suit”) and jokey asides. Interspersed throughout are spot illustrations of insects that combine field-study precision for the bodies with large cartoonlike eyes and expressions. If readers are not already inspired by Maloney’s antics, the final chapter provides an exhaustive list of ways to take action and preserve insect species. A suggested reading list and an index (unseen) are appended. DANIELLE J. FORD

The Woman Who Split the Atom: The Life of Lise Meitner
by Marissa Moss; illus. by the author
Middle School, High School    Abrams    264 pp.    g
4/22    978-1-4197-5853-9    $19.99
e-book ed.  978-1-6833-5827-5    $15.54

This absorbing and well-paced biography of Austrian-born trailblazing physicist Lise Meitner begins by exploring Meitner’s path from college student to struggling laboratory scientist (prevented, as a woman, from gaining employment as a university professor in Berlin). With the coming of WWII, the narrative kicks into high gear as Moss depicts the Jewish Meitner’s delayed decision to finally flee Germany and the dramatic escape that follows. It is in the relative safety of neighboring Sweden that Meitner makes her most significant discovery, concluding that atoms can be split and that the resulting “fission” releases massive amounts of energy. The implications of this discovery would emerge shortly thereafter with the Manhattan Project. Moss provides readers with comprehensible descriptions of her subject’s scientific work; equally important to Meitner’s story is the depiction of the conditions under which she finds herself working during Hitler’s rise to power. Chapters are preceded by single-page comics showing significant moments in the unfolding narrative. These welcome breaks serve many functions, including moving Meitner’s story along, depicting scientists at work in their labs, and helping readers better understand the many pressures Meitner was under. Extensive back matter includes a timeline, profiles of the various scientists mentioned in the narrative, a glossary, an index, and chapter-by-chapter source notes. A perfect accompaniment to Sheinkin’s Bomb (rev. 3/17); see also Atkins’s Hidden Powers: Lise Meitner’s Call to Science (rev. 5/22). ERIC CARPENTER

From the September 2022 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Horn Book
Horn Book

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