Scientists under the Microscope

lives of the scientists_hresLives of the Scientists: Experiments, Explosions (and What the Neighbors Thought)
By Kathleen Krull
Illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt
(Harcourt Children’s Books, 2013, Boston, $20.99)

Lives of the Scientists is not about science. Kathleen Krull is upfront about this in her introduction: “Other books explore the details of their discoveries. This book is about their lives.” Thus, the middle-grade collective biography does not introduce young readers to the principles of gravity, pasteurization, or adaptation; instead, they learn about Newton’s prickliness, Pasteur’s autocratic manner, and Darwin’s intestinal difficulties.

Krull’s lively prose style and Kathryn Hewitt’s playful illustrations that flirt with, but do not quite descend to, caricature make Lives of the Scientists an enjoyable read. Adults in particular should enjoy learning the about the characters behind advances in genetics, astronomy, and animal behavior. However, the book’s problem is just that: readers unfamiliar with the scientists profiled will remember their personal quirks and not their contributions to human knowledge. Young readers deserve entertainment as much as anyone, but if a book is their introduction to a historic or public figure, then that text should offer a reasonable summary of that person’s work. Without this focus, the biography becomes mere gossip.

Lives of the Scientists may amuse readers of all ages, but it should not attract young people to science. In fact, the collective biography unwittingly perpetuates the oddball genius stereotype. What it does do is raise questions about the role of children’s biographies: should authors strive to educate children? Entertain them? A bit of both? The debate over the boundaries between instruction and amusement continues.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

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