Thursday, February 16, 2012

Invincible Microbe Book Review by ChristineMM

Title: Invincible Microbe Tuberculosis and the Never-Ending Search for a Cure

Authors: Jim Murphy and Alison Blank

Publication: Clarion, July 2012

My Star Rating: 4 Stars

Summary Statement: Gave Grim and Non-Hopeful Outlook (Even in the Title) - Could Scare Some Sensitive Kids - Marketed to Ages 9-12

I am a homeschooling mother who prefers using "real" or "living books" instead of boring textbooks, especially for the middle school and elementary grades for learning about nonfiction topics such as science and history.

I own and have read several of Jim Murphy’s books and appreciate that he writes detailed nonfiction books that educate deeply (and do not dumb down the content), that he can write in an engaging, non-boring style and that he does NOT use a patronizing tone. I also like that he sometimes chooses to write about topics that have been ignored by the children’s publishing industry (like TB).

Murphy writes deeply on topics and some may even ask, “Do kids really want to know all this detail. Do they care?” and “Who is reading these books really”? This book is marketed to children aged 9-12. This is Murphy’s first writing partnership with his wife Alison Blank who writes and edits children’s publications. I noticed a difference in the writing style of this collaborative work. I got a sense that the writing was a bit watered down in the beginning of the book. However at other parts I thought maybe not enough was done to bring this down to the level of the age of the readers. Even a labeled gifted student or any bright kid at age 9 or 10 may not know the terms disingenuous or grudgingly, to name just two. Other times large or uncommon words are used when I felt the writing could have explained things a bit more or another word could have been selected. I was torn about the book, thinking sometimes it was “just right”, sometimes it was a bit easier to read or simplified than necessary yet other times it was talking over a 9-12 year Old’s head. In the last two chapters there is an over-use of government agencies and nonprofit organizations which children of this age are usually ignorant about.

This book discusses TB starting with early man and going forward in time and telling how it affected people around the world (not just focused on the USA). Two chapters focus on the sanatorium method of treatment. Different medical treatments that were used at various times were explained and their uselessness or that they made it even worse is explained also. I appreciated the detailed information about different ideas that scientists and doctors had and how they experimented and tested them (sometimes even going directly to use on humans) and sometimes with dire results. This was treated well although some of the treatments were gruesome and some readers may be grossed out or even scared that supposedly well-intentioned doctors did things that hurt or even killed their patients due to their wrong-thinking or ignorance. (If doctors 50 years ago made terrible mistakes can’t the doctors of today also make mistakes using the current medical opinion of today?)

Once we get to the point in history where an antibiotic cure was found and an effective immunization was found, it was hopeful and good. So, at that point I still didn’t understand the title of the book INVINCIBLE MICROBE. I thought we’d beat the disease!

Then we hit chapter 10 which dives deeper into the fact that microbes mutate and adapt to become resistant to antibiotics. On page 108 it discusses a resistant form of TB discovered in 1979 then goes on to explain that AIDS was in the United States and that AIDS patients began becoming infected with TB. It then switches to discussing TB treatment in third world countries where patients are not willfully complying with antibiotic therapy so they use a system where a health care professional watches them take the pills. The last sentence of the chapter says that while TB seemed under control in the USA it was raging in other parts of the world (that’s scary).

The situation grows more dire for readers in chapter 11. It opens with a story of one airline passenger from the Ukraine infected with TB flying to the USA who winds up infecting many people on the same airplane. While readers may be worried about that, the writing turns to being cluttered with acronyms for government agencies in USA and worldwide agencies are thrown around without any explanation for what they are. Readers aged 9-12 don’t usually know about those (and many adults don’t know about them either). What child knows about the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease? WHO and the CDC are never explained. That introduces an element of confusion for the reader. What the young readers will understand is the warning on page 118 that thanks to modern (and affordable) international commercial air travel “no disease is more than 24 hours away”. So even if you live in America with good health care you are still at risk!

Sadly the book ends on that scary tone. Even the title is grim, calling TB “invincible”. I didn’t finish the book feeling hopeful. I didn’t finish the book feeling confident that humans will be able to beat this thing; I felt that it’s a constant work in progress, but knowing the past good intentions resulted in so much suffering and death I wasn’t feeling too hopeful for the future of battling super germs. Although the authors said that many scientists and agencies are trying their hardest to stay on top of this “invincible microbe”, if they were confident themselves why was this grim title chosen?

I had some issues with the way the funding of the sanatoriums was handled. When deciding to get into a certain topic such as funding of treatments and the controversial issues of race and prejudice, and how a nation is to handle requests for free treatment by illegal immigrants, it’s complicated, and hard to address in a children’s book for kids aged 9-12. I detected some guiding persuasion by what was said and also by what was left out of the book. I felt some topics were glossed over too shallowly (poor white people and all the African American citizens) and other times they went too deep (Mexican illegal immigrants). I also researched on my own and found that another option for sanatoriums existed: nonprofit organizations who gave free care to their members, why was that never mentioned? I was left thinking the best source for funding was government, to give fair and equal access to all. After reading an emotional story of suffering by TB patients when reading that some were denied care due to the color of their skin or their wealth level that it’s a crying shame.

If I try to think optimistically: I think the writing of those controversial topics was done intentionally to show how what was done in the not so recent history was imperfect and to get kids to ask how we can use lessons learned from that to apply to today’s challenge with the same issue of trying to get citizens (and illegal immigrants) equal access to the best medical care of the day. That’s a good thing. If I try to think cynically: I would accuse the authors of a veiled attempt to persuade readers to think that free health care administered by government is the best option for everyone and that Mexicans should be able to freely immigrate to America and to receive free medical care also (not just free care to US legal residents). I have not detected persuasion of this type in past books by Jim Murphy so I wonder if this is the influence of Alison Blank. I’ll not share which of these I personally suspect is true.

So, my feelings on this book were mixed. In a nutshell I appreciated the detailed book about TB to teach about the history of medicine and the history of our country and the world, yet I didn’t like the doomsday ending. I don’t know that every child would be interested in reading this book, yet the gifted kids who may gravitate to this type of deep learning who want to help save the world, are sometimes also the most sensitive and worrisome types that may become highly disturbed by the last two chapters.

Overall I do appreciate all the history in the book so I still rate this 4 stars = I Like It.

Disclosure: I received an ARC of this book from Amazon Vine. I was not paid to write the review nor was I under obligation to rate it favorably or to blog about it. For my blog's full disclosure statement see the link near the top of my blog's sidebar.

1 comment:

C T said...

Sounds like a very interesting subject, but then I like medical non-fiction. I'll look this up in a couple of years for my oldest.
On the subject of government-provided health care, that can be corrupted, and the results aren't pretty. I was on a work-related trip in the Philippines a few years ago, and a politician in one of the provinces proudly told me of his system of health care assistance (health services and medicines) from which only people who supported him politically could benefit. Basically, he was using public funds to help keep himself in power via a powerful incentive for a very poor population: health care access.