August 18, 2011


Scary Science: 24 Creepy Experiments. By Shar Levine and Leslie Johnstone. Illustrations by Ashley Spires. Scholastic. $6.99.

Shark-A-Phobia. By Grace Norwich. Scholastic. $5.99.

Phobiapedia: All the Things We Fear the Most! By Joel Levy. Scholastic. $8.99.

     If you make scientific material sufficiently frightening, gross or peculiar, will young readers find it more interesting? Scholastic, longtime purveyor of intelligently written, age-appropriate nonfiction, has apparently decided that the answer is yes – at least in books like these two. By taking legitimate scientific inquiry and dressing it up with cartoons, dramatic layouts, tabloid-style paragraphs, and the most superficially worrisome emphasis possible, the publisher hopes to…well, what, exactly? Kids who become interested in science through these books are due for a major disappointment if they decide to pursue matters in school or in extracurricular activities, only to discover that experimentation, fact-gathering and the scientific method are methodical, mundane and even (horrors!) dull. Of course, to put the best possible face on things, it may be that kids who become interested in these books will be so captivated by the information that they will seek out more of the same and devour it even when it is not presented with quite so heavy an emphasis on entertainment. Nothing wrong with these books becoming gateways to more-sober material – if in fact they do.

     The very amusing illustrations in Scary Science are as much of an attraction as the two dozen experiments in the book, which are explained in paragraphs with such headings as “Gross! What Happened?” and “Eeew! What happened?” What happens is that a variety of simple ingredients can be used to create substances that, well, gross people out. Festering ooze, zombie food, bubbling alien blood and other foul features are here, all presented with practical-joker enthusiasm. For example, ghost writing on a bathroom mirror can easily be created by writing a message on a fogged-up mirror after someone takes a shower – the message will reappear the next time the bathroom gets steamy. Or rubbery alien eyes can be created by soaking hard-boiled eggs in vinegar for two weeks (there is no way to make these experiments occur in accelerated time). The recipes here are full of admonitions to use an adult helper, plus red-lettered warnings: “Do not put [homemade festering ooze] in your eyes, nose, or any other open body part,” and “This experiment must be performed in a well-ventilated area away from open flames, preferably outdoors,” and so on. The warnings – undoubtedly necessary for legal reasons – take some of the fun out of the yuckiness, but at least some kids will enjoy this sort of slimy science anyway. And the book does contain some actual, factual material labeled “Strange…but True” – appearing after certain experiments. For example, “there is an extremely rare medical condition called hypertrichosis that has only been seen in about 50 people in the world” and is sometimes called “Werewolf Syndrome.” And “there is a condition called porphyria that is a possible source of the vampire myth [because, among other things, sufferers] often have receding gums due to light exposure, which can make their teeth look longer, like vampire fangs.” Scary Science is a noble (well, maybe not exactly noble) attempt to interest kids in real science by connecting it with the sort of stuff seen in movies and on TV, making things just bizarre enough, perhaps, to show that science can be fun when used in certain very specific ways. It could be an enjoyable book for a Halloween-themed party or spooky birthday bash. And its concluding “afraid of the dark” experiment includes an interesting list of the scientific names of phobias, ranging from brontophobia (fear of thunder and thunderstorms) to triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number 13).

     Omitted from that list is the title of another Scholastic souped-up science book, Shark-A-Phobia – which is not the correct term for fear of sharks, anyway. As the book itself points out, the right word is selachophobia, but that wouldn’t make much of a title for a work aimed at young readers. This book gets right to the point on the cover, which shows a gigantic open-mouthed shark supposedly about to bite the head off a suitably scared-looking boy – although the picture is so obviously a composite that it is not really frightening. The book itself gets to its point pretty quickly: “Let’s learn more about what makes a shark a shark.” Then, in short paragraphs that fit around impressive photos of the toothy fish (including some extreme close-ups of their teeth), there are pages labeled “Fright Bite” and “The World’s Most Dangerous Sharks,” along with such interesting information as: filter-feeding sharks use a gill raker to get small plants and animals from seawater; sharks can dislocate their jaws from their skulls, the better to swallow large prey; sharks can pick up the odor of a single drop of blood dissolved in 25 gallons of water; pores at the front of a shark’s head, called ampullae of Lorenzini, detect electrical waves; and so on. The information here is solid, but is unlikely to be the reason kids will be attracted to the book. It is those wide-gaping jaws, those dark fins slicing through water, that will be the primary reading motivators here – followed by some of the more peculiar facts about sharks, such as their having up to 20,000 teeth in a lifetime and roaming up to 10,000 miles a year looking for food.

     Fear of sharks and of thunder and lightning appear as well in Phobiapedia, a compendium of scary stuff – well, scary to some people, anyway. The phobias discussed here are real enough, but many may come as surprises to young readers: aichmophobia (fear of pointy things), mottephobia (fear of moths), and ereuthophobia (fear of the color red), for example. This is a more factually dense book than the others, with genuinely intriguing information and a format that, while punchy and visually attractive, complements the material well. Here readers learn that the most common animal phobia is arachnophobia (fear of spiders); that claustrophobia (fear of very small spaces) may be partly inherited; that acrophobia (fear of heights) can be treated by the use of “virtual cliffs”; and that aquaphobia (fear of water) may be so severe that a person will refuse to take a bath. The book makes it clear that “phobias involve more than just being nervous about or disliking something. Ophidiophobes may be terrified by pictures of snakes, toy snakes, or even just thinking about snakes.” The illustrations in the book would make it a nightmare for anyone actually suffering from the phobias. “Entomophobia” (fear of insects), for example, shows extreme closeups of a green mantis, a huge-jawed stag beetle, and a stick insect that resembles a walking tank from some alien world. And “odontophobia” (fear of teeth) not only shows an open-mouthed great white shark but also has a gharial displaying its set of 110 chompers. Phobiapedia is somewhere between gross and entertaining…or, more correctly, somewhere among gross, entertaining and informative. If it doesn’t scare you, it will likely enlighten you. Like Scary Science and Shark-A-Phobia, it shares the worthy aim of attempting to interest kids in scientific information, pulling them in with overdone histrionics in the presumed hope that they will retain their fascination long enough to get beyond the presentation and become enthralled by the underlying material. This is certainly worth a try, although there is bound to be a letdown among young readers when they find out that science, real science, just doesn’t lend itself to the wham-bang punchiness of these introductory volumes.

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