October 15, 2015


Boy, Were We Wrong about the Human Body! By Kathleen V. Kudlinski. Illustrated by Debbie Tillie. Dial. $16.99.

Dear Santa, Love, Rachel Rosenstein. By Amanda Peet and Andrea Troyer. Illustrated by Christine Davenier. Doubleday. $17.99.

     As in the other “science then and science now” books in the Boy, Were We Wrong… series by Kathleen Kudlinski and Debbie Tillie, there is a pleasant mixture of amusement and knowledge in Boy, Were We Wrong about the Human Body! This series is formulaic, but in a good way: families can be sure that each entry is carefully researched and presented in a way that draws young readers in through amusing text and illustrations and then gives them facts in a straightforward manner. The difficulty that Kudlinski and Tillie face, for the most part successfully, lies in the necessity of not laughing at or mocking the wrong notions they present: people had good reasons to believe what we now know to be untrue, and that is why so many incorrect ideas persisted for hundreds or even thousands of years. Indeed, at the end of the latest book, Kudlinski reminds readers that “our current ideas about the human body may someday seem just as strange as the mummies of long-ago Egypt” – a welcome dose of scientific modesty. The main point of the book, though, is to highlight ways in which scientific knowledge has advanced over the centuries – for example, from Plato’s belief that the eyes shoot rays to gather images of objects, to Persian physician Rāzī’s discovery of how the eyes respond to light rather than emitting rays, to modern understanding of how the pupil, retina, optic nerve and brain function together when we look at something. Even when discussing a “boy, were they wrong!” notion – such as the idea that because bloodletting helped reduce the swelling of bruises, it would work for all sorts of illnesses – Kudlinski provides perspective by pointing out that “sometimes, we still use the ancient ideas that work, like acupuncture to ease pain or leeches to shrink swelling.” Throughout the book, concepts that can be difficult to understand are explained clearly by Kudlinski, while Tillie’s illustrations do a great deal to keep the information flow from seeming too heavy – starting with a dedication-page picture of a skeleton walking along and chatting with a boy and girl. Tillie’s facing-page views of an imagined medieval science-fair exhibit on “Thee [sic] four humors” and a modern one on water and vitamins are particularly well-contrasted, while the simplified views of X-rays, CAT and PET scans, and ultrasound provide young readers with solid grounding in what these modern medical visualizations show. Like other books in this series, this one is only a superficial introduction to complex material: the references given on the last page are a good place to start getting more-in-depth information.

     Feelings, not information, are the problem in Dear Santa, Love, Rachel Rosenstein. Here, Amanda Peet and Andrea Troyer – abetted by warm and pleasant illustrations by Christine Davenier – explore the sadness of not fitting in through a story about a little Jewish girl who really, really likes Christmas and wants to celebrate it. “Being Jewish was fun most of the time” for Rachel Rosenstein, Peet and Troyer write, but at Christmastime, “Rachel felt like a kid in a candy store with no mouth.” The religious aspects of Christmas are nowhere mentioned here (although the religious elements of Jewish celebrations are): what Rachel misses are the bright lights, the celebratory atmosphere and the anticipation of Santa’s visit. Rachel is determined to have some sort of Christmas, although her family insists, in rather callous terms, that that is not going to happen. Rachel tries writing to Santa, making her own Christmas decorations to go with the Hanukkah ones already displayed in the house, and even talking with Santa at the mall during a shopping trip with a Christmas-celebrating friend. But of course Rachel gets nothing for Christmas, not even a family-togetherness day, since her mom works at a hospital and has to go there until dinnertime. Rachel’s feeling of being left out of all the fun persists when the family goes out for Chinese food, “to the Chinese place they went to every Christmas” – until she sees some other non-Christmas-celebrating families eating there, including ones who mark Chinese New Year and others who celebrate Diwali. Rachel realizes that Christmas is only one among all the “many great holidays in the world,” and finally feels better – although, to the authors’ credit, still “a tiny bit bad” at the end, when she leaves the restaurant and observes just how festive everything is. A sensitive and nonjudgmental approach to the issue of being Jewish at a time of a major Christian celebration with strong and omnipresent secular elements, Dear Santa, Love, Rachel Rosenstein would have been even better if Rachel’s family, in recognition of how young she is, had allowed her a compromise of some sort, as the family of one of Rachel’s friends does – or if the absolute refusal to “give in” to Rachel’s hopes had been accompanied by a better explanation than her grandfather’s glib “you can’t sit on two horses with one behind.” Still, for Jewish families determined to have nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas, even in its most secular manifestations, this is a book that can help young children feel less left out than they otherwise would, while assuring them that it is all right to feel a little bit sad as non-participants in all the fun they see others having.

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