December 02, 2021


The Secret Code Inside You: All About Your DNA. By Rajani LaRocca, M.D. Illustrated by Steven Salerno. Little Bee Books. $17.99.

Cat Ninja 2: Time Heist. By Matthew Cody. Illustrated by Chad Thomas. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

     Writing about complex science for young readers is exceptionally difficult: the necessary hyper-simplification threatens at every moment to turn into over-simplification that results in significant misunderstanding. Therefore, what Rajani LaRocca has accomplished with The Secret Code Inside You is all the more remarkable: this is a book about DNA for the very youngest readers (ages 4-8), and the whole thing is written in rhyme, which seems well-nigh impossible, given the subject matter. Of course, the book barely scratches the surface of this enormously important topic, but it scratches it in a way that is likely to make young readers want to know more – attracted both by the charming presentation and by LaRocca’s refusal to avoid the use of words such as genes, proteins and chromosomes. LaRocca starts with the sorts of questions that kids in the target age group would likely ask when observing the world: why can’t we catch flies with our tongue as lizards do, see at night as well as owls do, breathe underwater like fish? The answer, LaRocca explains in a wonderful four-line encapsulation of the topic, lies in our DNA: “It looks like twisted ladders,/ or tiny, swirling noodles./ It makes us into people,/ instead of into poodles.” Then LaRocca – abetted by delightfully engaging illustrations by Steven Salerno – explains a few basic facts about DNA, what it does, and how it is reflected in everyone’s appearance: “You notice in the mirror/ that you have your father’s nose./ You might look at your wiggly feet/ and see your mother’s toes.” And then, of at least equal importance, LaRocca states (not in these exact words) that DNA is not destiny: “It makes the color of your eyes,/ but YOU choose where to look,” and “It gives you muscles small or large,/ but YOU choose how to move,” and so on. This is a wonderful, entirely age-appropriate explanation of what DNA is, what it does, why it is crucial, and what it does not do or predetermine. And at the back of the book, after the rhymes and the fun (and yes, the book is fun), LaRocca does one expected and one unexpected thing. First, as expected, she provides more-detailed information on the topic, suitable for older readers in the target age group (perhaps ages 7-8) or for parents to discuss with children. And then, unexpectedly, having stated that we share 50% of our DNA with bananas (!!), LaRocca provides an excellent “Banana DNA Experiment” that lets children actually see banana DNA – in clumps, to be sure, but yes, it really is banana DNA. The ingredients for the experiment are such common household items as hot water, salt, dishwashing soap and rubbing alcohol; the procedure to follow is stated clearly; and the expected results are excellently laid out and explained. The experiment is an ideal way to make a connection between the “macro” world of bananas and people and the “micro” world of DNA, proteins, cells, and the rest of the building blocks of life. The entirety of The Secret Code Inside You is so neatly conceived and presented that it will likely inspire young readers to want to learn a lot more about genetics – starting, perhaps, at some of the scientifically solid Internet sites that LaRocca thoughtfully recommends.

     Far more common in books for young readers – including ones older than the target audience for LaRocca’s book – is a kind of make-believe science that is essentially magic with gadgets, bearing no resemblance whatsoever to actual science or, for that matter, to much of anything in the real world. This sort of non-science can be fun to read about as long as none of it is taken the slightest bit seriously. It is frequently the stuff of graphic novels for preteens, such as the Cat Ninja books by Matthew Cody. The second in the series, Time Heist, has a new illustrator – Chad Thomas instead of YehudĂ­ Mercado – but is otherwise more of the same. That is, in fact, the issue with this (+++) sequel: it is not much but more of the same. The first book amusingly introduced the title character and some cute-and-silly additional ones, including the nefarious Master Hamster, the dapper international jewel thief called Le Chat, and the hilarious Lord Elan Mollusk (an actual gigantic mollusk and an obvious nod to businessman Elon Musk). And there were enough twists in the story to keep young readers intrigued, if not exactly on the edge of their seats: Cat Ninja is a non-speaking “pampered house cat of an eleven-year-old boy” when not in costume (and even when costumed, he does not speak); Master Hamster eventually decides it’s just as well to stuff himself with food and roll around in his hamster ball as to terrify the residents of Metro City; and so on. But there is less charm in Time Heist, which seems to be trying a bit too hard. The second novel does not recap the first, so the characters’ personalities and relationships are unclear for anyone who did not read the initial entry. The minor characters this time are introduced for no particular reason and then leave the story, also for no particular reason – for instance, “Combat Wombat: Soldier of Fortune,” who shows up just because he feels like fighting but then doesn’t, and simply leaves town. The main story arc involves a tiny, newly hatched owl called Hoot, who turns out to have mysterious superpowers because he is really from the future, having been transported to present-day Metro City by a future good guy named Chronowl, or maybe by a future bad guy called The Cuckoo. Hoot’s eggshell is imbued with “chronol energy” (here comes the pseudo-science), and the various characters in the book – human and animal – travel to The Cuckoo’s lair in the distant future to encounter dinosaurs and giant robots and refugees from the Wild West, and it all gets very confusing and has a lot of “Roar” and “Snap” panels because of the “time anomalies.” It then falls to Cat Ninja and the other good-guy characters to reverse all the time tampering, get the various time-displaced elements back where they belong, and avoid changing anything in the past because, as Master Hamster explains, “If you think about time travel too hard, you’ll give yourself a bellyache.” In fact, there is not much to think about at all in Time Heist, except for one page that is quite funny but very much an in-joke: Cat Ninja is a product of a kind of Internet content factory called “Epic!” (The exclamation mark is part of the name.) And one page in Time Heist, displaying “alternate realities,” actually shows single-panel scenes from other books created by “Epic!” That is sort of a plug, sort of an amusing touch, and sort of completely unscientific despite the reference to “alternate realities” (which, grammatically, should really be “alternative realities”). Readers who enjoyed the first Cat Ninja book may have fun with the second one – although, lamentably, Time Heist does not include a really offbeat bit player from the first book called The Fury Roach. But any resemblance between the pseudo-science of Time Heist and any form of real science whatsoever is entirely coincidental and, really, completely undetectable.

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