CM . . .
. Volume XV Number 15 . . . . March 20, 2009
These four books in the "Crabtree Contact" series use the popular topic of crime scene investigation to appeal to reluctant readers. Written at a grade 2-3 reading level, these books will engage children up to grade 7 because of their interesting content and excellent visual presentation.
Each book begins with a mystery that needs investigation: Bone Detectives starts with the discovery of human bones in a park; Crime Lab Technician begins with a murder; Forensic Evidence: Prints, and Forensic Evidence: Hairs and Fibers each start with a robbery. The investigation to solve each case becomes the narrative around which the book's information is presented. As the forensic detectives collect and analyze trace evidence, readers learn the science behind each kind of analysis.
For example, in Crime Lab Technician, the investigators look for blood on the clothing of two murder suspects. Thus we learn about the use of chemical sprays and ultraviolet light to locate tiny amounts of blood, and about how the DNA in blood cells can be analyzed to identify whose blood it is. When hairs are found on the clothes, we learn about the difference between animal and human hairs and about the distinguishing features that allow investigators to identify a hair. Throughout the book, each bit of evidence is linked to one or both of the suspects, creating suspense. We don't find out whodunit until the end when a chart listing all the evidence shows the logical process used to determine which suspect is guilty.
Crime Lab Technician is the most broad in its subject matter, spending a brief time on most of the types of evidence that can be analyzed: everything from dust to gunshot residue to shoeprints. This makes it by far the most interesting of the four books; its story—a murder with two suspects—is also the most exciting. The other three books focus more narrowly, with varying success.
Although there is apparently a vast amount of information that can be gleaned from a few threads and hairs, I think Forensic Evidence: Hairs and Fibers is stretching to make its material fill 32 pages. I'm not sure an 11-year-old will find the difference between wool dye-lots to be particularly fascinating, nor do I think we need a half a page to tell us that evidence gets put into evidence bags. The story of Hairs and Fibers is the least compelling of the four books and has an unsatisfactory conclusion: the author asks us if we think the suspect is guilty based on the evidence, but she never tells us if he is.
Forensic Evidence: Prints has an equally narrow topic, but its engaging narrative makes every fact about fingerprints jump off the page. Because the investigators encounter a number of dead ends, they have to use increasingly clever methods to find fingerprint evidence, including getting fingerprints off a banana. The suspects become characters as we trace their movements through the fingerprint-laden garbage they leave behind.
Bone Detectives has a great deal of interesting content about what investigators can learn from bones, but this book is organized less logically than the other three books, and some of the material is a little confusing.
All four books have excellent visual presentation. Every page is illustrated with more than one large, color photograph, enhanced with clear labels and sometimes diagrams. The photographs include x-rays and fascinating microscope images that very clearly illustrate the material being discussed, as well as staged photos of the "crime scene" and "suspects" that bring the narrative to life. The overall design is quite sophisticated and will appeal to older children — except for the changes in font size — which I found to be slightly condescending.
The books all have indexes and glossaries, but the most useful back material is the "Crime Online" section which has links to interesting websites. Unfortunately, this section is compressed into the same page as the "Need-to-Know Facts" section which has a few paragraphs of interesting material that didn't fit in the main text. Coming between the glossary and the index, this text-heavy page will likely be passed over by most readers, unless they are directed there by a teacher.
The main purpose of these four books is to get reluctant readers reading, and I believe all four will accomplish that goal admirably. These are books children will choose for themselves. They will be attracted by the topics, drawn in by the beautiful visuals, and kept engaged by the interesting material and enjoyable narratives. I recommend all four books; if I were to buy only one, it would be Crime Lab Technician.
Highly Recommended & Recommended.
Kim Aippersbach is a free-lance editor and writer with three children (two bookworms and one reluctant reader) in Vancouver, BC.
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