________________ CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 34 . . . . May 6, 2011


Totally Human: Why We Look and Act the Way We Do.

Cynthia Pratt Nicolson. Illustrated by Dianne Eastman.
Toronto, ON: Kids Can Press, 2011.
40 pp., hardcover, $16.95.
ISBN 978-1-55453-569-9.

Subject Headings:
Evolution (Biology)-Juvenile literature.
Evolutionary psychology-Juvenile literature.

Grades 4-7 / Ages 9-12.

Review by Gillian Richardson.

***1/2 /4



Ever touch a hot stove? If so, you probably yanked your hand away even before your brain had time to think, "Ouch! That hurts!" The quick reaction of your arm muscles is a reflex, an automatic action beyond your control. Unlike throwing a ball or washing your face, reflex actions don't depend on messages from your brain. Instead, they're triggered by nerve signals that travel superfast from your skin to your spinal cord to your muscles.

You've inherited many reflexes from your animal ancestors. As a new baby, you instinctively grabbed onto fingers and sucked anything that went in your mouth. For millions of years, these built-in actions have helped young primates cling to adults and drink their mothers' milk. You've outgrown your newborn reflexes, but you still have others, such as blinking automatically to protect your eyes when anything comes near your face.

Some reflexes, like hiccupping, no longer serve a purpose for humans. Others, like pulling away from pain, play an important role: keeping you safe and sound.

The subtitle of this book, Why We Look and Act the Way We Do, will entice young readers to discover intriguing answers to questions about how their minds and bodies work. The content includes just about everything you can think of in terms of sensory detail or bodily functions: seeing colors, feeling ticklish, enjoying music, being tempted or repulsed by smells, craving junk food, laughing, yawning, remembering, being left or right handed, burping and farting. A well-written introduction sets the tone for both content and style with its clear explanation of the way genes are inherited and how our ancestors (all the way back to the first living things on Earth) contributed to our uniqueness as humans.

      There,s something here for every kid (and adult) to identify with. Each topic has been carefully researched and is analyzed to show what it is, how and why it occurs. On most pages, a sidebar delves deeper into one aspect: after detailing the vomiting reflex, there,s an item about the effects of zero gravity on astronauts. Short anecdotes enhance the appeal of the narrative: e.g. one man's hiccups lasted 68 years. Another could burp "louder than a chainsaw." A concluding page addresses the final question-- Why do you Wonder Why? - with the fact that human brains have grown in size through time, making humans such a curious, questioning species. A Glossary will help with challenging vocabulary, and an Index will make the book useful as a quick reference source.

      Mainly, though, this is a book to read for the entertainment value in the science behind the ways in which we are linked to our ancestors. The layout begins with hiccups, junk food, burping and farting, throwing up - topics which will grab the attention of young readers and draw them into the concept. Once curiosity is aroused, they'll likely be unable to resist investigating the many other fascinating things humans do. Eye-popping art will amuse the reader as well. For each topic, animated human or animal/animal figures graphically show the link to the past. The approach has made learning all this 'serious' scientific stuff, fun, and given curious readers a jumping-off point to further inquiry.

Highly Recommended.

Gillian Richardson is a freelance writer living in BC.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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