CM . . .
. Volume IX Number 6. . . . November 15, 2002
"Did you find something?" Nicole asked hopefully.
Sue beamed. "You bet I did. Take a look at this."
Gina and Nicole squinted at the photograph.
"I don't see anything but fish," Gina said.
"No, no." Sue shook her head. "Don't look at that. Look at the reflection."
"In the window. Look at what's reflected in the window."
"Oh, yeah," Nicole said, suddenly seeing the picture within the picture. "You can see the people behind you. I think I see the old man who ran out of the aquarium. And there's another man behind him."
"Let me see that." Gina snatched the picture away and peered hard at it. "Okay, fine," she said, when she'd had a closer look. "So the old man is standing with a bunch of people. So what? He isn't doing anything suspicious. The only thing your picture proves is that some one was feeding the blind man's dog."
Nicole frowned. "What are you talking about?"
Gina handed her the picture.
"Ah, now I see," Nicole said. "The dog has something in his mouth."
"Yeah," Sue said smugly. "But I don't think it's food. Look closer."
"You're right," Nicole agreed. "It looks like he's carrying something." She put the snapshot down and rubbed her eyes. "The question is what? The picture is too busy and small to tell."
"What we need is a magnifying glass," Sue suggested.
"That might help," Gina agreed. "Or we could just go over to my house and I'll enlarge the picture on my computer." (from Chapter 3, "Now You See it Now You Don't", pages 41-42)
Sue, Nicole and Gina are "The Science Squad," and, if the 159 pages of Summer of Suspense were like the text above, all young readers who are fond of mysteries would enjoy Kristin Butcher's newest book. Unfortunately, the story in Summer of Suspense is not one but three, and the text of each is too often interrupted by factual information, attempts to describe the phenomena presented, and activities that readers can, if they wish, carry out on their own.
Although I am not between the ages of eight and twelve years, I tended to read the story and pass over the boxes of information, whether factual or practical. That is, until I came to page 71, Chapter 6 "Out of Business", and couldn't immediately figure out what I had missed because the story was no longer making sense. It was not until page 76 that I realized the first "whodunit" had ended and another adventure involving the three girls was underway. The adventure, however, was not at all like the first. Rather than solving what I believed to be a case of a stolen patent and arson, the girls merely encounter a character suffering from "a classic case of Dissociative Identity Disorder" (page 99). Similarly, in the final three chapters, Nicole, who is claustrophobic, becomes disoriented while spelunking and suffers from hypothermia. My immediate reaction to the book was that sufficient time had not been given to Butcher to develop the final two "adventures"; that too much time had been given over to writing superfluous textbox information.
The first story, Chapters 1 through 5, includes five activities ("experiments") and eleven, 1 to 2- page textboxes describing concepts like sight, blindness, audible traffic signals, holograms, and classical conditioning. The second story, Chapters 6 through 9, includes five activities on pressure, energy, brain protection, and memory and eleven textboxes telling about phenomena and people like the Doppler effect, matter, thermodynamics, neutrons, migraines, and Albert Einstein. The third story, Chapters 10 through 13, includes three activities on cave formation, globe mapping and heat, and eight textboxes of information. There appears to be an even distribution of pages given over to story and pages given over to factual descriptions and practical exercises. While this is obviously a consequence of having originally been published on the internet as "Webisodes," the desire to transfer the interactivity of the Canadian Association for Girls In Science (CAGIS) website to print fails as it has been laid out and designed.
It does not succeed on at least two accounts. First, unlike a link, which a user can choose to access, the linked information is printed in the paper text. A reader must flip pages to read the story that flows around it. Second, as a science educator, I'm not convinced that describing and telling will persuade any reader, including girls, that science is an interesting way of looking at the world and explaining why things are as they are. In the September/October 1992 issue of The Horn Book Magazine, Chet Raymo makes a distinction between "fact" books/science books for children and children's books that instil habits of mind such as "curiosity; voracious observation; sensitivity to rules and variations within the rules; and fantasy" (p. 561). He maintains that too much information "can swamp the boat of wonder, especially for a child" and suggests "information be conveyed to children in a way that enhances the wonder of the world" (p. 562). On all accounts, there is too much information in Summer of Suspense, and the information is too frequently presented outside the adventure stories. Like good ethnographic research where rich description enables a reader to draw beforehand the conclusions to be made by the researcher, good writing in science communicates zeal for the discipline and delight for the natural/physical world, and it provides children opportunities to engage in scientific habits of mind while reading the story, not appended information.
As I write this, I am reminded of Natalie Babbitt's lament: "A good story can collapse if it's made to bear too much weight." For many young readers, I expect this may be the case for the print version of Summer of Suspense.
Recommended with reservations.
Barbara McMillan is a professor of early and middle years science education in the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.