________________ CM . . . . Volume XXII Number 10. . . .November 6, 2015


DNA Detective.

Tanya Lloyd Kyi. Illustrated by Lil Crump.
Toronto, ON: Annick Press, 2015.
116 pp., pbk., hc., html & pdf, $14.95 (pbk.), $24.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-55451-773-2 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-55451-774-9 (hc.), ISBN 978-1-55451-775-6 (html), ISBN 978-1-55451-776-3 (pdf).

Subject Headings:
DNA-Juvenile literature.
Genetics-Juvenile literature.

Grades 6-9 / Ages 11-14.

Review by Barbara McMillan.

**** /4


…each DNA molecule is shaped like a spring. Imagine a toy Slinky. If you stretch it out, it might be taller than you are. But when you let it go, it’s smaller than your hand. DNA molecules are like microscopic Slinkies. They’re twisted so tightly that they can fit inside your cells. But if you took all those spring shapes from your body, joined them, and stretched them, they’d reach the moon and back…six thousand times! (p. 4)

The work of Walter Sutton and Thomas Hunt Morgan had proven that Gregor Mendel was right – parents passed their traits to their offspring in a genetically predictable pattern. But Darwin was also right. When a random mutation helped a creature survive, that creature would pass its genes to its offspring and, eventually, those adapted offspring could take over. Finches with super strong beaks could rule an island of the Galapagos. Trees with moisture-sucking branches would spread across the island of Socotra. (p. 39)

Parts of the DNA code repeat over and over again, in a pattern. Scientists can look at the patterns and tell which people are related to one another. The repeating patterns of family members, who share a lot of the same DNA, are similar, while those of strangers are usually quite different. How does this help a criminal investigation? Well, if crime scene investigators can find even a few cells – in a drop of spit, a single hair, or a smear of blood, for example – they can send the evidence to a lab, where researchers look for the repeating patterns. They enter those patterns into a computer and compare then to the DNA patterns of a suspect. It’s like using a high-tech fingerprint to identify a criminal. (p. 5)


The three excepts above hint at the subject matter of Tanya Lloyd Kyi’s DNA Detective. It’s one part information about deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), one part history of the evolution of human understanding of genetics, and one part mystery – using DNA to determine the identity of a jewelry store burglar. I can’t think of a more interesting and instructive way of introducing youth to DNA, the building block of life. And, Kyi’s book couldn’t be timelier. In 2014, the Council of Canadian Academies published Science Culture: Where Canada Stands in which it was reported that 28% of Canadian respondents were able to describe a molecule, 51% had a general understanding of the term DNA, and 41% believed that ordinary tomatoes don’t contain genes while genetically modified tomatoes do. I suspect adolescents and teens who read DNA Detective will improve such percentages.

     Following the table of contents on page one, the book begins with an illustration of a jewelry store. This is where readers meet a fictitious and unnamed female detective and a policeman. They are standing in front of three cases that once contained jewels worth millions of dollars. All that is left is a broken strand of pearls on the floor, three red gemstones that could be rubies, and a chain necklace to which a red, ruby-like gemstone is attached. It’s “a major crime” and the detective’s “first big case”. Unfortunately, there isn’t much to go on. The detective, however, tells the police officer to send four objects left at the scene of the crime to the lab. She knows that the case could be solved if the lab technicians can find sweat, mucus, or skin cells on the glove, crowbar, loot bag or rope ladder. Twenty-one pages later, 12 suspects are introduced. Six are male, and six are female. All know the store well, but only one has a criminal record, and it was for theft. The intervening 20 pages are filled with information about human’s understanding of heredity and the inheritance of traits. Kyi begins with the breeding of domesticated plants and animals and different ideas associated with the role of egg cells and sperm cells thousands of years ago. She describes Queen Victoria’s role in unknowingly passing hemophilia through the royal families of four nations, Charles Darwin’s research that led to the law of natural selection, Gregor Medel’s breeding of pea plants that helped him to see that inheritance could be predicted with mathematical rules, and the rediscovery of Mendel’s work years after his death. As the scientific story unfolds and more information is chronologically presented, it becomes useful in eliminating suspects; sometimes one at a time or several at a time. For example, the suspect previously convicted of theft, was not the jewelry store robber because his DNA “fingerprint” on file did not match the DNA found on the objects left at the scene, and a regular customer with colour blindness, an inherited genetic condition, was considered not to be the culprit because he would not have been able to distinguish the green emeralds from the fake rubies in the display cases. If readers are astute, given the progression of the scientific story and the fictional story, they will know the suspect or suspects to be eliminated before reading who the detective crosses off her list as innocent.

     Given the book’s contents, it’s clear that the title DNA Detective refers as much to the fictitious, unnamed female detective attempting to solve her first big case as it does police investigating crimes today and past and present scientists named in the 116 pages of the book who researched, or continue to research, the mechanism of inheritance, the human genome, DNA diversity, human migration, cloning, genetic engineering, genetic disorders, and the genetic basis of disease. It’s also important to mention the critical work of ethicists touched upon by Kyi who raise questions about dilemmas associated with gene patents, genetically modified organisms, DNA databases, providing parents with the genetic information of their unborn child, and the cloning of cells, human organs, and organisms whether endangered or extinct. As future voters and taxpayers, these are realities that the adolescents and teens reading Kyi’s book need to begin to reflect upon and understand.

     Lil Crump is the illustrator of DNA Detective, and Belle Wuthrich is responsible for the book’s layout and design. Crump’s cartoon-like drawings of the detective and policeman at work and her portraits of the 12 suspects provide a levity to Kyi’s writing. Moreover, they bring to life, on 10 single pages spread throughout the book, the two individuals attempting to solve a crime using all that is known about inheritance and DNA fingerprinting. Similarly, Wuthrich’s design of each page, from the red and blue font to the placement of text boxes and photographic or drawn images, helps readers to pause in the midst of Kyi’s presentation of the work of scientists or narratives about the real life application of the results of this work before reading on.

     The final pages of DNA Detective include suggestions for further reading, a list of the sources Kyi used in writing the book, image credits, index, and a photographic image and short bio of Kui and Crump.

     DNA Detective is a book that should be on the shelves of middle school libraries. It is also a book that could be read by older learners wanting an abbreviated introduction to the history of human understanding of inheritance.

Highly Recommended.

Dr. Barbara McMillan is a teacher educator and a professor of science education in the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba.

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

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