December 12, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

What a Way to Go | Nonfiction Booktalker

Long before flu shots and Band-Aids, a sprained ankle or toothache could lead to lingering illness—even death. Just mention this fact to your students, and they’ll inch closer as you booktalk these titles on this topic.

Whet their appetites with Georgia Bragg’s How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous (Walker, 2011) as she describes the demise of 19 historic figures. My favorite is how President James Garfield, shot at a railroad station in 1881, was attended by 10 doctors, who likely hastened his end. Each took turns searching for the bullet by sticking his finger into the wound, not knowing that hand washing was a good idea. They never found the assassin’s bullet but enlarged and infected the wound with their own bacteria.

Garfield lost 100 pounds over three months before he died in agony. An autopsy revealed the bullet was never near a vital organ, so he would have recovered quickly. As Bragg promises in her intro, these stories will “make your toes curl.”

John Townsend’s Pox, Pus & Plague: A History of Disease and Infection (Raintree, 2005) reveals the many sources of disease throughout history. Raw sewage in drinking water was the real culprit in most cases, and today we’re stunned that no one saw the connection. Eating unhealthily was another. Look at the photo on page 15 of teeth ruined by scurvy due to a lack of Vitamin C. Sailors often developed the disease since they didn’t have fresh fruit available. When British navy sailors were regularly given lime juice, scurvy stopped. That’s why Brits are often called “limeys.”

The cure for tuberculosis was once thought to be exposure to fresh air—without consideration of the temperature. Booktalk audiences will love the photo on page 38 of patients lying in their beds outside in the snow. It didn’t work.

Author and illustrator Carlyn Beccia gives us a double whammy: a clever format and a chance for audience participation. I Feel Better with a Frog in My Throat: History’s Strangest Cures (Houghton, 2010) is a guessing game. While this book has a younger look, it has huge appeal for all ages. Beccia shows pictures of items that were used to cure various diseases and asks readers to select the ones that could have worked. For example, out of the nine suggestions for curing wounds, only six did the job. One, used by ancient Egyptians, was moldy bread—which, if you know your medical history, is a form of penicillin and works wonders on wounds. Another cure your kids won’t forget? A puppy kiss.

Once your readers start browsing through Tracey Turner’s Dreadful Fates: What a Shocking Way to Go! (Kids Can, 2011), they won’t be able to put it down. Turner relates some of the most unusual deaths and burials on record. Did you know that 35 people have been killed by vending machines? That an Australian man blew a bubble so big that it exploded over his glasses and he died in the resulting car crash? (Don’t chew and drive!) A Ukrainian fisherman put an electrical cable in a river to electrocute the fish, but when he went in to collect them, he forgot to remove the live cable. Even more shocking is the story of poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who buried some of his poems with his wife’s body, but had to dig her up a few years later when he wanted them back.

Surely, the most unbelievable death was that of Rasputin, the mystical advisor to the Russian royal family. His many enemies conspired to kill him, but it wasn’t easy. First, Prince Felix invited Rasputin to dinner and fed him poisoned food. He seemed unaffected, so someone else shot him in the chest. When the prince checked to see if the mystic had died, Rasputin sat up and tried to strangle him! He was shot again, beaten, then tied up and thrown into the icy Neva River in the middle of December. That finally did the trick.

Death can seem disgusting, but as these books show, it’s never boring. By setting these colorful tales in historical context, the authors give a welcome distance to otherwise bizarre events.

About Kathleen Baxter

Kathleen Baxter is the former head of children’s services at the Anoka County Library in suburban Minneapolis and a speaker at school and library conferences all over the USA. She never goes anywhere without a book.

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