Going Viral: Books About Infectious Diseases | Focus On

1510_FO-CVStrip1Humankind has always been plagued by infectious disease. It is likely that Ramses V died of smallpox in 1157 BCE in Egypt. In 160 CE, China’s Han dynasty was devastated by plague. Who hasn’t heard of 14th-century Europe’s Black Death, an epidemic responsible for the demise of millions? Outbreaks of various diseases have occurred throughout history—no era, culture, or continent has been spared. But the study of infectious disease is not just for history buffs—cases of infection have recently made headlines. In early 2015, there was the multi-state outbreak of measles that was linked to one person who visited an amusement park in California. The 2014 Ebola epidemic in western Africa transfixed the world and claimed the lives of 11,000 people. Complacency is not an option—these stories compel us to investigate the awful and fascinating specter of infectious disease. There are numerous ways to introduce the study of this topic across the curriculum. Scientifically: How do germs work and what kinds are there? Historically: What role has disease played in determining the outcome of wars or in shaping cultures and economies? Students can also look at disease from an epidemiological viewpoint and explore the idea that with every outbreak, scientists and doctors gain a greater understanding of how diseases spread and how to best protect public health. Are diseases scary? Absolutely, but one thing’s for certain—the best defense against future outbreaks is knowledge. The CCSS ask students to use multiple informational resources in supporting explanatory and argumentative writing. The titles listed here, all high-interest and engaging resources with varying levels of text complexity, will address such needs.

Historical and Scientific Overviews

ALBEE, Sarah. Bugged: How Insects Changed History. illus. by Robert Leighton. Bloomsbury. 2014. pap. $17.99. ISBN 9780802734228. Gr 5-9–Although insects are largely harmless and often useful (honeybees and silkworms, for example), disease-carrying fleas, ticks, and other tiny creatures have changed the course of history, impacting the success of crusaders, warriors, and conquistadors. Cartoon drawings, photos, and sidebars teeming with insect lore complement a lively and comprehensive historical overview. BARNARD, Bryn. Outbreak: Plagues that Changed History. illus. by author. Random. 2005. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780375829864; pap. $8.99. ISBN 9780553522228; ebk. $8.99. ISBN 9780307489258. Gr 5-8–Combining science and history, Barnard focuses on six of the world’s deadliest diseases: the Black Death, smallpox, yellow fever, cholera, tuberculosis, and the Spanish influenza. Did the Black Death bring about the demise of the feudal system? Did yellow fever help end slavery? Barnard says yes to both theories and explains why. Detailed color paintings heighten the text’s impact. PETERS, Marilee. Patient Zero: Solving the Mysteries of Deadly Epidemics. Annick Pr. 2014. Tr $24.95. ISBN 9781554516711; pap. $14.95. ISBN 9781554516704. Gr 6 Up–Seven epidemics are explored through the lens of epidemiology, including London’s 1665 bubonic plague; yellow fever in Cuba, 1900; Ebola in Zaire, 1976; and AIDS in the U.S., 1980. Each chapter reads like a thriller, tracing a probable first victim (or patient zero), the progression of the disease, and the brave individuals who worked to contain it. PLATT, Richard. Plagues, Pox, and Pestilence. illus. by John Kelly. Roaring Brook/Kingfisher. 2011. Tr $15.99. ISBN 9780753466872. Gr 3-7–Succinct information delivered via colorful, comic book-like illustrations draws readers in as Professor Ratticus and his buggy assistants tour the “Pox Lab,” where they study infectious diseases. Ratticus explains the difference between three kinds of germs—bacteria, protists, and viruses. “The Rogues’ Gallery” provides an overview of many diseases, while more in-depth case studies highlight history’s worst offenders.

1510_FO-CVStrip2Carriers, Outbreaks, and Survivors

BARTOLETTI, Susan Campbell. Terrible, Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America. HMH. 2015. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780544313675. Gr 5-8–In 1906, Mary Mallon was hired as a cook for a wealthy family and typhoid soon swept through the household. When George Soper, a typhoid expert, traced the outbreak to an unwitting Mallon, she was arrested and quarantined. Often described as ignorant and dangerous, Mallon is treated with more empathy by Bartoletti than she has historically received. JARROW, Gail. Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary. Boyds Mills/Calkins Creek. 2015. Tr $16.95. ISBN 9781620915974. Gr 5-8–As a “silent carrier,” Typhoid Mary infected numerous people and triggered many deaths. Jarrow weaves Mary’s story with that of two figures who worked to contain the disease: George Soper, a sanitation engineer and typhoid expert, and Josephine Baker, a New York City Department of Health doctor. Newspaper articles, courtroom documents, and personal accounts bolster an enthralling story. MURPHY, Jim. An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793. Clarion. 2003. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9780395776087; ebk. $13.99. ISBN 9780547532851. Gr 5-9–Murphy follows the path of the mosquito-borne disease, telling the riveting story of the outbreak in Philadelphia as it unfolded. With newspaper articles, documents, and diary excerpts, he recreates the horror of the epidemic, recounting the role of ordinary citizens, politicians, the medical community, and the Free African Society, whose members worked tirelessly to care for the sick. Audio version available from Recorded Books. MURPHY, Jim & Alison Blank. Invincible Microbe: Tuberculosis and the Never-ending Search for a Cure. Clarion. 2012. Tr $18.95. ISBN 9780618535743; pap. $10.99. ISBN 9780544455948. Gr 5 Up–Peppering the text with photographs, historical ads, and posters, Murphy tells the story of tuberculosis. The biography of the ancient and ever-evolving microorganism is followed by a review of the centuries-long effort to find a cure. The final section explores the social history of the disease—how have race and class factored into the treatment of victims? NEWMAN, Patricia. Ebola: Fears and Facts. Millbrook. 2015. Tr $31.99. ISBN 9781467792400. Gr 4-8–Chock-full of maps, charts, and eye-catching photographs, this book tells the distressing story of Ebola—from its emergence in 1976 through the most recent outbreak in Western Africa. Newman describes the role of doctors and nurses as well as other workers and volunteers who worked tirelessly on the front lines, braving stigma and fear, to aid the sick. RAWL, Paige & Ali Benjamin. Positive: A Memoir. HarperCollins. 2014. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9780062342515; ebk. $8.99. ISBN 9780062342539. Gr 8 Up–Born with HIV, Paige Rawl had a happy childhood and was excited about middle school—eager to play soccer and join the cheerleading squad. But when she confided her HIV status to a friend, Rawl became the target of bullies while the school administration did nothing to help her. An inspiring coming-of-age memoir that dispels myths about HIV. Audio version available from Blackstone Audio.

Historical Fiction, Real and Imagined

ANDERSON, Laurie Halse. Fever 1793. S. & S. 2000. lib. ed. $19.65. ISBN 9780613450393; pap. $8.99. ISBN 9780689848919; ebk. $6.99. ISBN 9781442443075. Gr 5-9–Mattie and her family run a busy coffeehouse in Philadelphia in 1793 when a yellow fever epidemic tears through the city, killing thousands. Mattie survives the disease and gets to work aiding other victims—in the process growing into a capable and caring young woman. A gripping account, told in the first person, enhanced by fascinating historical details. Audio version available from Random House Audio. CHOLDENKO, Gennifer. Chasing Secrets. Random. 2015. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780385742535; ebk. $10.99. ISBN 9780307975775. Gr 4-8–Rats are piling up around San Francisco in 1900 when Lizzie discovers Noah hiding in her family’s house. Noah’s father, Jing, is trapped in Chinatown under quarantine because of a bubonic plague outbreak that no one will talk about. Secrets are flying and it’s up to Lizzie to unravel the mystery and rescue Jing before it’s too late. Audio version available from Random House Audio. HOPKINSON, Deborah. The Great Trouble: A Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel. Knopf. 2013. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780375848186; pap. $7.99. ISBN 9780375843082; ebk. $7.99. ISBN 9780449818190. Gr 5-8–Thirteen-year-old Eel does odd jobs to survive—one of which is to assist Dr. John Snow (a real-life, groundbreaking epidemiologist). When Eel’s neighbors begin to fall fatally ill, he turns to Dr. Snow for answers. Snow, with Eel’s help, convinces an emergency committee to cut off the supply of contaminated water, curtailing London’s 1854 cholera outbreak. Audio version available from Random House Audio. LEVITHAN, David. Two Boys Kissing. Knopf. 2013. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780307931900; pap. $9.99. ISBN 9780307931917; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9780307975645. Gr 8 Up–Two ex-boyfriends decide to break the Guinness World Record for the longest kiss. Avery (a transgender teen) and Ryan are just beginning their relationship. Narrating these and other stories is a Greek chorus of gay men who have died of AIDS. They watch over the boys, noting how far society has come—and how far we’ve yet to go. Audio version available from Random House Audio. LUCIER, Makiia. A Death-Struck Year. HMH. 2014. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780544164505; pap. $8.99. ISBN 9780544541184; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9780544306707. Gr 7 Up–Cleo is in her last year of high school and questioning what her future holds when the Spanish influenza of 1918 forces the city of Portland, OR, to close all schools. Answering an ad in the paper, Cleo volunteers to care for flu victims and soon finds herself facing unexpected circumstances in this grippingly realized novel. POWERS, J. L. This Thing Called the Future. Cinco Puntos Pr. 2011. Tr $16.95. ISBN 9781933693958; pap. $11.95. ISBN 9781941026076; ebk. $16.95. ISBN 9781935955108. Gr 7 Up–Khosi lives in a post-apartheid South African shantytown with her little sister, her grandmother, and her mother. In 14-year-old Khosi’s world, the practices of traditional healers and those of modern doctors are often at odds. AIDS is a constant presence in the community, and when her mother becomes ill, Khosi struggles to reconcile the old and the new ways. SCHNEIDER, Robyn. Extraordinary Means . HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen. 2015. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062217165; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9780062217189. Gr 8 Up–Lane and Sadie are two teens with total drug-resistant tuberculosis who have been shipped off to a modern-day sanitarium. In alternating chapters, the teens describe life at Latham House where they will stay quarantined until their TB is no longer actively contagious, a cure is developed, or they die. Dare they hope for a second chance? STRATTON, Allan. Chanda’s Secrets. Annick Pr. 2004. Tr $19.95. ISBN 9781550378351; pap. $11.95. ISBN 9781550378344; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9781554512133. Gr 7 Up–Chanda lives in sub-Saharan Africa. When her baby sister and step-father die and her mother gets progressively sicker, Chanda is slow to admit the truth—AIDS is the culprit. While the disease’s stigma prevents many from seeking help, 16-year-old Chanda is a fighter, and she battles to care for her ill mother and her remaining siblings. Audio version available from Brilliance Audio. WINTERS, Cat. In the Shadow of the Blackbirds. Abrams/Amulet. 2013. Tr $17.95. ISBN 9781419705304; pap. $8.95. ISBN 9781419710230; ebk. $16.95. ISBN 9781613124598. Gr 8 Up–With the devastation wrought by the Spanish influenza and World War I, many find comfort in Spiritualists who claim communication with the dead. Sixteen-year-old Mary becomes embroiled in a mystery involving the real ghost of her beloved, who she was told died in battle, and the chicanery of his brother, who claims to photograph the spirits of the departed. Audio version available from Recorded Books.

Ragan O’Malley is the Head Librarian at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn, NY.


POX: Save the People. Mary Flanagan. 2011. Version 1.0. iOS, requires 4.3 or later. Compatible with iPad. Free. www.tiltfactor.org (Accessed 8/14/15). Gr 4 Up–In this game of strategy, players try to halt an outbreak of disease by strategically inoculating patients. Can be played with one to four players at five different levels. Based on the board game. Solve the Outbreak. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2014. Version 2.1. iOS, requires 6.0 or later. Compatible with iPad. Free. (Accessed 8/14/15). Gr 6 Up–Saving lives is the goal. By gathering clues and analyzing data, players control outbreaks of disease while rising through levels to become skilled disease detectives.


#ISurvivedEbola. isurvivedebola.org PCI Media Impact. (Accessed 8/14/15). Gr 6 Up–Developed in collaboration with UNICEF, this site features over two dozen powerful videos of Ebola survivors from Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone sharing their stories. Its goal is “to inform, engage, and empower audiences to tackle Ebola.” The Deadly Virus: The Influenza Epidemic of 1918. archives.gov/exhibits/influenza-epidemic. National Archives and Records Administration. (Accessed 8/14/15). Gr 6 Up –This online exhibit provides a succinct overview of the epidemic and its consequences along with photographs, letters, and other primary documents from national archives across the country. MSF Ebola Blog. http://blogs.msf.org/en/staff/blogs/msf-ebola-blog. Medecins Sans Frontieres/ Doctors Without Borders. (Accessed 8/14/15). Gr 6 Up –“MSF has been responding to the West Africa Ebola outbreak since March 2014” with “staff working in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.” Here, doctors, nurses, medical assistants, and various other staff members in the field write about their experiences treating and working with Ebola patients. WHO: Infectious Diseases. who.int/topics/infectious_diseases/en. The World Health Organization. (Accessed 8/14/15). Gr 6 Up –Students can access up-to-date fact sheets on a large number of infectious diseases including Ebola, measles, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, the plague, and many others. Links lead to publications, statistics, videos, and more.


American Experience: The Forgotten Plague. 60 min. Dist. by PBS. 2015. $24.99. Gr 9 Up –Edward Trudeau, a doctor and tuberculosis sufferer, built the first sanatorium in the Adirondacks in 1884, where those infected could take the “health cure.” Today, tuberculosis is largely forgotten. Archival photos, film footage, and interviews with survivors and historians reveal the important role this terrible disease played in American history. American Experience: Influenza 1918. 60 min. Dist. by PBS. 1998. $24.99. Gr 9 Up –Although the genome of the Spanish flu virus was successfully mapped in 2005, increasing scientists’ understanding of the virulent virus, this film sheds light on the devastating impact the virus had on the United States. Frontline: Outbreak. 60 min. Dist. By PBS. 2015. $24.99. Gr 9 Up –Aware of the severity of the Ebola outbreak in western Africa early on, Doctors Without Borders sounded the alarm, but the World Health Organization and local governments failed to take necessary actions. Weaving riveting footage with interviews of survivors, health workers, and government officials, “Outbreak” tells the story of a disaster that could have been averted.

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