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Picture Books with Punch
Enjoy Your Cells, Germ Zappers, Have a Nice DNA, and Gene Machines
by Fran Balkwill and Mic Rolph

Reviewed by
Julie Buckles

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Scientist-by-day and mother-by-night, Fran Balkwill searched for picture books that could explain her occupation to her children. Unable to find one, she teamed up with illustrator Mic Rolph, and they began penning and illustrating life science books for children.

Their latest collaboration is a series of four picture-size books called Enjoy Your Cells, Have a Nice DNA, Gene Machines, and my favorite, Germ Zappers. These books are recommended for children aged seven and up. (Balkwill's philosophy is that a child who can say "computer," can say "neutrophil" or "antibody.")

Balkwill, who is a professor of cancer biology in London, opens one book with a disclaimer: "Please note that most cells are gray and grainy. We have added some false color to make the cells in this book look exciting!" And how. Crazy, loopy combinations of colors, shapes, cartoons, and dialogue circles adorn nearly every page. She transforms complex genetic concepts into readable, lively language—and gets the science right.

Rolph, a former graphic designer for television, draws children in shades multicultural white, peach, black, and brown. There are dinosaurs and mice, toadstools and tuna, and even a greenish amoeba that laments, "I'll never make PRESIDENT!"

The books are energetic, enthusiastic and full of playful humor. Schools of bright yellow sperm swim across two pages toward a green egg in Enjoy Your Cells. An especially spunky sperm bursts through the egg membrane and shouts, "I'm SPERMtastic!" The text: "The sperm cell that made you had a hazardous journey, swimming faster and stronger than millions of other sperm cells."

Germ Zappers stars unsung heroes—the cells of the immune system. Reading and looking like a video game without the noisy bangs, whops and whistles, Germ Zappers presents bad guys (germs, some bacteria and viruses) and good guys (neutrophils, macrophages, dendritic cells, and others). Good cells battle germs and viruses, complete with zaps, yaks and hisses.

Sometimes the good guys win and sometimes they lose. "Macrophages do not usually expire when they meet a germ. They live to fight another day."

Have a Nice DNA tells the story of life, which begins as one single cell and evolves into a human baby. "The strange-looking bits inside the cell do all kinds of clever jobs; mitochondria (my-toe-con-dree-ah) turn food into energy, and ribosomes (rye-boh-sohms) make important chemicals called proteins (pro-teens).

The book goes on to explain the structure of DNA, how it works, what it means—and the larger mystery at hand. "The greatest challenge of all will be to understand how your DNA and all your proteins work together to make one single cell. And how one hundred million cells work together to make that incredible living creature…You!"

Gene Machines reveals the number of genes in mice, yeast, fruit flies, and worms. And humans? "Prepare to be shocked! About 30,000 genes are all that is needed to make a complex human being like you! And you probably have only about a few hundred genes more than a mouse."

I passed this series along to Annie, a science teacher, and Ann, a reading teacher, both of whom are mothers. They loved the books, as did Annie's children. Eight-year-old Christine could not understand too much of the science but liked the pictures, especially the one of a fat cell saying, "I'm too fat," in Enjoy Your Cells.

Christine's brother Connor, 11, said the books were "pretty cool and really informative" because they showed how the human body works. He thought the big words and complex subject matter might be daunting for younger children. "Kids under nine might not understand the books," he said.

Ann and Annie agreed, saying the books would make excellent resources for second graders working on science projects. But the size of the print and vocabulary might be more appropriate for ten-year-olds, who would be old enough to understand the text but still young enough to appreciate the illustrations.

Parents and teachers concerned about lackluster science scores among students will appreciate the "Enjoy Your Cells" series for their content, scientific accuracy and good humor. Let's hope more scientists follow Balkwill's lead, explaining their jobs to the rest of us.

Balkwill, Fran & Mic Rolph. Enjoy Your Cells, Germ Zappers, Have a Nice DNA, and Gene Machines (Enjoy Your Cells 1-4). Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, Woodbury, New York (June 2002).

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