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May 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
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Sarah Albee has a knack for selecting irresistible topics for her nonfiction books, and her latest endeavor, Poison: Deadly Deeds, Perilous Professions, and Murderous Medicines, effortlessly follows suit. I recently had the chance to talk with her about her research and the versatile applications of poison—I mean, Poison. Shall we?
This question is for me, but I have to ask it: What’s your favorite poison?
ALBEE: Hmmm. I wouldn’t say that I have a favorite poison, but for sure the one I’m most fascinated by has to be arsenic. Elemental arsenic isn’t particularly poisonous—it becomes toxic when it forms compounds with other stuff, like sulfur and iron. So when people refer to arsenic the poison, what they really mean is the white powder, arsenic trioxide. Disturbingly, it used to be called “inheritance powder.”
The history of arsenic is totally fascinating. (I almost said “absorbing,” but that would have been a poor word choice.) It was the poison of choice in ancient Roman times and gained notoriety in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Because it’s tasteless and colorless and fairly soluble in warm liquids, it proved to be useful for removing lots of important people. And here’s the kicker: it used to be widely available, well into the twentieth century. A would-be poisoner could find it at practically any corner drugstore.
Can you describe your research for this book?
ALBEE: It was certainly wide-ranging! I knew I’d need to relearn a lot of chemistry, so I enrolled in two online courses, one in basic chemistry and one in forensics. My editor and I decided we shouldn’t get too detailed with the chemistry part of how poisons work, but I needed to understand the backstory in order to explain each poison to kids who haven’t yet studied advanced science.
I love including personal interviews as part of my research, and for this book, I had some great opportunities. I visited the poisonous plants garden at Cornell University and spent a good part of the day with a professor in the veterinary medicine school. She gave me a personal tour and shared her vast knowledge of plant-based poisons. I also visited the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Springs, Maryland, and had a behind-the-scenes tour of the collections. (The curator showed me the liver of someone who’d died of arsenic poisoning, and the skull of someone who’d suffered from tertiary syphilis.) And I interviewed two people in their mid-eighties whose mothers had been “radium girls.” Their stories were poignant and powerful.
What was the most surprising thing you learned while writing
ALBEE: I’d say my biggest surprise was when I asked myself which poison was the worst one in the book, and realized that the answer was nicotine. Which is shocking because I almost didn’t include it. Aside from the obvious addictive quality of its principle alkaloid, nicotine, tobacco has played an ugly role in America’s history. Tobacco production led to the rise of the slave trade and rapidly increased the disparity of wealth and income. And in the twentieth century, tobacco companies knew for decades that nicotine was addictive and cancer causing, and yet they continued to advertise it as a health product. That’s pretty nefarious, don’t you think?
Your books often blend history and science. What do you find particularly effective about approaching topics this way?
ALBEE: Well, when you really think about it, dividing human knowledge into separate subjects of study is an artificial construct, and a fairly modern idea. I’m interested in where subjects like science and history and art overlap. I’m fascinated by social history and by the lives of ordinary people. I love contextualizing a work of art and understanding how it emerged within a specific set of social, political, technological, religious, and economic conditions.
For instance, doesn’t it deepen our understanding of Edgar Allan Poe’s dark stories when we learn that pretty much everyone he ever loved succumbed to tuberculosis? And isn’t it fascinating to discover that Tchaikovsky might possibly have been murdered by being forced to drink a glass of water laden with cholera microbes?
Historically, magic is often credited (or blamed) for science we don’t yet understand. How do alchemy and witchcraft fit in within your study of poison?
ALBEE: It’s important to realize that not so very long ago, many, many people—some of them brilliant scientists—believed in magic, astrology, and divine intervention. So it’s no surprise that when people back in the day witnessed what we now know were coincidental correlations, they attributed the causes to witchcraft, or the misalignment of the planets, or an angry God. It’s easy for those of us living in modern times to poke fun at what people used to believe. What’s more fascinating is when we discover how much people actually did figure out, given the limitations of the technology that was available to them.
How might this book (exciting!) be used in the classroom to jazz up lessons (boring!)?
ALBEE: Ha! Well, thanks for that endorsement. I do like to think that this book—and most of my books, actually—gives kids a broad overview of the chronology of history, but through the lens of something that really grabs them and makes them care.
I’m a big believer in allowing a writer—be it a student or a professional—to choose her topic, even if it needs to be part of a broader unit of study. Let’s say a kid is fascinated by poison and wants to learn and write about it. You can find poison in pretty much every era of human history. So, for instance, if the unit the class is studying is colonial America, maybe the student can look into a theory that the Jamestown colonists may have been poisoned by ratsbane. If the unit is about Russian history, a student might look into the mystery of how Rasputin or Stalin died. There’s always a cool angle that makes a more general topic relevant and interesting to a student.
You devote a fair bit of space to accidental poisonings through food additives, makeup, and tonics or remedies, and the consequent rise of regulation. Was this something you originally planned to cover, or did it emerge through your research?
ALBEE: A bit of both, actually. Much of the evolution of the book came from researching my previous books. I learned a lot about pesticides in researching my book Bugged. I learned about toxic makeup and arsenical green fabrics and arsenic complexion wafers while working on my book Why’d They Wear That? And the history of medicine and disease is an ongoing, lifelong fascination of mine.
That said, my overall plan emerged as I did my research. But it was always important to me to include a time line of regulation. In fact, discussing regulation was part of the mission statement of my book. If there’s a takeaway message I want kids to hold onto after reading the book, it’s that we need more, not less, regulation. We need watchdogs, people who care more about public health and worker safety than profit.
What advice would you give students looking to turn a passion for poisons into a career?
ALBEE: I would encourage kids to go into professions like toxicology, forensics, environmental science, and public health.
Bugged: How Insects Changed History. Illus. by Robert Leighton. 2014. Walker, $16.99 (9780802734228). Gr. 5–8.
Poison: Deadly Deeds, Perilous Professions, and Murderous Medicines. Illus. by Karl Newsom Edwards. 2017. Crown, $17.99 (9781101932230). Gr. 5–8.
Poop Happened! A History of the World from the Bottom Up. Illus. by Robert Leighton. 2010. Walker, $15.99 (9780802720771). Gr. 4–6.
Why’d They Wear That? Fashion as the Mirror of History. 2015. National Geographic, $19.99 (9781426319198). Gr. 5–8.
Further Reading: Alchemic and Toxic Tomes
Blood, Bullets, and Bones: The Story of Forensic Science from Sherlock Holmes to DNA. By Bridget Heos. 2016. HarperCollins/Balzer+Bray, $18.99 (9780062387622). Gr. 9–12.
Catherine de’ Medici: “The Black Queen”. By Janie Havemeyer. Illus. by Peter Malone. 2011. GooseBottom, $18.95 (9780983425632). Gr. 4–6.
Isaac the Alchemist: Secrets of Isaac Newton, Reveal’d. By Mary Losure. 2017. Candlewick, $19.99 (9780763670634). Gr. 6–9.
Radioactive! How Irene Curie and Lise Meitner Revolutionized Science and Changed the World. By Winifred Conkling. 2016. Algonquin, $17.95 (9781616204150). Gr. 7–12.
Strange Medicine: A History of Medical Remedies. By John Farndon. Illus. by Venitia Dean. 2017. Lerner/Hungry Tomato, $7.99 (9781512430769). Gr. 3–5.
Alchemy and Meggy Swann. By Karen Cushman. 2010. Clarion, $16 (9780547231846). Gr. 4–8.
The Blackthorn Key. By Kevin Sands. 2015. Aladdin, $17.99 (9781481446518). Gr. 4–7.
Glow. By Megan E. Bryant. 2017. Albert Whitman, $16.99 (9780807529638). Gr. 8–11.
Poison Is Not Polite. By Robin Stevens. 2016. Simon & Schuster, $16.99 (9781481422154). Gr. 5–8.
Poison Most Vial. By Benedict Carey. 2012. Abrams/Amulet, $16.95 (9781419700316). Gr. 5–8.
Julia Smith is a Books for Youth Associate Editor at Booklist.
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