Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Nonfiction Picture Book Wednesday - POISON 9.06.17

Every Wednesday I join Alyson Beecher from kidlitfrenzy and other
kidlit bloggers to share wonderful nonfiction picture books.
The intention of today's blog post is to give professionals that work in the
education field new nonfiction reading material and ideas to use 
with students to promote a love of reading nonfiction materials.

I am really excited to share this new nonfiction middle grade book with you.  I had the chance to first read it last spring and I can tell you it's going to fascinate middle grade readers!

Poison: Deadly Deeds, Perilous Professions, and Murderous Medicines
Poison: Deadly Deeds, Perilous Professions, and Murderous Medicines
by Sarah Albee
published by Crown Books for Young Readers
September 5th

Have you ever wanted to know more about all of the different kinds of poisons?  Where poisons got their starts?  The many glamorous ways poisons have been used in the past?  Or how about the crazy uses, and misuses, of poison?

Goodreads summary:
For centuries, people have been poisoning one another--changing personal lives and the course of empires alike. 
From spurned spouses and rivals, to condemned prisoners like Socrates, to endangered emperors like Alexander the Great, to modern-day leaders like Joseph Stalin and Yasser Arafat, poison has played a starring role in the demise of countless individuals. And those are just the deliberate poisonings. Medical mishaps, greedy "snake oil" salesmen and food contaminants, poisonous Prohibition, and industrial toxins also impacted millions. 
Part history, part chemistry, part whodunit, Poison: Deadly Deeds, Perilous Professions, and Murderous Medicines traces the role poisons have played in history from antiquity to the present and shines a ghoulish light on the deadly intersection of human nature . . . and Mother Nature.

This book is truly fascinating.  Every page made my eyes pop in disbelief or I made a disgusted face when I learned a gruesome fact.  And then there were pages that made me do both at the same time!

I love Sarah Albee's books because they keep me turning the page to learn more, but also because they are organized so well.  Every chapter is split into headings which help the reader keep track of the information they are learning.  And when you're reading longer books like this, it's very helpful.  They are also full of additional information.  It's up to the reader how they want to read the information.  There is the main information in the text, and then there are caption boxes, side note boxes and illustrations and/or photographs that give visual information.  The side note boxes stay pretty consistent in every chapter.  There is one that gives information how poisons have been used for cosmetic purposes.  It's in a side box called "Drop Dead Gorgeous"!  Another is labeled "Tox Box" and it gives information what makes up a poison, side effects and how a person may take - ingest, inhale, etc. - the poison.

Although poisons can be a very serious subject (especially for the one being poisoned!) Albee keeps the book from being too heavy by adding plenty of humor.  Readers will find themselves laughing at Albee's wit or maybe how poisons weren't always used correctly!  I see readers really getting a kick out of some of the historic stories they'll come across!

And just in case there wasn't enough information in this book, Albee has included very thorough end notes that give even more information or places to find more information.

Although I learned a lot in this book, I think the biggest chuckle I had is the number of places Albee includes that this is not a "how to" book!  Ha!  Good to know :)

While reading, a few questions came to mind and Sarah generously agreed to answer them for me!

1.  How do you plan the organization of your books?  You have so many different features - all of the headings, captions, side boxes - how do you know what is going where?

During my drafting phase, it often feels more like I’m weaving a spider web than writing a linear story! I guess that’s the way my mind works. But from the get-go, I knew I wanted to structure the book chronologically. Chronology is important to me, so that kids can have at least a general understanding of the sweep of history. In most of my books, I like to take one theme--be it sanitation, insects, clothing, or poison--and trace it from ancient times to the present. When I uncover a secondary theme that I think is cool, I’ll make that a running feature throughout—so in Poison, I created “Tox Boxes,” geared to give kids the option of delving more deeply into the chemistry of each poison—where it comes from, how it can be delivered, and what effects it has upon the body. I also traced dangerous occupations from ancient to present, and called that feature “Nice Work if You Can Survive It.” I have spoken with kids who’ve told me they love to be able to recognize these running features and read them all in one go—like those of us who open the New Yorker and check out the cartoons first.

As for captions and headers—I just love dreaming up fun word plays! They help lighten the tone, and make an otherwise-serious or complex section feel less dry.   

2.  Tell us how you go about your research for a book like POISON.

My research process falls under three broad categories: books/online, experience/travel, and interviewing knowledge keepers. I am lucky to live near the most AMAZING library, at the school where my husband teaches. I have ready access to scholarly journals online, so I can read about the latest research. And the librarians are super helpful getting me interlibrary loans.

Then, as much as I can, and as much as my budget permits, I try to visit places that will help me better understand my topic. For Poison, that included the poison plant garden at Cornell University, the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Springs, and the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. (The Mütter’s got one of my all-time epic favorite taglines: “We invite you to explore our world and become Disturbingly Informed.”)

And finally, I interview people. That’s probably my favorite part of my research. For Poison, that meant science teachers, physicians, scientists, and university professors, but also grown children whose mothers had worked as Radium Girls.

3.  You write for middle grade readers.  Do you think about the different ways you can keep their attention?   How do you add that into your books?

I firmly believe that middle-grade readers are both the greatest and also the most challenging audience to write for. Kids have a very keen radar for insincerity, and for sensing when they’re being talked down to. If an author is not genuinely passionate about her topic, they will know that and will quickly lose interest in a book. So honestly, I don’t think about my topics quite so analytically. I write about what fascinates ME, and hope kids think it’s cool.

Thank you to Sarah for stopping by, but also for getting me a sneak peak of this book in the spring!  I enjoyed coming back to it to write this post!  

Be sure to find this book for your middle grade classroom and library.  And remember, you have nothing to fear from its readers.  It's not a "how to" book!  :)

Happy reading!


  1. I love Sarah Albee's books and am happy she has this new one out. There is a book about the poisons in Agatha Christie's books that is fascinating and I know this one by Sarah will be terrific! Her "poop" book was a big hit in my school a few years ago. The interview was interesting, too, Michele. Thanks for all!

  2. Thanks for sharing. I feel like we have this in the store. I need to give it a closer look.

  3. I loved her thoughts about how middle grade readers approach text boxes--just like I approach cartoons in the New Yorker! She has a great book trailer for this book, too:

  4. I have this on my request list too. Can't wait. It looks great! Thanks for the interview, Michele! I've always wanted to visit the Mutter Museum. It looks deliciously creepy!

  5. Great interview! Thanks for sharing this book.