What We’re Reading: Enjoy Your Cells

June 3, 2014

And you thought a book about cells would be boring? (Summer E. Allen)

“Mom, do I have bum cells?” my three year old daughter asked me one night recently. Well, that was unexpected and yes, I suppose you do have bum cells, dear. I actually shouldn’t have been surprised by the question.  My daughter was just recalling a concept she learned from the book Enjoy Your Cells.

Cancer biologist Fran Balkwill wrote Enjoy Your Cells along with three other titles in the series: Germ Zappers, Have a Nice DNA, and Gene Machines. The books feature captivating illustrations by Mic Rolph. I learned about the series while preparing to interview Dr. Balkwill (I’m a science writer and neuroscientist), and I’m so glad I did.

I ordered Enjoy You Cells and Germ Zappers thinking my 3-year-old and 8-month-old wouldn’t yet be interested in reading them—the series is recommended for ages 7 and up. But when my 3-year-old saw the cover of Enjoy Your Cells – a large, colorful cell whose components form a smiley face – she begged me to read it to her.  So I did.  And, much to my surprise, she was rapt.

The illustrations in Enjoy Your Cells are fantastic. There are colorful cartoons of animals, plants, a skeleton, dinosaurs, kids, and of course, lots and lots of different kinds of cells. There are blown up images of hair cells and skin cells and gland cells and nerve cells (my favorite) and lots more.

But this is no boring biology textbook. Rolph’s illustrations are rich with color and many have entertaining text bubbles. “Make my day!” says the defender lymphocyte cell.  “Weeee!” say red blood cells as they whoosh through the body. Some images will wow parents too—an electron-microscope image of a cell and a cross-section image of a slice through a finger. I wasn’t able to check out the finger picture for too long because my daughter thought it was scary (and it is, if you think of how you would get such an image).

The book is jam-packed with information for both kids and parents. I’m a biologist and I learned new things from the book. Balkwill works hard to make all this material accessible to young minds by eliminating jargon whenever possible and by relating new concepts to things kids tend to like—their own bodies, animals, and dinosaurs. The message that all living things (including your kid) are made up of cells comes across loud and clear.

Balkwill spends a few pages talking about the size of cells by making analogies. About 25 skin cells could cover a grain of sand, for example. I’m pretty sure these pages went over my three year old’s head but I can see them impressing older children.

Enjoy Your Cells also makes a foray into human development—describing sperm competition, how a sperm cell joins with an egg cell, how that cell began dividing to form an embryo, etc. In an Amazon review, one parent complained about these pages potentially leading to the sex talk. I think that’s pretty unlikely—the book doesn’t even mention where the sperm and egg cells originate—but it may be something to think about if you have an older or particularly precocious child.

While I loved Enjoy Your Cells (and Germ Zappers), I did find them a little exhausting to read aloud because there is so much information packed into the book. And while Balkwill tries to use simple words as much as possible, there are quite a few biological terms introduced. Luckily, she gives parents a pronunciation guide for the complicated ones.

The book certainly made a lasting impression on my daughter. She has made comments and asked questions about cells several times since reading it, and even asked to bring the book to her preschool. It’s pretty neat to see how Enjoy Your Cells has given her a new way of looking at the living world. I would imagine she’ll only engage with the books and their ideas more as she reaches elementary school age.  But in the meantime, her excitement makes me want to go check out some kids’ microscopes.

Allen is a neuroscientist and freelance writer in Rhode Island. She blogs at Science by Summer and tweets @sumscience.

 

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