How Three People Saved “Blue Babies” and Changed Medicine Forever
By Jim Murphy
The child in Guojing’s impressive, wordless picture book The Only Child (Ages 4-10) could be any small girl, round-cheeked and barely out of toddlerhood, clinging briefly to her mother in the morning — and later at home feeling alone during her parents’ work day. She plays dolls and dress-up and watches television briefly before a photo in an album catches her thoughts. Donning a sweater and a pair of snow coveralls, she ventures into the chilly streets and boards a city bus, where she falls asleep. When the girl wakes, the bus is empty and stranded in a forest. An antlered deer appears and rescues the sobbing child, ascending a misty staircase to a bright cloudscape. Guojing’s single palette in graphite black and gray suggests an old photograph come to life, while the story seems to come from a dream country reminiscent of Raymond Briggs’s beloved book “The Snowman.” The visual narrative features sequences of frames interspersed with dramatic full scenes, as when the deer brings the little girl back to her anxious parents. Although Guojing attributes some of the book’s emotional territory to her own experience as an only child under China’s one-child policy, many children will recognize themselves and their own moments of loneliness and connection.
Jim Murphy’s latest medical history book, Breakthrough! (Ages 9 to 12), begins in Baltimore in November 1944, with an 18-month-old patient who weighed less than nine pounds. Born with severe heart defects that made breathing difficult, Eileen Saxon was called a “blue baby” because her blood’s chronic lack of oxygen turned some of her skin blue. Like HBO’s 2004 movie “Something the Lord Made,” Murphy’s book focuses on the team that came together for the risky medical intervention that helped galvanize modern heart surgery. Leading the group was Alfred Blalock, a doctor who had pioneered a better approach to treating shock victims. Offering vital guidance was Vivien Thomas, an African American man who had helped formulate the “blue baby” cardiac procedure (and devised some of its surgical instruments) despite never having gone to college or medical school. Another key figure was Helen Taussig, who specialized in children’s heart defects and showed great compassion. Some of Murphy’s choices are debatable; for instance, only in a footnote does he mention that Saxon died before she was 3. Still, the book’s clear and concise account offers a compelling picture of all that goes into medical — and societal — advances.
Buck Anderson loves to explore the natural tunnels and caves beneath the Virginia countryside, where he lives. They are a refuge for the small, 13-year-old protagonist of Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s new novel, Going Where It’s Dark (Ages 10 and up). Buck stutters, and in these quiet underground places he doesn’t have to deal with his concerned family or the mockery at school. A grouchy new neighbor — a retired speech pathologist — may be able to help, but the man wants Buck to learn to relax and talk to, rather than avoid, people. Good luck with that! When bullies force Buck into a dire situation, he must mobilize all his emotional and physical strength to find the best course of action. As with many of her 140 books, including the Newbery Medal-winning “Shiloh,” Naylor beautifully conveys a sense of rural life, with its chores and seasonal rhythms. And she captures the humorous, complex dynamics of a large, multi-generational family, from patriarch Gramps to Buck’s supportive, gregarious twin, Katie. Subplots involving stolen property and an older brother’s aspirations deepen suspense and secondary characters. The caving scenes are heart-in-your-throat thrilling, as Buck wriggles through dank passages and discovers skulls and rock formations. Readers with their own passions and insecurities will relate to diffident Buck as he braves dark caverns and his social fears.
Schwartz & Wade. $19.99.