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Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Psychiatry, Cadavers, and Robert F. Kennedy: Informational Books that will Grab High School Students' Attentions.

Cunningham, Darryl (2010)  Psychiatric Tales.  London: Blank Slate.

A graphic novel introduction to psychiatry?  Seriously?  Yup.  This one is very nicely done.  The author, Daryll Cunningham studied Psychiatry and worked in a mental hospital for several years.  He also has suffered from depression, so his perspective is an interesting blend of medical explanations of the chemistry and biology of mental and emotional disorders, and sympathy for both those that suffer and those that work with those that suffer.  This book features chapters on dementia, cutting and self-mutilation, schizophrenia, chronic depression, anti-social personality disorder, how people with mental illness can enrich our lives, bipolar disorder, suicide, and how medicine can help break cycles of brokenness and dependence. 

The art is remarkable as well.  It is simple, but carefully thought out and looks as though each image were created by building geometric shapes with light and shadow.  Below is another example:

See what I mean?

Although it is a powerful book and some stories are difficult to read, there is nothing here that is offensive in terms of sexuality or language.  There is a brief description of how, as an orderly, Cunningham had to deal with some patients who defecated in public places and, in one panel, how that could be problematic because other patients in the dementia ward would sometimes try to ingest the stools.  It is only a single panel of the book, but that may be problematic for some students or parents.   

This book is best suited to high school students and could be used productively in connection with any high school psychology course.  Art classes might also appreciate Cunningham's style.

Roach, Mary (2003)  Stiff:  The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.  New York:  Norton.

Opening Line:  The way I see it, being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship.

That line is a good indication of Mary Roach's funny (and often irreverent voice) throughout this book.  The voice is part of the book's appeal, but frankly, the reason this book needs to be available to high school students is that it has the potential to get some kids to read who wouldn't otherwise pick up a book -- without even realizing that they are reading a collection of very well-written essays. 

Roach is a reporter, and so some of the chapters are investigative in nature.  Others are reflective and a few are historical.  They are all fascinating.  Roach's overall question is what happens to human cadavers when you donate your body to science or medicine.  There are chapters on practicing surgery on corpses, a history of body snatching and grave robbing, on how forensic pathology uses cadavers to learn about crimes, about using cadavers as crash test dummies, on how NTSB experts study bodies after a plane crash, about how the military has used cadavers, about transplant experiments on animals and what they might mean for humans, about the possibility of human head transplants, and about using liquid nitrogen to aid in composting dead bodies as an alternative to burial and cremation.  And yes, it is a creepy list.  Roach's writing style makes it seem far more factual and far less morbid, however. 

There is a lot here that students could learn about biology, physics, and even politics.  This book, though, because of its content, is perhaps best suited to high school.  There are no offensive surprises here -- you can see what you are going to get -- but the contents of the book could offend some people.  I recommend previewing it with your audience in mind.  Bottom line, though, it is a good book.

Aronson, Marc (2007)  Robert F. Kennedy:  A Twentieth Century Life.  New York:  Viking.

Opening line:  Bobby Kennedy is on the campaign trail, the one white politician who plunges into poor neighborhoods where armed Black Panthers speak openly of rebellion. 

I was two years old when Robert Kennedy was assassinated.  As I grew up I read a lot about Bobby's brother, President Kennedy, but any information I read about Bobby was always in terms of how he supported his brother John.  I picked this book up because its author, Marc Aronson does an amazing job of bringing non-fiction topics to life.  I knew that such a book would give me a broad understanding of Kennedy's life.

And it certainly did.  Aronson skillfully weaves together Bobby's upbringing and desire to impress his father (a seemingly impossible task for someone considered the runt of the family), his relationship with his older brothers, his tough and dedicated personality, his skill at politics, desire for justice, his friends and enemies.  It is easy to forget that the book is written at a level accessible to middle school and high school students. 

If you are looking for scandal, for unsubstantiated rumors about Marilyn Monroe and unfaithfulness and so on, you won't find that here.  Aronson doesn't hide patriarch Joe Kennedy's womanizing and anti-Semitism, nor the way his children also tended toward womanizing -- but he handles such things subtly and inoffensively.  If you want a balanced, full account of Robert F. Kennedy's life suitable for middle school and high school readers, pick this one up.  It would be great for a high school history classroom library.

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