If you had told me two weeks ago that I would be fascinated by a book about the bubonic plague I would’ve laughed at you. Then I read Bubonic Panic by Gail Jarrow. It’s not a book I would ordinarily have chosen off a library shelf to read. However, because I had seen this book mentioned on several Newbery-Award-worthy lists and because it is one of the few nonfiction titles to show up on such lists I made a point to find it.
The book concentrates primarily on the Plague outbreak in the early 1900’s in San Francisco. It spends some time detailing the history of bubonic plague–also known as the Black Death–from the Middle Ages through medieval times, from the Asian continent where it first appeared, through Europe, Africa, Australia, South America and, finally, North America. Ms. Jarrow’s Author’s Note perfectly articulates what I found so fascinating about her book:
The story of a plague’s invasion of America is more than a tale about an ancient disease threatening a modern society. It’s also about the tensions between old, faulty assumptions and fresh scientific insights; between local and federal governments; between people living inside and outside an infected area; and between individual rights and a community’s welfare.
Bubonic Panic is a brilliant choice in a classroom used in conjunction with social studies or biological sciences lessons. A fantastic way to join literature, reading and the sciences (biological & social) is to pair this with Gennifer Choldenko’s 2015 work Chasing Secrets. Secrets is the fictional story of a middle-school-age girl in 1900 San Francisco whose father is a doctor during the very plague breakout described in Gail Jarrow’s Bubonic Panic. Having read Secrets before Bubonic Panic, I was all the more fascinated by the nonfictional details in this book. Pairing the two together can give young learners a more substantial connection to both books–and the issues and history behind them both.
Bubonic Panic is written with clear, specific language that is definitely accessible to upper elementary and middle school-age readers. In addition to the narrative that details the history and spread of the Bubonic Plague there are also sidebars and inserts that specifically address the way the plague is identified and spread from a purely scientific perspective. Kids who are interested in medicine or biological sciences will LOVE this book!
Ms Jarrow also makes the point that
History can show us how to deal with these inevitable tensions when–not if–we have to fight another frightening deadly disease spreading around the globe. The response to the recent Ebola crisis shows that the world might not be ready for this battle.
It would be interesting after reading both Secrets and Bubonic Panic to have students brainstorm around this statement, creating a plan for a similar world health event.