Book Review : Mary Roach and Science Nonfiction for High School

Reading nonfiction is a favorite of mine, and I usually read about social studies and science (or grammar).  I am glad that the Common Core standards include a stronger focus on reading nonfiction.

One of my favorite nonfiction authors is Mary Roach.  Like those of many librarians, my interests can be weird odd quirky, and Mary Roach takes quirky to a whole new level.  She asks questions that most people would not have thought of—but if they did, they wouldn’t dare to ask.  And not only does she dare to ask, but she finds the right people to ask and actually gets them to answer her. Her writing is accessible to upper high school students and her books would be great choices for Common Core lists.

StiffI was browsing in a bookstore when I found her first book, Stiff : The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, and everything about the book drew me in.  The cover showing a couple of bare feet with a morgue tag attached to a toe.  The great title (though nowadays a book with “lives” and “cadavers” in the title would probably be about zombies).  And of course the subject matter:  the history of the uses to which cadavers have been put.  We’ve heard about grave robbing and midnight autopsies by candlelight, but that’s just the beginning.   And though it might sound gruesome and morbid, Roach treated her subjects with respect…and lots of humor.  I have recommended this book to more people than any other nonfiction book, and most of those who dared to read the book have become Mary Roach fans.

Roach has also written books on how science has dealt with the afterlife, sex, and space exploration (see my earlier post on Packing for Mars).

Gulp : Adventures on the Alimentary CanalHer latest, coming out on April 1st, is called Gulp : Adventures on the Alimentary Canal.  Roach chronicles how early doctors and scientists studied the gastrointestinal system of animals and people and what sort of research today’s scientists are doing.  Then she describes how everything works, beginning with the role of the nose in tasting the food we put in our mouths and following the path of food to its inevitable conclusion.  So yes, there is one chapter devoted to gas and another devoted to the final product.  But we also find out things like: why don’t the digestive acids in our stomach digest the stomach itself; what flavors do dogs and cats like the most; can you really eat so much that your stomach bursts; and just what exactly is a fecal transplant and why would you ever want one. As I read, my vocal responses were equally divided between “YUCK!” and guffaws.  Though I probably wouldn’t recommend it to the squeamish, most teens and adults interested in biology and zoology would enjoy Gulp.


Bonk : The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. Recommended for adults.

Gulp : Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach. 9780393081572. April 2013. Gr 11-Adult.

Packing for Mars : The Curious Science of Life in the Void. 9780393068474. 2010. Gr 11-Adult.

Spook : Science Tackles the Afterlife. 9780393329124. 2006. Gr 11-Adult.

Stiff : The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach. 9780393050936. 2003. Gr 11-Adult.

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