As a doctor, writer, and mother of a middle schooler, I was ready to scintillate the sixth graders when I volunteered for the chicken wing dissection class, demonstrating the exciting connection between muscles and tendons and bones. I opened and closed the wing, placed it in their hands, showed them the thin strips of tissue coordinating all the action. Did I see fascination? Excitement? Feigned interest of any sort? Sadly, no.
Surely they’d want to hear about my journey to becoming a doctor, then. And they did. But they were much more enthusiastic about a different topic they were studying: mythology. Greek gods, beasts with multiple heads, fathers who swallowed their children whole—they learned about all of it in school, but they already knew everything there was to know and then some.
Why? Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. If there was an obvious career path involving mythology, they’d be all in.
Fiction provides a framework to make any piece of information interesting and entertaining. Most information is interesting on its own, but it’s inevitably much more enjoyable when embedded in a story. Add action and suspense and humor and a kid who could be any of us, and we are captivated. But is there such a fiction series about medicine? The human body? Ailments and health? The excitement of biology or chemistry or engineering or math? Excluding books that deal with video games, very few.
Especially in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, the world needs science and future scientists, and children’s authors need to do anything they can to encourage them. I set out to create a thrilling tale weaving in maladies, much like the Percy Jackson books weave in mythology. In The Antidote, 12-year-old Alex Revelstoke discovers a family secret: he can see disease. And not just disease—he can also see injury, illness, and anything else wrong with the body. He sees skin melt away to reveal the organs beneath, much to his shock and horror. He comes from a family of doctors with this extra gift, going back generations, helping, healing.
But the Revelstokes are locked in a centuries-old battle with the ancient evil entity ILL, the creator and physical embodiment of disease. Alex is the last Revelstoke, and he is all that stands to protect humanity from ILL and his new super-disease—one worse than polio, worse than smallpox.
Kids learn about polio and smallpox in school. They know something about disease. A grandpa had a heart attack, their cousin had appendicitis, their friend has a food allergy. They hear about diabetes and sudden death in young athletes. These illnesses appear in The Antidote’s adventure, described and explained even as the action unfolds. I threw in hidden safety tips like how to perform the Heimlich maneuver and when to use an AED (an automated external defibrillator). Young people can only gain by understanding more about the body, health, and medicine—and that’s true now more than ever.
Unlike any other time in recent history, perhaps since the polio epidemic that ended well over half a century ago, the world’s children are directly, incredibly affected by disease, death, and the fear that accompanies it. The Antidote speaks to this, not with anything specifically about the current Covid-19 situation but with the story winding through pandemics and infectious diseases of the past such as the plague, polio, smallpox, Spanish flu, measles, leprosy, etc. The Covid-19 pandemic is horrific, but it’s not unique, and it helps knowing there have been times in history like this, and that science came through and the world prevailed.
The events of 2020 have forced kids to experience disease firsthand, and also to experience the healers and scientists who are heroes and who have sparked a worldwide interest in science. Whole career fields were laid bare for kids to understand. Frontline responders, EMTs, doctors, nurses, and technicians all helped diagnose and treat. Mechanical engineers designed negative pressure rooms in hospitals overnight and retrofitted schools and buildings with new airflow systems. Biomedical and other engineers rethought ventilators and oxygen saturation monitors. Research scientists, vaccine makers, and virologists discovered the virus, created the testing, produced the vaccines. Computer scientists developed the programs to register people for vaccinations, then worked out the bugs and the crashes. Kids saw science save the world, and many will choose a career in science themselves.
Young people are interested in science. Now is the time to capitalize on that, and books can encourage this interest. I hope The Antidote will be part of the inspiration, and that other authors and publishers will join me in this effort.
Susan McCormick is a writer and doctor in Seattle. Her books include The Antidote; the Fog Ladies, a cozy murder mystery series; and Granny Can’t Remember Me, a picture book about Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.