As a children's librarian, I do a lot of booktalks in area schools. In a typical booktalk I will stand up with a pile of books at my side and try by any means necessary to get kids interested in reading. Such an effort can cause a librarian a fair amount of strain and sometimes we'll stoop mighty low to get children hooked. Enter "Phineas Gage". By and large, non-fiction titles are the hardest ones to sell to kids. You tell a ten-year-old that you have a story about a boy who finds a mysterious dragon's egg and you'll probably have a convert before you've uttered so much as ten sentences. But if you hold in your hot little hand an item that contains actual FACTS.... usually you're up a crik. Not in the case of Phineas. This book is so chock full of blood, splattered brains, busted skulls, and other goopy beginnings that your intended audience, whatever the age, will be hanging on your every word. For the parent that wants their child to someday become a high priced neurologist, I highly suggest that you give them a little taste of "Phineas Gage" for a starter.
Now imagine that you are Mr. Gage himself. The year is 1848 and you're just an average railroad construction foreman. Your job consists of blasting rock out of the way of the construction, allowing further tracks to be laid. You're good at your job, and you've a custom-made tamping iron (thirteen-pound rod with a pointed end) to help you out. Then, on September 13, 1848, you mess up. It could happen to anyone. One moment you're putting the highly combustible blasting powder down a hole. The next minute you've turned your head in distraction and you've dropped your tamping iron down that selfsame hole. The iron hits a piece of granite, produces a spark, and suddenly the iron has ripped through your left cheek, gone behind your left eyeball, and come up through the top of your head. There's blood everywhere, brains on the iron, and a very surprised Phineas Gage sitting in the midst of it all. You'd think a blast like that would kill a man, right? Wrong. Phineas not only is fine, he making entries into his time book as he goes to town for the doctor. When the doctor isn't around, he then sits on the front steps of a nearby hotel and has a lengthy conversation with his landlord. All the while there's blood everywhere and a clear view into Phineas's head to his brains. And is Phineas completely unchanged by the experience? Not quite. Though he lives for quite some time after the accident, Phineas suddenly is bereft of all his social skills. Why is this? What does it mean about the brain itself? And why did Phineas live?
Like I said, there's gore galore in this puppy. But better yet, there's a lot of sound scientific information for questioning young minds. For those kids more interested in the accident itself, Phineas's skull is displayed throughout the book. You can clearly make out where the hole once was, as well as how it healed over time. Digitally rendered graphs show exactly how the tamping iron entered Mr. Gage's head and how it excited. Historical information about the state of brain science in the late 1800's is coupled with what we know (and still do not know) now. The book is filled with interesting photographs, graphs, and illustrations. For further information there's a great list of resources, as well as a fabulous glossary, and a complete index.
Now the author of this book is not a children's non-fiction author. In fact, he's a science writer for the American Society for Cell Biology at the Harvard Medical School. So how well does he write for young `uns? The answer is pretty darn well. Overall, Fleischman's text is tight and interesting. He never launches into a speculation without making it very clear what the facts behind each and every matter are. Unfortunately, the book does have an occasional dull moment. Not being particularly thrilled with neuroscience myself, I found my eyes slipping over a page or two of brain facts that I didn't feel the need to backtrack and read. Still, for the most part the book is a fascinating journey into a weird moment in history.
So if your kid has been told in school that they MUST read and write about a non--fiction title of some sort, I highly recommend dear old "Phineas Gage" to you. Never has any moment so gross rendered so great a discovery.