« Naomi and Ruth, and non-genetic transmission of the line | Main | Still squinting toward 2012 »

Book Report: The Secret of Zoom

YHB had purchased Lynne Jonell’s Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat at the school Book Fair, and enjoyed it quite a bit. I didn’t remember the author’s name (somehow, that’s not a name that sticks in my head), so I wasn’t really on the lookout for another book of hers. And I had figured that her next book would probably be another Emmy book, anyway, so when I was judging books by their covers at the library, it would be obvious.

Instead, her next book was The Secret of Zoom, and when I picked it up to judge by its cover, I could easily have missed that it was from the Emmy writer. Of course, I might have brought it home anyway; I was, after all, already holding it and reading the flap. But I might not have. And that would have been bad, because it’s a good book.

One thing about these two books is that Ms. Jonell appears to have read Farah Mendelsohn’s comment about the difference between science fiction and fantasy and thought no, I bet I could write fantasy books that are clearly fantasy and still have people interested in advancing new knowledge, rather than just recovering old knowledge. Now, I know Ms. Mendelsohn did not intend her observation as a definition, nor to deny the possibility of counter-examples. She was talking about a mindset, a bias, that really is pervasive but need not be.

And then, perhaps Ms. Jonell doesn’t actually think these books are fantasy rather than science fiction. There is, I would say, a science fiction attitude in these books, what I see as a Tom Swift influence, to go along with talking animals and singing minerals. Part of that is just that there are cool grown-up scientists in the background. Zoom is all about the mad scientists, in fact, and the bad guy is in some sense a bad guy because he isn’t a scientist. Maybe, now that I think about it, Ms. Jonell was more influenced by the idea that we want there to be kids who want to be research scientists when the grow up (or sooner), and that most of the attempts to instill that ambition are joyless, preachy and ineffectual. Well, many of them. Perhaps I’m thinking more of the late-seventies stuff, some of it infused with the righteousness of Girls Can Do Math—not that I should be knocking it, because, you know, it is right and righteousness, but I don’t think it worked.

I wonder if anybody has made a reading list of books like Zoom and The Seven Professors of the Far North, books to give your kids if you want them to grow up thinking that science is cool, but also want them to enjoy silly, funny books. Probably Farah Mendelsohn has, now that I think about it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,