HP Newquist,
The Book of Blood:
From Legends & Leeches to Vampires & Veins

(Houghton Mifflin, 2012)

Vampires are pretty popular these days, but what's the cultural and scientific history behind blood? HP Newquist fills the gap with some creative nonfiction about the red stuff we all have sloshing around inside us. The Book of Blood boasts fascinating subject matter, lots of pictures and an appropriately lurid cover. And the author's name makes me think of HP Lovecraft. (Sadly, Cthulhu is not in The Book of Blood. Lamashtu is, though.) I wanted to love The Book of Blood, but ended up feeling a little tepid about the whole thing.

Targeted for ages 10-plus, The Book of Blood is broad in scope. It covers the role of blood in ancient mythology and civilizations, developing scientific knowledge about blood, the circulatory system, blood-borne illnesses, real-life vampires (mosquitoes, bats, leeches) and even a token chapter on pop-culture vampires. (Smells like marketing....) I found the sections on blood diseases and animals with weird blood more interesting than the historical stuff, but at 150 pages with many illustrations, it's a quick and reasonably engaging read. The author has an eye for good trivia -- I'd never heard of the horned lizard that shoots foul-tasting blood out of its eyeballs at predators. Newquist's tone is conversational yet doesn't shy away from vocabulary (oligosaccharides, lymphocytes, sulfhemoglobinemia). He does have an annoying tendency to talk down and point things out as "gross" or "icky" after he's just made a good case for how fascinating they are.

I had some other issues with The Book of Blood as well. Newquist includes fairly sophisticated ideas, yet omits some explanations that would have a lot of relevance to young readers. The short section on blood types, for example, misses a great opportunity (and example) to talk briefly about genetic inheritance. An interactive illustration that invited readers to narrow down their own blood type based on their parents, or vice versa, would have made the science seem more relevant and real. I'm also uncomfortable with what seems to be a very slight religious slant to the text. Newquist quotes the Bible several times, devoting two full pages to blood in the Old Testament, complete with verses (every other religion gets a paragraph), and includes the version of the Hippocratic Oath with an injunction against abortion rather than any of the more generally used modern versions. These details might not bother you, but seemed inappropriate to me in a primarily science book.

Also, while there are lots of illustrations, many of them are more filler than anything else. Beside a paragraph on why using sheep blood in a transfusion is a bad idea, there's a photo of ... sheep. At the same time, there are bits of text crying out for a relevant photo: when Newquist talks about different colors of blood, I would have loved to see a photo with test tubes of the actual blue, yellow or green blood samples. Other times, the photo chosen seems very static compared to what the text is about. You would expect the story about the horned lizard to be accompanied by a photo of an angry lizard shooting blood from its eyes (I looked them up online, and these photos exist!), but the accompanying photo is of a calm, slightly inquisitive-looking lizard. The good news is that the only photo that might upset the squeamish is one of a naked brain.

If you're new to the idea that your blood is complex, amazing stuff, you'll find plenty of interesting content to think about in The Book of Blood. Kids aren't the only ones likely to learn something new. But it was hard for me to get through without thinking every couple pages that it could have been so much better.

book review by
Jennifer Mo

23 March 2013

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