Why I’ve spent the Christmas holidays reading all about genetics

posted in: 2. Illustrators and Authors | 11

Ever since my young teenage years, watching the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures has been an important seasonal tradition. A short series of informative and entertaining talks on a single scientific topic, aimed at a general audience (though with a focus on young people), these lectures have been held every year since 1825 (with the exception of aa few years during the Second World War) at the Royal Institution in London. They now reach a far larger audience thanks to being broadcast on television, and then throughout the year online (worldwide) on the Royal Institution Channel.

CellThis year’s lectures, given by Dr Alison Woollard (@AlisonWoollard) from the University of Oxford, go out on BBC 4 at 8pm tonight, tomorrow and Monday and their focus is cell biology, DNA, and genetics.

To get you in the mood (or to provide some further reading after viewing the lectures) here are some books for children I’d recommend, all exploring the themes introduced in this year’s RI Christmas lectures:

stuffoflive Looking through someone else’s eyes is often an illuminating way to learn about ourselves and that is certainly the case with The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA, written by Mark Schultz, illustrated by Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon.

An alien biologist has been tasked with investigating the “universal regenerative and reproductive strategy of life” on earth, in the hope that it will offer up new leads for his alien species in their own quest for a cure to the genetic crisis they are experiencing.

By observing this biologist’s detailed report to his leader, we humans are led step by step from how life on earth began through details of cell anatomy, the differences between sexual and asexual reproduction (and the consequences of these differences), the history of scientific discoveries relating to cell biology, and short biographies of key human beings in that history, to how genetic modification works, what it can be used for and some of the political and ethical issues surrounding it.

Used in several US high schools as a class textbook, The Stuff of Life could barely look less like such an object. A 150 page graphic novel, with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, a glossary and suggested further reading list but no index, I think any teenager’s interest in biology will fed by the innovative, lucid, and [whisper it] *fun* way of learning of about genetics.

cartoonguidetogeneticsWhen you look up The Stuff of Life on your library catalogue or bookshop shelf you might also come across The Cartoon Guide to Genetics by Larry Gonick and Mark Wheelis. If you’re only going to bring home one comic book about genetics for teenagers, I personally wouldn’t choose this one. For a start, even the updated edition dates from 1991 (the first edition of ‘The Stuff of Life’ is from 2009 and the intervening 18 years have seen just one or two major developments in this field). The humour is at times a little crude and the illustrations work best if enjoyed as individual cartoons; this is no graphic novel, and the narrative thread, such as there is one in this book, is simply the passage of time.

p. 27 The Cartoon Guide to Genetics by larry Gonick and Mark Wheelis.
p. 27 The Cartoon Guide to Genetics by larry Gonick and Mark Wheelis.

That said, the pages about the role of big business in genetics research are funny and pertinent, and the first half of the book with its focus on historical figures (including several not mentioned in ‘The Stuff of Life’) is accessible to a wider audience than just those who want to learn the nuts and bolts of eukaryotes, amino acids, introns and operons.

balkwillAlthough unfortunately out of print now, the best books I’ve come across to introduce 6+year olds to cell biology are those written by Fran Balkwill and illustrated by Mic Rolph. Cells are Us and Cell Wars were jointly awarded the Royal Society Junior Prize in 1991. They are clear, colourful, simple and yet surprisingly informative introductions to DNA, chromosomes and different cell types.

p. 8-9. Cells Are Us by Fran Balkwill and Mic Rolph.
p. 8-9. Cells Are Us by Fran Balkwill and Mic Rolph.

cellularbiologyFor this younger age range I also looked at Cellular Biology: Organelles, Structure, Function by April Chloe Terrazas but beyond its candy coloured text and illustrations there is minimal substance to this book; it is primarily a list of internal cellular structures, from cytoplasm to centrioles, how to pronounce these words (in US English), and a series of written instructions to point out the various parts in the illustrations. Its iterative and didactic text may appeal to some adults, but the Balkwill and Rolph books will hold much more interest for most young children.

An interior page from  Cellular Biology by April Chloe Terrazas.
An interior page from Cellular Biology by April Chloe Terrazas.

usbornegenesAlthough the Usborne Internet-Linked Introduction to genes and DNA looks and feels like a homework book, its bright, clear and methodical presentation (with the added bonus of
pre-checked child-friendly relevant links, and images available to download for projects) ensures it is a reliable choice for the 9+ crowd. I have to admit I had slight misgivings when I saw that the scientific consultant for the book (Michael Reiss) is a church minister (as well as a professor of science education); if any field of science could clash with religious beliefs it is surely genetics. However, the text was balanced and gave multiple view points in the section on ethics. Other books I’ve read in researching this post were not so reasonable, with 21st Century Science: Genetics, for example, including the phrase “tantamount to murder” when discussing failures when research is carried out on human eggs.


Below are some more titles about cell biology, DNA and genetics which have either won awards or been personally recommended to me, but which I’ve not yet read myself. The details of the award winning books were extracted from the Database of Award Winning Children’s Literature, a fantastically useful resource for anyone interested in children’s books, both fiction and non-fiction, which have been recognised for their excellence.


Author: Glen Phelan
Title: Double Helix : The Quest to Uncover the Structure of DNA (National Geographic Science Quest (2006)
Award: Outstanding Science Trade Book Award (USA) 2007;

Author: Dorothy Patent, illustrated by Matthew Kalmenoff
Title: Evolution Goes on Every Day (1977)
Award: Golden Kite Honor (USA) 1977;

Author: Richard Walker
Title: Genes and DNA (2003)
Award: Outstanding Science Trade Book Award (USA) 2004;

Author: Ray Spangenburg and Kit Moser
Title: Genetic Engineering (2004)
Award: Notable Social Studies Trade Books (USA) 2005;

Author: Lynette Brent Sandvold
Title: Genetics (2010)
Award: Society of School Librarians International Honor (USA) 2010;

Author: Simpson, Kathleen
Title: Genetics : From DNA to Designer Dogs (2008)
Award: Outstanding Science Trade Book Award (USA) 2009;

Author: David Owen
Title: Hidden Evidence : Forty True Crimes and How Forensic Science Helped Solve Them (2000)
Award: ALA Best Books for Young Adults (USA) 2002;

Author: Ron Fridell
Title: Decoding Life : Unraveling the Mysteries of the Genome (2004)
Award: Outstanding Science Trade Book Award (USA) 2005; Society of School Librarians International Honor (USA) 2005;

Author: Cheryl Bardoe, illustrated by Joseph A. Smith
Title: Gregor Mendel : The Friar Who Grew Peas (2006)
Award: ALA Notable Books for Children (USA) 2007; Orbis Pictus Honor (USA) 2007;

Author: Samantha and Todd Seiple
Title: Mutants , Clones , and Killer Corn : Unlocking the Secrets of Biotechnology (2005)
Award: Society of School Librarians International Honor (USA) 2005;


‘The Manga Guide to Molecular Biology’ by Masaharu Takemura and Sakura
‘The frog scientist’ by Pamela Turner, photographs by Andy Comins.
‘Stonger than steel: spider silk DNA and the quest for better bulletproof vests, sutures, and parachute rope’ by Bridget Heos, photographs by Andy Comins.
‘Cells’ by Shirley Duke
‘You can’t wear these genes’ by Shirley Duke
‘What Makes You You?’ by Gill Arbuthnot


‘Genetics’ by Anna Claybourne
‘Does a Worm Have a Girlfriend’ by Anna Claybourne:
‘DNa and Heredity’ by Casey Rand:
‘Blame Your Parents’ by Buffy Silverman
‘Rosalind Franklin’ by Cath Senker

I haven’t touched upon fiction where cell biology/DNA/Genetics plays a role but here are a few for starters:


‘A Wind in the Door’ by Madeline L’Engle
‘Double Helix’ by Nancy Werlin
‘Inhuman’ by Kat Falls
‘The Declaration’ by Gemma Malley
‘Genesis’ by Bernard Beckett


‘House of the Scorpion’ by Nancy Farmer
‘Wake Up Missing’ by Kate Messner
‘The Demon Headmaster Strikes Again’ by Gillian Cross
‘Blindsided’ by Natalie Whipple
‘The Fourth Horseman’ by Kate Thompson


‘A Rag, a Bone and a Hank of Hair’ by Nicholas Fisk
‘Pure Dead Wicked’ by Debi Gliori
‘Milo’s Wolves’ by Jenny Nimmo
‘Siberia: A Novel’ by Ann Halam
‘Taylor Five’ by Ann Halam

Many thanks to the Rutgers Child-Lit list members for their book suggestions, especially Farah Mendlesohn, Kate Messner, Melanie McGilloway, @monicagoward, Cynthia Miller, Dana Sheridan, Charlotte Taylor, Shirley Smith Duke, Ann Dowker, and Jane Cothron.

What did you read over the Christmas break?!

11 Responses

  1. Sam

    I’ve told my husband about these Christmas lectures as he’s a clinical geneticist. Hopefully we will get around to watching them! Thanks for all the book recommendations – I didn’t realize there were so many on genetics for children.
    Sam recently posted..Happy Christmas!

  2. Katherine

    I love the Royal Institution lectures, I’m the sort of person who needs science broken down simply but I am interested in it. Great list of books! I’ve been reading Walk this World, which I received as a gift, after you recommended it. I love it! Bagl has been reading a French board book of bird noises, it’s lovely.
    Katherine recently posted..Bagl’s week in books 281213

  3. julie

    I see you consider yourself rather lucky, as you should! I don’t get tv reception, but I don’t believe we have anything like the RI lectures broadcasted in the States. My city had attempted public lectures but either the funding got cut or the general interest was not great enough, and I’ll admit I only made it to a few. Thanks for the book suggestions, I’ve put a couple on hold.

  4. se7en

    Hay there… what a great resource list!!! My kids use the Usborne Intro to Genes and DNA for school and have enjoyed it. They also use: “Blood and Guts” by Linda Allison, which is a very cool book of fun science experiments that kids can do to learn about their bodies (I think you would love it!!!) – including a little section about dominant and recessive traits and a section on cells.
    Otherwise the Naked Scientist has a small hardback book: Crisp Packet Fireworks: Maverick Science to try at Home. And it is just that, lots of doable and crazy science experiments including “How to extract DNA from a kiwi fruit.” Highly recommend that one!!!
    Finally Basher Science has a really excellent series of little science books that tackle science head on – no dumbing down, but their fun presentation is excellent and a quick read will leave you packed with new facts. In the series there is “the human body.” These books rock and you should take a look at them – easy enough for an easy reader to enjoy, but packed with facts for a science degreed adult to learn heaps as well!!!
    se7en recently posted..A Week of Making and Baking, Se7en’s Christmas Gifting…

  5. choxbox

    WE WERE THERE!! My 13 yo and I! It was totally amazing Zoe!

    Must send you the picture of the DNA model my 8 yo made from pipecleaners and wood beads (had taken her earlier to the Preview lecture).

    Thanks for these awesome book suggestions – will epxlore!

  6. Karthik

    Sam, that’s a great list! I’m very curious to know if educating our kids at that young an age about Biology has any effect on their future career choice. Do you think they actually absorb the information they are reading in these books or is it simple memorization ? The difference between the two is the difference between showing interest in something or simple regurgitation because you have a test.
    Karthik recently posted..ELISA: A Step By Step Method Guide

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