Germs Up close Q&A with Sara Levine

By Carol Hinz, Associate Publisher of Millbrook Press and Carolrhoda Books

This book came about in a somewhat unusual way–a little over a year ago as it became clear that the COVID-19 pandemic was about to change our lives, award-winning science writer Sara Levine and I began talking making a book about the science behind not only SARS-CoV-2 but also many other infectious diseases. In this interview, Sara shares more about how Germs Up Close came together as well as some of the challenges she faced along the way.

How did the idea for this book come about?

The idea for this book came from Carol Hinz, my editor. She emailed me almost a year ago, on March 12th, just as it was becoming apparent how serious this COVID-19 situation was about to become. I was busy trying to figure how to get my daughter home safely from college in Ohio when Carol’s email arrived: “If you happen to have a manuscript or could write one soon for a 32-page book introducing kids to various kinds of germs (bacteria, viruses, fungi, protozoa) that could be illustrated with micrographs (rather than artwork) and also includes tips on ways to stay healthy, I feel like there will be a need for that beyond the point when the current coronavirus outbreak winds down. This is quite a strange time we’re living in–it feel like things are changing on a daily basis.” I didn’t have a manuscript ready to go, but I had been teaching this topic as part of my Human Biology course at Wheelock College for over a decade, so it was not a difficult one for me to write fairly quickly. And Carol’s anticipation of the need for this sort of book, of course, was prescient.

How did you decide which specific germs to include in the book?

Well, which germs look like mini hotdogs going for a swim? Or like teardrops with giant eyes and antenna? Which ones cause cradle cap or cavities or the flu? I included the types of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa would be inherently interesting to people and ones that cause diseases we commonly hear about. 

What were some of the challenges you encountered along the way?

My main challenge was wanting to include more than I had room for! I had to figure out what was important to keep, what could be relegated to back matter and what would need to be cut. This book touches on anatomy, physiology, and pathology, topics that were each year-long courses for me when I was in veterinary school. Paring it down to a one-semester course when teaching undergraduates was a challenge I struggled with a decade and a half ago when tasked with designing a course in Human Biology. Doing this again to make it fit into a 32-page picture book for elementary school children required even further distillation. 

So I asked myself: What are the most important things to know about pathogens and how do our bodies protect us from them? The answer to that question proved to be the key information I knew I had to include in the book.  And, of course, translating this for people (children and others) who do not yet have any background in biology was a challenge. But one I enjoyed very much.

Speaking of challenges, can you talk about the experience of working a book about infectious diseases in the midst of a global pandemic?

This was actually a good thing for me to do. I think many of us felt so helpless this year, so scared and not in control of what was happening and not knowing how to help. This project gave me a useful and tangible way to contribute. It was heartening that my book might at some point help educate kids on how disease happens and how their bodies work to protect them. And that understanding this information, along with how they can act to protect themselves, could be empowering and reassuring for children, rather than just plain scary. 

For me, at times, it would have been good not to have to be thinking about the virus—this topic was no escape from that—but really, it was a gift to have meaningful and engaging work to do, as well as daily contact and connection with Carol Hinz, who is a pleasure to work with.

If you were writing the book today, what would you change?

A few things have changed since we sent this book to press. Thankfully so. We knew that whatever we wrote about COVID-19 would likely be outdated at some point, but it was beyond our wildest expectation that there would be multiple working vaccines out there before this book was published on April 6, 2021. The book says, “Scientists are working around the world to create a vaccine to protect us from this virus.” Well, that’s done!

The other thing that has changed is there’s a new type of vaccine in use.  As stated in the book, “A vaccine works by introducing a fake germ into the body that won’t really make a person sick. The fake germ is either part of a real one or a dead one—the important thing is that it is the same shape as the real germ.” This is true of most vaccines. But the new ones being used to protect against COVID-19 use mRNA, which is an innovative way to introduce these “fake germs” into the body.  Rather than inserting the germs themselves, the new vaccines insert instructions in the form of mRNA. These instructions tell our own cells to produce the fake germs, or rather, proteins that are the same shape as part of the germ. This is new technology. But both the more traditional vaccines and the new ones have the same effect. They cause the white blood cells to attack the fake germ or germ part and are then educated on how to respond if and when a real one enters into that person’s body.

[Ed. note: we will be updating this information in future printings of the book.]

What do you hope readers take away from Germs Up Close

I hope the book will give readers a basic understanding of the germs that make us sick. And will also teach them something that seems to get lost—I’ve noticed from teaching adults—that not all bacteria are bad. In fact many bacteria help us do vital things, like protect us from bad bacteria or make vitamins we need. I hope readers will learn the basics about their immune system and how a vaccine works and how to protect themselves. But really, what I most hope is that some of my awe at how interesting and beautiful science is will come across. These germs are nasty. But they are also gorgeous and fascinating. I’m hoping to hook some kids who will decide they want might want to pursue the germ-related careers listed in the back of the book. And I’m hoping to inspire some of the future artists and writers and poets as well—to see and be moved to share the beauty inherent in the natural world. 

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