Author: Carla Killough McClafferty
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR); 1st edition (March 21, 2006), Hardcover, 144 pages
Suggested age: 9-12 years
Juvenile biographies like Something Out of Nothing: Marie Curie and Radium by Carla Killough McClafferty are why I love non-fiction. This book not only brings Marie Curie to life but adds lots of details from a time in history when radioactivity was a new and unexplored phenomenon.
McClafferty tells Marie Curie’s story chronologically, starting with an incident from her childhood in Poland. Though at 10 she was the youngest person in the class, “Marie was usually chosen to answer the inspector’s questions because of her incredible memory. Everyone knew she could recite a poem by heart after reading it twice.”
We follow Marie as she completes school, works as a private tutor for a wealthy family and finally at the age of 24 travels to Paris to study at the Sorbonne. There she meets Pierre Curie, falls in love and opts for a life in Paris devoted to Pierre, later a family, and science.
The story of radium’s discovery is as captivating as any fiction. We cheer for the Curies as they overcome lack of funds, poor lab space and health problems. Especially admirable is their refusal to take out a patent on this new element, which soon fetched huge amounts of money and could have made them rich. When asked why there were no patents, Marie replied, “Radium is an element. It belongs to all people.”
The section which tells of the world’s initial reaction to radium is particularly mesmerizing. We read with horror-filled fascination about medicines laced with radium, rooms where people gathered to drink tea and breathe irradiated air, and factories where workers sharpened the points of paint brushes with their mouths in order to paint the tiny numbers and dials on watches with radium paint.
McClafferty has done a wonderful job of bringing Marie Curie to life by including quotes from letters, journals, and newspaper clippings in the text. Something Out of Nothing is illustrated with lots of photos of the Curies as well as historical items like pictures of products and labels.
The hardback volume is printed on heavy paper. With its black-and-white photo illustrations, the book is an object of beauty on its own.
The story is well-documented with a back section of source notes, chapter footnotes, a selected bibliography, a list of recommended websites and an index. McClafferty, who graduated from the Baptist School of Radiologic Technology, has previously written a book about X-rays and appears to have a good grasp of the scientific aspect of the subject. Yet she writes simply enough for kids to understand. Something Out of Nothing is rated at a 9 to 12-year-old reading level but older kids and adults will enjoy it too. Highly recommended.
- Marie Curie and the Science of Radioactivity – her life in story and pictures.
- "Radium and Radioactivity" by Marie Curie (Century Magazine 1904 – pages 461-466)