It’s not often you get asked if you’d like to review a book with the words Science Detectives in the title, so I really couldn’t resist taking author Steven Zeichner up on his offer to read his YA mystery story that mixes in a good dash of the scientific method and some real-world science principles as part of a treasure hunt. The book is titled The Jinson Twins, Science Detectives, and the Mystery of Echo Lake. Quite a title, but also quite a good little story!
Debbie and Joe Jinson are looking for work during their summer break, and some yard work is about all they expect to be offered. So when Mrs. Gray calls them up and asks them assist her with a special assignment at her house (and just locating the house is a real adventure for the twins). Mrs. Gray used to be married to a sailor… a captain, really. And now that he’s passed, she’s finding it difficult to maintain the house as well as its expenses. So, she’s moving… and she needs some help with the packing and sorting.
Now, a tale about a ship’s captain wouldn’t be complete without a treasure map, but this is a modern day story, so there’s no rolled-up canvas with a big red X written in blood. But there is a map. And a cryptic poem. And the twins, of course, have set their minds to finding a treasure that the captain apparently left for his wife… but failed to tell her where to find it.
And that’s where the story gets really fun. Enlisting the help of Mr. Benjamin, the owner of a recycle center (don’t call it a junkyard) and someone trained in some scientific methodology, they set about locating the treasure. And while most treasure maps typically do make use of landmarks, it’s Zeichner’s twist on how the treasure is hidden and how its location is to be found that really makes the book shine. I won’t say another word except to tell you that the hunt for the treasure involves math and biology, two things I never thought I’d see used to find the X that marks the spot.
But the story isn’t just about the treasure hunt — the twins are being harassed by a local bike gang — bike as in mountain bike, not motorcycle. And they’ve also managed to get to attention of a local who doesn’t have the twins’ best interests (or health) in mind. They’ve got plenty of distractions and dangers as they do their best to find the captain’s lost treasure.
This book is available in paperback and digital format. If you know of a young reader who likes mysteries, this is one you can’t pass up — and at $0.99 for the Kindle edition, it’s a good value for a great little story. The author is an MD and PhD (Microbiology) with over 50 publications to his name, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect in terms of story, plot, and character development. But his writing style is easy to read, and the plotting and dialogue are well done… as are the handful of colorful characters he’s created.
The Jinson Twins, Science Detectives, and the Mystery of Echo Lake is available from many major online booksellers, as well as SmashWord and Apple.
I asked Dr. Zeichner if he’d answer some questions about his book, and I’d like to thank him both for the review copy and for taking the time to answer my questions.
Kelly: What made you decide to write a kids’ adventure story involving real scientific concepts?
Zeichner: I have two daughters, one who just graduated from high school and another who is just finishing up 10th grade. Some years ago we were on our summer vacation in Vermont and I was staying up late every night working on the proofs for a medical book for which I was the lead editor (Textbook of Pediatric HIV Care, Cambridge University Press). My kids were unhappy that I was spending so much time on that book, so they asked me why didn’t I write a book for them. Without much thought, I promised them that I would write a book for them. Once I made the promise I was pretty much stuck. Then I just had to figure out what kind of book to write.
I’ve been unhappy for some time about the lack of science literacy in our society and about how magic and fantasy seem to have a much greater hold on our kids’ imaginations than reality. (Actually, I could write the same things about adults, and the kind of magical thinking that seems to characterize so much of our current culture.) The real world is amazing… beautiful… stunning. We can all learn important things about the world with just a little thought, observation, careful measurements, and some effort. I wanted to tell a story, but also get across the idea to kids that they can learn a lot and have a lot of fun through science. I don’t think this is something most kids really experience in their education. We live in Bethesda, Maryland, supposedly the best-educated small city in the USA, the home to the NIH, near many other Federal science agencies (NIST, NOAA, NRC, FDA, USUHS/Walter Reed, etc. etc.) plus science-based private sector companies (Lockheed Martin, MedImmune…), but outside of the people who work in science fields, most of the other parents that I interact with have really no clue about even some of the most basic scientific concepts. I really don’t want to get started on all the double Harvard Law parents who think a baking soda “volcano” is a great elementary school science fair project.
I thought that maybe if I wrote a work of fiction that used real science concepts I could both keep my promise to my daughters and also, if I did a good job, help bend the culture a little into a more reality-based way of dealing with the world and its problems.
Kelly: The twins, Debbie and Joe, are definitely smart kids — is there any reason you chose twins as the primary characters versus a solo protagonist?
Zeichner: I thought that having twins might be good plot and character devices, since I could get some more exposition through dialog, which, I think, may be better at grabbing the reader’s attention than a monolog or a strict third person narration. Dialog also provides some more opportunities to develop the personalities of the twins. With twins there’s more of an opportunity to get some comedic banter going back and forth, which I think is helpful in holding the readers’ interest. Having two central characters of different genders gives both girls and boys someone to identify with.
Kelly: I like the character of Mr. Benjamin — he reminds me of many different people I’ve encountered in my life. Is he based on a real-world character that you know or is he a bit autobiographical in nature?
Zeichner: I wouldn’t say that he is autobiographical, but he could be considered a composite of some of the teachers and other adults I’ve learned from and trained with as I grew up and was educated, and teachers I’ve observed as an adult. As you suggest, a crusty and demanding, but engaged and really dedicated adult/coach/teacher is a type that many people have experienced as they grow up and come to value greatly years later.
Kelly: Is Echo Lake based on any real-world location? Have you ever experienced the one particular quality that this lake exhibits first-hand?
Zeichner: The Echo Lake in the book is not based on any particular real-world location, but there are many Echo Lakes in the world! Just look at the Echo Lake disambiguation page on Wikipedia, which is far from exhaustive. I certainly haven’t had personal experience with all of the Echo Lakes, but I have to think that many share some of the acoustic characteristics of the one featured in the book. We have often gone to central Vermont, where there is a very beautiful Echo Lake, but it doesn’t look that much like the one in the book, and I have never really tested the echoes there either.
Kelly: The twins’ mother believes in IAAEA (Independence At An Early Age) for her kids — the twins certainly do have a good bit of freedom in their hometown. I’m curious if you favor that particular style of parenting or where/how this idea developed.
Zeichner: Yes, I do (we do) favor that kind of parenting style – just maybe not to the extent seen in the book. I grew up in Manhattan and went to school on the crosstown bus by myself, starting in about 4th grade. I remember not being able to reach the strap (there was of course never an empty seat) so I developed the technique of wedging myself between two fat ladies so that I wouldn’t be thrown to the floor when the bus started and stopped. On Saturdays in 7th and 8th grade my friends and I would ride our bikes around lower Manhattan. We would see strange things and find cast-off treasures, like crates that had held shipments of spices and metal forms for hat manufacturing. This was back when people in Manhattan still made things. I remember almost getting hit by cars on more than one occasion, and this in the pre-bike-helmet era. I imagine that many parents these days would be very reluctant to let their children do those kinds of things, but we had some great adventures and we got to have a sense of independence and excitement. In the book, the Twins pronounce IAAEA “AIEEEEE!” The cry could be heard as both a declaration of independence – or as a cry of anxiety (or both).
We live in a neighborhood where the kids still play out in the street after school, and we have a park behind our house where the kids go out to play, build forts out of sticks, etc. We’ve encouraged our kids to take the Metro down to DC and explore around the museums and monuments (they sometimes seem more interested in the shopping), although they weren’t really comfortable doing that alone until about 9th grade. We live in a place where kids tend to be overscheduled and pushed into a kind of pre-professional orientation very early, and I’m not too happy about that. I have to say, though, that I am as guilty of that kind of behavior as anyone else. I do think that kids would benefit from more unscheduled time, when they have to invent their own fun (not more time to stare at a screen!). Many parents may be unhappy to hear this, but I think that some risk is inevitable, that learning to accept risk and overcome it leads to real growth, and the elimination of all risk actually creates some significant risks – albeit of a different kind. I think it’s hard for a child to become an independent, self-directed, thoughtful adult if that child hasn’t experienced any risks at all. I realize, too, though, that these thoughts are really more pertinent to child rearing in contemporary, relative affluent suburbia and that there are very different concerns for kids growing up in other circumstances.
Kelly: (Slightly Spoiler-ish Question) I love a good treasure hunt story, and you’ve got a nice twist on the traditional “X marks the Spot” tale. How did you develop the idea for the particular method used to hide the treasure?
Zeichner: I think hidden treasure is really a classic plot element for kids’ books and time/distance calculations are an important part of the math and science that kids learn in middle school, so the idea for the clues just kind of came together.
Kelly: Mrs. Gray is one crazy driver! Is her character based on anyone you know? She’s unfriendly at first, but she definitely grew on me, especially with her actions at the end of the story.
Zeichner: Mrs. Gray isn’t really based on any one particular person, but again, an eccentric old lady is a fairly common type in many children’s adventure stories. I grew up reading the Hardy Boys, and I know several accomplished women who cite Nancy Drew as a key inspiration, and I will be happy to acknowledge that I was influenced by those kinds of books in writing The Jinson Twins. But come to think of it, Mrs. Gray does share some qualities with one of my aunts, Lois Murphy, an eminent child psychologist who died a few years ago at the age of 104. She knew exactly what she wanted. When she called you on the phone, she would get exactly the information she aimed to get, then just hang up. Clunk. No goodbyes.
Kelly: Any thoughts on a follow-up story with the twins? You seem to have left yourself a good bit of the summer vacation left and the Yellow Jackets are still at large… and likely looking for payback.
Zeichner: As I wrote the book I thought that it could be a series. I’m sure there are many other scientific ideas that could be used to solve other mysteries, and I have some ideas. If I sell enough copies (say 1,000) of The Jinson Twins, Science Detectives, and the Mystery of Echo Lake then I’ll probably try to write another, but I don’t know if I just want to write more books if it seems as though there is no real audience for them. The other concern is that I have a fairly consuming day job.
As for future books, if I do write more, I’m planning on taking some artistic license and declaring that, for the Jinson Twins, it will always be summer break.
Kelly: I love the special project you include at the end of the book — do you have anything you’d like to say to teachers or parents who might be looking for a book that teaches some basic scientific principles (developing a hypothesis, testing, observation, etc.) and might be wondering about your story?
Zeichner: Sorry, but I don’t really know about other books that might teach basic scientific principles through fiction, but I have to think that they exist. I just haven’t seen them, although I’m certainly not an expert in that field. Maybe teachers could talk to their students and see if the students have any questions that they would like to get answers to and then the teachers could try to design some experiments using simple, available measurements that address the questions. I know this is vague, and I’m sorry about that. A wish to come up with experiments that could be done easily with simple, cheap instruments was one of the things that led to the experiments described in the book. I think, though, that there are a lot of other cheap instruments that could be used in experiments: watches, scales (available from kitchen supply stores), measurements of volume, distance measurements, multimeters. Newer, but widely available, relatively cheap technologies, like laser pointers, scanners, digital cameras, smart phones, and free open source image analysis software open up a lot more possibilities.
If I decide to write another book I would be happy to hear from teachers who like the book and want me to incorporate some other scientific principles in that future book.
Kelly: Any particular reason temperature and weights are in Celsius and kilograms (other than these are typical for scientific measurements)?
Zeichner: First, a few practical reasons.
1. The book is available for purchase around the world, via download, with hard copies available direct from Amazon UK and Europe, and through resellers in other regions. I don’t think anyone outside the US would bother to read the book if it used Imperial units, including, ironically, these days, people in the UK. I’m pretty lazy, so I’d like to be able to sell as many copies as possible without spending the effort to write localized versions of the book.
2. Calculations are much easier with SI/metric units. Mr. Benjamin would want the Twins to use the most rational and easy to use system of measurement available. He is, after all, trying to train them to think like scientists, although I realize that some engineering is still done in Imperial units.
3. If one goal of the book is to teach science then the book really needs to use units that every other scientist uses.