Read April 2022
Recommended for junior high libraries
★ ★ ★
Stellar, top notch idea that seems less than expertly executed to this adult reader. Written by Cylita Guy, illustrated by Cornelia Li, and apparently assembled by committee, Chasing Bats discusses eight different urban ecology studies for the middle to upper grade reader. A short indroduction is followed by four pages of ‘key terms,’ serving, I suppose, to help guide the novice science-minded kid through the next eight chapters (‘urban, experiment, data, bias, processing and results’are all among the terms). Each chapter covers a different study:
-Chasing Down Big Browns (bats in city green space)
-Ratmobile to the Rescue (rats and spatial distribution)
-Bees and a Bug Vacuum (why cities are a good place to study climate change and bees)
-Backyard Bear Buffet (bears and human conflict)
-Bold Coyote, Bashful Coyote (coyote and human conflict)
-Microplastics, Major Problems (pollution and city animals)
-Birdwatching Bias (citizen science reporters area bias)
-A Bike to Beat the Heat (greener cities and heat)
One thing that is odd about these chapters is the way it purports to be about a particular scientist’s work, but then focuses on something else instead. For instance, the ‘Ratmobile to the Rescue’ chapter is subtitled ‘How do animals in cities affect human health?‘ yet the first two pages cover an anectode about how one of the rats escaped and was living in the research van (also, kudos to the researcher for allowing her mobile lab to take center stage over her actual, you know, research). I’m a little fuzzy on the actual health connection to the rat DNA samples, as the biggest aspect of health discussed was mental impacts (and thus, whether or not rats were related by DNA and traveled really wouldn’t matter, would it?) So my own science brain was rather puzzled about what the exact study was, and how the conclusions were drawn.
Format is equally scattered. Each chapter is told in a piecemeal way with the study broken down into sections and interrupted by information boxes. Try picking out the thesis in this opening paragraph on bat research in city spaces:
“I bet the last time you played at the park, you saw some wildlife sharing it with you. Birds in trees. Squirrels running around. Turtles sunning themselves on rocks in a pond. Parks and green spaces are often the closest thing to the natural habitats of animals and plants in urban environments. So, we like to think of them as being good habitat for wildlife in the city. That’s what I thought when I set out to study city bats in High Park–a large green space in Toronto, Canada. It seemed like the perfect habitat for city bats. High Park is full of tall old trees that bats might like to sleep in. It also has a large pond that bats could forage–or hunt–for insects.”
It continues with a story about a police officer coming upon the scientist and her partner as they were researching, a section on why we should care about bats and how she figured out where they roost. Interestingly, there aren’t any numbers or proportions in the reported results, except for the word ‘most’ (“most of the bats I caught in High Park were males–not females.” and “And most of the bats I radio-tagged seemd to only feed in the park for part of the night before disappearing”) which again leaves me with more questions.
Just not well written. I pity the kid that has to pick their way through that. I’m told the text is 6th to 8th grade-ish (I’d guess sixth by more rigorous standards). There’s quite a few block-print/cartoon-style illustrations that accompany each section and mostly serve to highlight a particular issue in the story. The pictures are also used to illustrate the scientist in the scene, setting the story, if you will. In some cases, they take up an entire page, making the book skew younger.
Interestingly, the above scientist was stopped by a police officer demanding to know what they were doing in the park in the middle of the night (presumably, Researching While Black). The coyote and bird sampling ones have similar encounters with enforcement or the public, which brings attention to the supposedly ‘impartial’ issue of science and how bias can impact both how research is able to be done and who gets to carry it out. This is clearly one of the strengths of the book.
I’ve no doubt that the format is designed to appeal to those with short attention spans, with inset boxes about tools of research, insights about species, species diversity, how the reader can help and public perception. While I can understand the value of sidebars in giving inexperienced readers helpful or interesting background (“Sometimes when scientists trap wildlife, instead of catching the species they want [the target], they end up with non-target species in their traps…”), I feel like more thoughtful text could just have integrated that information. Surprisingly, the author has ‘science communicator’ listed on her jacket biography.
At any rate, I love the idea of both urban ecology and making scientific studies available to younger audiences. Personally, I checked it out because I’ve had my eye out for studies focusing on lives of urban wildlife–for instance, for all the neighbors complain about chipmunks, do we really have any idea how many live in an average yard? Or how big their burrows are?–so I got this hoping for more insight and maybe some studies I haven’t heard of. These were pretty routine for the environmental/ animal wildlife field, although the rat one was new to me.
It’s also worth noting the scientists involved in the studies are women and/or people of color and so can represent STEM to kids who may not see people who look like them in the sciences. With eight different studies, it also gives a wide perspective of what ‘science’ can look like, from animals to plastic to bike-riding. It also deserves kudos for being one of the first non-college books I’ve seen that actually describes both the research process and potential implications of the research. Because of that, and since I recognize I am absolutely not the target reading demographic, I’d recommend that all middle school librarians should absolutely buy this for their libraries. Adult learners who already know something about science? Just look through a recent copy of Nature.