In Red Madness Gail Jarrow explains the horrors of pellagra, a disease that up until the 1930s took thousands of lives a year and no one knew the cause. The book lays out the mystery and investigation in a chronological format so the reader does not learn until very late in the book that pellagra is caused by a deficiency of niacin, one of the B vitamins. I had heard of the disease, probably when I took a nutrition class in college, but hadn't realized how deadly it was and what a health crisis it caused in our country in the early parts of the twentieth century.
The book, which contains lots of photographs and accounts of victims, is well-written and interesting. I learned a ton. The part I liked best was the focus on the doctors that dedicated their careers to investigating the disease and how they eventually figured out the cause and the sure for it. I doubt that students will flock to it since, truth be told, students don't tend to flock to books about diseases. But it is interesting and they would learn something if they did read it.
I did have a few issues with the publishing decisions with the book, however. Firstly, I suppose since the book was titled Red Madness about a disease which would cause people to turn red and rashy, the publishers wanted aspects of the book to be red. Several of the highlighted stories about the victims or doctors were printed on red circles or boxes. The font they selected just didn't pop and I had a hard time reading the information in these boxes. In other places stories of victims of pellagra were placed on pages with slightly different font styles and text-boxes to highlight the differences. I don't normally notice font choices in books but in this one they were odd enough that I noticed and was bothered by it.
Secondly, the size of the book is also a bit off-putting for high school students. It is just a bit smaller than children's books in dimensions but larger than most information books for teens. I am not sure what the publishers were saying by the book size. Were they communicating that this book is really for juniors, some where between teens and children?
Publishing decisions aside the information within is interesting and the book should be an addition to any library that has a section of human diseases, especially historical aspects of those diseases. I won't, however, recommend this book in inclusion on our Mock Printz list for the year.
Note: I was going to include a photo or two of pellagra victims from the Internet but when I searched the word "pellagra" the photos were so horrifying I decided to spare you the gory details. I didn't think this drawing was too bad, so you will get the idea of why the disease is called red madness:
30 books this Summer Reading Challenge
6 / 30 books. 20% done!