Alvin Silverstein Essay - Critical Essays

Silverstein, Alvin


Alvin Silverstein 1933– Virginia B(arbara) Silverstein 1937–

(Alvin Silverstein has also written under the pseudonym Dr. A.) American nonfiction writers for children and young adults.

The Silversteins are professionally associated with the fields of science and scientific research: Alvin Silverstein as a professor of biology and his wife, Virginia, as a chemist and a translator of Russian scientific writings. Their varied collaborations have introduced young people to complex biological, chemical, and zoological subjects. As well as writing about subjects which adolescents find immediately relevant, such as braces, allergies, food, dreams, and left-handedness, the Silversteins have covered such topics as body systems and functions, genetics, cancer, bionics, and aging.

The books are structured in a consistent format. An overview of the subject, including its various attributes and functions, is followed by a description of current scientific opinion regarding it. The Silversteins then include a detailed historical background, highlighting the various researchers who have contributed important discoveries to the field. The books conclude with a section on possible future developments and applications. They are written in a concise manner, with well-explained terms and many illustrative diagrams. The Silversteins's writing style has been criticized for its rigidity and closeness to textbook language, but it is usually praised for its clarity and suitability for the young adult reader. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52, and Something about the Author, Vol. 8.)

James S. Pickering

Presenting an easy introduction to the multiplicity of life forms on the earth, their requirements of oxygen, liquid water, radiation, etc., the authors go on to point out the rarity of these essentials in the rest of the solar system [in Life in the Universe]. Then, there is a brief but stimulating chapter on the attempts to discover other intelligent life in the universe…. [The] presentation is excellent, but the bits of original verse at the beginning of each chapter are silly; the authors are not poets. Nevertheless, they teach well.

James S. Pickering, "The Book Review: 'Life in the Universe'," in School Library Journal, an appendix to Library Journal (reprinted from the November, 1967 issue of School Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Co./A Xerox Corporation; copyright © 1967), Vol. 14, No. 3, November, 1967, p. 71.

Robert H. Stavin

[A World in a Drop of Water presents] a coy presentation of oversimplified, erroneous concepts together with superficial presentations of complex material insufficiently explained…. For example, the Silversteins say that algae "drink in the energy of the sunlight and make their own food"; that plant spores "'sleep' until good weather comes again"; that rotifers "can stay asleep this way for years"; that "most hydras give birth to young by a process called budding." Plants do not drink or sleep; they absorb or are inactive—both concepts within the grasp of students at this age level. "Give birth" implies sexual reproduction, while budding is an asexual process. Later, the authors mention conjugation of Paramecium and Spirogyra without developing the genetic reasons for this conjugation; they also state that water is carried out of the flatworm's body without elaborating on the significance of this process in the vital maintenance of water balance in the organism. The concepts of conjugation and water passage are fairly sophisticated for this age level, and, if introduced at all, require more thorough explanation…. [Adults] can make discriminating use of the text for a science-oriented read-aloud, but there are too many inaccuracies and misleading statements to suggest this as a reliable purchase for older independent readers.

Robert H. Stavin, "The Book Review: 'A World in a Drop of Water'," in School Library Journal, an appendix to Library Journal (reprinted from the March, 1969 issue of School Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Co./A Xerox Corporation; copyright © 1969), Vol. 15, No. 7, March, 1969, p. 156.

Mrs. G. Maunder

I am never certain of the validity of books about factual topics disguised as works of fiction. Often this leads to humanization of characters and an artificiality of situation which the intelligent child quickly sees through and may well find patronizing. [A Star in the Sea] is a typical example. Primarily it is a study of the life-cycle of a star fish, with details of structure, eating habits and reproduction. These have been dramatized by the imposition of a fictional structure (even down to the name 'Stella'); the events are described as 'adventures' which 'frighten' and 'excite'. Yet despite all this, the book succeeds, largely because of … its amazingly detailed text.

Mrs. G. Maunder, "Science and Nature: 'A Star in the Sea'," in Children's Book News (copyright © 1970 by Children's Book Centre Ltd.), Vol. 5, No. 1, January-February, 1970, p. 35.

Advanced students of zoology and general physiology who have been enlightened by Living Light by Edmund H. Harvey … and Bioluminescence by E. Newton Harvey … are aware that the presentation of an elementary introduction to the subject of bioluminescence is not a simple task. The Silversteins … have done quite well [in Living Lights: The Mystery of Bioluminescence]. The chemical nature of cold light arising from the ability of creatures to manufacture luciferin and luciferinase, the...

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Zena Sutherland

Gnotobiology is the study of the effects of specific microorganisms on germ-free plants and animals living in a sterile environment…. Today gnotobiological experiments are providing useful or potentially useful information that may radically change some aspects of world health. Among the questions considered [in Germfree Life: A New Field in Biological Research] are the possibility of immunization against tooth decay, the effects of bacteria on production of some vitamins, and the efficacy of microflora in slowing the process of cancer. The straightforward, brisk writing is lucid, the material neatly organized, the subject one of the most intriguing on the biological frontier.

Zena Sutherland, "Books for Young People: 'Germfree Life: A New Field in Biological Research'," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1970 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. LIII, No. 34, August 22, 1970, p. 53.

Muriel Kolb

Circulatory Systems offers a scientifically accurate explanation of the functions of blood and the heart in humans, the lymphatic system, two- and three-chambered hearts, and circulation in lower animals, insects and plants…. This book provides a good source for further research when readers already understand basics of molecules, chemical changes, cell structure, etc. Though this title is less comprehensive and effective in explanation than [Herbert S.] Zim's Blood, [Leo Schneider's Lifeline, or Edith Weart's better-on-cells The Story of Your Blood] …, the coverage it gives of lower plants and animals may make it a useful item. The Digestive System, covering digestion in humans, lower animals and plants, is too technical to be used as an introduction. Readers will need some acquaintance with chemistry and biology…. One chapter discusses a balanced diet and the body's need for minerals and vitamins. The final one deals briefly with hunger in the world, the importance of protein in an infant's diet, and the search for new sources of food—but these vital issues call for greater emphasis. Scientific terminology is given with phonetic respellings for pronunciation; technical words are italicized and listed in the index. This title will be useful since the subject is not treated this extensively elsewhere.

Muriel Kolb, "The Book Review: 'Circulatory Systems: The Rivers Within'," in School Library Journal, an appendix to Library Journal (reprinted from the November, 1970 issue of School Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Co./A Xerox Corporation; copyright © 1970), Vol. 17, No. 3, November, 1970, p. 111.

Harry C. Stubbs

When I meet a student who has passed a high-school chemistry course but cannot tell me what happens when sodium is dropped into water,… I look around for a nice, old-fashioned, descriptive science book nicely loaded with facts…. I settle down and try to read the book with my brain shut off except for the recording portion—no effort to calculate the cooling power of the skin or the horsepower of the heart. The trouble is, most books make one think even if they are purely factual; brains are hard to shut off.

Three small volumes by Dr. Alvin Silverstein and his wife Virginia seemed worth trying at one of these moments. They are The Respiratory System: How Living Creatures Breathe; Circulatory...

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Susan Catania

The Silversteins have skillfully abstracted, from a great pile of highly technical information, the points most pertinent in man's probing of animals' and plants' secrets [in Bionics: Man Copies Nature's Machines]. Their sources include recent studies by scientists all over the world; many of these studies are reported with specific, though appropriately informal, references. This approach, together with the authors' stress on practical uses of the data and on hopes for further such uses, helps readers to appreciate the very current relevance of bionics…. Readers will learn, among numerous other things, how leopard frogs see, how some moths elude bats, why dolphins can swim so fast and how astronauts can move...

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How dichotomous can we get in our reactions to mice and rats? Pet mice are kept in home and laboratory, rats are invaluable in medical research, both are obnoxious in the field. This dichotomy becomes apparent in this handy review [Rats and Mice: Friends and Foes of Man]….

So closely are … rodents connected with man's life that a commensal relationship exists between the unwilling host and his four-legged acquaintances. This closeness has resulted in legend and folk-lore from the Pied Piper, to the three blind mice and Mickey Mouse.

For the early 'teens this is a useful initial reference book which should help to counteract some of the repugnance given even to thinking of...

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Nina M. Walsh

The coverage of the five senses and the inner senses (kinesthetic receptors) in muscles, tendons, and ligaments is at best adequate [in The Sense Organs: Our Link With the World]; and, occasionally, the information provided is too scanty: e.g., the names of the three bones in the middle ear are omitted; in the demonstration of "blind spots," the text does not specify that you must close your right eye in order for the dot to disappear, etc. A fuller presentation, including some of the same experiments, is [Herbert S.] Zim's Our Senses and How They Work …; however, the Silversteins also treat plant sensitivity and modern research to improve the senses, and, unlike Zim, include an index.


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Beginning on an intermediate level, this discussion of genetics [The Code of Life] quickly becomes too complicated for all but the most sophisticated readers in the intended age group. A tremendous amount of information is packed into the 89 pages; perhaps too much, too rapidly as the main points are hard to discern. The better part of the book discusses the latest discoveries in genetics which have been numerous and awesome. In Origin of Life …, the authors treat the same subject—the genetic code, chromosomes, genes, DNA and RNA—with more clarity and precision…. However, this does make students aware of an important and exciting field of research and its possible impact on all our lives.


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J. Don Bloom

Full marks for an excellent idea. The descriptions of larvae and their transformation into totally different adult forms [in The Magic Change: Metamorphosis] will appeal to the many children who can still find magic in Nature. Three insects, amphibia, sea-squirts, starfish, and eels are used as examples; and the final chapter sums up the value of metamorphosis for survival…. The text, at times, tends to anthropomorphism, but in spite of this the book will be read and enjoyed by very many of the eleven-year-old age-group.

J. Don Bloom, "Seven to Eleven: 'The Magic Change: Metamorphosis'," in The School Librarian, Vol. 20, No. 4, December, 1972, p. 372....

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Isadora Kunitz

The emphasis [in Cancer] is on chemical reactions within and between cells because cancer cures will probably be found in this area. Information on pollutants which contain carcinogens is also included. Although full comprehension requires some knowledge of human physiology, the book is smoothly written and students can learn about this disease and the difficulties of finding its cure. However, there are two shortcomings: cell division is mentioned first in relationship to abnormalities and DNA changes and only later is it discussed as a normal process; and cigarette smoking is noted as a cause of cancer, but a detailed explanation of the causality is lacking.


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Zena Sutherland

Although the number of topics covered [in Exploring the Brain] results in short shrift being accorded some, this is a good overview of what is known about the human brain; some aspects of the subject have been accorded full texts (sleep, drugs, morphology of the brain) in books for children and young people, but this gives coverage of these subjects in adequate, if superficial, fashion. The authors describe the functions of the brain and the nervous system, going into especially fascinating details about areas of the brain that have been studied and mapped. Some of the ancillary aspects, such as how the functioning of the brain is affected by drugs or illness, are made clearer by the citing of laboratory...

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Harry C. Stubbs

The Chemicals We Eat and Drink [is a very promising title]…. The title does not deceive; the authors do indeed express concern about the host of compounds which go into practically everything we consume. However, being competent scientists, they warn of the dangers of extremism and point out that all our foods—natural or not—are chemicals. They tell about the additives currently arousing the ire of the food faddists and, admittedly, of others. But the authors also make clear the alternative to using fertilizers, pesticides, and preservatives: the inability to produce enough food for our present population. The Silversteins have written as balanced a book on the subject as I have seen.


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Paul Showers

Sleep, that condition in which we spend approximately one third of our lives, is a no man's land which scientists have begun to penetrate only in recent decades…. ["Sleep and Dreams"] covers the basic knowledge that has accumulated so far and describes some of the ingenious methods research scientists have used in their attempts to pin down the illusive facts about this universal but highly subjective experience….

The Silversteins have compressed a lot of interesting material in simple, lucid prose that is mercifully devoid of the florid metaphors science writers sometimes feel obliged to impose on the more tolerant adult reader.

Paul Showers, "'Sleep and...

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Claire K. Goldsmith

Beans sprouting in a glass container never fail to excite and interest students from 5 to 15, and [Beans: All About Them] is an entertaining source of answers to questions children ask about beans as growing plants…. Teachers will find a wealth of information applicable to studies of seeds, plants, genetics, economic botany, history of foods, geography and folk legends…. This book is a well developed, single-topic book. Happily, it does not read like a textbook chapter, as do some of the other volumes in the Silverstein series.

Claire K. Goldsmith, "Technology: 'Beans: All about Them'," in Science Books & Films (copyright 1976 by the American Association...

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The narrative of [Gerbils: All About Them] is quite clear and simple and includes interesting background information about the subject as well as very practical instructions and suggestions about raising of gerbils. The description of the usefulness of these animals for experimental work in scientific laboratories is particularly well written and instructive. The authors write with humor and clarity, especially on the subject of raising gerbils at home, and this book would be a handy guide for families with new pet gerbils. As such, it is a recommended addition to the adult shelves in public libraries. It is also recommended for classroom use for both students and teachers, and it would be most useful for...

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Zena Sutherland

A comprehensive survey of cardiovascular disease [Heart Disease] is soberly written but not dry, gives authoritative information, and is logically organized…. The authors describe the structure and functioning of the heart and the rest of the circulatory system, the various malfunctions or defects that are popularly grouped under the term "heart disease" and the devices and techniques used in heart surgery. Subsequent chapters discuss heart attacks and what to do if one has or sees such an attack, the relationship between heart ailments and exercise, diet, and the pressures of modern living, and research and preventive measures. A most useful book, not alarmist but candid and sensible.


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Herbert W. Wallace

The Silversteins give a panoramic view of the major problems in heart disease and present methods of treatment [in Heart Disease]. Initially, the anatomy and physiology of the cardiovascular system are briefly reviewed, followed by a rather incomplete section on congenital and acquired heart disease. The signs and symptomatology of a heart attack are documented, and the account of the present feelings about the effects of diet and exercise on heart disease is well written…. In the chapter on frontiers of heart research, the authors list echocardiography, vectorcardiography and electronic pacemakers, all established techniques which, although they may continue to advance, do not represent the frontiers of...

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[The Silversteins's] work is carefully organized and written in a clear, direct style, and is dependably accurate. The more complicated subjects are not always covered in depth, but they are given balanced treatment, and the Silversteins' writing usually shows their attention to current research and always maintains a scientific attitude. (p. 463)

Pervading [Hamsters] is an attitude of respect for the rights and well-being of pets, and there is no trace of fictionalization or anthropomorphism.

The Silversteins have written many books in a series called "Systems of the Body," with books like The Skeletal System (1972) and The Skin (1972) that have accurate texts,...

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Sarah Gagné


Three million American children may feel that [The Left-hander's World] was written especially for them. The one child in ten who is left-handed already knows he faces certain inconveniences, but he should realize that many more exist, as he reads about the difficulties with left-handedness in our own and in other societies. The authors consider many other aspects of handedness: They look at "left-handed" plants and animals, such as vines and certain snail shells; describe the development of left and right hemispheres in the brain; discuss handwriting; and mention famous lefties from Leonardo da Vinci to Babe Ruth. A final chapter lists organizations, publications, and mail...

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David Gostnell

[The Left-hander's World] treats left-handers as another minority group, presenting facts, speculations and personal experiences to provide the left-handed child with a sense of identity and pride about his or her differences…. The authors carefully separate fact from pejorative superstition, and inform us that many well-known and successful people are included in the ranks of the left-handed. Practical help for left-handers is limited to a short appendix listing relevant books, articles, products and organizations. There is a chapter on left-handed writing, perhaps the greatest bane of the sinistral, but it is devoid of helpful advice on struggling with this problem. To this (left-handed) reviewer, this is a...

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Austin T. Hyde, Jr.

[Allergies] should appeal to a large group of people who share some manifestations of allergic disease. As a practicing allergist, I will be recommending this book to many of my patients as it clearly presents the fundamental information that allergic people would like to know. The authors carefully avoid emphasizing one particular philosophy of diagnosis and treatment. The basic presentation of the main immune mechanisms is written in a manner that is understandable to an unsophisticated readership…. I am particularly pleased that the Silversteins emphasize the tremendous amount of research and the day-to-day changes that are expanding our knowledge of allergy, indicating the areas in which there is debate...

(The entire section is 340 words.)