review: Percy Lavon Julian Pioneering Chemist

title: Percy Lavon Julian: Pioneering Chemist Signature Lives Series

author: Darlene R. Stille

date: Compass Point Books; 2009


reading level: 7.0

preview the book

There is a very limited range of biographies of people of color that are available for middle and high school readers, so I was glad to find Percy Lavon: Pioneering Chemist for my school media center.

I think in reviewing and booktalking non-fiction books to students, we have to begin to teach them to look at these books in ways they don’t typically treat fiction. Most important, they have to learn to look at the credibility of these books more so that the size of the volume or its overall attractiveness. Looking in the back of this book, I found a ‘selected bibliography’ that only listed secondary and tertiary sources. Yes, even Julian’s quotes in this book are lifted from non-primary sources.

Julian was born in Alabama in 1899 and in explaining his life, it is no doubt important to explain the conditions that Blacks faced in this region at that time. In this book, the description of this era is highlighted with a photo of Martin Luther King Jr. from the 1960s. Images of individuals are often separated from the textual context by several pages. While there are several images of Julian throughout the book, none show him actually engaged in work. As I’ve learned from reading Marc Aronson’s blog, we have to learn to read the images as well. This separation distracts from the importance of the individuals being discussed.

There’s a thin line between great and bad non-fiction as both leave you wanting to know more. The really good stuff engages readers in a way that leads them to wonder while the poorly written stuff leaves one to question events and details.

There was much to learn about Percy Lavon Julian and his numerous contributions to science. For example, through his work with soybeans, Julian was the first to synthesize steroids. But, I never got to know about his temperament, why he was accepted to DePauw or what his friendship with Joseph Pikl was like. While the discrimination of the times was presented, it was never made personal. Consequently, it was difficult to know what life really was like for Julian.

While this book stands as rare print documentation of someone who made significant contributions to history, it leaves out important elements that would help to make Julian less of a caricature and more human. I am glad that my students have at least this much information about Dr. Julian, but in learning how to effectively analyze these types of books, perhaps they’ll become motivated to add to the body of literature about people of color.