Checking in on Chernobyl’s Dead Zone

BookendsCindy: Almost 30 years ago, when I was a baby librarian—and not too many years after acquiring my college protest marching “No-Nukes” button—a reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine exploded and the news was full of the fallout. Today’s students may be fuzzy on the details, if they even know about this devastating accident. Rebecca Johnson will bring them up to speed with her book, Chernobyl’s Wild Kingdom: Life in the Dead Zone (2014).

While the book focuses on the radioactive wildlife and the research being done in the Ukrainian ghost town of Pripyat and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the opening chapter sets the stage. Readers will get a very brief overview of nuclear reactors, the events of the explosion, and details of the evacuation and aftermath. There’s even a chart of radiation dosages that compares your dental x-ray to that of the exposure during this tragedy that is estimated to have released 400 times more radioactivity than Hiroshima received from the atomic bomb in 1945.

They prefer to take their chances with the radiation in
order to return to the homes they have known their whole lives.

Today, besides a few regulated visits from journalists and tourists to the low-radiation areas, the majority of the people who are allowed entry are the scientists who risk their own health to conduct their research in this unique place of study. I was intrigued to learn that there are several hundred former residents who have returned to their homes in the Exclusion Zone. Mostly older women, they prefer to take their chances with the radiation in order to return to the homes they have known their whole lives.

Chernobyls Wild KingdomThe various studies that Johnson reports on are fascinating and some have quite unexpected findings. It’s no surprise that humans are often the greatest enemy faced by wildlife, but the research here sheds a bright light on that fact in ways that may be eye-opening to young readers. This is an important book to add to your environmental collection. It makes a great booktalk and will provide multiple topics for those argumentative essay assignments.

Lynn:  What a fascinating subject! Who would have imagined that wildlife would exist at all in the Exclusion Zone, where the radiation is measuring at what we have assumed to be horrifyingly dangerous levels. Rebecca Johnson does an admirable job of summarizing the 1986 disaster and explaining to young readers what scientists assumed would be the impact on life in the area.

That alone would make an interesting book, but of course the astonishing story of wildlife that appears to be thriving is even more compelling and I really admire Johnson’s clear descriptions of the ongoing and often conflicting research. It is this that really makes the book stand out for me and what makes it especially appealing for classroom use. How is it that some species seem to have few if any genetic abnormalities? Are species really thriving or are there serious effects? What is the long-term future of the area? What are the effects of radiation on the scientists themselves?

The book’s appearance is appealing as well, with very nicely designed pages, lots of white space, and excellent photographs and clear sidebars. A bibliography and an excellent list of sources of additional information are  included along with a glossary. Johnson wraps up by tying the relevance of the issue tightly to the present with information on the Fukushima disaster and noting that there are 432 nuclear power plants working today.

nonfiction-mondayFor more nonfiction blog posts for children and teens, check out the Nonfiction Monday website every Monday.




About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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