Excerpt From
Something About The Author
Ed. Alan Hedblad. Vol. 124. Detroit: Gale Group, 2002. pages 184-202.


Often praised as the best science writers for middle-grade readers and young adults, husband-and-wife team Alvin and Virginia B. Silverstein have written upwards of two hundred information books for young people. Their award-winning works cover a wide range of topics, from contemporary issues like genetic engineering, bionics, recycling, and robotics, to detailed studies of various animals, foods, body systems, and diseases such as AIDS. They have written books with the young specifically in mind -- discussions of acne, braces and orthodontics, and eating disorders -- and books for all ages, giving descriptions of the aging process and of the sense of smell, or explications of the cycle of time and clocks. Indeed no biological topic -- from rabies to fungi -- seems to have missed the collaborative talents of this prolific duo. Additionally, beginning in the 1990s, the husband-and-wife team brought their children into the writing mix, collaborating on dozens of titles with son Robert and daughter Laura.

The Silversteins bring an extensive knowledge of science to their collaborations -- Virginia is a former chemist and Alvin is a biology professor - and they deal with complex issues in a comprehensible manner. Their books are accessible to young audiences and are often praised as straightforward, detailed, and authoritative. Their "work is carefully organized and written in a clear, direct style, and is dependably accurate," according to Zena Sutherland and May Hill Arbuthnot in Children and Books. Sutherland and Arbuthnot further commented: "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."

Both Alvin and Virginia enjoyed similar interests throughout their childhoods. Alvin, born in New York City, grew up an avid reader, sometimes even reading the encyclopedia for fun, and found he was particularly fond of scientific literature. "I began a lifelong hobby of 'science watching' practically as soon as I learned to read," he revealed in Fifth Book of Junior Authors and Illustrators. "My first love was astronomy, but I also was crazy about animals." Virginia, too, born in Philadelphia, remembers herself as an enthusiastic reader, who especially loved books about animals. "When I was seven or eight," she recalled in Fifth Book of Junior Authors and Illustrators, "I used to total up my money saved in terms of how many Thornton Burgess [a prolific animal writer] . . . books it would buy." In time she discovered an aptitude for chemistry and languages and was attracted to both fields. Ultimately, though, she decided to study chemistry, as did Alvin. The couple met at the University of Pennsylvania during the late 1950s -- in a chemistry lab.

Nearly ten years after their marriage in 1958, Alvin and Virginia collaborated on their first children's book, Life in the Universe. "That book was quickly signed up," Virginia related in Fifth Book of Junior Authors and Illustrators, "and we plunged happily into children's science writing. Then followed twenty-three straight rejections. We would probably have given up if we hadn't already had a manuscript accepted." The duo persisted, however, and has gone on to complete an entire library of science books, many of which have been named Outstanding Science Books for Children by the National Science Teachers Association and Children's Book Council, awarded children's book-of-the-year citations, and recognized by the New Jersey Institute of Technology and the New York Academy of Sciences. Among these are works like Gerbils: All about Them, which includes a history of the animals as well as information about their intelligence and behavior; Aging, which encompasses such areas as senility, retirement, and the role of the elderly in families; and Alcoholism, which deals with that affliction as a disease. Gerbils is typical of the Silverstein approach: the writers provide thorough and up-to-date information on all aspects of the animal -- a description of the species, its adaptation to various climates from the desert of its natural home on the Gobi to the lab and the family home, and even offer advice on choosing the right gerbil for a pet and how to care for it once chosen. In addition, "anecdotes from the authors' experience add a personable immediacy," commented a contributor for Kirkus Reviews. Margaret Bush, reviewing Gerbils in School Library Journal, also remarked on the Silverstein method: "Writing from close observation of gerbils raised in their own home, the Silversteins give a far more thorough and interesting account of gerbil behavior and care than has previously appeared in children's books on the subject." Aging also won praise from reviewers. A Kirkus Reviews contributor felt that readers "will find here another of the Silversteins' exemplary research reports." Writing in Science Books and Films, Knight Steel found Aging to be "an easy-to-read, enjoyable and enlightening book" and one that "should be a hit for those in senior high and above." Reviewing Alcoholism in Science Books and Films, W. A. McConnell noted that this "little book is packed with information and it is an excellent source for anyone (particularly teenagers) seeking basic knowledge about drinking."

Other Silverstein books examine topics of high interest to many adolescents, such as eating disorders, braces, acne, or glasses. Reviewing So You're Getting Braces: A Guide to Orthodontics, Booklist's Denise M. Wilms declared the book a "must for any youngster faced with braces." Wilms concluded that the information book was a "first-rate primer on a common, expensive adolescent pain." Reviewing Overcoming Acne in Booklist, Stephanie Zvirin noted that the Silversteins presented the work in a "straightforward fashion," giving "appropriately cautious" information about over-the-counter treatments and providing "a realistic sense of what to expect from a dermatologist." The Silversteins turned their attention to the science of the future in several volumes, including The World of Bionics, The Genetics Explosion, Futurelife: The Bio-technology Revolution, and Robots Are Here, all of which provide informative overviews of their subjects for young readers. Investigating topics from prosthetics to robots in The World of Bionics, the Silversteins provide a "straightforward and readable summary," according to a writer for Kirkus Reviews. Reviewing The Genetics Explosion in Appraisal: Science Books for Young People, Ann F. Pratt declared that the authors "have contributed a first-class book full of excitement and suspense," providing a history of the subject from Gregor Mendel to James Watson and Francis Crick before discussing research current to the books appearance in 1980. Writing in Horn Book on The Robots Are Here, Harry C. Stubbs observed that the authors portrayed "in an unusually clear way the difficulties of designing a robot capable of learning a new job."

Both Silversteins are content with their working relationship. Virginia once said that she and Alvin "have an almost perfect meshing of minds." Alvin agrees that he and his wife work well together. "I was fortunate to find a marriage that has been both emotionally satisfying and a successful professional partnership." Writing in Appraisal: Science Books for Young People, the couple explained their collaborative technique: "'We've tried some variations, but most of the time we sit there, one of us at the typewriter . . . and throw ideas back and forth. Often one will begin a sentence and the other will finish it. Occasionally we disagree, but the disputes are surprisingly infrequent; usually our ideas and styles mesh smoothly. The writing generally goes rather slowly at the beginning of a book, but then, as we get a 'feel' for the material, the pace accelerates, and we often finish on a total-immersion, 'crash program' basis, with fourteen-or sixteen-hour days." The Silverstein partnership was expanded in the late 1980s when their eldest son, Robert, joined the writing team full time and then again when their daughter Laura later did the same. These later collaborations have dealt with subjects including descriptions of various animal groups, diseases, and systems of the body.

The Silversteins told SATA: "In the early 1990s, frustrated with the long delays typical of the publishing business and the sometimes arbitrary editorial and marketing decisions of some of our publishers, we decided to launch a small publishing venture of our own. It turned out to be a fascinating adventure, which at one point engaged the efforts of nearly the whole family. It was also a learning experience. We started out with two particular projects in mind: a book on Lyme disease and a series of books about particular first names and some of the notable people who have borne them. Living in a county that generally scores among the top three in the nation for Lyme disease case rates, we were very conscious of the dangers of the Lyme bacterium and its rather interesting life cycle. At the time only a couple of books had been published on the subject . . . and nothing for young people. The publishers we worked with would have taken at least a year, or more likely two, to bring out a book, and we thought a more timely publication was warranted. In less than three months from concept to bound books, we were the proud authors and publishers of a carefully researched and heavily illustrated book that included a preface by a prominent Lyme disease researcher and input from eight other medical experts in the field. That idea was a winner: Lyme Disease.' The Great Imitator garnered a number of favorable reviews, sold well, and brought us many touching personal contacts with readers and librarians.

"Our other project turned out to be a critical success and a financial disaster. John, Your Name Is Famous and Michael: Fun Facts about a Popular Name and the People Who Made It Great was read by a number of enthusiastic reviewers and talk show hosts ... and by an all too small number of paying customers. We learned a lot about the economics of the publishing business and the difficulties in dealing with bookstores and distributors (not all of whom pay their bills). The first two books in an extensive projected series never did earn back enough to pay for the production costs (not to mention promotion and our labor), and we reluctantly abandoned our partly finished manuscripts on Mary, Elizabeth, Robert, and so forth, along with several filing cabinets full of research....

"After out big venture folded, we gradually returned to reality and have continued to write books for young people. We've had the good fortune to be associated with a number of talented editors whose vision helped launch such series as "Science Concepts" and "My Health." We've been delighted by the trend toward more bright and appealing formats for children's books, lavishly illustrated in full color. (Black-and-white photos or line drawings were standard illustrations for nonfiction books when we first started writing)"

Detailing the lives of a wide variety of vertebrates, the Silversteins have fixed their literary lens on birds such as the spotted owl, eagles, and the peregrine falcon; on four-legged creatures, including the red fox, the mustang, the grizzly bear, the Florida Panther, and even the black-footed ferret. Animals that inhabit the water are represented also: the sea otter and manatee, among others. Many of these titles are part of the "Endangered in America" series, which provides an overview of various species whose existence is endangered, detailing not only the physical characteristics of each animal, but also what factors contribute to their endangered status. In The Peregrine Falcon, for example, the Silversteins point the finger at the use of pesticides and at over-hunting, both of which have caused a radical decline in falcon populations. The fur trade and angry fisherman have both contributed to the pressures put on the sea otter population, while the spotted owl has fallen foul of timber-cutting practices. Reviewing The Spotted Owl in Booklist, Frances Bradburn commented that the book explores the pros and cons involved in preservation practices with "typical Silverstein evenhandedness." In a review of The Manatee and The Black-Footed Ferret in School Library Journal, Amy Adler observed that both offerings "exhibit sound research and lively writing," commenting further that the "excellent-quality full-color photographs are an asset as well." Susan Oliver, writing about The Mustang and The Florida Panther in School Library Journal, noted that the "texts move logically from an explanation of the problems causing the animal to be endangered to possible solutions," and concluded, "these thorough, clearly written titles are excellent choices for reports."

More animals are served up in the "What a Pet!" series, including Snakes and Such, Different Dogs, and A Pet or Not? "As one would expect from the Silversteins," announced Booklist's Ilene Cooper in a review of Snakes and Such, "the text is very cogent and lively." The Silversteins provide a host of possible pets in the title, from chameleons to geckos and iguanas, as well as snakes. The general subject of pets is dealt with in A Pet or Not?, which details a myriad of pet choices and their benefits and drawbacks. "A breeze to read and a treat to browse," wrote Deborah Stevenson in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books.

Diseases have also proved a rich ground for Silverstein research and writing. From measles to AIDS, the writing team has detailed sicknesses galore, often reworking the same ailment for different age groups or to include more recent research. Their early award-winning book on cancer has been added to by other treatments of the subject, including Leukemia, a "concise, well-written discussion of the disease," according to Martha Gordon reviewing the title in School Library Journal. Causes, prevention, and treatment are part of this book, as they are in others of the "Diseases and People" series. Common Cold and Flu is a "comprehensive, easy-to- read overview of the history, causes, prevention, and treatment" of those eponymous ailments, as Gordon noted in another School Library Journal review. "A well-organized, well-documented look at a common ailment," Gordon concluded. Tuberculosis also gets the Silverstein treatment, in a book of the same title. Gordon found this to be a "fine overview of a once-feared and deadly disease," in a School Library Journal review. Hepatitis and Mononucleosis, other titles in the same series, both "provide information on medical problems frequently encountered by adolescents that young people could read and understand," according to Sue Krumbein writing in Voice of Youth Advocates. Janice Hayes, reviewing Measles and Rubella in School Library Journal found that volume to be "readable and authoritative." Hereditary diseases are the focus of several titles, such as Sickle Cell Anemia, Diabetes, and Cystic Fibrosis. School Library Journal contributor Christine A. Moesch called Sickle Cell Anemia a "thorough and well-written book" that offers a clear and detailed explanation of that hereditary disorder which most commonly afflicts Africans and African Americans. Reviewing Cystic Fibrosis, Mary Ojibway noted in Voice of Youth Advocates that the authors provide a "wealth of information" in "an easily readable format." In the series "Human Body Systems," the Silversteins explicate the wonders of the human body from the respiratory to the reproductive systems and points in between. In The Circulatory System and The Respiratory System, the Silversteins "cover the morphology and physiology" of those systems in books typified by their "high quality of research and lively style," according to Carolyn Angus in a School Library Journal review. The digestive and excretory systems are detailed in two books by those titles, both of which "offer solid information for reports and projects," wrote Denise L. Moll in School Library Journal. Moll continued, "These texts are lucid, to the point, and highly readable." Reviewing The Reproductive System and The Skeletal System in School Library Journal, Moesch found that both volumes "are chock-full of detail and are written in a lively readable manner."

Moving away from the human body, the Silversteins have also penned several books dealing with general scientific concepts for young readers. Photosynthesis and Symbiosis both introduce "key concepts of science by exploring their development, applications, and relationships to scientific knowledge as a whole," observed Angus in a School Library Journal review of both titles. "These books are well researched and interesting and the format is inviting for both general-interest reading and research," Angus further noted. Another "well-written, well-researched" title on science concepts, according to Angus in a different School Library Journal review, is Clocks and Rhythms, a book that discusses the rhythm of our planet as well as biological rhythms and man-made clocks. Other popular titles on similar topics include Energy, Weather and Climate, Plate Tectonics, Evolution, and Food Chains.

Whatever the topic, the Silversteins' books are noted for being "well-researched, clearly written... [and] topical," as Catherine Andronik noted in Booklist. Their books consistently make "the science of life accessible to young readers," Kathleen McCabe pointed out in School Library Journal. This winning combination of thorough research, clear and concise writing, and attention to detail as well as readability has made the Silverstein team a cottage industry in the field of science writing for young readers.

Silverstein, Alvin, and Virginia B. Silverstein, Fifth Book of Junior Authors and Illustrators, edited by Sally Holmes Holtze, H. W. Wilson (New York, NY), 1983.

Sutherland, Zena, and May Hill Arbuthnot, "Informational Books," Children and Books, 5th edition, Scott, Foresman (Glenview, IL), 1977.