Itch: The Explosive Adventures of an Element Hunter by Simon Mayo | book review

4 June 2013 by GrrlScientist, posted in Book review, Chemistry

SUMMARY: An engaging young adult mystery about a boy's peculiar passion to collect all the elements of the periodic table, his friendship with his sister and cousin, and the adventures they have as a result

Have you wondered how to pique your kids' interest in science? Perhaps another child can help? In Simon Mayo's Itch: The Explosive Adventures of an Element Hunter [Corgi Childrens, 2012; Amazon UK/kindle UK; Amazon US/kindle US], we meet just such a child, 14-year-old Itchingham Lofte -- "Itch" -- who is interested in science. Well actually, it's more accurate to say that this boy is passionate about the Periodic Table.

The story begins with a "bang" (literally) when one of our young hero's science experiments (with phosphorus) blows up part of his parents' house -- and also burns off his eyebrows. But this is just our introduction to Itch's most recent obsession.

Ever since he could remember, Itch had been a collector. He developed his collecting skills with Pokémon cards, coins, maps, marbles and frogs (frogs?), but when this book begins, Itch has turned his attention to collecting the elements of the Periodic Table:

There was, he thought, no point in collecting anything else; this was everything else. It was the catalogue of everything that existed in the universe, stripped down to its 118 basic ingredients. If Itch was honest, part of him was relieved that most people just left him to get on with it. How boring to be the same as everyone else. Did the world need another football fan? He didn't think so. [p. 11]

Nothing is safe from Itch's accumulative urge; not his father's copper cable nor his older brother's titanium tongue stud (ewww!). As part of his collecting, Itch also begins to isolate some of these elements using simple experiments, such as electrolysis. Others, such as a teaspoon of gunpowder and two radioactive clock hands, he purchases from a mysterious man who goes by the name "Cake". The story is enlivened by another of Itch's purchases, antique wallpaper containing arsenic, which provokes a delightfully disgusting scene involving lots of vomiting when his class visits the school greenhouse.

But one day, Itch purchases a rock, an ominously warm rock, that baffles him. He shows this rock to his geology teacher who realises it is a new element, element 126.

His geology teacher then shows this rock to the head of the school's science department -- an obscure man who magically appears on the scene, having no previous teaching experience. Soon, Itch finds himself pursued by this strange man, as well as several other villains, some from a corrupt corporation and others from a shady government agency. Why? They all want his hot rock: this new element is radioactive and thus, can be used as a source of cheap energy -- or as a weapon.

What follows are a number of madcap adventures, including late night theft, radiation poisoning, flooded mine shafts, hospitals and vomiting ... lots of vomiting.

Even though this book focuses on one particular boy's passion, it is no more a "boy's book" than are the Harry Potter books. In addition to Itch, we also meet his younger sister, Chloe, and his cousin, Jack (Jacqueline), who is the same age as he is. Together, this trio find themselves tangled in a shadowy web of mystery and action punctuated with brief forays into chemistry.

Several things about this book puzzled or surprised me: first, even though he was an element collector, Itch didn't realise that a warm rock is radioactive. Even more peculiar, Itch doesn't appear to realise that exposure to radioactivity can cause radiation sickness and even death. Instead of being appropriately cautious, he carries the radioactive clock hands (radium) and the radioactive rocks around in his rucksack, exposing himself and the public to this health hazard.

I was surprised that a kid -- yes, even Itch -- could drag around a canister of xenon in his rucksack along with all the other items he carried. It seems a xenon canister would be quite heavy, especially if Itch was carrying enough to anaesthetise a carload of criminals.

The names in this book mystified me, too. Itch's parents' names -- Nicholas and Jude -- are ordinary enough, as are the names for his older brother (Gabriel) and younger sister (Chloe) but ... Itchingham? Seriously, where did that come from? That name definitely stands out from all the other character names in this book. Further, kids are typically quite happy to share the origin and inspiration for their names, particularly when their name is unusual, but no such revelation is forthcoming regarding Itch's singular name.

The writing is generally engaging, but the plot is uneven. After an explosive beginning the story generally maintains its momentum until the final five chapters, which were somewhat boring, predictable, and ponderous -- skillful editing could have reduced these to two or perhaps three tight and gripping chapters.

After finishing the book, several questions remain unanswered, such as; how could Itch blow up part of his parents' house without being arrested as a "terrorist" or, at the very least, without receiving any sort of police attention? Why does there appear to be a rift between Itch's parents? Why did Itch's father return to his job after learning some dangerous truths about his employer? Why does there seem to be a rift between Itch's parents and his cousin Jack's parents?

Despite its flaws, I really enjoyed this book and stayed up all night reading it. It was fast-paced, interesting and, at times, educational. I didn't find any errors in the chemistry, although some of the scenarios were a bit over-the-top. In addition to Itch, the story featured strong female characters who were intelligent and resourceful, the dialogue was convincing and the kids used a variety of modern innovations such as email, facebook chat, and texting that add authenticity. Overall, this is a fun book that kids of all ages will enjoy.

In this video, the author discusses his book:


[video link]

Read the first three chapters of Itch.

I am looking forward to reading the sequel, Itch Rocks [Doubleday Childrens, 2013; Amazon UK/kindle UK; Amazon US/kindle US].

.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..

Simon Mayo is an award-winning British radio broadcaster who has worked for BBC Radio since 1981. He currently is the presenter of "Drivetime" on radio 2, which features a book club, and is co-presenter of "Kermode and Mayo's Film Review" on BBC Radio 5 Live. He lives in London with his wife, two sons and one daughter. Itch is his first novel.

.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..

NOTE: this piece was edited slightly from the original, which was posted on the Guardian.

.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..

GrrlScientist is an evolutionary biologist, ornithologist and freelance science writer who writes about the interface between evolution, ethology and ecology, especially in birds. As a judge who helped select the 2013 Royal Society Young People's Book Prize shortlist, she also has a deep passion for good books, especially good science books, which she reviews with some regularity. You can follow Grrlscientist's work on her eponymous Guardian blog, and also on facebook, G+, LinkedIn, Pinterest and of course, twitter: @GrrlScientist

Leave a Reply


8 × six =