When the Earth Shakes


It is hard not to feel a sense of humility at the very idea of earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunami waves, let alone at the destruction they wreak so indifferently. Boiling lava, monstrous waves, the Earth splitting and thundering—it is terrifying stuff, but also fabulously interesting. In “When the Earth Shakes” (Smithsonian, 80 pages, $18.99), Simon Winchester enlists science and personal narrative to explore these phenomena.

Mr. Winchester has made his name in journalism, but he originally trained as a geologist. There’s a picture here of him as a student in the 1960s, wearing blue gaiters and a red parka as he poses with other members of an expedition to Greenland to test the then-unproven theory of continental drift. “We trekked out on skis, hauling heavy loads of equipment on sleds we dragged behind us, and climbed up onto unmapped glaciers that probably no human had ever crossed before,” he writes of the venture, the findings of which helped confirm the theory.

Everyone now accepts that tectonic plate movements cause earthquakes and sometimes massive waves; so it is notable that only a century ago the German scientist Alfred Wegener was “roundly denounced by the geological establishment” for hypothesizing their existence. “Rocks, said his fellow scientists, were solid and eternal. Just look at the Matterhorn or Mount Everest,” Mr. Winchester writes. “They could never move!” (This anecdote would seem to be another call to humility: Like the crust of the earth itself, science is often unsettled.) Breathtaking photographs of volcanic eruptions, the stunning wreckage left in the wake of recent tsunamis and a ghostly aerial view of the San Andreas Fault enhance this riveting work of nonfiction for 10- to 16-year-olds. - Wall Street Journal

Winchester, a journalist and former geologist, examines earth-shaking phenomena. In the opening pages, the author discusses his experience on a university research team that confirmed the key scientific theory of continental drift; his powerful writing conveys the excitement of discovery. After this first chapter, descriptions of earthquakes, volcanos, and tsunamis are told in the third person. This contrast between personal narrative and straightforward factual writing is incredibly effective and makes the book an excellent mentor text for demonstrating the differences among various narrative styles. The visuals, too, are strong. Spectacular photographs are included, such as an aerial view of the San Andreas fault and images of the devastation following the 2004 tsunami. A reproduction of Edvard Munch’s The Scream is included, and Winchester explains that the vivid sunset that the artist portrayed was caused by dust from the volcanic eruption of Krakatoa. There are several diagrams of cross-cuts of the rock formations found below the surface of the earth (with simple yet thorough captions). Information about the Richter scale and a similar scale that describes volcanos’ intensity are also incorporated. The in-depth index is outstanding. An afterword warns readers of the importance of protecting the planet, and Winchester closes with the words “We inhabit this planet subject to geological consent—which can be withdrawn at any time, and without notice.” VERDICT A must-buy for libraries serving middle school, this title works both as a basic overview of earth science and as a fine example of how to incorporate personal narrative into nonfiction. – Amy Thurow, New Glarus School District, WI (This review was published in the School Library Journal November 2015 issue.)