Scary Spring: Our Polio Fright of 1955
by C.A. Hartnell
Hartnell House Publishing, LLC

"A grateful world continues to give thanks to Dr. Jonas Salk and his team of scientists for their tireless efforts to isolate the dreaded polio virus and create a safe, effective vaccine to prevent polio."

In April 1955, Carol Ann is a nine-year-old in the southern California community of El Monte. Her world centers in her cozy neighborhood, where she and her sisters play with neighbor kids, enjoying an idyllic pastoral childhood of outdoor fun, good friends, pop culture, and fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. However, life is not all sunshine and hopscotch. Lurking on the edges of the daily routine is a terror, the aggressive and indiscriminate poliovirus, which strikes children and renders them ill with a variety of symptoms—most horrifyingly the degradation of their muscle function to the point of disability. Polio’s transmission path is unknown, leaving families to worry about the potential of airborne or otherwise invisible and indefensible communicability.

The book focuses on a brief time in Carol’s life when polio consciousness is at its height due to a confluence of circumstances. First, an older boy in the neighborhood who is afflicted with polio has returned home with his leg braces and crutches, having spent two grueling in-patient years at a polio facility for children. Second, fundraising and publicity for the March of Dimes, the organization that funded polio research, is at its peak. Third, public awareness is high as news of Dr. Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine and its advancing research trials sweep the nation. Soon, a polio scare close to home brings all these pieces together, and Carol Ann’s world changes, along with the path of medical history.

Thanks to Salk’s vaccination and the universal adoption of a rigorous gold standard of childhood inoculations, modern American children know little if anything about the horrors of polio. Indeed, its debilitating cruelty has been so effectively rendered a relic of the past that pockets of modern American parents feel confident in eschewing the virtues of vaccination in favor of alternative theories and methods. That parents can face the option of a vaccine and decline it suggests just how far a few generations without polio have taken Americans and how useful it is to maintain a clear understanding of an ailment’s historical impact, lest it be forgotten. This important book reminds readers of the prevalence and reality of the poliovirus, which hopefully will never strike again.

Although a children’s book, Carol Ann’s story has a historical context valuable for readers of all ages. Life, even privileged modern American life, is fraught with danger, as each generation faces its own challenges and progress. The gift of hindsight can make it easy to dismiss past fears as unfounded or provincial. But to minimize history as a more innocent time is to forget the substantial threats of the past and the works of great societies and thinkers that advanced science and culture to overcome those fears and improve the lives of people everywhere. As a book for kids, this story works by painting the ordinary and relatable everyday activities of childhood, effectively weaving together facts and historical perspective about polio with abundant cultural references to then-modern entertainment favorites in music, television, and film. Kids like reading about other kids, and modern readers are likely to recognize themselves in the characters of Carol Ann and her cohort and thus find the scare of polio very real and imaginable. The story invites the kind of empathy kids are best at—wondering what it would be like if something similar happened to them.

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