Review of ‘Nema and the Xenos: A Story of Soil Cycles’
Dr Sam Lloyd has been reviewing Science themed books for Children’s Books Daily for some years now – you can see all her reviews by clicking on the ‘guest blogger’ category or by searching her name. Her reviews are always insightful and her ecologist eyes brings something to each review which only a passionate advocate for this area of study could bring. ‘Nema and the Xenos: A Story of Soil Cycles’ is a stunning book and when I saw it I hoped that Sam would tell me that the story and the Science was matched by the illustrations – fortunately she confirmed for me that they are!
Title: ‘Nema and the Xenos: A Story of Soil Cycles’
Reviewer: Dr Sam Lloyd
Author/Illustrator/Creators: Ailsa Wild, Aviva Reed, Briony Barr and Gregory Crocetti with S. Patricia Stock
Publisher/Production: CSIRO Publishing (2019) in partnership with Small Friends Books, an art-science collaborative called the Scale Free Network and supported by the Australian Society for Microbiology and Creative Partnerships Australia.
Themes: Soil biology; soil organisms; life cycle of nematodes; relationship between plants, nematodes, bacteria and other soil organisms and chemical communication.
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‘Nema and the Xenos: A Story of Soil Cycles’, is another engaging, interesting and beautifully illustrated book from our friends at the Scale Free Network and CSIRO Publishing. Having previously delivered us ‘Zobi and the Zoox’ (coolest book title ever – full review here) and ‘The Squid, the Vibrio and the Moon’ (full review here) – I was excited to see they had moved out of the ocean on to dry land (#terrestrialecologist).
As with all their books, it includes a comprehensive glossary and scientific reference section. Each book also includes a section entitled “How small are the characters”, which illustrates beautifully the variation in size and scale between the characters in the story.
The story in this book is well suited to primary aged children and there are extensive Teachers’ Notes linked to the Australian Curriculum here. However, once again, the science section is so engaging and comprehensive, that I am sure it would be a beneficial resource for high school students, especially with regards to understanding scale, lifecycles, chemical communication and symbiosis in the soil environment.
This story centres on Nema (a Steinernema nematode and the hero in our story), the relationship she has with the Xenos (Xenorhabdus bacteria), and how they work together to come to the rescue of a tree whose roots are under attack from a beetle larvae and gain something in return. The story illustrates for us the importance of chemistry, with Nema using chemical cues from the tree to guide her and her friends through the dangerous soil environment to where the beetle grub is hiding.
From here we follow Nema, Toda (another nematode) and the Xenos as they work together to save the tree, which may or may not include a sacrificial beetle grub. We also learn about how chemical reactions provide vital communication, artillery for our characters and a safe environment for Nema’s babies.
As with all the stories in this series, they illustrate how nature is all about working together and sacrifice, and how even the smallest of creatures has an invaluable role to play.
A note about timelines
In this book, I think the team do a particularly good job of using the ten-day life cycle of the nematode as a timeline to guide the story. Timelines feature strongly in all the books in this series, but I think it works even better in this story. We are shown how Nema, in partnership with Xenos, parasitise a beetle larvae (that is damaging the tree) for the benefit of Nema’s offspring and the survival of the tree.
The illustrations give us a day by day account, which is accompanied by a more extensive timeline in the reference section of the book. What speaks most to me in all these stories, is how quickly things can change in nature – we think technology moves fast, but so does nature!
A note about the science
As with all the stories in this series, the central theme is symbiosis, which can be defined as the “interaction between two or more different species living in close physical association, typically to the advantage of each”. Some examples include:
- Clownfish and sea anemone;
- People and “healthy” bacteria (e.g. Lactobacillus sp.);
- Some forms of pollination (e.g. male orchid bees and South/Central American neotropical orchids); and
- Leaf cutting ants and the fungus they cultivate.
For more information on symbiosis and some great photos check out:
and The Conversation published this terrific article on the leafcutter ant/fungi relationship.
I have mentioned this in previous reviews, but I cannot recommend highly enough the kids science podcast, Brains On! It really is brilliant and unless you are across every aspect of science ever, I guarantee you’ll learn something interesting (and have a laugh). This episode is a more general introduction to the value and importance of soil, but is well worth a listen:
The following website is also good for informative, age-appropriate information. This link is for their page on nematodes, but they also have one on soil science.