The Decomposition of Jack
by Kristin O'Donnell Tubb
208 pages; ages 8-12
Katherine Tegen Books, 2022
As a parent who has scraped up a dead animal from the side of the road with my kid’s help, I knew I had to read this book! Cleverly disguised as a middle grade novel, it is an intersection of roadkill science, cougar migration, and a boy trying to understand his parent’s divorce.
Jack (called Jack Splat at school) helps his mom with her research, but he’d rather hang with his middle school friends, play video games – anything but scrape roadkill from the road. But dad left, and Jack is now mom’s right-hand field assistant. He tends the roadkill garden, logging observations about each animal’s decomposition into the laptop. And then one day he sees a cougar crouched in a tree just beyond his backyard.
Impossible, says the state website. Highly unlikely says his teacher. Are you sure, asks his best friend (and Zombie Zoo cartoonist)? See, cougars don’t live in Tennessee. They've been officially declared extinct in the state... and yet something is watching from the tree. Something with large paws and tawny fur. Something strong enough to move a deer carcass from its assigned location in the roadkill garden to the chain link fence bordering the woods.
There are so many things I like about this book:
The descriptions and language. There is no doubt that this tale is set in Tennessee – you can almost smell the pines. And I like Jack’s wry sense of humor; he describes one roadkill location as a “meatier road.”
I like Jack’s empathy – for his mom, and for the animals they scrape up from the road. He leaves a small memorial for each one: a small stone for a mouse, a smooth stick for a snake. He gives each creature a name, and greets them during his data-collection rounds.
I chuckled at Jack’s imagery. He makes tons of comparisons of things happening in his life to the stages of decomposition. At one point he describes his friend “as happy as a maggot in an eye socket.” That’s sweet music to a bug-lover’s ears.
I love that there is a chapter titled “Science is all around us.” Because it is.
I especially like that there is Back Matter! Kristin provides more context for roadkill science and uses of roadkill. She also points to citizen science projects in case any readers are motivated to participate.
Though a bit heavy on the science, and maybe a tad reliant on the metaphor of decomposition for his life, I found The Decomposition of Jack to be a fun read. I think it will appeal to science-loving kids who are intrigued by ethical and political questions. For example, would a state wildlife agency label a species extinct because it’s cheaper than trying to protect an endangered species? (Inquiring minds up here in the Northeast would like to know, as people have seen evidence of cougars but their existence is emphatically denied.)
This book pairs well with Something Rotten, A Fresh Look at Roadkill, by Heather L. Montgomery. Throw in Rotten! Vultures, Beetles, Slime, and Nature’s Other Decomposers, by Anita Sanchez for those kids who want to learn about rotting bodies but shudder at the idea of scooping up roadkill.
On the maggot rating scale, I give this book a 5 out of 5.
Beyond the book: There are a number of community science projects on iNaturalist that kids and their adults can get involved in. Go to https://www.inaturalist.org/ and put roadkill into searchbar.
Thanks for dropping by today. You can find out more about author Kristin Tubb and her books (including this one) at her website. On Monday we'll be hanging out at Marvelous Middle Grade Monday with other bloggers. It's over at Greg Pattridge's blog, Always in the Middle, so hop over to see what other people are reading. Review copy provided by the author.