More from the 1950s: Polio

Anoth­er threat besides com­mu­nism ter­ri­fied peo­ple in the 1950s, espe­cial­ly because it pri­mar­i­ly affect­ed chil­dren: polio. 1952 saw the largest epi­dem­ic in US his­to­ry: 57,879 peo­ple con­tract­ed polio that sum­mer, and more than 3000 of died. By the end of the decade the dis­ease was near­ly erad­i­cat­ed in the US thanks to two forms of vac­cines devel­oped by Drs. Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin. Here are a few titles that help us under­stand this part of the recent past.



Chas­ing Ori­on

Kathryn Lasky
Can­dlewick 2012 

From the New­bery Hon­or author (Sug­ar­ing Time). 11 year old Georgie and her fam­i­ly have just moved into a new house. It’s the sum­mer of 1952 and pools, parks, and oth­er gath­er­ing spots are closed due to the polio epi­dem­ic. Georgie makes friends with the teenage girl next door, Phyl­lis, who is now in an iron lung as a result of the dis­ease.  Kirkus star.


Epi­dem­ic: The Bat­tle Against Polio

Stephanie Drap­er
Bench­mark Books, 2005

Pho­to illus­trat­ed sur­vey of the his­to­ry of the dis­ease, includ­ing a sec­tion on the debate over whether FDR’s paral­y­sis was caused by polio or some oth­er dis­ease. Includes time­line of polio-relat­ed events.


Fleabrain Loves Franny

Joanne Rock­lin
Amulet Books, 2015

Pitts­burgh, 1952. 11-year-old Fran­ny has polio and is under­go­ing exten­sive ther­a­py. She befriends a genius flea and falls in love with a brand new book, Char­lot­te’s Web. Includes author’s note, bib­li­og­ra­phy, and dis­cus­sion guide. Bank Street Col­lege of Education’s “The Best Children’s Books of the Year,” Ages 9 – 12.


Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccine

Kather­ine Krohn and Al Mil­grom (illus.)
Cap­stone Press, 2007

A graph­ic nov­el that focus­es on the efforts to find a vac­cine. Back mat­ter includes a con­densed his­to­ry of the dis­ease and biog­ra­phy of Salk. Exten­sive bib­li­og­ra­phy. Part of the Inven­tions and Dis­cov­er­ies Graph­ic Library series.


King of the Mound (My Sum­mer with Satchel Paige)

Wes Tooke
Simon and Schus­ter, 2012

When Nick is released from the hos­pi­tal after suf­fer­ing from polio, he is sure that his father will nev­er look at him in the same way again. Once the best pitch­er in youth league, Nick now walks with a limp and is depen­dent on a heavy leg brace.  Things look up when he gets to hang out at the local semi-pro ball park, where he meets the great Satchel Paige.


Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio

Peg Kehret
Albert Whit­man, 2006 anniver­sary edition

The author of numer­ous state-award-win­ning children’s books (includ­ing Night­mare Moun­tain, The Ghost’s Grave, Stolen Chil­dren) describes her bat­tle against polio when she was thir­teen and her efforts to over­come its debil­i­tat­ing effects. Small Steps has also won many state reader’s choice awards.


Warm Springs: Traces of a Child­hood at FDR’s Polio Haven

Susan Richards Shreve
Houghton Mif­flin, 2007 

Just after her eleventh birth­day, at the height of the fright­en­ing child­hood polio epi­dem­ic, the future best-sell­ing author of many books for adults and chil­dren (The Flunk­ing of Joshua T. Bates, Ghost Cat) was sent as a patient to the san­i­tar­i­um at Warm Springs, Geor­gia. It was a place famous­ly found­ed by FDR, “a per­fect set­ting in time and place and strange­ness for a hos­pi­tal of crip­pled chil­dren.” For old­er read­ers and adults.

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Tracy Kampa
Tracy Kampa
7 years ago

When daugh­ter #2 was in 4th grade, she hap­pened upon Peg Kehret’s “Small Steps.” She was enam­oured with the book, and gave it to her Grand­ma (a polio sur­vivor) for Christ­mas. Lo and behold, Grand­ma and Peg Kehret had been treat­ed at the same hos­pi­tal in Mpls, although a few years apart. That prompt­ed a great dis­cus­sion between Grand­ma and Kate…and a sub­se­quent email con­ver­sa­tion between Kate and Ms. Kehret. What a gra­cious author! And what a great mem­o­ry for my daugh­ter. Sigh…the pow­er of books…