Cartoons help make basic genetics fun

Katie McKissick covers all aspects of DNA, including epigenetics, in her new book. K. McKissick/
I remember learning about genetics. I sat in my high school class, hearing about Gregor Mendel’s wrinkled peas and smooth peas, pink flowers and white. I drew Punnett squares to learn which “flavor” of gene would end up expressed in the peas’ offspring. What I learned was important and I’m very grateful that I now understand about DNA, genetics and how traits are passed from one generation to another.

But the process of learning those things was dull. I only wish that back then I could have access to something like Katie McKissick’s new book.

A former high school biology teacher, she’s now a science writer and cartoonist. McKissick brings all of her skills to What’s in Your Genes? This 256-page genetics primer starts with the basics of DNA, the instruction manual of our cells. The book then builds on this basic knowledge of genetics to answer many of the questions that pop up every day. Why are your eyes brown? Why is your hair curly? What does your blood type mean? And will your brother go bald?

McKissick includes sections on what getting your DNA “read” by companies like 23andMe can tell you; on who owns your DNA; and how our genetic inheritance can be complicated by epigenetics (the switches that turn your genes on and off). The book is a fast-paced, entertaining intro to you and your DNA in the 21st century.

Katie McKissick’s What’s in your Genes? is a clever and entertaining introduction to genetics. Credit: K. McKissick/
McKissick dishes out genetics with art, puns and slightly dirty jokes. Her conversational tone helps transform what might be a tough topic into something friendly. The chapters come in comfortably digestible bites, each about four pages long. Cartoons pepper the book, illustrating everything from how cells copy themselves to why your allergies give you such a hard time.

The only false notes come from some of the jokes. They aren’t bad jokes, but most middle school and high schools students may not relate to Monty Python and the Holy Grail or Jurassic Park, movies that came out long before they were born. And I suspect many kids won’t know where “Debbie Downer” comes from (Saturday Night Live episodes between 2004 and 2010).

McKissick provides a charming introduction to genetics. The breadth of topics that she covers should prepare readers in high school and above to dig deeper into genetics.

Adams Media, $15.99, also available on

Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.