By People Staff
Updated January 15, 1990 12:00 PM

by Jill Krementz

There is nothing sadder than a child dying. But there can be enthusiasm, energy, courage, even humor in that same child’s struggle for life. Backed by some encouraging statistics regarding survival rates for serious childhood diseases, especially cancer, these books explore the experiences and feelings of young patients from an always optimistic point of view.

Humor columnist Bombeck’s attempt—a book suggested by a counselor at an Arizona camp for kids with cancer—is so well-intentioned (the author’s profits are designated for cancer research) any criticism seems mean spirited. Yet, despite dozens of case histories and conversations, I Want to Grow Hair never seems to get its subjects in focus.

Like a well-meaning, tedious old aunt, Bombeck offers a tour of the patients and parents she meets around the country, tsk-tsking over this one, giggling with the next, then in an aside to the reader, stating the obvious: “Aren’t they courageous?”

Not until near the end of the book does she zero in on a truly compelling story: that of Dr. Martin J. Murphy Jr., a Kettering, Ohio, cancer researcher. Nine years ago he was himself diagnosed as having a carcinoid tumor in his abdomen. But Murphy stands out for another reason: Once a self-described lab-bound “mouse doctor,” he was hired in 1970 by Dr. Donald Pinkel to pursue his cancer research at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. Upon arriving, Murphy recalls, he was stunned that his office was next to a waiting room for leukemia patients. Immediately he protested: “I’m dealing with all these little white and black mice, and it’s just no good for me to come in and out with these children here retching….” It took Pinkel months to convince Murphy to stay put and learn to deal with being around the children; the lesson—that medical science cannot be separated from medical practice—stuck.

If Murphy doesn’t get the point across, it is relentlessly driven home by the first-person stories photojournalist Krementz collected from 14 children, aged 7 to 16, coping with various serious illnesses. The youngsters are always blunt (“Part of my problem with sleeping is that sometimes I feel that I’ll go to sleep and won’t wake up,” says 16-year-old Elizabeth Bonwich, who has bone cancer). And the young patients are affecting even in their offhand remarks. Michael Kleinegger, 16, who has cancer of the blood, says it’s easy to see why his grades are suffering: “It’s because my concentration is screwed up. I never know what’s coming, when I’m going to be sick, when I’m going to be in the hospital, or when I’m going to be home.”

The accompanying photos are unremarkable, but Krementz’s tape recorder doesn’t fail her: These voices indeed convey in poignant, human terms exactly how it feels to fight for your life on a routine, so-what-else-is-new basis. (Krementz: Little, Brown, $15.95; Bombeck: Harper & Row, $16.95)