It’s a good time, many say a golden age, for graphic novels and comics. The proliferation of such high-quality graphic novels also means that there are publishers out there creating such books specifically for younger readers. (Take TOON Books, for instance. Here is my 2014 Kirkus chat with the Editorial Director, Françoise Mouly, about bringing comics to the easy-reader format.)
While First Second Books publishes graphic novels for readers of all ages, they’ve also got a track record thus far for publishing solidly good titles for young readers. New to their offerings is a series called Science Comics, launched early last year, comics geared at younger readers that cover a wide range of science topics. Thus far, there are titles about volcanoes, coral reefs, dinosaurs, and more.
I wondered what it would be like to edit such books, especially in this day and age of science-denial on a national scale from the likes of our very own President. I interrupted the editing work of Dave Roman (his self-portrait is pictured above) to ask him all about it.
Why make science books in a comics/graphic novel format?
I think most people find science cool, but maybe get scared away by anything that seems too educational. With Science Comics, we want to remind people how fun diving deep into a topic can be and, ideally, supplement what you’d learn in school.
A lot of kids (and adults!) have an easier time comprehending complicated ideas when there are visuals, as well as text, to guide through information. That’s why science and charts go hand in hand. And comics take that idea a step further. Adding original characters, and making unexpected things funny, goes a long way to helping retain facts and concepts that might otherwise get passed over. You’ll certainly never think of microscopic pathogens the same way again after reading about the quirky behavior of Yellow fever in Plagues: The Microscopic Battlefield by Falynn Koch.
Do you have specific authors and comics artists/illustrators in mind whom you approach about doing these books?
When I was asked to edit the series, the first thing I did was compile a list of over fifty cartoonists I thought would be especially suited to nonfiction comics for young readers. Some were people First Second had already published (MK Reed, Joe Flood, and Jonathan Hill); some were people I had worked with as an editor at Nickelodeon Magazine (John Kerschbaum, Dan Zettwoch); some I met at past comic conventions (Mairghread Scott); others were artists I was a long-time admirer of (Kyla Vanderklugt); and one (Alexandra Graudins) was a student about to graduate from the School of Visual Arts, who had made a strong impression with her insightful mini-comics and notable work ethic.
I then started to match creators with topics, trying to imagine what a book about brains, skyscrapers, crows, etc. might look like from them. In the case of Jason Viola, I had once hung out with him at the Harvard Museum of Natural History and seen firsthand how enthused he could get about different fields of science. Before anyone even knew I was working for First Second, I started texting Jason asking what his feelings were about polar bears and what he would want to see in a definitive book about them. His answers were really specific and opinionated, which was exactly what I was hoping for, confirming why he’d be a good fit.
Having a lot of passion for the subject matter is an important part of what makes Science Comics so great. I hope it comes through that all the books are a labor of love for the creators, and we aim for them to be enjoyed by experts and newbies alike.
What are some of the challenges, if any, of editing an informational book in a comics format?
The biggest challenge is keeping it entertaining. There is a danger of getting bogged down in facts, figures, charts, diagrams, etc. and losing the reader’s attention. Some of the books, like Volcanoes: Fire and Life by Jon Chad, are more story-driven than others, but I want all the books to have a point of view or a sense of humor that distinguishes Science Comics from what might otherwise be a heavily illustrated textbook.
The artists face unique challenges, like having to visualize and add personality to microscopic cells and illustrate in static images how they receive stimulus and send out signals, called “action potential,” within the brain. What does that look like exactly? And how do you show it clearly in the allotted space?
I have so much admiration for all the artists and the creative solutions they come up with time and time again.
What does it mean to you to offer these books to child readers in this day and age of U.S. government officials who regularly question science and facts?
Honestly, that was a compelling reason to take the job and why I love working with a publisher like First Second, who clearly care about making books that push for a better future. It is frustrating to see how a willful ignorance is becoming almost a badge of honor for certain people. You see a lot of dismissive statements that are contrary to how science works.
So, I think teaching kids that scientists work as a community of fact-checkers who never stop questioning and challenging our assumptions about the world is probably more relevant than ever. We need creative communicators, teachers, cartoonists, vloggers, etc. to help separate assumptions from extensive research and remind us that the goal is always a clearer understanding of the world. And there’s always a lot more to learn!
What's next in the series?
On the immediate horizon, we have the infectious Plagues: The Microscopic Battlefield by Falynn Koch and the adorable Dogs: From Predator to Protector by Andy Hirsch. Early next year, we will see Robots and Drones: Past, Present, and Future by Mairghread Scott and Jacob Chabot and Sharks: Nature’s Perfect Predator by Joe Flood, followed up by Rockets: Defying Gravity by Anne and Jerzy Drozd.
Lucky for readers, the potential for new topics is limitless. The future is so bright for Science Comics, I gotta wear shades.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.