Volcanoes is the third in First Second Books’ series of Science Comics, following Dinosaurs and Coral Reefs. The line that began in March of this year will soon explode with a massive plume of material in 2017, including Bats, Flying Machines and Plagues.
Science Comics is meant to present concepts to young readers in ways more likely than textbooks to reach them. Inasmuch, they tend to be built around narrative and use the visual aspects of the medium to accomplish what rote listings of facts cannot. Jon Chad, who both wrote and illustrated Volcanoes, does a heroic job of accomplishing all those feats by himself, but the particular choice of narrative is questionable.
Volcanoes transports the reader to a frozen, future wasteland, a condition which is initially blamed on a lack of of heat from the Sun (a partial truth that we learn more about later). Young Aurora, her sisters and their teacher are searching for flammable materials to burn to keep warm, an apparently everyday activity in this bleak existence. No one seems to know how the Earth became this way, so when the crew finds a library, they make sure to scan and download all the books’ information before they are converted to fuel. It’s here that Aurora learns about volcanoes, and suggests they’d be a more reliable, sustainable heat source than momentary book-burnings. Her teacher dismisses the idea, and mysteries deepen when some of the information on volcanoes is strangely censored.
The science of the volcanoes themselves is close to impeccable, accurately detailing different types of rocks, plate boundaries, eruptions and lavas. The use of narrative is artfully and effectively done, as well, with the different personalities of Aurora’s group introducing the concepts of “active” and “dormant” volcanoes. There is a good contrast in the colors of the art, as the warm tones of the volcanoes play against the cold ice of the environment.
Oddly enough, the power of the narrative and visuals may be Volcanoes‘ biggest downfall. Chad does such a good job making you feel the desperation of the characters that it’s hard to care all that much about some stupid hot rocks, when you just want the terrible conditions afflicting these poor people to be reversed. When it’s finally revealed that the eternal winter they’re experiencing is the result of the sulfur dioxide from volcanic eruptions, possibly from the very real supervolcano in Yellowstone Park, the book might send the wrong message that global cooling is something we genuinely need to worry about. Aurora’s reality could indeed come to pass, but the opposite is much more likely.
Of course the existence of climate change denial is not Chad’s fault, and in a perfect world, a good story would just be a good story, but it’s sadly too easy to imagine a child getting the wrong idea from Volcanoes, or worse, the wrong people using this story to create that wrong idea. The cause of volcanoes, the internal heat of the Earth, is absolved somewhat when it’s finally utilized by Aurora’s society for warmth and energy, another point in favor of the book’s science.
The information in Science Comics: Volcanoes is expansive and well-presented, with the use of narrative hammering home otherwise hard-to-retain concepts. Sadly, the unfair politicization of real science may make parents question whether this narrative is one they want their children to remember.
Science Comics: Volcanoes is available now. Check out Russ Dobler’s EXCLUSIVE interview with Jon Chad below, in which he explains more about his process and the decision to use a narrative device in the book.