Stack Overflow: Learning with Comics

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Stack Overflow: Learning With Comics

First Second Comics already has a line of Science Comics (which I highlighted a while back, with one more included in today’s column), but this month they also introduced a new series: Maker Comics! Both series convey a lot of information in a fun-to-digest format, but Maker Comics have a lot more “how to” included. The first two books in the series are about baking and cars, with several more in the works. With those in mind, I decided to share a couple of educational comic books—a few how-tos, some ocean-themed books, and one that explores the big questions through a series of conversations.

Maker Comics: Bake Like a Pro

Maker Comics: Bake Like a Pro! by Falynn Koch

My family has watched a whole lot of the Great British Baking Show, to the point where my five-year-old talks about “soggy bottoms” and wanted to make Mary Berry’s Cherry Cake over the holidays. So we were particularly excited about this title, which is all about baking. Like many of First Second’s Science Comics, the non-fiction is sandwiched (or maybe layered?) within a fictional story. In this case, it’s about Sage, an apprentice wizard who’s interested in alchemy, but is disappointed to be assigned to baking with Korian. Korian insists that baking is a form of alchemy, and the rest of the book shows why. The ingredients all come to life so they can explain to Sage what’s happening as she bakes.

It starts off with baking a cake, and showing the differences between instant cakes (in this case, a cake made from a magic spell) and a cake baked from scratch—both in terms of the ingredients that are involved, but also the processes that make the two taste so different. From there, we learn about the various tools and techniques used in baking, like why you sift flour but pack down brown sugar, or what’s happening when you beat eggs until they’re stiff, or how different ingredients affect the appearance and texture of chocolate chip cookies. The story portion is interspersed with several actual recipes: cookies, cornbread, pies, pizza dough, and more.

What I really loved about this series is how it not only walks you through some recipes and how to make them, but also the science behind baking. What’s the difference between baking soda and baking powder? When do you use cold butter and when do you use warm, softened butter? What ingredients can you substitute to make something vegan without changing the texture? It’s fascinating, educational, and entertaining, and it’s a great example of how versatile comics can be.

Maker Comics: Fix a Car

Maker Comics: Fix a Car! by Chris Schweizer

I’ll be honest: I don’t know much about fixing cars. I can jumpstart a car and theoretically know how to change a tire, though I haven’t actually had to do it myself. And while I know how to check the oil levels, that’s also something I’ve been pretty lazy about with my own vehicles (though I do take it in to get oil changes regularly). Obviously, there are a lot of things you can do yourself—and should know how to do, if only so that you have that information in the case of an emergency.

Fix a Car! walks you through a lot of how-tos, from things like washing your vehicle (including detailing and even adding a racing stripe!) to replacing a drive or pulley to changing the oil. And along the way, it explains a bit about how the different systems in the car actually work, and why it’s important to do regular maintenance.

The framing story here is about several kids attending a weekly Car Club for a semester. Ms. Gritt, who runs the club, has a spectacular garage at home … but she wants the kids to learn that you don’t need fancy tools to take care of your vehicles, too. While the bulk of the book is about the vehicles, you do get little bits and pieces of the various kids’ stories, too, and you can see their personalities in their choice of vehicles as well. There are even two siblings, Rocky and Esther, who are still in middle school and can’t drive, but they’re attending because they love cars and want to learn more about how to take care of them. I think they can be a good stand-in for younger readers who aren’t old enough to drive yet and may otherwise pass over this book as irrelevant.

While I don’t know that I’ll personally be doing all my car maintenance myself from now on, I do feel a bit more confident about what’s under the hood, and I’m seeing some important skills that I could start putting into practice, with the hope that my own kids may eventually be even better at taking care of their own vehicles.

Squidtoons

Squidtoons: Exploring Ocean Science with Comics by Garfield Kwan and Dana Song

This book dives into a broad range of topics about the ocean, from leafy seadragons to yeti crabs to market squid, in a disconnected series of comics that mix science with silliness. The sections are of varying lengths: the book kicks off with a section about the leafy seadragons that lasts about 30 pages, but later the anatomy of a moon jelly is only a single page long. One section deals with the fallacy of sharks—basically explaining how we’re a much bigger danger to sharks than they are to us (and that many other things are significantly more threatening to humans than sharks). Another is about whale vomit—otherwise known as ambergris—which is used in making perfume and is incredibly expensive. I hadn’t known about that myself, and found it pretty fascinating (and a little bit disgusting).

While I did find the book entertaining and informative, it felt a little less cohesive simply because of the way it jumped from topic to topic, and the artwork doesn’t feel quite as polished as some of the other scientific comics I’ve read. I think it’s one that younger readers may enjoy, because they can dip into it and read a section at a time.

Science Comics: Sharks

Science Comics: Sharks: Nature’s Perfect Hunter by Joe Flood

From First Second’s Science Comics line, this book focuses on sharks. It does get into a little bit of the same topics that Squidtoons (above) touches on, about the way that sharks have been misunderstood, in large part due to Jaws (both the book and the movie). As it turns out, sharks are very much threatened: humans hunt them for sport or for their fins for food, but they’re an important part of the food web.

The framing story here is about a captain who’s looking for a “monster of the deep”—but he’s wildly misinformed about sharks. Helpfully, there are other folks on the boat who are happy to correct him (much to his chagrin). For instance, telling him the difference between sharks and true fish, explaining that there are lots of sharks that are not monstrous, and even the theory that the great white shark might not be at the top of the food chain. Although I knew some of the things in this book already, there were also things I hadn’t heard of before, like the cookiecutter shark with its bizarre feeding method, or the way blacktip reef sharks form a bait ball by surrounding a school of fish and forcing it tighter and tighter.

I think the book doesn’t completely dispel the notion that sharks won’t harm humans, but it does explain what’s going on when sharks encounter people: some sharks may still mistake humans for their prey, though they’re much less likely to consume them. We aren’t the food they’re looking for, but a shark bite can still be fatal simply because of the size and type of injury. Still, the book does show all the ways that sharks are amazing, incredible animals, and ones that are worth of study and preservation.

The Dialogues

The Dialogues: Conversations about the Nature of the Universe by Clifford V. Johnson

This comic book is exactly what the title says: a series of conversations. In each chapter, usually two people wind up in some sort of conversation, and they just talk about some observation or question they have. In one, two kids wonder how rice gets bigger when it’s cooked, and come up with an experiment to test their hypothesis. In another, two people meet at a cafe and talk about physics and whether there’s a “theory of everything” to be found. A couple on a train debate whether everything dies, and get into some questions about metaphysics and religion. As you progress through the book, you’ll see some overlap with the characters as some of them dig a little deeper into topics they’ve talked about before (or introduce new topics).

The thing about these dialogues is that they’re not so much instructional—though at times one person or another may explain some current scientific understandings or what an equation means—as they are exploratory. They’re examples of digging into a topic by asking questions, and wondering about things, and then sometimes giving the conversation time to percolate. At the same time, they do provide information about certain scientific phenomena, like black holes and relativity and the relationship between electricity and magnetism.

I didn’t love the illustrations, which seemed a little amateurish at times, and I wasn’t sure that I really needed the dialogues to take place in these various settings, which sometimes seemed a little contrived. But the overall concept is a good one, and the conversations portrayed in the book are much less contentious and combative than a lot of what we see online or in real life these days, even when the two people hold very different viewpoints. That’s perhaps something that we could all stand to learn from.


My Current Stack

I’ve got a number of other Science Comics titles in my stack that I haven’t quite finished yet, plus a few other non-fiction comics, so I may have a follow up to this post in a couple of weeks. Aside from the comics, I also finished The Unspeakable Unknown by Eliot Sappingfield, a sequel to A Problematic Paradox. It’s a middle grade book with some Lovecraftian creatures mixed with a Eureka-like town populated by genius kids (both human and parahuman). I read the first one because I was thinking it would have more to do with time travel; it did have some time travel in it but it wasn’t a major part of the book. I did enjoy the story, though, and it was fun to see what happened next. I’ll share more about this series down the road.

Disclosure: I received review copies or advance reader copies of the books in this column.

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