Science Comics: Volcanoes Q&A with Jon Chad

Today, I’m thrilled to take part in a blog tour to celebrate the awesomeness of Science Comics. If you’re unaware, First Second Books has been quietly publishing an entire library of graphic novels that cover various nonfiction, scientific topics. From coral reefs to dinosaurs to flying machines to plagues, these books are a goldmine of accessible information for young readers.

They’re really great and should be on your shelf right now.

For a few weeks, the creators of some of these books are making the bloggy rounds (full list and links at the bottom of this post) to talk up the lineup and individual titles. Today, we welcome Jon Chad, who wrote and illustrated Volcanoes and who illustrated the upcoming Solar System.

Why is science awesome?

Science is awesome because it is the nuts and bolts of everything you see around you.  Not only that, but it’s all connected. When you learn something about one aspect of science, it will inevitably lead you to understand other parts of how the world works that you might have never expected. Also, science is awesome because it is exciting! It’s anything but dull! It allows us to see things so small they are invisible to the human eye. We’re able to photograph worlds in our solar system that he can’t get to (yet). We can see farther into space and deeper underground than the human eye ever could because of science! Science sparks the imagination!

What makes comics a particularly amazing format to tell science nonfiction in?

The three answers that I always give for this is danger, scale, and time. First, when you’re discussing the science behind space or some of the wild, fantastic planets in our solar system, you’re talking about places that are very dangerous to human beings. Comics allows me to take the reader to places in the universe that are not only dangerous but also, in some cases, downright impossible! No one has ever been inside the storms of Jupiter, but with comics we can imagine what they might be like.

Secondly, comics can transport the reader in scale and observe science on a very small scale and a very large scale. Comics can be used to show the microscopic, jagged edges of a molecule of volcanic ash, or it can be used to show the breadth of our solar system and the surrounding Oort Cloud, which extends around 5.88 TRILLION miles from the sun!

Lastly, there are certain sciences, like earth sciences and astronomy, where changes take place over very, very long amounts of time. Planets don’t just form overnight, they take millions and millions of years. Using comics, I can pace out certain scientific events so that they don’t take a long time to read but still convey the time it takes from them to happen.

How did you do research to make your book?

When I was sitting down to do the research for Science Comics: Volcanoes, I first wanted to establish what my baseline knowledge was about volcanoes. I needed to establish what I knew, what I didn’t know, and how to connect the two together. It was really important to me that the facts that I communicated about volcanoes not exist separately from one another. Volcanoes are a part of a moving, changing Earth, and many aspects of them are interconnected.

Once I established what I knew about volcanoes (which turned out to not be as much as I thought), I created a framework for my research by asking questions of the material that I wasn’t so familiar about, such as “Why is the magma that comes out of volcanoes different consistencies?” I even asked questions of the material that I thought I knew, like, “I know that volcanoes come in different shapes, but WHY are volcanoes shaped so differently from one another?” Creating these jumping off points helped give direction to my research.

I went to the library  where I live in Manchester Center, VT, and began devouring books and videos about volcanoes geared toward children and adults. A lot of my notes were accompanied by drawings, which helped me later translate ideas into comics. Checking my facts was very important, and I am very grateful that two geologist friends of mine, Dr. Gwyneth Hughes and Professor Michael Cardiff, were generous with their time to look over my notes and drafts of the book to make sure that I was getting all the facts right. They helped me keep the facts and concepts simple but not lose track of the larger picture and how the facts fit in with one another.

When I was working on Science Comics: Solar System, I was so lucky to get to work with the incredibly talented Rosemary Mosco, who wrote that book. For my part, though, I had to do research on how I would draw and color the book. My research took me once again to the local library. Finding books about the solar system with pictures of the planets was simple enough, but I quickly learned that there was a pitfall that I had to avoid.

There are many photos taken of the planets in our solar system that portray the planets contrary to how the human eye would perceive them. Some cameras film the heat emitted from a planet, while others only shoot in certain spectra of light. I had to make sure that the photos and colors that I was using for reference were true to life.

Also, I love designing mechanical spaceships, but I wanted to make sure that the spaceship that I designed for this book was a good mix of fantasy and reality. I looked up a lot of images of different space shuttles and space stations and used them as inspiration for the main spaceship in the solar system book.

Tell us a little about the process of creating your book!

When Rosemary passed the script on to me for Science Comics: Solar System, I did my first round of thumbnails. These small drawings are just for me to get an idea of the flow of the book and how I might compose certain pages. And when I say that these drawings are small, I mean SMALL. I draw this first round of thumbnails small enough that I can get the entire 120-page book on 3-4 pieces of copier paper.

After that first round of thumbnails, I move on to a second round on index cards. I am able to refine my layout for each page, and I’m starting to block in where the characters would go, and what their general acting might be.

After Rosemary and our editor look over those thumbnails, I’m ready to move on to the piece of paper that I’ll draw the finished pages on. I draw on a thicker paper called Bristol Board, and I draw a little bit bigger than the size that the page will be printed in the final book (about 25% bigger, to be exact). I first pencil the pages with a pencil that draws lighter than your regular 2B pencil. After the pencils are approved, I move on to inking over the pencils using a combination of dip pens and technical pens. In both the penciling and inking stages, I’m refining my drawing so that my character acting is as effective as possible and that my environments are clear and engaging.

After the page is drawn, it is scanned into the computer to be cleaned up and colored in Photoshop. Science Comics: Volcanoes was colored by Sophie Goldstein, and Science Comics: Solar System was colored by Luke Healy. Also, the word balloons are drawn by hand and paired with the text that I’ve already laid out in a design program called InDesign. I love both sides of the comic-making process: the drawing and the bookmaking both excite me!

What’s the coolest thing you learned while you were researching your book?

When I was researching Science Comics: Volcanoes, the most interesting fact that I came across was also one of the scariest. When volcanoes erupt ash straight up into the air, it can sometimes come down at frightening speeds. This is called a pyroclastic flow. These searing hot clouds of ash can move at a speed of 725 kilometers per hour! That’s faster than the fastest animal, bird, or street-legal car!!!

For Science Comics: Solar System, the fact that blew me away the most was that on Uranus, diamonds might rain from the sky! At first, I thought I had read a word wrong, but when you think about it, it is very possible. The high pressure and heat of Uranus’s atmosphere could very well compress the carbon that is present in the atmosphere down to diamonds, the same way our atmosphere compresses gaseous water into rain.

What’s the toughest part of turning science research into a comic?

I think the hardest thing about writing and drawing science comics is making the topics fun and understandable at the same time. There’s been a lot of times where I have to not let the facts get away from me. I’ll start with a core fact, like, say, about magma thickness, and I’ll say to myself, “Magma always works like this except in this case . . . and this case . . . and this specific eruption . . . and this one volcano . . .” and so on and so on. Although information like that that spirals off the main fact is, of course, interesting, it leads my reader away from the core concept that I’m trying to get across.

Visually, finding the perfect way to communicate a complicated scientific fact is difficult. I’m always careful not to use images and comparisons that minimize the importance or grandeur of science. Using a floating or sinking balloon to show how hot air rises and cold air sinks is great, but I’m not doing my topic justice if I, say, use a popgun to stand in for a volcanic eruption.

Have you always loved science since you were a kid?

Yes! As I mentioned above, I’ve always loved mechanics. Engineering and physics have always fascinated me. I was really good at math growing up, and so physics and chemistry came pretty easily to me. I’ve always been fascinated with knowing how the world around me works. There’s this story I always love to tell. There’s a video of me on some sort of carnival ride growing up. I can’t be any older than 6 or 7. My parents, behind the camera, are trying to get me to look at them, but I am captivated by the gears and mechanisms of the ride. That’s the awe that I’ve always held toward science. In those moments when I learn how our solar system formed, or how Hawaii sprang up from the ocean, I feel like I’m looking into the gears and mechanisms of how the universe works.

What do you recommend for kids who want to learn more about science and do more science?

My first bit of advice is to go out to your local library and look up a book about what you are interested in. The Internet is a great place, but you can’t always be sure of what you’re getting. Also, the library is such a great hub for learning. Sometimes, your research will take you to areas of the library that you might never expect!

Also, I would encourage kids who are interested in science to start thinking like a scientist. There is actually something called “scientific thinking,” and it’s used in the scientific community to form testable hypotheses about various problems. Challenge yourself to ask not only more questions but also questions that go more in depth. Don’t just ask, “Why is the sky blue?” Go deeper! “Why does the sky look all sorts of different colors at sunset, and does it look the same in other parts of the world?”

Go ahead and question things that you see in your everyday life. There is most likely science involved. Do you know why they spread salt on the roads in the winter? There’s some great science in there.


10/23 — Sharp Read
10/24 — Bluestocking Thinking
10/25 — YA Bibliophile
10/26 — The Reading Nook Reviews
10/27 — A to Z Book Reviews
10/30 — The Roarbots
10/31 — Undeniably Book Nerdy
11/1 — The Windy Pages
11/2 — Kid Lit Frenzy
11/3 — Ex Libris Kate

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