I’ve always felt regret that I didn’t try harder in my 8th grade chemistry class. I had trouble remembering and explaining what I had already learned. I was a very anxious child, so I told myself that it just wasn’t something I was good at. Case closed. My middle school library didn’t have neat comics like this to stoke my interest in what I would later find fascinating. Even in my 30s, helping nursing students search for chemistry articles, I struggled to grasp basic tenets like covalent bonds. So, this comic was helpful to even me!
The comic tells the story of Mel, who has studied for her periodic table test all afternoon, but she can’t escape the creeping test anxiety that overcomes her before any test. Her mom tells her she’ll do fine, but she’s obsessed with the self-fulfilling prophecy of failing. She falls asleep and wakes up in the Land of Elements, where each element is a different kind of monster or being. The land is threatened by the evil mad scientist Elemancer, who wants to destroy the land, and has a huge castle where he does his foul experiments. And wow, no wonder Mel is scared! Jon Chad’s castle architecture is an excellent depiction of her uncertainty. She’ll have to travel through the different parts of the castle, take on challenges, and solve them using what she knows from her studies to save the land. Fortunately, she doesn’t have to do it alone – a “Shmoo-shaped” character named Hydrogen is there to help her.
Each element group in the periodic table is depicted thoughtfully – for instance, it’s easy to remember that the transitional metals section is the largest on the table after seeing it depicted as a huge golden ballroom. It was a bit confusing whether groups are a smaller part of sections, because the terms appear to be used interchangeably. I thought this needed brief clarification.
There are funny comments from the depictions of the elements throughout; Elements thanking each other for giving up or taking their electrons (“Thank you! No, thank YOU!”); Vanadium being added to carbon and iron to make a tougher steel (“I feel NOTHING!”) Or Iron, dressed as a Monopoly millionaire, telling Aluminum, “Well, well, if it isn’t little Aluminum!” Aluminum: “Poor me!”
In a book purporting to teach about the periodical table, I’m not sure I would have included the pages about the LHC (Large Hadron Collider). The book is long enough without it, and there’s LOTS of heavy text to plow through, enchanting as the graphic depictions are. Also, will American kids know what “km” is? There’s a Metric Measurement Conversion Table in the back, but I didn’t notice it until I was finished. I feel like the pages describing beta and alpha decay could have been left out – it slowed the story down; especially since “there’s not much use for (these transitional metals) except research.” (p. 62.)
It’s the ACTION pages that are easy to read and that will appeal to kids. Every time Mel wins over a section’s element monsters, she uses what she knows about them to beat them. This helps to remember the elements’ properties. Drawings showing what the elements are used for help kids understand where cooking pans, tin cans, smart phones, and pop cans come from.
The most teachable moment of the book comes when Elemancer bullies Mel and she fails to remember something that results in Elemancer jailing them in the radioactive basement. What do you do when you’ve failed? Mel learns that many, many scientists have failed, and good science discoveries have come from it. Like most bullies, when Mel finally finds her confidence, the bully crumbles.
I’m not going to lie: with the lengthy text sections, this feels like a LONG book, with LOTS of text to plow through, even though it’s only 133 pages. It might have been a more enjoyable read cut into sections, or even separate books. It took me hours and hours to read it–I wonder if it will hold a ten-year old’s attention.
The book has a colorful Periodic Table of the Elements that would be useful for copying, a Metric Measurement of Conversion table and a Vocabulary / Glossary of terms used in the book.
Because chemistry and the periodical table are challenging topics to teach and to hold students’ attention spans, and there aren’t many hard science graphic novels, I would recommend this for any middle school library. If you really want to up your STEM comics game, however, I would also suggest any of Jim Ottaviani’s books.
Science Comics: The Periodical Table of Elements: Understanding the Building Blocks of Everything
By Jon Chad
Art by Jon Chad
First Second, 2023
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Older Teen (16-18)