Marie Curie: A Quest for Light

The beautifully illustrated comic biography, Marie Curie: A Quest for Light, shares the story of Curie’s life and Nobel Prize-winning scientific accomplishments.

The authors, Frances Andreasen Østerfelt and Anja Cetti Andersen, both have a passion for science and for Marie Curie. Østerfelt is a dental scientist and Andersen works to make scientific information more accessible to others. Together they wrote and published this book as tribute to Curie. The book was originally published in Danish in 2018, and translated to English by Østerflet.  

The text follows the life of Curie from her childhood as Marya Sklodowska, through her schooling, then later her scientific work, her Nobel Prizes, and her death. It is a dense amount of information for the format (a middle grade comic biography). The text and book would have benefited from focusing on one aspect of her life (such as her scientific work with radiation). Instead, the book places a focus on her life as a whole, and each chapter deals with a set time period covering her life from childhood through her scientific career. Of the 5 chapters, only the last two discuss her scientific work and her life at that time. 

To be fair, Curie did have a fascinating life. A childhood in a politically unstable Poland and the early deaths of her mother and sister definitely affected her life and work as a scientist, but this would have been more effective to frame in the context of scientific work. Giving equal focus on all periods of her life makes for a drier read, aside from the compelling imagery from Anna Blaszczyk. 

Readers can’t help but to follow the flow of Blaszczyk’s collage illustrations filled with rich textures and dark muted colors.  Rather than illustrating a basic chronological story in a more traditional comic format, these images build mood and the emotions behind moment’s in Curie’s life. In one particularly moving spread after the death of her husband, Curie is lost in the background against a sea of black, with her two daughters in the foreground asking for their mother.  On another page images of Curie’s father, who first ignited her passion for science, float in a cloud of smoke across the page. Blaszcyzk’s illustrations carry fear, love, curiosity, sadness, joy and more throughout the story of Curie’s life. 

There are some moments with awkward wording that may be a product of translation from one language and culture to another. I did appreciate the authors’ frequent use of quotes from letters to and from Curie. These quotes helped readers to contextualize the importance of these moments for Curie. The authors, Østerfelt and Andersen, were also able to use their own scientific understanding to describe Curie’s work with radiation in an accessible way. Their descriptions of her experiments and findings would be understood by most audiences. They were also able to give the context of the Curies’ discovery against the backdrop of the scientific world at the time. 

Marie Curie: A Quest for Light could find a fit in a public library children’s collection or elementary (maybe middle) school libraries, especially where comic biographies are popular. I have been fascinated by Marie Curie since I was a child. When I was in elementary school, I read every biography I could find about her life, and I would have adored this book, dense with her life’s story and filled with captivating illustrations. I would have loved and cherished this book in elementary school. So there is definitely an audience for this book, but I am not sure it is a wide one. There are stronger Marie Curie biographies for a middle grade audience and more compelling comic biographies. I do not recommend this as a first choice purchase.

Marie Curie: A Quest for Light 
By Frances Andreasen Østerfelt, Anja Cetti Andersen
Art by Anna Blaszczyk
IDW, 2021
ISBN: 9781684058372

Publisher Age Rating: 9-12

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)
Creator Representation:  Danish
Character Representation: Polish


Amina is a young Syrian girl who is flung from an overcrowded boat that is carrying refugees. In the water she recalls sepia-toned memories of her family and what prompted her journey without the accompaniment of her family. Her meditations on playing hide-and seek and cooking with her mother are interspersed with scenes of her falling deeper through the water. She recalls her parents going into town and her mother’s last words to her, “Remember Zenobia!” Zenobia was an ancient Syrian queen and a symbol of strength, power, and independence. But Amina’s parents do not return, and her uncle comes to try to take her to safety. They journey through desolate towns destroyed by war, to a fisherman’s boat, where her uncle gives all his money so that Amina may know soon peace. In the water, she drifts to a sanctuary where no soldiers can harm her, finding solace in the strength of Zenobia, but heartbreakingly in the wrong direction.

While the book is fairly short, several artistic techniques are used to slow the reader down and meditate deeply upon the story being told. Words are used sparingly in the book, which features many large panels, evoking a wide expanse of time. Whole minutes could be spent on the two-page spread of Amina stepping outside her door and taking in what she sees—wide columns of black smoke, a destroyed tank, an ominous plane overhead, and not another person in sight. Sometimes a page depicting a single scene will be split into several panels, signifying the fragmentation and loss of that experience, something that can never be experienced as a whole again. Horneman mostly uses flat colors throughout the book, lending a sense of simplicity that seems appropriate for a story being told from a child’s perspective, but does not make the art any less impactful on the reader.

Dürr and Horneman are both Danish, and it is unclear why they were moved to tell this fictional story about a refugee, as no authors’ note accompanies the book. Zenobia reminds me in many ways of Khaled Hosseini’s Sea Prayer, a short and highly visual book that was inspired by three-year-old refugee Alan Kurdi drowning in the Mediterranean Sea in 2015. Similarly, Zenobia works to build empathy for refugees and the risks they have taken for peace, though there is no clear call to action to the reader. In an interview I found quoted online, Dürr responds that he intends for Zenobia to act as, “a few minutes of silence in honor of the victims.” Nonetheless, it stirs in readers a great pain that desires resolution, rather than to sit with this feeling of hopelessness and despair.

Other than the fact that it is utterly heart-wrenching, the content of the book is appropriate for children. Death and war are present, through the depictions of destruction, a few (not graphic) dead bodies pictured among rubble, and as an overwhelming presence overshadowing her story. While the book is told from a young perspective, the publisher markets the book as a story for both children and adults. I would agree that this heavy tale is essential for adult readers in order to humanize the stories that the news depicts of refugees, particularly those that focus only on their tragic journeys and not on their lives as individuals, their memories of home and hopes for the future.

By Morten Dürr
Art by Lars Horneman
ISBN: 9781609808730
Seven Stories Press, 2018