Mad Science for Kids: A Book Review

by Tedra Osell on December 27, 2011

If I were smarter, I’d have written this before Christmas so that you’d have an excuse to buy the book I’m going to tell you about. That said, maybe you don’t need an excuse to buy good books, so if you are inclined to like comics, humor, feminist scienceish geekery, and/or all of the above–or if you know someone who is, and in particular if that someone is a young person–I recommend the totally awesome <a href=”″>Complete Narbonic Perfect Collection</a> , only recently published.

The real reason I’m writing this after Christmas instead of before is that I got the collection for my Pseudonymous Kid as a present (signed and all, and if you look you’ll see his name in the acknowledgments/supporters section, because I kicked in some $ to help it get into print). I wasn’t familiar with the comic when I did this; I’d seen a link to its <a href=””>Kickstarter page</a>, did a little googling, read a few of the comics online, and decided it would probably be something PK would like so what the hey.

As it turned out, he decided to be a materialistic little ass this year, and when I put it and a couple of other wrapped things under the tree, he fondled the packages, realized they were all (at that point) books, and declared that he DID NOT WANT BOOKS because after all, I’ve made a deal with him that I will buy him any book he wants as long as he will read it (which by the way is a promise inspired by my having read something Sherman Alexie wrote saying he’d made it to his own kid), so he doesn’t need books for Christmas because he can get them any time he wants. And when he was unwrapping his pile of booty, he totally put all the books to one side, accordingly.

HOWEVER. At some point he paused in the midst of the carnage, picked it up and flipped through, which is of course one of the great things about comics: kids can’t resist at least having a peek. He started reading, even with a few presents still unwrapped. Since we unwrap on Christmas eve (Christmas morning is reserved for Santa), he ended up taking it to bed with him and reading far too late into the night. Which sucked at the time (“is he asleep yet so I can fill the damn stocking and go to bed?!?”) but meant blissful sleeping-in on The Actual Day. Anyway, on Christmas itself he spent most of the afternoon curled up on the sofa in his jammies, Narbonic: Book I in hand. By Boxing Day he’d finished both volumes.

By now he’s re-read parts of it and insisted that I start from the beginning, too. It’s definitely the gift he’s spent the most time with and enjoyed the most. We’ve discussed his reactions to it, I’ve heard him discourse on the character development, we’ve read each other bits of our favorite lines. He’s explained to me alternative plot developments from his imagination. We’ve talked about his initial reaction that the end was “depressing”, worked our way through an assessment that he “likes stories that mix funny and sad” and considered alternate interpretations of the conclusion. He’s decided that maybe it’s not sad, after all.

In short: Narbonic is a feminist comic about a woman scientist that contains elements that one really wants in literature for young people (and for oneself). My actual eleven-year-old kid loves it.* It’s got a mischievous sense of humor that’ll appeal to conventional “boy” sensibilities and supplies a sense of naughty fun that’s too often missing in books “for” girls. It’s got explosions and doomsday machines and cute gerbils and kittens. It’s sophisticated enough for readers who are ready to think about different interpretive frameworks or the kinds of questions that come up in, say, Don Quixote and Star Wars (“in a mad world, is the mad person actually saner than everyone else?” “who is the bigger fool, the fool or the fool that follows him?”). Like many comics collections, it’s great for kids who are interested in comics art (or who tend to perfectionism) because they can see how the art itself develops over time (PK: “the later drawings are a lot better than the earlier ones”; me: “yep, most artists get better the more they do something”). Definitely worth keeping in mind for a clever niece or nephew, son or daughter.

*If PK’s initial sense that the end was “depressing” worries you, you should know that he is incredibly sensitive, not to say weird, about certain kinds of endings. So, for instance, at the end of the Steve Martin version of Little Shop of Horrors, when the camera pans back from Seymour’s and Audrey’s cottage and you see that omg there is a baby plant in the flower border!, he was hugely upset, though he’d loved the movie right up to that point. The end of Narbonic, imho, is way less ambiguous than that, even, but if you’re concerned, you can see it (and read through the entire collection, with or without authorial annotation) <a href=”″>here</a>.)



Khan 12.28.11 at 12:36 am

Who needs to be young? I’m always a sucker for mad science.

But now I’m curious about your opinion of Girl Genius. (e.g., here’s something from their Cinderella parody.) I sent a few volumes to my little sister for Christmas — she’s a big Anne McCaffrey fan, and I’m waiting to hear how this goes over.


plarry 12.28.11 at 3:51 am

What age kids?


christian_h 12.28.11 at 4:56 am

Thanks for the review! I’ll get that book… for my niece and nephews of course ;)


Tedra Osell 12.28.11 at 9:41 pm

Plarry (and others), the comic is really about recent college graduates on the job market (at least, initially), so it isn’t actually “for kids” at all. But bright, science-interested kids will like it, especially if they have a “mad scientist bwahaha!” sense of humor. PK is 11; I’d say kids 10+ might enjoy it. Teenagers, college students, young adults for sure.


Tedra Osell 12.28.11 at 9:58 pm

Khan, I’m not really familiar with Girl Genius (in this family, I’m not really the comics person; I just dabble on account of PK). The graphic style in that particular link is a little overwhelming for me…

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