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(Left) Photograph by CBS Photo Archive, Contributor, Getty (Right) Illustration detail by Gavin Aung Than, Zen Pencils

Nudging Kids Into Wonder—Then Science

They never met, Rachel Carson and Cecilia Cruz.

Cecilia, as you’re about to learn, is a little girl who lives indoors. She doesn’t get out much, doesn’t want to, but she has a mom, and that mom coaxes her out the door, across the yard and onto a beach that looks….. totally empty, totally boring—and then, something happens. Something extraordinary.

Actually, reading this cartoon strip, two amazing things happen, or happened to me. The words come from Rachel Carson, the famous marine biologist and author of the world-changing Silent Spring. The text is only 340 or so words, lifted from an essay she wrote about taking her little nephew to explore woods and beaches. It’s about childhood wonder.

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Photograph by Becky Harlan

Carson writes well enough, but for me the real kick comes from Gavin Aung Than’s pictures. He’s an Australian illustrator, and he doesn’t change a word. But he improvises. Instead of a boy, Than draws a girl, an imaginary “Cecilia.” He substitutes the girl’s mother for Carson. And instead of woods and shells, he gives Cecilia a moment on the beach that thrills her and changes her life.

None of the scenes drawn here were in Carson’s head, but what Than has imagined is the graphic equivalent of a movie score—he enhances, he underlines, and every so often he gives her words a crazy, topsy-turvy joy. Maybe you’ll disagree. Why don’t you to take a look?

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Comic by Gavin Aung Than, Zen Pencils

Than does a lot of these illustrated passages. His blog is called Zen Pencils. A few years ago, he was toiling away in an Australian ad agency, hating his job, hating his days, and I don’t know what broke him, but finally he said “enough,” sold his house, resigned his job, and decided to throw himself into this project, taking quotations (from presidents, scientists, statesmen, writers, celebrities) and annotating them with drawings. Now it’s a pair of books.

What he does is not translation; there’s nothing literal about his strips. He’s inventing, augmenting, reshaping. In the Carson passage, the mother worries that she doesn’t know enough to teach her child true things about nature. “It is not half so important to know,” Carson writes, “as to feel.”

So how does he sell that line? He shows us, wordlessly, all these little turtles heading off to sea, lit by a rising sun. Feelings follow. Later, he gives Cecilia a 500-pound swimming companion to keep her company. Yes, it’s sentimental. But hey, he’s got a brush in his hand, a mood in his head, and he knows how to make us see what those sentences are saying. Or what he thinks those sentences are saying.

As Carson suggests, science is a discipline. It needs data, numbers, replication, pattern. But to get there, to get started, scientists need astonishment, mystery, and an intuitive feel for beauty. So feelings matter. And Gavin Aung Than has a feel for feelings.

As good as the Rachel Carson strip is, I think my all-time favorite is Than’s take on a passage by Loony Tunes cartoonist Chuck Jones (of Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny fame) talking about his first few (horrible) days in art school, which was a total nightmare until his uncle gave him some simple, cool advice. This involves dancing. Much dancing. You’ll find it here.