Monday, April 5, 2010

The Kids' Solar Energy Book Even Grown-Ups Can Understand

By Tilly Spetgang, illustrated by Malcolm Wells

Imagine Publishing, Inc., 2009

$14.95, ages 9-12, 88 pages

A comic book about solar energy that's printed all in green. What an ingenious way to get kids motivated about sun power and spur them to try energy experiments of their own.

This stand-out book by journalist Spetgang and renowned architect Wells, first published in 1982 before global warming made headlines then rereleased in 2009 to coincide with the upsurge in public concern, will have readers cracking up as they learn.

Rather than passively learn about the issue, readers hang out in a 6th Grade classroom as their teacher, Mrs. Robinson, talks about issues surrounding solar energy, including why it's not more popular even though it's free, it's always available and it doesn't pollute the air.

On the top of the page, readers listen to the teacher explain how solar energy works, what it takes to get solar collectors in place and how the technologies operate, while below they see line drawings of kids at their desks bantering back and forth about what she's telling them.

When Mrs. Robinson brings up the subject of the energy crunch, one kid slumped in his chair ribs, "Yeah. It's a new candy bar," to which the girl ahead of him turns around and corrects, "I thought it was when two oil tankers collide."

But this isn't just a smart-alecky group; they're also working through what she's saying and imagining what it could mean. When Mrs. Robinson explains how photovoltaic solar cells can convert light to electricity, a girl raises her hand and suggests, "Like light bulbs in reverse."

The comic relief helps to bring home the subject: in one frame a boy looks down at his smoking feet, regretting that he walked on asphalt, which like passive solar systems in houses (inside walls, barrels of water, bins of rocks) soaks up heat during the day and releases it later.

You never actually see the teacher and somehow this makes her voice carry over all of the chatter. It's fun to take it all in, then review the lessons by reading just what the teacher says (which blots out the wise cracks, but allows you to focus in on all the facts.)

Best Parts: As the book begins, Mrs. Robinson offers such a thoughtful lead-in to the topic that you can't help but become engaged in what she's saying.

"This beautiful blue-green planet of mountains and oceans and skyscrapers and great beasts of the jungle…all yours," she says. "Have you ever thought of it that way? You may be about 12 years old and not feel as if you count in any special way outside your family. But, in the wink of an eye, you will be 18, 23, 32."

If I was a teacher, I'd be scribbling down all the great lines to use in my class. My favorite: "How do you catch sunbeams to make them work for you?"

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