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Author Wilgus speaks about their new book about Mars and how graphic novels make STEM topics more accessible for teens.
Alison Wilgus is no stranger to STEM. An award-winning sf writer and the best-selling author of Flying Machines: How the Wright Brothers Soared, Wilgus has been thrilling readers with interplanetary voyages and the complexities of space travel for years. Their latest nonfiction graphic novel, The Mars Challenge, offers readers an even more in-depth and practical exploration of what it really takes to travel to Mars and back again.
Through conversations between Nadia, a teen dreaming of being the first woman to reach Mars, and Eleanor, a fictional pilot for the International Space Station, The Mars Challenge takes readers on an epic journey fueled by curiosity, humor, and surprise challenges around every corner. Whether it’s the rocket-fuel equation, space-suit fabric, life-support systems, or the orbit of Mars, Wilgus and artist Wyeth Yates bring a level of accuracy and accessibility to this graphic novel that make it an essential addition to any middle- and high-school bookshelf.
In the following interview, Wilgus discusses what interested them in the subject of traveling to Mars, their writing and editing process, and why they think graphic novels like The Mars Challenge are perfectly suited to STEM-based learning and engaging students of all learning styles.
Kullberg: There’s so much to discuss here, but I wanted to start by asking what inspired you to take on this project and this hunt for how we get to Mars?
Wilgus: Going into this book, I had a layperson’s knowledge of space flight. I was in the process of writing a novella about a Mars mission, and I was tweeting a lot about it. And it turns out that First Second was also looking to do a book for older teens or adults about space.
I knew Mars travel was a complicated topic, and it would be hard to do it justice in a book that’s appropriate for a children’s audience, but I was excited about a kind of general survey of what it really takes to make a trip to Mars. I even think it might have been called The Mars Challenge from the very beginning, because it was such a perfect encapsulation of the book. And I thought, “Well, I guess I better learn a lot about human space flight very quickly.” Only once I started really digging into it did I realize what I’d gotten myself into.
Kullberg: How was the process of writing this book similar to or different from other books you’ve worked on?
Wilgus: To start, the amount of independent research was at a totally different scale than anything else I’ve ever done. When you’re starting out with a topic as big as this is, you don’t know what you don’t know. Before I even started writing, I had a period where I was just trying to get a working knowledge of the history of this topic and what the actual challenges are in getting to Mars. That involved reading lots of books and going to a lot of NASA lectures and events on subjects like space health, human systems, rocket fuel, and more from the astronauts and scientists who are working on various missions. I learned about the systems in the space station and their design. I looked at NASA budget reports. I even read the assembly instructions for different space station systems.
Eventually, I ended up with an enormous outline that was at least three times longer than this book could ever be. Then it was a matter of condensing that down into a doable amount of material and slowly transitioning that into a compelling story that a person could read and enjoy.
Kullberg: I really enjoyed the way The Mars Challenge is structured around a conversation and how you focus each chapter on answering a single problem. Can you talk about how you decided to build the book this way? Was it always the plan, or did it grow organically through the writing process?
Wilgus: The way that each chapter is broken down by topic was definitely organic. Early during the writing process, I realized I could reframe each chapter as a challenge or barrier that had to be overcome to get to Mars. Conceptually, calling it The Mars Challenge ended up being a very helpful way to think about the book overall.
In terms of having two main characters, I just liked the idea of using two characters in conversation to make it more approachable for teen readers. By having a knowledgeable proxy like teenage Nadia, I was able to address the reader in a way that respects their intelligence and feels very organic to the topic. Like, if Eleanor says something to Nadia that’s a little too complicated for the reader to understand, that’s OK, because you know that Nadia is a space nerd, and you’re along for the ride.
At the same time, Nadia can challenge Eleanor in a way that is interesting because they have a relationship, and they clearly care about each other. The characters allowed me to keep that human element on the page in a way that felt natural and approachable and interesting, rather than oppressive or manipulative.
Kullberg: The Mars Challenge also covers so many different subjects: biology, history, rocket science, geography, soil analysis, and everything in between. How did you choose what to include and what to leave out?
Wilgus: I think my number-one goal of this book was to give a layperson a working knowledge of this complicated system so that they could understand what we would need to do to be able to accomplish a trip to Mars. I wanted to give readers the tools they needed to gain a greater literacy in space travel and to understand the importance of this topic.
From an editing standpoint, I would continually ask myself as I was writing, “Is this just interesting to me, and that’s why I want to have it in here? Or is this contributing to a person’s ability to understand this concept? Is this a key concept or just noise that’s distracting from the points I’m trying to make?” I like to use the word triage a lot when I’m talking about working on books. If I can’t make a case for why this needs to be here, it gets cut. Honestly, that process ended up taking care of almost all my editorial choices for this book.
Kullberg: I wanted to talk more about the ways scientific topics are communicated throughout this graphic novel. What do you think it is about comics and graphic novels that make them so well suited for topics like the ones you address in the book?
Wilgus: For me, STEM topics often have a kind of built-in conceptual barrier. You can only memorize information to a certain point. I think that comics are very good at offering dense information without being overwhelming, because they allow the readers to control how deep and how fast they’re diving into something.
Now, don’t get me wrong: prose is very good for depth and complexity that comics can’t always handle. But it’s difficult to flip through a prose book and get a survey of what to expect. But with a comic like this one, you can very quickly flip through the comic and see, “Oh, this section is about this.”
That’s why I often think of comics as a medium of momentum. There’s a lot of different things that are trying to keep you reading the book and keep you engaged—chapter headers, dialogue, image, captions—even if one individual element isn’t quite working for you. In that sense, comics make it very easy for you to jump around and accommodate different reading levels, interest levels, learning styles.
Kullberg: The level of detail and accuracy in this book is extraordinary. What was it like working with the artist, Wyeth Yates, to bring so many different visual elements to life?
Wilgus: I would start by writing descriptions into the book and then provide a very comprehensive, very well-labeled, giant directory of reference images. I wanted to provide Wyeth with some jumping-off points and references, and in the script, I’d say, “Here’s how to use that reference.” When an image didn’t match up with what I was expecting, my first thought was, “Do I need to change something in the text? Is this purely an image issue? What needs to get addressed here?”
In that way, Wyeth was my first reader for the book. I knew if he didn’t get it, readers wouldn’t either, so my first job was to ensure he had a solid conceptual understanding. We were constantly going back and forth during every step of the process—thumbnails, pencils, inks, colors. I also got help from my First Second editors and experts to make sure we got everything technically right. Comics are unique in that you really have to be highly collaborative and really look out for each other. Fortunately, we had very few corrections we had to make at the end!
Kullberg: You mentioned earlier that you wrote this book thinking about how to make this topic accessible to teen readers. How much were you also thinking of The Mars Challenge being used in classroom settings when writing it?
Wilgus: The main way that I see this getting used in the classroom is giving somebody, whether a teacher or student, context for topics they’re already learning about and interested in. There’s only so much students are going to get out of watching interviews or reading about Mars in a textbook, whereas this book gives teachers the option to read it themselves and get a better understanding of space travel, to build the book into a unit, or to hand it off to a student to read on their own if they’re interested in learning more.
Ideally, I would love for kids to read this and find things that excite them and make them want to learn more, especially if it’s something they would never have thought to explore before. I think comics are great at laying the groundwork, but it’s not going to answer every question a student has. It’s just going to create that extra excitement and energy around that topic.
For example, a kid who thinks of themselves as being really into fashion and garments might read this book, see the way space suits are designed, and be inspired to go learn more. Another student might be interested in living on the International Space Station and could go read about astronauts and living in space. Then students have the option to spend weeks or months or years researching more about that subject.
I want kids to be armed with knowledge, to have enthusiasm, but also approach topics with healthy skepticism. It’s a literacy issue for me—kids need better space-technology literacy so that they can make better choices for themselves and about the information they’re taking in. From a larger perspective, I want kids to understand that the process of solving the problems of going to Mars could be so beneficial to humanity because those solutions end up having applications far beyond space travel. It’s important to show that people can work together for something bigger than themselves for a greater good.
Kullberg: What should we be excited about next from you?
Wilgus: Right now, I’m working on a book called Grace Needs Space! from Random House Graphic. It actually ties directly into The Mars Challenge. It’s about a little girl who lives in the pretty far future on a space station with her mom and who goes on a road trip with her mom to Titan, a moon of Saturn. It’s kind of a slightly irresponsible parent/road-trip story, only on a space station. It’s a classic example of how you can just read this story and enjoy this kid being sad and have a very basic divorced-parents story, or if you’re really into space stuff, you can appreciate how I managed to work a bunch of physics and science into it. I’m really excited about it. It comes out in 2023.
Chronin, v.1: The Knife at Your Back. Art by the author. 2019. 304p. Tor (9780765391636). Gr. 9–12. 741.5.
Flying Machines: How the Wright Brothers Soared. Art by Molly Brooks. 2017. 128p. First Second (9781626721395). Gr. 5–8. 741.5.
More Space-Travel and STEM Titles
The following titles, both fiction and nonfiction, deal with space travel and STEM topics and make excellent teaching companions to The Mars Challenge.
Laika. By Nick Abadzis. Art by the author. 2007. 208p. First Second (9781596431010). Gr. 8–12. 741.5.
Packing for Mars for Kids. By Mary Roach. Mar. 2022. 128p. Norton/Young Readers (9781324019374). Gr. 4–8. 629.45.
Rocket to the Moon! By Don Brown. Art by the author. 2019. 136p. Abrams/Amulet (9781419734045). Gr. 3–6. 741.5.
Rockets: Defying Gravity. By Anne Drozd and Jerzy Drozd. Art by the authors. 2018. 128p. First Second (9781626728257). Gr. 4–8. 741.5.
Rocks and Minerals: Geology from Caverns to the Cosmos. By Andy Hirsch. Art by the author. 2020. 128p. First Second (9781250203953). Gr. 4–8. 741.5.
Solar System: Our Place in Space. By Rosemary Mosco. Art by Jon Chad. 2018. 128p. First Second (9781626721418). Gr. 4–8. 741.5.
Adam Kullberg is the Interim Executive Director at Pop Culture Classroom, an educational nonprofit in Denver.
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