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Jon Scieszka’s new series for middle-grade readers, Frank Einstein – about a boy the author calls “a 10-year-old genius, a tinkerer” – launches this fall from Abrams/Amulet. Here’s a first look at the cover of book one, Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor, illustrated by Brian Biggs.
Frank Einstein, Scieszka said, is always eager to explore how things work, and to apply his imagination to his own special brand of inventions. In the first of what the author describes as “action science adventures,” a bolt of electricity from a lightning storm zaps to life Klink and Klank, two robots Frank has crafted in his garage. The stage is set for this trio to work together, as well for them to do battle with Frank’s archnemesis, T. Edison.
The idea for the series has been brewing in Scieszka’s own creative lab for a while. “I’ve always loved science,” he said. “As a kid I was always digging around in the backyard and looking at ants and frogs, and going fishing. I was pre-med in undergrad; my mom told me to be a doctor.”
Though Scieszka’s career path took a different turn (teacher and then author), the science bug stayed with him. “When I was teaching second grade, I taught some science, and the best thing was that the kids were always asking bizarre questions,” he said. “I wanted them to know that it’s not just about getting the right answer, but that it’s much more important to ask the right questions. And, really, the heart of science is asking questions.”
Scieszka’s new books present an opportunity for him to “mess around with science of all kinds”; future volumes will explore topics like geology, astronomy, and energy. The author has been re-reading works by some of his favorite scientific thinkers, including physicist Richard Feynman, who is the basis for Frank Einstein’s Grampa Al. He also keeps a bulletin board of intriguing science stories, such as the recently discovered immortal jellyfish, and tales of how some everyday things – cornflakes, bubble gum –were invented. For Scieszka, “the mix of real science and crazy stuff” is one of the joys of writing Frank’s exploits. “It’s a fun way to introduce something like the Large Hadron Collider and subatomic particle physics,” he explained. “I love the idea that it might connect a kid to something that becomes their lifelong passion.”
The “real spark” for the series, Scieszka said, came years ago, when he was listening to a radio interview. “A group of scientists were talking about what had inspired them to enter their field,” he recalled. “And almost all of them mentioned reading the Tom Swift books. Tom Swift was always inventing amazing things and going on these incredible adventures. He invented an electric rifle, and it inspired what we know as the Taser today. Taser stands for ‘Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle’; not many people know that the idea came from a book series from the 1920s. I took a poll of students in an NYU journalism class the other day, and none of them had heard of Tom Swift.”
When it came to channeling his scientific enthusiasm into a book format, Scieszka said, “The whole setup came to me with the name. It’s so great when kids point it out to me: ‘Did you know that Frank Einstein is almost Frankenstein?’ ” Scieszka also had strong feelings about how the books should look. “I knew I wanted hardcore diagrams to be a part of this,” he said. “Diagrams about how a toaster or a door buzzer works, or a detailed look at the circulatory system. I’ve been really insistent that we don’t ‘dumb it down.’ I wanted real stuff in there. I remember poring over the schematics and charts and diagrams in the Golden Book Encyclopedia. It’s another form of literacy that’s important for kids.”
Illustrator Biggs (the Everything Goes picture books; the Brownie & Pearl series), he added, was up to the task. “This is something new to him, too. It’s not just the illustration of a story. The diagrams have to look separate and different from the rest of the illustration.” Scieszka also praised the design team at Abrams. “They are so conscious of design and they just understand that it’s part of the storytelling, too. They’ve done it so well with Wimpy Kid and Origami Yoda. I have the easy part. I just write things like ‘insert gamma-ray production diagram here,’” he says.
Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor will be published on August 26, with a first printing of 300,000 copies; the projected six-book arc will see two titles published per year. Marketing plans for the series launch are still being finalized, but in the meantime, Scieszka will be a featured speaker at next month’s USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C. “We are really reaching out to the world of science teachers,” he said. “English teachers see us all the time at various conferences, but authors rarely go to science conferences.” With the onset of Common Core and “everyone trying to connect everything with science,” Scieszka added, “I want to tell these groups, ‘Here is your ammunition.’ ”