Jorge Cham is the Emmy-nominated creator of the popular PBS Kids’ show Elinor Wonders Why and the nonfiction book for adults We Have No Idea, along with the podcast Daniel & Jorge Explain the Universe and the webcomic PHD Comics. Born in Panama, he obtained his PhD in robotics from Stanford University and was an instructor and research associate at Caltech. Here, Cham reflects on his forthcoming middle grade novel, Oliver’s Great Big Universe, which kicks off an illustrated series, and his passion for explaining things about the world in interesting and fun ways.

Let’s face it, it’s a pretty cool Universe. Not just because we’re in it, but because there are all kinds of amazing facts about it. There’s enough stuff happening with it (from its exploding size, to time-bending black holes, to possible aliens in other planets) to fascinate anyone.

I first got a taste of the vastness of the Universe when I was growing up in Panama, a small but proud country that bridges the North and South American continents. My parents and aunts owned tiny beach chalets on a nearly empty beach away from the city, and I would often find myself staring up at a clear and moonless sky filled with countless stars and the smoky streak of the Milky Way galaxy.

Then my journey took me to the U.S., where I stumbled onto a career few people in the world had ever had before: being an online cartoonist. How I got there is a long story (being a minor internet celebrity means there are plenty of biographies you can find about me online), but my comics would often focus on STEM topics. I would have long conversations with experts in all kinds of fields, from chemistry and mathematics, to physics and psychology, and I delighted in writing about all the things that humanity does and doesn’t know about how the universe works. The experience opened my eyes to the wonder around us, and how even the smallest detail in our everyday lives can be a jumping-off point for curiosity and exploration.

I’ve been trying to share that sense of wonder for a long time. I’ve co-authored award-winning nonfiction books, co-created an Emmy-nominated television show for young kids, and I co-host a science podcast on iHeart Radio, all aimed at encouraging curiosity and asking questions. But then one day I noticed something funny about kids.

As parents, my spouse and I loved getting books for our kids to read. When they were little (younger than about seven), they would happily pick up large picture books about the planets, or dinosaurs, or plants. But at some point, that stopped. Books that only talked about STEM topics didn’t seem to hold their interest as much anymore. Instead, they gravitated more towards books with stories in them, especially those with humor and graphics. Of course, that made sense. As their social world expanded in school, it seemed natural for them to be more curious about other kids like them and how the world works from a social perspective.

I also noticed this when I would volunteer at my kids’ elementary school library. Books like the Wimpy Kid series would be in constant rotation, whereas great reference books about space and the universe would hardly ever get checked out, much less taken off their shelves.

The funny thing is that, in my experience, all kids are curious about the universe. Start talking to any group of third graders about space, the planets, or black holes, and you’ll have a rapt audience every time. But it seems to be a rare nine-year old who will voluntarily pick up and read a reference book about a STEM topic.

Inspiration for how to address this came to me in the form of my son, Oliver. One day when he was in fifth grade, he announced at dinner that he wanted to be an astrophysicist when he grows up. Our response was, “Awesome! Do you know what an astrophysicist does?” and his reply was, “Um… not really.” That combination of enthusiasm, cluelessness, and chutzpah is what inspired me to write Oliver’s Great Big Universe.

My son is funny, clever, and interested in science, and he’s also a typical kid trying to make sense of the world and his role in it. I thought, wouldn’t it be great if a fun kid like him explained to other kids topics about the universe? Thus Oliver was born, the character in the book who also decides one day to be an astrophysicist, and who explains STEM topics in a chatty and accessible way to readers.

Because I was basing the character on my son, our dinner table at home became the equivalent of a writers’ room. I would pitch ideas and jokes and bounce them off my spouse and kids, and then they would contribute ideas. One of the biggest jokes in the book, concerning a comic that Oliver draws about the planet Uranus, came from my kids.

For some reason, humor and science are not often mixed together (unless they’re jokes about science). Maybe it’s because science takes itself too seriously. But I found it very natural to use jokes when Oliver (the character) was explaining science topics. He’s a funny kid, and he says funny things, even when he’s explaining the deep mysteries of the cosmos. I mean, what 11-year-old can resist making a poop joke when talking about cosmic Dark Matter?

Humor also helps make STEM topics more relatable. Kids love funny things and situations. A lot of ideas about space and the universe can seem really far away to children, but if you can point out the similarities between, say, the Big Bang and someone farting in a crowded cafeteria, suddenly the origin of the universe seems more approachable and fun.

Still, it’s a tricky balance. For the reader, it has to be crystal clear what is fiction and what is nonfiction. That’s why there are no fantastical elements like spaceships or talking animals or robots in the book. It’s also why all the science that Oliver explains is sourced (in this case, he relays the information from Dr. Howard, an astrophysicist). It’s important that kids have a sense of what is real and what is not; otherwise they might get confused about what they’re supposed to learn.

At the end of the day, the main thing I want readers to take away is that the universe can be understood, even by little kids. I like to think that Oliver can explain pretty much anything to others like him, and if he can do it, so can his readers. My dream is for kids to get so excited about these topics that they tell their parents at the dinner table what they learned.

So, remember to keep your eyes and brains open to wonder in this great, big universe. Just watch out for those cafeteria farts.

Oliver’s Great Big Universe by Jorge Cham. Amulet, $15.99 Sept. 26 ISBN 978-1-4197-6408-0