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Nudging Kids Into Wonder—Then Science

They never met, Rachel Carson and Cecilia Cruz.

Diptych of portrait of Rachel Carson and an illustration of Celia Cruz
(Left) Photograph by CBS Photo Archive, Contributor, Getty (Right) Illustration detail by Gavin Aung Than, Zen Pencils

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.

The opening spread of Rachel Carson's ''The Sense of Wonder''
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?

Comic illustrating words by Rachel Carson about encouraging a sense of wonder in children

Comic illustrating words by Rachel Carson about encouraging a sense of wonder in children
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.

8 thoughts on “Nudging Kids Into Wonder—Then Science

  1. All true.

    But I often think that many people get stuck at the childish feeling stage all the way into adulthood, by which time some seeds of factual knowledge and logical thinking should have been planted in the fields of their feelings.

    And so we get hugely acrimonious disagreements in which people shout their feelings at one another, with not a fact or a logical argument anywhere to be seen.

    Sometimes the shouting turns into throwing things. Some of those things are votes, lobbying and legislation. Some of them are bullets and bombs.

    1. We’re called Homo sapiens sapiens, (sapiens meaning ‘wise’, so that’s double-wise) but if you know this beast you know its guided by reason AND by feelings, both, and one without the other leaves us un-wise. So Peter may wish for more logic in the world, and others may wish for more wonder, more mercy, more love — but we need both to be the Sapiens we ought to be.

  2. The cartoon seems backwards to me. In my experience, it is children who naturally have a sense of curiosity and wonder, and adults who crush it out of them. No doubt the adults have their reasons, but that’s what happens.

    1. I have seen many instances of what you describe. I also remember haing to fight with my son to get him to try one (1) lima bean. I think there is something of a balance, depending upon the age of each participant, between the “adult” who strives to choke off any creative thought or sense of wonder and the “child” who is rigid in the face of any new experience. I am seventy five years old and still amazed at the world around me.

  3. I was lucky to have a father who grew up on a farm and who spent a lot of his boyhood in nature and the mountains. He eventually became a fishery biologist, but never lost his sense of wonder in all of nature and how it works. He’s been gone 20 years, but I still have moments of wonder and awe looking at things in and of nature, from the tiniest flowers to the largest mammals to rocks, fossils and stars, because he taught me to see and feel it.

  4. And then, behind all wonderment, boredom and disenchantment, there’s this stuff called DNA which determines most of what we will become, including inquisitive or indifferent adults.

  5. Carl Sagan once wrote/said: “Every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist, and then we beat it out of them. A few trickle through the system with their wonder and enthusiasm for science intact.” Children have an innate curiosity and wonder about the environment they grow up in, but nowadays, that curiosity has to be rekindled from a latent state.

    1. Or, one could not beat it out of them in the first place. But this would run athwart the purposes of the culture we have accepted and continue to support.

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