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Review: Max Axiom, Super Scientist

A few months ago, Snow and I discovered that we were each planning to review different titles in the Max Axiom Series.  After some back and forth, we realized that we should probably team up and review the series together.  Especially, since we’d both be bringing different perspectives to the review.  Snow’s background is in public libraries and my background is in school libraries.  While a library is a library, our mission does slightly differ and therefore it affects how we see books.

Max axiom is a scientist who acquired some interesting super powers from a freak accident.  He now uses those powers to help explain scientific ideas to a young audience.  By shrinking down to size Max gives readers a view of science like students may have never seen before.

A crash course in forces and motion with Max Axiom Super Scientist
by Emily Sohn; illustrated by Steve Erwin and Charles Barnett III.
Recommended Age: Grades 3-8
Capstone Press, c2007, 0736868372
32 p. $21.99 (S/L Price)

Decoding Genes with Max Axiom Super Scientists
by Amber J. Keyser; illustrated by Tod G. Smith and Al Milgrom
Recommended Age: Grades 3-8
Capstone Press, c2010, 9781429639767
32 p., $21.99 (S/L Price)

The Surprising World of Bacteria with Max Axiom Super Scientist

by Agnieszka Biskup; illustrated by Tod G. Smith and Anne Timmons
Recommended Age: Grades 3-8
Capstone Press, c2010, 9781429639750
32 p. $21.99 (S/L Price)

Understanding Global Warming with Max Axiom Super Scientist
by Agnieska Biskup; illustrated by Cynthia Martine and Bill Anderson
Recommended Age: Grades 3-8
Capstone Press, c2008,
32 p. $21.99 (S/L Price)

Esther: I should start by saying I don’t use the science part of my brain very well. I was always okay with math. I excelled at literature, Language Arts, and History, but science – while interesting – was always more of a struggle for me.  When my students come to the library to work on a science project and need my help, I’m always quick to point out that I’m there to help them find the information not explain it, because they really really don’t want me to explain science to them!  So I was really interested in seeing this series. I wanted to know if it could really help the scientifically challenged like me!  And the answer… drum roll please… yes, it really does.  Obviously, the ideas presented in this titles are topics that I’ve learned and possibly even mastered while I was in school. But I was in school a very long time ago.
I see myself including these titles into my collection, and having students use the books to help them with ideas they’re struggling with in class or I can see them using it to help them understand a topic for a project.

The Max Axiom series is part of the Graphic Library collection from Capstone Press. They and other publishers that gear to the school market have created a number of similar type series with very similar product… I’ve always had issue with these series.  For one, as a colleague once noted – they don’t excel in art and they don’t excel in story.  I have to agree with this assessment and while there has been improvement in that area, I think the key factor that’s missing here is heart.  Take a nonfiction GN like the The United States Constitution: a Graphic Adaptation – the creators put their soul into the project (or at least part of their soul). I’ve seen great nonfiction GNs, but they’re usually stand alone titles, like Amelia Earhart , or Satchell Paige (which is probably more of a historical fiction title.)  These books feel like someone invested themselves in the project. I never got a sense of that from any of the 4 volumes of Max Axiom.
Another issue I had with Max Axiom was that of late, as a reader and reviewer, I’ve been trying to concentrate more on how the art and text work together in a comic.  I think it was something that was said at the GC4K panel at ALA that made tune into this more. I’m much more of a textual based person, and the art has always been secondary to me.  Yet, in reality, this doesn’t work with comics.  In a solid comic, the art moves the text along.  I never got that sense when reading Max Axiom.  Rather, the series was just capitalizing on a popular format to entice kids to read and they could have used the standard illustrated book format. I still contend, they really do explain the science well in an accessible manner, but it’s not the pictures that do most of the explaining it’s the text.  There isn’t a balance between the art and text.
Snow: I see what you mean about text and art not working well together. That’s something I try to look for, but there are times when it bothers me more than others. For some reason, Max Axiom is not one of the series that gets to me. I know that they’re just using the graphic novel format, but I’ve seen worse cases of cashing in (for example, the hideous adaptations of the Box Car Children books). For me there were enough moments in Max Axiom where the creators were obviously trying to keep from simply having static panels with text boxes above them. In The Surprising World of Bacteria there is a panel with a picture of a glacier. Rather than just showing an ice sheet, the ice is falling off, adding motion to the scene. A Crash Course in Forces and Motion tries hard to make sure that the physics principles are illustrated, not just mentioned.

How do your students like the series? Do they find them useful? Do they think they are interesting to read? Does it feel to them like they are being pandered to by having the books in a graphic novel format?

Esther: I see what you mean about the panel art. I know which ones you’re talking about and do agree.  In fact, the reason I first had an interest in this particular series, is because a (different) colleague told me they were done very well and her students loved the series.

In my library, these series have just sat in my GN collection. That’s why, I pulled all these books out (like Rosen’s Graphic Nonfiction series) and interfiled them in the proper Dewey order. This way, the kids will find it when they’re looking for books on a particular topic. I only managed this in June when I was doing my end-of-year cleanup and inventory, so I didn’t get to see how my plan will work. I bet, though, if I track these books the circulation will increase. Especially the science ones. It’s hard to find science books that clearly explain these ideas and I do believe the Max Axiom series does that.
How do you see this series working in a public library? Does your local library put it in the GN collection or interfile it in nonfiction?

Snow: For some reason all the Max Axiom books in my local library are in 741.5 (the graphic novel Dewey number), except for the Earthquakes volume. That one is in 551 with the other books on earthquakes. Personally, I think nonfiction graphic “novels” should definitely go in the nonfiction sections with the other books on the same subjects. That’s a way for them to find the audience who will best appreciate them.

Speaking of the nonfiction elements of Max Axiom, one thing that pleased me about the series was the consistent use of scientific vocabulary. Words like pathogenic, anaerobic, genotype, etc. are used within the text. There is a glossary in the back of the newer volumes (The Surprising World of Bacteria and Decoding Genes), but the older volumes (A Crash Course in Forces and Motion and Understanding Global Warming) had the definitions located right next to the word in question. Personally, I preferred the glossary in the back. It was less distracting that way and made the books seem more professional. What do you think?

Esther: My local library had it as fiction. Go figure! I actually e-mailed someone to let them know (and they already corrected it!).  I personally wouldn’t put all graphic nonfiction within the subject areas, but these “type” of series which are capitalizing on a popular format, but are better suited for explanation, are a better fit in the proper Dewey section.  I don’t know, I just don’t feel like Maus has to be shelved with WWII/Holocaust books. Though, if my library was rich, I’d buy multiple copies and put one copy in the comic section and another in the history section.

But back to Max Axiom…. I had to go and look back to see what you meant about the vocabulary, since I had read the books a few weeks back.  But in generals, having definition boxes next to the words doesn’t bother me at all. Actually, I prefer it. I always wonder if kids go to the back and even look at the glossary.  In my experience, they don’t. I often forget to check the glossary when wondering about a word.  Ideally, difficult words and concepts are defined within the text. I mean, waiting to define inertia in the glossary doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  The idea is to explain the idea behind inertia and to make sure kids grasp the concept.

What about price? How does that make you feel?  The books are in hardcover, and have a decent binding, but they’re a bit pricey.  What do you think? Is it a deterrent to buying the series?

Snow: I’ve always felt that the books from publishers that focus more on the school market (Lerner, Rosen, Capstone, etc) seem to be overpriced. For example, the Max Axiom volumes are library bound, 32 pages, and cost $27.99, but the library bound copy of the new Binky book, which is 64 pages, is only $16.95. I’ve often wondered if the school publishers charge more simply because they can’t rely on bookstore sales. That’s the only explanation I could come up with. Unfortunately it makes it harder for schools to justify buying them. If you only have a limited budget, you want to buy the best stuff you can, especially if it costs half again what another book costs.

Since you’re currently working as a school librarian, what are your thoughts on price?

Esther: I agree with your assessment – publishers that are geared to the school library market tend to be very pricey or overpriced.  I always had a more cynical outlook on it, that they’re holding schools hostage, because they know they have to buy many of these titles, but I like your view much better!  In reality, it’s probably a little bit of both.  They are geared to a very specific market (libraries), and yet, we are hostage to these publishers. Very few mainstream publishers address the topics school libraries need to include in their collection.  At least in the quantities that are needed.  I have a very hard time with the prices. My budget is very stagnant. In NY state it’s $6.25/student.  So 1 Max Axiom book is equivalent to my budget for approximately 4 1/2 students.  It makes me think twice about ordering the title.  Yet, in the case of Max Axiom, if I feel the science topic needs to be covered in my collection, I’d probably be inclined to buy it, because while I wasn’t impressed with the books as a comic, I was impressed with the quality of the explanation and how accessible they’ve made the science to a young audience.

Snow: I liked that they were careful to use standard science diagrams, albeit at a child-friendly level, and that they showed science both in the lab and in the field.

Another aspect that I appreciated was that the series acknowledged the contributions of minorities and women, without seeming to try too hard to find those people to acknowledge. And, while the creators did seem to force inclusiveness with the gender and races of the scientists portrayed, the fact that Max is shown as African-American without that ever being discussed was a touch that made the series even stronger for me. The kids I have worked with long to see themselves portrayed in comics (and in childrens’ and teen fiction), without having to only read historical fiction to do so. If our President can be black, isn’t it time that more comic book characters can be?

Esther: They had a very well-rounded approach to the science.  Which is why, I feel it’s such a strong science title (if not a strong comic title).  The diagrams are genuine and useful! They’re used in a place where the it would be useful and help in the explanation of the science.  The titles are also well-balanced.  I didn’t really take note of the fact that Max Axiom is African-American or that there was a balance of many minorities in the title – as children, teachers, and of course scientists. I should have, though, because I’m quick to criticize lily-white titles.  Yet, Max Axiom is just a true reflection of 2010.

I think we covered a lot of the basics on this series. So bottom line… would you recommend this for purchase? What about parents seeking this out for their children, since it’s not available in the typical book store?

Snow: I would definitely recommend this, especially for science-minded kids. It’s not really the fact that it’s a graphic novel that is the important part. It’s that the science is solid and presented in an engaging way. For parents, I’d suggest the local library. I am fairly certain that a lot of libraries carry this series.

I agree. I think these are solid titles.  And you really hit it when you said: “It’s that the science is solid and presented in an engaging way” It’s great that these are in comic forms, but the strength of these titles are that they make the science accessible.

Esther Keller About Esther Keller

Esther Keller is the librarian at JHS 278, Marine Park in Brooklyn, NY. There she started the library's first graphic novel collection and strongly advocated for using comics in the classroom. She also curates the Graphic Novel collection for the NYC DOE Citywide Digital Library. She started her career at the Brooklyn Public Library and later jumped ship to the school system so she could have summer vacation and a job that would align with a growing family's schedule. On the side, she is a mother of 4 and regularly reviews for SLJ and School Library Connection (formerly LMC). In her past life, she served on the Great Graphic Novels for Teens Committee where she solidified her love and dedication to comics.


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