Secret Smithsonian Adventures: The Wrong Wrights
I fully support the idea of educational comics, but it takes a high level of skill to do them right. The instructional material can’t take over the enjoyment of reading, or they wind up dry, boring, and overly didactic. I feared that the new Smithsonian Books line of graphic novels risked falling into the latter trap, but I was pleasantly surprised at how entertained I was by some of the unusual choices they made in telling this story of the history of flight aimed at 9- to 12-year-olds.
Or rather, this alternate history. As written by Steve Hockensmith and Chris Kientz, in The Wrong Wrights, four science fair winners are sent on a prize trip to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. After a moment of wooziness, they notice all the planes have been replaced with dirigibles. Someone has been messing with the timeline, and the kids are sent back in history to an international flying exhibition in 1909 New York City to make things right again. (The author compares the story to a mix of Doctor Who and Scooby-Doo, which is pretty accurate.) Each of them has a wristband connecting them to a talking computer guide.
My second favorite moment in the book is when the kids recognize that a shady pair of brothers singing “We’re in the Money” must be time travelers as well because their computer tells them the real name of the song and when it debuted. The kid’s response is, “I knew it. That song’s in, like, a million Bugs Bunny cartoons.” My favorite bits of the Smithsonian are their popular culture collections, so I was glad to see a nod to that kind of history.
My favorite moment is how significant a role the Wright sister, Katharine, plays. I liked the way this series isn’t sticking just with the well-known bits of history but bringing out some obscure elements that deserve to be better known. There’s a page at the back that specifies the changes in details that were made in the service of an exciting story.
I can’t speak to the quality of the art by Lee Nielsen in detail, since the publisher sent me a black-and-white preview galley, although the book is in full-color, as can be seen by the preview pages in this interview with co-author Hockensmith. The result was a muddy read, although the characters have plenty of personality, and the images stay interesting to keep the conversation-driven story moving. Sometimes the balloons aren’t in the proper order for easiest reason, but that’s a mistake often seen in a text-driven comic.
The next volume in the series, Claws and Effect, is about someone preventing dinosaurs from going extinct and will be out in October. (The publisher provided a review copy.)