Friday, September 24, 2010

Science Snafu: Oh, No! (Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World) by Mac Barrett




I never should have built a robot for the science fair.

Everything was going so well...

Until the rampage started, that is.

In the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil rig disaster, Mac Barnett's hot-off-the-press picture book Oh No!: Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World (Hyperion, 2010) seems positively prophetic, absolutely allegorical, a parable of the human propensity to think big without necessarily thinking through our creations.

Our young heroine, doubtless the star science student in Mrs. Turnham's fifth grade class, certainly is thinking big when she rolls out her giant robot--blueprints and all. Surrounded by the usual baking-soda-and-vinegar volcanoes and paper mache solar system models, it's impressive, all right. Unfortunately, in the way of scientific devices, this one follows the law of unforeseen consequences, leaving its designer wishing she'd thought about the unthinkable a little more here.

Giant stainless steel claws? Maybe unnecessary add-ons here. And when the unfortunate creator tries voice commands--"Hey, Robot, knock it off already!"--she discovers that what she forgot to add was ears! Hastily, she scribbles a sign to halt the carnage, only to discover that she "forgot" to teach the robot to read. Brute force doesn't work, either; she neglected to program into her robot the power to feel pain! Quickly improvising, she grabs a nearby toad from another kid's exhibit, and radiates it into a giant mutant monster and orders it to destroy the rampant robot. Her ploy works, but then... (deja vu all over again) TOAD doesn't stop the destruction there. Oh, no! She forgot to irradiate the annihilative amphibian's DNA to self-destruct as soon as the runaway robot is disarmed.


The saga of the science experiment gone amuck has been around since Mary Shelley penned Frankenstein in 1818, and that fictional parable is still as powerful as ever. Author Mac Barnett probably didn't know just how timely his publication date of June 1, 2010, was to be when he wrote this little tale, but his story of a science exhibit gizmo that destroys everything in its path now seems predictive of what can happen when scientists fail to build in plenty of fail-safe redundancies. Dan Santat's illustrations are a perfect foil, in a tour de force design that extends the simple text with touches of whimsy and humor which will keep kids pouring over each page. His deadpan-serious little scientist has all the right technical moves, but realizes with horror that she's neglected to foresee the big picture, and when Santat's perspective zooms out as the scope of mayhem enlarges, we see just what her half-baked science hath wrought. As Kirkus Reviews puts it succinctly, illustrator Dan Santat's design is a seamless blend in which "comic-book, picture-book and movie styles come together in a well-designed package."

And that's more than we can say for that science project!

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