xkcd to Help Educate America’s Youth!

Here’s a funny little publishing anecdote for you: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published Randall Munroe’s Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words late last year. But when someone in the HMH textbook department took notice of Munroe’s incredibly detailed yet uncomplicated illustrations and graphics, they had a lightbulb moment: Why not put these in a textbook?

And so, HMH’s next editions of high-school chemistry, physics, and biology textbooks will include these simplified explanations. (Munroe limited his text to the 1,000 most common words in the English language.) So while it may not take much of your thinking bag to understand how the part breaker and blood hallways interact, these graphics may come more in handy for teaching about which part of an up goer falls off first as well as how lifting rooms, well, lift.

As someone who struggled through chemistry and didn’t even attempt physics, I wish these had existed when I was in high school. The project has a personal dimension for Munroe, as well; the most touching part of the New York Times article is when he recalls the graphics that had an effect on him as a kid:

Mr. Munroe, 31, said the project appealed to him. He recalled as a child a foldout diagram showing different animals at the starting line of a race and then sprinting/flying/crawling to show the different speeds of different species. “For some reason, I fixated on that illustration,” he said. “It stuck with me my entire life.”

Mr. Munroe said he hoped his drawings would break up the monotony and pace of a typical textbook. “I’m hoping it will be, ‘Oh, here’s a kind of fun and unexpected component,’” he said.

He is adding a few new drawings, including one that explains how life returns to a landscape destroyed by forest fire or other ecological disaster. “That’s a really neat topic,” he said.


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