We caught up with Gregory Crocetti, the Co-director at Scale Free Network, about The Invisible War: A Tale of Two Scales, to see how things have panned out since winning the Most Outstanding Resource of the Year Award at last year’s Educational Publishing Awards Australia (EPAAs). Here’s what he had to say:
After taking out the gong for ‘Most Outstanding Resource of the Year’ at the 2017 EPAAs, the resource has generated considerable buzz. Did you expect the response for The Invisible War: A Tale of Two Scales to be overwhelming positive?
From the start, we knew we had a unique idea, but we couldn’t be sure of how it would be received. The team (Ailsa, Ben, Briony, Jeremy and I) worked really hard to weave the diverse elements of the story together in an engaging way, and to do justice to the history and the science content. We felt proud of the work before we started getting validation from independent sources, but I think we have all been surprised at just how well it has done. It feels great to see the creative risks we took, pay off. Considering that for most of the team, The Invisible War is our first graphic novel, we’re doubly pleased that the response has been so positive, not just from an educational publishing perspective but also from the book design and literary world. Perhaps there’s something to be said for coming to a genre fresh, with no set idea about what a comic should or should not be able to express.
How has winning an EPAA award made a difference to Scale Free Network?
It’s really been an amazing ride for Scale Free Network (SFN) since the EPAAs in late 2017. With this award under our belt (and the sticker on the cover of our graphic novel), we have felt more confident in our interdisciplinary approach and developments have been happening at a faster rate. We might not be able to call ourselves a micro-publisher much longer! First off, we’ve finalised a deal with CSIRO Publishing to co-publish four titles in our picture book series, Small Friends Books, and recently we received support from the Australia Council for the Arts to travel to the Frankfurt Book Fair. Concerning The Invisible War, I am excited to announce that earlier in 2018, we signed the North American rights to Graphic Universe, an imprint of Lerner Books – the largest independent publisher in the USA – who will release a US hard-cover edition of the book around April/May 2019.
Could you tell us what this North American deal means for the future of the book?
Our immediate hope is that we can now capitalise on the momentum from North America to pursue other foreign rights deals at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October. We would particularly love to see The Invisible War published across Europe and Asia. Of course, the upcoming US release also means a wider audience for our story. Ultimately, we want as many people to read the book as possible – and to journey into the amazing (and radically underappreciated) world of microbes that call our bodies home.
Perhaps most significantly, we also now feel we have a strong case to take the ideas and concepts behind The Invisible War from one book, and turn them into a series of graphic novels, set across the microscopic landscapes of the human body. The working title for this series is Planet Human…Stay tuned!
For those that may not know, could you tell us a little more about Scale Free Network? And the wins and challenges of being considered a micro-publisher in Melbourne.
SFN is a Melbourne-based, art-science collective and micro-publisher originally founded by conceptual artist Briony Barr and myself, having stepped back from my research as a microbial ecologist.
Since 2007, we have developed our interdisciplinary methodology through workshops (co-developed with artist Jacqueline Smith), participatory installations and exhibitions inspired by the ‘invisible majority’ (microbial communities and physical forces beyond human perception). Our projects aim to ‘visualise the invisible’ and to question the human-scale lens through which we relate to the world. We have presented work at science and art institutions throughout Australia and internationally, including at the 2017 Melbourne Festival (Experimenta Make Sense), World Science Festival Brisbane and Museum of Modern & Contemporary Art in Korea.
In 2014, we expanded our practice to include the co-creation and publication of the Small Friends Books series. The series – now co-published with CSIRO Publishing – explores the ubiquitous phenomenon of cooperation between microorganisms and larger life forms. Each story is created in collaboration with writer Ailsa Wild, illustrator Aviva Reed in consultation with scientists and educators.
How does The Invisible War improve educational outcomes for students?
I find it amazing that 99% of the biodiversity on Earth, including the diversity on and inside our bodies, is invisible to the naked eye. There’s all of this amazing new scientific research revealing the roles that microbes, especially bacteria and viruses, play every day in keeping our bodies and minds healthy. Ultimately, we hope The Invisible War will help spark curiosity in the minds of readers – both young and old – about the microscopic world, encouraging people to take a less human-centric perspective about our place in the natural world. We can talk about STEM or STEAM resources as much as we like, but in my humble opinion, the best science education finds engaging ways to inspire a sense of wonder and get people asking questions…
Taking a broader view of education, there has been lots of talk of cross-curriculum priorities and interdisciplinary resources in recent years, but high school classrooms and textbooks largely remain within their content silos. I’d like to think that The Invisible War might help nudge more teachers to think about the possibilities of working more across disciplines – for example, using science to help think about history, literature to think differently about science and so on.
How does your resource approach the course material in a different way to others in the market?
The Invisible War is clearly an unconventional resource. On one hand, it only covers a limited amount of science and history content. But on the other, feedback from teachers suggests that it has much greater potential to engage a broader range of students in learning than a typical textbook. As a species, we’ve learned through telling stories for thousands of years, so why not use that to our advantage in the classroom as much as possible – particularly in Science classrooms – where the content can often be difficult to bring to life…and where so many students give up trying, having decided they “don’t get it”.
We hope to see you all at the industry event of the year, held at The Pavilion, Arts Centre Melbourne on Thursday, 20 September 2018.
The Educational Publishing Awards are committed to rewarding excellence and innovation in the publishing industry at primary, secondary and tertiary levels. We have put together a series of interviews with the publishers, editors and authors involved in the creation and development of educational resources.
We caught up with Gregory Crocetti from Scale Free Network to talk about The Invisible War: A Tale on Two Scales, a shortlisted entry for the 2017 EPAA Reference Resource award.
For those who don’t know, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and the shortlisted entry?
I’m an independent publisher. In 2007, I began a long-term collaboration with visual artist Briony Barr in the art-science collective, Scale Free Network. We now spend the bulk of our time creating science adventure stories, set on the microscopic scale.
The Invisible War is our first graphic novel, created through a highly collaborative methodology by a team of Australian artists, scientists, writers, educators and historians. The story is set in 1916, partly around the muddy trenches of WWI, and partly in the mucus-lined trenches of a nurse’s large intestine. Our main human character accidentally swallows some dysentery-causing Shigella bacteria while treating an infected patient. The story then follows their epic journey as they battle their way through her digestive system and encounter other microbes living in her gut. The unlikely micro-heroes of the story are the “bacteriophage”, alien-looking bacteria-eating viruses who battle the dysentery bacteria to save Annie’s life.
What was your motivation for developing this resource?
Microbes such as bacteria, viruses and fungi make up 99% of life on Earth. And while a few of these invisible creatures can cause diseases, the overwhelming majority of microbes are beneficial, and in fact essential to the continued existence of the visible 1% of life, including us humans. I find it tragic that instead of learning about the amazing things that microbes do in our world, children are instead taught about microbes as agents of disease. Given the tragedy of this situation, I felt something had to be done. And so I made it my mission to try to create educational resources that flipped the script to teach children (and hopefully also adults) about many of the marvellous things microbes do in the world around us.
Why do you think this text will be appealing for students to engage with in their students?
Our modern screen-based world is driving more and more children and young adults to seek non-traditional modes of learning. With the simultaneous high demand for video content, immediate satisfaction and a growing reluctance to read the printed word, there is less and less space for conventional textbooks. Instead, this has set the stage for hybrid modes of educational resources in the modern classroom – and I believe that graphic novels nicely combine the necessary written content with the appeal of visual storytelling.
What challenges do you think teachers face and how can this resource solve these challenges?
From the outset, we were very strategic about our target audience for The Invisible War. We got some great advice from Ingrid Purnell at the History Teachers Association of Victoria that our WWI focus would place our content around the year 9 curriculum. Adding to that, we knew our story would have lots of great links in our book to the year 9/10 (plus year 7/8) Science curriculum, along with natural links to the exploration of literature styles and context in the English curriculum at these levels. Thus, it was our hope that in the context of lean school budgets, The Invisible War would be able to function as a genuine interdisciplinary resource across Science, History and English/Literature classrooms.
With year 7–10 students notoriously the most difficult to manage in a classroom context across both primary and high school settings, we loved the challenge of designing The Invisible War to target this audience. In this context, the key is to engage as many students, as often as possible. I’m delighted to say that from my experience sitting with several classrooms across several schools (at different levels) reading The Invisible War, I can say that without exception, every student read the story from start to finish.
Why did you decide to submit The Invisible War to the EPAAs?
I believe in the power of story to deliver complex ideas. That’s why I continue to develop science adventure stories in a picture book format to teach primary school students about the varied symbiotic partnerships between microbes and larger forms of life. But I’m now also a huge believer in the educational potential of graphic novels. I grew up reading comics like Asterix and Tintin – always entertained and sometimes unsuspectingly educated.
However, my recent experience of creating within the graphic novel format and seeing the growing demand for visual learning in modern classrooms has convinced me of the importance of graphic novels in a teaching context.
Being a tiny independent publisher brings particular advantages and disadvantages. Our small size allows us to maintain creative control and quickly follow new trends and opportunities. But we also have to work really hard to cut through the noise – to compete against enormous marketing budgets and reputations of massive publishers, especially in the educational scene. Winning an EPAA would really help validate our choices to remain independent as well as our interdisciplinary approach to learning.
Good luck and all the best to Scale Free Network!
The Educational Publishing Awards are held at The Pavilion, Arts Centre Melbourne on Wednesday, 20 September 2017.
Keep up with the latest EPAA news @EPAs_Aus or join the conversation #EPAA17.