Book review: ‘Power On!’
Image credit: MIT Press | Illustration by Charis JB
This fun, empowering, and educational graphic novel explores the reasons why all students need access to computer science education.
It’s rare to come across graphic novels that don’t include any action sequences rippled throughout their illustratively stunning pages. But even without these features typical to the genre, ‘Power On!’ (MIT Press, $19.95, ISBN 9780262543255) by Jean J Ryoo and Jane Margolis still fills this void through an insightful story of four close friends who actively try to educate themselves about the world of computer science, highlighting the need for the subject, and practice, to be accessible to all within schools.
‘Power On!’ is about a group of four friends who, when learning that police shot a Black man after artificial intelligence had misidentified him, seek to learn more about the technology and the algorithms that paved the way for his death. This incident sparks a deep curiosity among the diverse group, resulting in them actively seeking opportunities to learn more about the area and practice within it.
Taylor, Christine, Antonio and Jon all agree to explore computing classes, with mixed results. These experiences ultimately make the group come together to teach the others what they learn. And by the time their summer holidays come along, all four find that computing is both personally and politically empowering.
The graphic novel was inspired by real-life high school students from Los Angeles and rural Mississippi. And much of the story is based on experiences writers Ryoo and Margolis witnessed and learned of through their research about race, gender, and inequality in computer science education. This reviewer feels this is what makes the graphic novel much more impactful as it will allow younger readers to better resonate with the characters’ experiences and learn from these stories.
Readers should also expect to gain a better understanding of how technology can perpetuate racism and inequality, and that those who run Big Tech companies do not fully reflect the voices and perspectives of women, people of colour, LGBTQ+ and immigrant communities.
But the graphic novel features profiles of notable marginalised figures throughout history who have done astonishing things within the tech sector, to help inspire the reader. For example, readers will learn more about African American Nasa mathematician Katherine Johnson, Thailand-born Gmail (iOS) designer Chanpory Rith, and transgender activist and computer scientist Lynn Conway, to name a few.
There is also an array of studies and books riddled throughout the graphic novel that readers can look further into. For example, American mathematician and data scientist Cathy O’Neil’s book ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’. Such profiles and book/study recommendations should certainly help readers to further educate themselves on the subject. The reviewer themselves even had to Google a name or book or two throughout reading this graphic novel.
This reviewer, an avid comic book and graphic novel reader, feels ‘Power On!’ is a fresh read from the otherwise superhero, fantasy, and science fiction stories that majorly fill this space. In fact, the writers have created a group of heroes in their own right, just without all the multi-million-pound gadgets and special powers, that could hopefully inspire potential young readers.
Also, as it features diverse characters, it will certainly make a lot of young people from marginalised communities resonate with their stories and would help them feel more seen. The reviewer feels inclined to disclose that, being a mixed-race woman themselves, they would have loved to have had a graphic like this growing up during their school years. But the reviewer still learned a lot from the graphic novel and could resonate with the characters, even 10 years on from their school life.
The writers hope the graphic novel will prompt new questions and conversations about the ways in which computing impacts our world. This reviewer feels it has done a tremendous job in provoking thoughts and ideas around the subject matter and would indeed be a good way to help more younger readers engage more in computer science and realise the importance of it.
All-in-all, the message behind this graphic novel is clear. Young people’s views deserve to be heard, yet too often we find that the technology they use every day promotes practices that don’t give these young and diverse minds a seat at the table.
‘Power On!’ brings to life the ethical complexities of technology, and stresses why young readers need the knowledge in computing to become critical creators of technology rather than being merely a user who is shaped and controlled by it.
It’s about time that things begin to change, and graphic novels like these are a step in the right direction.
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