“RADIOACTIVE” is an absolutely ravishing book.

Yet the National Book Awards aren’t exactly known for honoring works that traffic in tremendous graphic appeal.

By bucking history, though, Lauren Redniss’s “Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout” (It Books) has just been announced as a finalist for the 2011 National Book honors. It is the first nonfiction graphic narrative to be so honored.

“I’m thrilled and a little shocked,” Redniss tells Comic Riffs on Thursday of the news. “It’s quite humbling to be in the company of such wonderful writers.”

“I’m particularly gratified for ‘Radioactive’ to be recognized as the first visual nonfiction book,” continues the New York-based Redniss, who is a professor in the School of Art, Media and Technology at Parsons the New School for Design.


“It’s a strange book — it’s not a graphic novel,” says Redniss, who is also the author of 2006’s “Century Girl: 100 Years in the Life of Doris Eaton Travis, Last Living Star of the Ziegfeld Follies.” “It’s a combination of drawings and a type of print called ‘cyanotypes’ and the written word in which all the different elements combine to tell a story that could not be told by any one element alone.”

“Radioactive” exquisitively blends these images and text-blocks to tell the story of Marie and Pierre Curie, the Nobel-winning scientists who, in a Paris lab, researched heat and magnetism — all while discovering a personal heat and magnetism between themselves.

Prior to Pierre’s accidental death in 1906, the couple made scientific advances involving radioactivity and added the elements radium and polonium to the periodic table.

So the inspiration was organic when Redniss decided to work with chemicals to produce her very art for the Curie book.

“A friend sent me a ‘jpg’ of a 19th-century cyanotype print and I knew instantly it could be a beautiful, thematically meaningful medium for the book — a book about radioactivity and the idea of ‘exposure,’ ” Redniss tells Comic Riffs. “Cyanotype printing is a camera-less photographic technique in which chemically saturated paper turns blue when exposed to the ultraviolet rays of the sun.”

And during the bright spotlight of an awards season, “Radioactive” is getting the rightful exposure for its visual and verbal brilliance.

Now, may the National Book Awards only grow yet more enlightened as to the literary worthiness of graphical works.

The book awards are scheduled to be announced Nov. 16.


(LAUREN REDNISS / from “Radioactive” / 2010 It Books/HarperCollins)