September 2009

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Fly Me to the Moon

As someone who grew up on the Space Coast of Florida, I have been around rocket launches all of my life and cannot imagine a future where we do not continue manned space flight and one day return to the moon. In recent 40th anniversary celebrations of the Apollo 11 mission, there were several books on the space program discussed. Here are a few new ones for teens and younger that stood out for me.

Tanya Lee Stone's Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream is the kind of history that both thrills and depresses. This is history I had no clue about and I can't understand why. Stone celebrates some true American heroes; the thirteen women who came within inches of qualifying for the manned space program but were stopped by abject prejudice -- not only against their gender but also against the possibility that their acceptance might pressure NASA into accepting minority male candidates. They took the tests, they passed the tests and they excelled at the tests. They were all accomplished pilots and in most cases had flight time that far exceeded their male counterparts. But that didn't matter. What Almost Astronauts proves is that it was the image of the white male American hero that drove the personnel decisions for the astronaut programs. The majority of those who made decisions wanted someone who looked like John Glenn, and based on the testimony and comments of himself and other Mercury astronauts, that was what they wanted as well.

While all of the personal stories in Stone's swift, gripping story are fascinating it is Jerrie Cobb who will likely stay with readers the longest. The first woman selected and the only one permitted to complete all of the tests -- she had over 7,000 flight hours earned in a variety of civilian and military aircraft. She had also set the world altitude and world light-plane speed records by 1959 -- not women's records, but records, period. Her flight experience was above reproach and the scientists who tested her (using the same or even tougher tests than the male astronauts) were staggered by her results. Cobb, like all the women, never complained -- in stark contrast to the men. And she was unflappable in the simulators, which was even more surprising as it was the cockpit where women supposedly were lacking.

Almost Astronauts is full of anecdotes I could not forget: from the lame media questions directed at the women (sexist questions about their marriages and children which continued into the era of Sally Ride and Eileen Collins) to the devastating testimony before the Congressional Committee by WASP organizer Jacqueline Cochran whose fury over not being considered for the program (due to age and medical history) proved the cliché that a woman scorned knows no bounds.

Heavily illustrated with great period photographs, Almost Astronauts belongs in the library of any space nut and most certainly in the hands of every American kid who dreams of the stars. Let them see how hard the battle was fought by those who were denied and they will learn what a debt we owe to those who put it all on the line and yet suffered the pain of losing anyway. I still hate some of what Stone taught me in this book, but do I love Jerrie Cobb and the women who tried alongside her.

Jim Ottaviani reteams up with illustrators Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon from his excellent paleontology title Bone Sharps, Cowboys and Thunder Lizards for an inside look at the U.S. and Russian space programs in T-Minus: The Race to the Moon. This fictionalized account of the space race relies heavily upon fact and includes all the major players while showing the parallel paths followed by the two countries. The biggest surprise here is that it's not about the astronauts so much, but rather the men and women who worked mission control, the engineers who spent years designing the rockets and lunar landing vehicles and the men who led the programs. The two biggest revelations will be Harrison Storms of North American Aviation which built the Command and Service Module and final stage of the Saturn V rocket, and Chief Designer Sergei Korolev, for all intents and purposes the heart and mind of the Soviet program. Few American teens will have heard of these two men but by the end of Ottaviani's comprehensive and compelling work, they will know them well and be dazzled by their contributions.

The black and white drawings for T-Minus are crisp and strong; the illustrators excel at showing emotion and some of them, especially the faces of those about to die, are especially gripping. My only complaint is not one that could have been avoided -- both programs were full of Caucasian men who dressed the same, so it is easy to lose track of the characters in the sea of similar figures. But part of the point here seems to be that while there were certainly a few significant figures, the dueling space programs were full of hundreds (thousands) of similarly dedicated men and women. To ground the book, Ottaviani created two representational U.S. designers: C.C. and Max. These men, and how they obsessively work while trying to juggle some semblance of home life, show just how ordinary the extraordinary minds within NASA were. It is especially interesting to see how they make leaps of logic in the most common of circumstances. Ottaviani is very adept at showing how creative sparks can appear at any time in an atmosphere that demands and encourages such leaps and reminds us how the improbable and seemingly impossible was made to happen.

T-Minus is written around a perfect balance of dual storylines as the narrative flows back and forth with ease through the Americans and Soviets (using a different font makes it clear when the programs shift). Time marches by and launches are recorded in sidebars with basic information about success and failure. Although we all know how this ends, there are many things about how the ending came about that are surprising and even the expected moments, like the tragedy of Apollo 1, still carry deep resonance. I love reading good history and Jim Ottaviani is one of the best at taking moments that are large in scope and bringing them home to the page in a length that seems unlikely but proves to be a perfect fit. Hands down, T-Minus is the best first book for teens (or middle grade readers) on the space program.

Andrew Chaikin, author of The Man on the Moon returns with Mission Control, This is Apollo. Heavily illustrated with period photographs and the indescribable paintings of formal astronaut Alan Bean, it is simply a gorgeous book. Focusing almost entirely on the Apollo missions, Chaikin is in very familiar territory and provides a first class overview of each mission occasionally providing interesting tidbits on things as varied as going to the bathroom in space and the "group brain" in mission control. Those brief (and interesting) forays into trivia aren't the point however, and Mission Control is mostly an excellent in-depth look at the moon missions. It starts at the beginning with Kennedy's speech and continues with overviews of Mercury and Gemini and then through the Apollo missions. Chaikin provides an enormous amount of personal insight from the astronaut's here, both from NASA records and his own interviews. Of all the books I've read, Chaikin's is certainly the most personal and has the most surprises (such as Rusty Schweickart's attack of "space motion sickness" during Apollo Nine). The addition of Bean's paintings cannot be overstated either -- his perspective is, of course, unmatched on this subject and with personal captions detailing each of the pictures it makes the book not only singularly beautiful but even more interesting.

One thing I realized while reading Mission Control is that one book alone cannot give you the whole story of the space program's early days. For example, while explaining "who were the astronauts," Chaikin states they were all men because "there were no women pilots with experience flying high-performance jets." Tanya Lee Stone makes it clear it was much more political than that in Almost Astronauts and to be frank I was a bit disappointed by Chaikin's dismissive tone here and his failure to add a few sentences explaining the political nature behind the crew decisions.

When discussing the tragedy of Apollo One, Chaikin provides a great deal of information on the subsequent investigation and its conclusions, while in reading T-Minus, readers learn the Soviets had come to the same tragic conclusion about a 100% oxygen atmosphere some time before. They, of course, did not share this information with the Americans for reasons Ottaviani shows so effectively in his story. These three books are thus pieces of a puzzle in a way -- different ways of looking at the same subject but all focusing on other areas of one broad story and each illuminating something that makes the history that much clearer. Don't miss the whole group.

Rick Stroud's The Book of the Moon is an incredibly comprehensive look at all things lunar. He covers geology, mythology, astrology, men who went to the moon, those who looked at the moon and even how the moon affects weather. To a certain degree it's a bit mind boggling to find Neil Armstrong and lycanthropy in one title, but the point is to cover the moon in the most in-depth, detailed way and so that is what Stroud has done. That the book is so compulsively readable is a testament to his obvious curiosity about his subject. He really got into doing this research and readers can detect that as they page through, skip around and immerse themselves in elements of lunar history that they might never before have read about.

It's hard not to focus simply on favorite parts of a book like this, but it is the careful blend of hard core science and mythology -- while not giving short shrift to either -- that impressed me the most. It is patently impossible not to learn a lot from Stroud because I doubt anyone is as well versed in Siberian myths or lunar launch history as they might think. It's rare that the entirety of the moon's impact upon human culture is considered in one place or that an author respects his readers enough to assume they would want to know about casting moon spells pages after an overview of the Apollo 17 astronauts. Stroud's point seems to be that you can't just parcel out the moon -- if you want to know what it means to all of us then take the time to consider how varied its existence has been throughout history. It does not mean you must weigh each chapter equally (or even read them all in one sitting), but you can go back here as questions arise and find many interactions between seemingly disparate subjects. To one degree or another, the moon is clearly all things to all people; it just crosses every individual in very different ways.

The Book of the Moon was published for adults but is a no-brainer for teens. Heavily illustrated, formatted in a straight-forward, user-friendly way, it is perfect for research and reports and a great leaping off point for deep reading in dozens of areas. The obvious choice would be to package it with a telescope and decent lens. Then the lucky recipient can start reading about just what makes it special and decide on their own path for lunar appreciation. (Stroud even includes moon hoaxes and a recipe for the Blue Moon cocktail -- how can you pass up this kind of smart fun?)

Alan Dyer's Mission to the Moon is by far the most heavily illustrated book on the subject I have seen recently. With over 200 NASA photos, it is an interesting combination of Apollo mission history and discussion of the Moon itself. Dyer includes a spread on moon myths, including graphic depictions of the "man in the moon" and also writes about Jules Verne and early astronomers. He jumps into the space race early on however, including mention of Yuri Gagarin and the Mercury Seven and then focuses on the steps taken to get Apollo 8 to the moon. The information is related in an encyclopedic fashion -- short paragraphs on a variety of related topics fill each two-page spread, but the real draw will be how the narration is accompanied so well with photos. There is also a cool collage-type element used to include slightly off-topic subjects like the wildlife refuge created around Cape Canaveral or the training of the Mercury 13. (Jerrie Cobb's photo is included.) This is probably the best "light reading" entry on the moon I came across for older middle grade readers or teens just getting their feet wet. You will have to go elsewhere to learn about the major players at Mission Control for example, or much beyond the names of the astronauts and the missions they flew on, but to see what happened in the sequence it occurred, and to see pictures from the men, to the training, to vehicles and even to moon rocks then Dyer is your choice. Mission to the Moon also includes a poster of the lunar module (with the Apollo 8 trajectory on back) and a DVD with footage of the moon landing and later Apollo missions.

For younger readers, Brian Floca turns his meticulous attention to detail towards the Apollo 11 flight in his new title, Moonshot. Just as he showed in the award winning Lightship, Floca has a gift for taking things apart and then explaining them, both graphically and in text, so that readers can better understand the whole. In this case, he begins with Mission Control and the Cape Canaveral launch, providing large illustrations and small along with a text that reads almost like poetry and is structured around short, direct sequences. The intricacy of the illustrations is mirrored by their descriptions: "There are food and clothes/packed into corners./There are flight plans, flashlights/pens, and cameras -- and they float too./They drift from hands and pockets./That's why there's Velcro everywhere:/for holding things so they stay put."

Floca covers all the things kids will want to know about the mission, even going to the bathroom ("it takes pipes and hoses and bags.") which includes an excellent follow-up: "This is not why anyone wants to be an astronaut." But in the midst of the funny and odd he includes some reverence for the mission and the men, a note of seriousness that conveys how amazing this trip was. A shot of a family, stunned and cheering in front of the television set as Eagle lands reminds us how the whole world, to one degree or another, was part of the mission.

Again, the author/illustrator proves himself capable of bringing poetry to mechanics, and entering the lives of others in an intimate and very affective degree. This is most certainly a picture book for young readers, but it is also a very mature title that doesn't sugarcoat any aspect of the experience or its significance. Moonshot is writing up to children, not down, and a great way to begin a lifelong fascination with space travel and history.

Cool Read: Candlewick's reissue of Robert Crowther's Pop-Up House of Inventions gives new readers an opportunity to enjoy this absolute classic of the craft. Oddly, in the past pop-ups were primarily considered for only young children which always made no sense to me as they are the least capable of appreciating the delicate intricacies of the engineering behind each push, pull and "lift flap" of the designs. Crowther's book most definitely belongs on the shelf of middle grade and older readers and teens in particular will be entranced by what he accomplishes here and the fascinating (and often humorous) bits of information he shares in the text.

House of Inventions is literally exactly what the title suggests: each double-fold presents a different room in the house from kitchen to living room to bathroom and beyond. Crowther fills the pages from top to bottom with the history of every invention included therein, and as flaps are lifted, arrows are twisted and doors opened, readers learn more and more and more about the modern house. The pop-ups are not as intricate as some, but they work perfectly to portray rooms (the shower in the bathroom including fish covered curtain is a particular favorite). You've got oil paintings and wall safes, pendulum clocks and playing cards -- who invented them and when, who popularized them and why. It's trivia melded to craft and very nearly overwhelming to the eye -- but in a good way. Curious fact collectors will love this and paper crafters will be mesmerized. Crowther has put together a gender bending crowd pleaser that delights with each reread.


Colleen Mondor blogs on literary matters at and also don't forget, where book recs for teen boys are handled by a roving cast everyday.