Emily's Recommended Kids' Space Books: Special Apollo 11 Anniversary Edition for July 2019
Each year in November, I read and recommend dozens of books for kids of all ages, from 0 to 18. It's only July, but my to-read shelf is already overloaded with Apollo-related books, so I decided to cover those in a special summer book-recommendation blog. I have 5 brand-new Apollo-related books to recommend as gifts for your or others' kids, plus a slew of others that I recommended in previous years. Don't have any kids to read to? Buy and donate some books to your local public or school library! You can find links to all my past book recommendations at the end of this post.
by Michael Dahl, illustrated by Derrick Alderman and Denise Shea
The book starts with the number 12 and counts down -- 12 stars, 11 workers, 10 engineers, all the way to "three launch towers slide away," "two rocket engines rumble and roar," and "One shining rocket aims toward the stars. BLASTOFF!" Refreshingly, it doesn't attempt to rhyme; it just counts down. The illustrations are friendly cut-paper collages. I can imagine kids listening to this book being read to them -- and then taking over the book for themselves, flipping pages and counting down: 3-2-1! I wish it came as a board book, becuase the big floppy pages may not hold up to a 2-year-old's desire to flip through them fast.
Alan Bean was a pilot, an astronaut, a scientist, and an artist, all at once. The book talks about how Bean saw the lunar surface through an artist's eyes, and how he sought to use art to communicate the feeling of being on the Moon. How he approached his art both scientifically (building and lighting models to get shadows right) and imaginatively (employing colors and materials that weren't exactly real, but evoked how space made him feel). The text is spare and rhythmic blank verse, a delight to read aloud. I'm keeping this one to take to school and library visits!
by Rhonda Gowler Greene, illustrated by Scott Brundage
The most beautifully illustrated book in my Apollo stack, filled with stark paintings simultaneously rich with accurate detail and evocative of drama and desolation. My first impression of the text was a negative one -- it starts out sounding like This Is the House that Jack Built, but doesn't totally follow through, so I found myself looking for rhythms that weren't there -- but the book builds up to a dramatic shift at the middle of the story, from active exploration to return and reflection on what the astronauts left behind, from a more complicated rhythmic structure to more simple rhyming couplets "there in the Sea of Tranquility / where the astronauts made history...." I think this could be a good read-aloud book and the paintings are fantastic, but I'd need to practice it a few times to perform it well.
by Susanna Leonard Hull, illustrated by Elisa Paganelli
Poor Moon keeps inviting the denizens of Earth to visit her, but neither the dinosaurs, nor the mammoths, nor the neanderthals, nor pyramid-builders, nor Montgolfiere-flyers ever seem to notice her. She even tries completely blocking out the Sun at high noon, and no one comes! Of course, we know how this ends. It's a cute story and manages to deliver some facts (including how solar eclipses work!) seamlessly within the narrative. But the last page of the story might make Apollo fans sigh: "And now she had hope that it would happen again...and again."
A beautiful book that tells a suspenseful story of the Apollo program in free verse across 144 pages. The verses are paired with stunning, carefully researched paintings. Between each pair of chapters, a two-page spread contains photos and facts. I struggled with which age to recommend this one for -- it is marketed at middle-grade kids, and will be useful for kid research about the Apollo program, but the verse format makes it a captivating read-aloud book. This one will last on a kid’s bookcase for a long time.
Moonshot relives the dramatic adventure of the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon. The text consists of spare, tight blank verse that somehow manages to thrill the heart as it economizes on words, while the pen-and-ink illustrations evoke the adventures of superheroes in graphic novels. Wile reading, I felt a little of the excitement and fear that the people back home must have felt as they listened to the crackly reports of the astronauts coming across the airwaves. The book doesn't just have this effect on humble space enthusiasts; astronaut Michael Collins says in a blurb on the book's cover that "Reading Moonshot gave me the feeling I was back up in space." Although the text is spare, short, and evocative, the sentence structure and vocabulary are a bit advanced for the younger end of the cited age range. I think the publisher does a disservice to the book by stipulating the upper appropriate age as eight; the way that this book so effectively stirs the emotions of the reader, and the graphic-novel style of its illustrations, should appeal to much older kids. Although it's a picture book, it doesn't feel like a kids' book -- it feels almost like the storyboard for a movie.
A curious story book about Apollo 11. It would appear to be intended for very young children; the illustrations are stylized, and the text consists of very sparse couplets. Few pages have more than ten words. But read the text and you'll realize you're not reading baby singsong verse; this is poetry. "Edwin Aldrin hops around. / Boot prints left on ashen ground. / Desolation. Silent. Dark. / Tranquil sea. Barren. Stark." Eight Days Gone is a pleasure to read aloud to young children. They may not understand all the words, but the words are mellifluous ones. After all, the story -- a trip to the Moon and back -- is straightforward to understand from the illustrations, while the lovely words provide a sense of the strange aand new.
Margaret and the Moon is one of those wonderful books that presents as a picture book for young children but which has plenty to teach older readers. It's a succinct biography of the pioneering software engineer whose code enabled the success of the lunar landings. Along the way, it even manages to deliver terse summaries of different branches of mathematics. ("She liked moving around x's and y's in algebra. She liked measuring circles and triangles in geometry. She liked studying curves in calculus.") My only quibble is that in the climax of the story, so much credit is given to Hamilton that it suggests her software alone saved the day, without mention of Neil Armstrong's steady hand on the controls. But nearly every book about Apollo 11 makes the reverse omission, and I'm happy to see Hamilton get her day.
A central issue with books for kids about early NASA spaceflight is that all the people who actually got to go to space were white men. Feature Katherine Johnson and Margaret Hamilton's contributions all you want, but there have only ever been men on the Moon. Serena Sees Her Footprints on the Moon circumvents this problem straightforwardly, through the power of imagination: the protagonist, a Black girl, simply imagines herself on the Moon, making sneakered footprints next to the astronauts', placing a photo of her own family next to Charlie Duke's, using her hand mirror to reflect laser beams, and then, toward the end: "Her footprints are on the far side, the part that never faces Earth. Hers are the first footprints there! She goes where no astronaut has ever been."
This book is a whole history of space exploration, focusing primarily on human spaceflight, excellently illustrated, brightly designed, and engagingly written, with well-chosen topics on each two-page spread. The first half of the book focuses on early human spaceflight through Apollo-Soyuz, including features on rocket designers, human computers, and pop culture, and the second half proceeds forward through Shuttle and ISS to modern developments (SpaceX, Blue Origin, and plans for humans to Mars and asteroid mining). As a bonus, the cover is very shiny and tactile, with a brilliant metallic finish. A terrific gift book for a confident young reader and a really good introduction to human spaceflight for parents who haven't paid much attention before their kid's enthusiasm forced them to.
A well-illustrated narrative history of the Apollo program, written by a real live planetary geologist. It begins with a short chapter on the early development of space exploration and devotes one chapter each to Apollo 7-10, Apollo 11, and Apollo 12-17 plus a brief mention of recent international robotic lunar missions. The small amount of space given to the latter Apollo missions prevents the inclusion of much of anything about what the program accomplished besides putting boots on the ground and bringing back rocks, but it's an accessible history for a kid transitioning from picture books to chapter books.
This heartfelt middle-grade epistolary novel draws a parallel between the lonely and underappreciated flight of Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins and a girl who's (temporarily) lost between the cracks in the disintegrating marriage of her parents. Along the way, it delivers a fair amount of factual information about the architecture of the Apollo missions without being too pedantic.
Oh my gosh this book is fun. Do you remember Choose Your Own Adventure books? Allison Lassieur tells the story of the space race in the same style, letting you, the reader, choose which of three protagonists you will be (a "young scientist," a "jet-setting reporter", or "a member of Mission Control.") Your choices affect your personal storyline as it plays out against the backdrop of fact-rich history. On my first read, I, of course, elected to be a reporter, and after a few choices I was deported from Moscow after trying too hard to get an interview with the legendary Chief Designer. It's a highly effective method to engage the reader with history; my third-grader enjoyed reading it several times as she made different choices. There are 9 other books in the series, on everything from the Harlem Renaissance to War in Afghanistan.
A retelling of the dramatic events of the Apollo 13 mission. Radomski details the design of the command module and explains what went wrong, the troubleshooting of the problem, and both the physical suffering and determination of the astronauts. Then the book looks at lessons learned and explains what it means for Apollo 13 to have been a "successful failure," contrasting it to the fatal Apollo 1 accident. Apollo 13's is a story that doesn't need sensationalization; just a straight retelling, well-illustrated, makes for a dramatic read.
From an excellent series of books from Capstone press that uses an iconic photo as the inspiration for a deep dive into history and culture. (Another excellent Apollo-themed one is Man on the Moon: How a Photograph Made Anything Seem Possible, about the iconic Apollo 11 photo of Buzz with Neil and the lander reflected in his visor.) The Blue Marble photo, showing a nearly full-phase Earth with Africa, Antarctica, and swirling clouds, was taken by one of the Apollo 17 astronauts, but which astronaut is still a matter of debate (a question that this book considers at some length without making a definitive judgment). Nardo looks at other space-based photos of Earth; explores the art and history of imagining journeys above Earth's surface; and talks about the cultural impact of the Blue Marble photo.
Sue Bradford Edwards and Duchess Harris’ book Hidden Human Computers tells the story of not only the women of Margot Lee Shetterly's Hidden Figures but also of many other computers who worked for NACA and NASA from the 1940s to the 1960s, and traces their influence to the present. (Harris is herself the granddaughter of one of the computers, Miriam Daniel Mann.) The book is rich with quotes and stories from the women and their relatives. Edwards and Harris detail the diverse types of research that the computers’ work facilitated, and draw direct parallels between the kinds of work (and wages) available to white men, to white women, and to black women of equal skill. Sidebars on nearly every page provide historical and cultural context and technical explanation that enrich the text but can also be skipped if the reader becomes engrossed. I was captivated by the stories of all these women who contributed so much to the development of space technology and human spaceflight, shifting to programming jobs as computers became more capable. They also contributed to opening up wider opportunities for other women. All in all, an inspiring book that belongs in every school library for kids 12 and older.
A great introduction to the Apollo missions, presented in a unique way: margin-to-margin panoramas shot by the astronauts on the lunar surface. Each panorama was lovingly assembled from about 20 individual Hasselblad frames by author Mike Constantine. They're presented in order, with brief but informative overviews of each successful mission. Turning page after page of gray Moon and black sky takes the reader to the lunar surface, in the boots of the astronauts. As Apollo 16 lunar module pilot Charlie Duke remarks in the foreword, the slow transition of flat terrain at the Apollo 11 site to the mountainous Taurus Littrow valley of Apollo 17 shows the increasing confidence of mission planners. For four of the missions, living Apollo astronauts contributed their remarks on what they saw in some of the panoramas.
Other Books for Older Kids
I didn't have time to read any of the 20-something mass market books about different aspects of Apollo that have been released in the first half of 2019. There are an awful lot of them! I asked Twitter for other recommended books, and followers provided the following recommendations among recent books:
(Many more people answered my call with books they'd read in the '60s and '70s, but I'd really like to hear people's opinions of the slew of books that have been published in the last year or two. If you have recently published books to recommend, please do so in the comments.)