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Stack Overflow: Let’s Go to Space

Books Stack Overflow

I’ve been wanting to do a Stack Overflow column about space-themed books for a long time, but—I’ll be honest—I haven’t even started most of the books on my list yet. Still, I’ve got a mix of space books today: non-fiction, fiction, picture books, and even some activities.

The Story of Space

The Story of Space: A First Book About Our Universe by Catherine Barr and Steve Williams, illustrated by Amy Husband

This book is a brief introduction to space, from the big bang to the invention of telescopes to the dream of putting humans on Mars. It’s in a picture book format, but there’s still a great deal of text, and lots of little labels on the pictures, which are a mix of illustrations and collage. I’d recommend it to elementary-grade kids who are curious about space, though younger kids may need a little help with the reading. Bonus: there’s a short glossary in the back for some of the basic astronomical terms.

Drawing in Space

Drawing in Space by Harriet Russell

This book shares a lot of similar facts to The Story of Space, but with a weird sense of humor, and many activities to draw and write in the book. For instance, on the section about Saturn, it explains that Saturn has many rings, and then has drawings of lots of types of rings: bagels, diamond rings, bike tires, and so on. Then, of course, there’s a page with a ring-less Saturn for you to draw your own rings around. It’s a fun mix of space facts and encouraging the reader to use their imagination, inspired by those facts.

Stars: A Family Guide to the Night Sky

Stars: A Family Guide to the Night Sky by Adam Ford

Here’s another interactive book that focuses on stars and constellations. It’s also chock-full of facts about stars and the solar system, but it also has tips for finding and identifying constellations, as well as some stories about them. There’s a punch-out star map, a dial for figuring out your weight on different planets, and some ways to test your eyesight by looking for specific stars in the night sky.

Some of the activities are a little less engaging (the punch-out astronomy Memory game wasn’t really exciting to me) but overall the book is nice for getting started on star-gazing.

Stickyscapes Space

Stickyscapes Space

Okay, one last activity book: Stickyscapes is a little like those old Colorforms playsets—remember those? Although these aren’t vinyl cling but actually reusable stickers. This set has a double-sided fold-out scene: one side is the “past,” showing the edge of the sun and parts of Earth, the moon, Mars, a bunch of man-made satellites, and so on. The other side is the “future,” with a Jetsons-like cityscape on a red planet surface.

The stickers themselves include real people (Neil Armstrong taking a photo of Buzz Aldrin; Commander Chris Hadfield floating with his guitar; Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space) along with real space vehicles and satellites. But there are also silly things for fun, like green aliens playing cards, a “Futuristic Space Traveler” with pointy ears and his hand in a familiar “V” sign, and Ziggy Stardust. The backs of the sticker sheets have a lot of details about the real things, though not all of the stickers are explained. Your kids will have to figure out themselves that one of the “alien animals” is based on a tardigrade or why there’s a police box included.

Life on Mars

Life on Mars by Jon Agee

I love Jon Agee’s picture books, and while this one is silly and fictional, it’s still about space exploration so I thought I’d throw it in here. A young astronaut heads to Mars, certain he’ll find life there. He’s even brought cupcakes to share. But despite searching and searching, he just can’t find life on Mars anywhere. The joke, though, is that a very large Martian sees him and follows him around for most of the book. It’s a great book to read aloud to kids, who won’t be able to resist pointing out the astronaut’s folly—another book to add to the “unreliable narrators” list.

See You in the Cosmos

See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng

Five years ago, Jack Cheng published his first novel (These Days) through a Kickstarter campaign—he wrote and designed the book himself, and in his Kickstarter updates he shared a lot about the creative process, including independent publishing and traditional publishing. I really enjoyed that book, and so I was excited to hear that he was working on another book—this time, a novel for young readers. Interestingly, this time Cheng went through a traditional publishing route: See You in the Cosmos was published by Dial Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Penguin Random House. (And, mirroring his Kickstarter updates, he has a podcast about the process of getting published in this manner.)

But on to the book!

See You in the Cosmos is about 11-year-old Alex Petroski, a rocket fanatic who is collecting audio recordings on his golden iPod so he can launch it into space, just like the Golden Records sent on Voyagers 1 and 2. The book is the transcripts of his recordings, as he talks to his alien audience and shares with him various sounds that he thinks are important, while narrating what’s going on. And there’s a lot going on.

Alex’s much-older brother isn’t around, his dad has been dead since he was little, and his mom has some mental health issues, and so he pretty much takes care of her and himself. He’s got a dog named Carl Sagan (after his personal hero, of course). Alex is headed to the Southwest High-Altitude Rocket Festival to launch his rocket and iPod, and he’s excited to meet a lot of people he knows from Rocketforum. But, as you may imagine, the world is a tricky place for a precocious kid traveling far away on his own.

The book reminded me a little of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, which had the conceit that it’s narrated by an autistic kid, and he doesn’t always understand the implications of the things he’s relating. While Alex never says that he is on the spectrum, he has some of the mannerisms and tendencies shared by many geeks: he loves explaining things, he loves asking questions, and he’s not always in tune with what other people are feeling. And, as a kid, his view of the world isn’t always accurate, which leads to some surprises for him (and the reader).

It’s a very touching book, and although it’s not specifically about space exploration, space is a topic that Alex spends a lot of time thinking about and talking about, so the book has its share of science facts sprinkled throughout.

The Time It Takes to Fall

The Time It Takes to Fall by Margaret Lazarus Dean

This novel, set around the events of the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster in 1986, has been around for a while, but is still one that I think about from time to time. I was reminded of it in particular last year because it was the 30th anniversary. Dolores Gray is a space-obsessed kid growing up in Cape Canaveral. She’s excited about being accepted into the Gifted program at school, thinking that it will make her “cool” among her peers, and she wants to be an astronaut when she grows up. Her dad works at NASA, like many of the parents of Dolores’ classmates, and the Challenger disaster affects her deeply. She tries to piece together what went wrong, while also trying to keep her family together.

I grew up on the Space Coast myself, and while Dolores is a few years older than I was, I could relate to a lot of the story. It’s a coming-of-age tale, and although Dean introduces some fictional characters (such as Dolores’ dad) to the real-life events, her explanation of the technical failures that caused the disaster are very real, and her conjectures about what the astronauts themselves experienced is heart-wrenching.

Dean has a more recent non-fiction book about the American space program called Leaving Orbit, which is on my reading list as well, but that will have to wait for a future Stack Overflow.

Hidden FIgures

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

I’ve had this one on my list for a while—I planned to start it in February during Black History Month, and then I thought I’d read it in March for Women’s History Month, but I’m just slow when it comes to non-fiction for some reason. Hidden Figures is, of course, the book that inspired the recent film, and it’s about the black women who served as “computers” for what eventually became NASA.

Having recently read March, I had a picture in my mind of what race relations were like in the South in the 1960s. But many of the events in Hidden Figures largely pre-date those (and there is also some overlap). The juxtaposition of the positions that women like Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson held at Langley and the lives of their families outside of work are jarring. It was really amazing to read their stories, the struggles they overcame in their professional lives and their personal lives. In March, the focus is on the actions of the protestors in the civil rights movement, but you don’t always get a sense of everything else that was going on in the country at the time. Placing those events in the timeline next to scientific advancements like breaking the sound barrier or sending an astronaut into space really highlights the vast gulf between the lives of black Americans and white Americans.

Shetterly’s writing is evocative and helps to see the world as these black women experienced it, from the injustices that they endured to the thrill of being involved in the forefront of American science. The book doesn’t shy away from showing the ugly side of society, and I hope that the film prompts many people to pick up the book, which goes into much more detail about these amazing women.

Even apart from the focus on the lives of these specific women, Hidden Figures is also a great history of America’s aeronautical and space program. There’s not always a lot of specific detail, but you do get a broad picture of the advancements in technology, particularly the shift from teams of women computers working out mathematical formulas to the giant machine computers calculating ever-more-complex formulas.

Disclosure: I received review copies of these titles except for The Time It Takes to Fall and Hidden Figures, which I purchased myself.

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