Kid Lit Review of “Margaret and the Moon” by Dean Robbins

The subtitle of this book is “How Margaret Hamilton Saved The First Lunar Landing,” and it introduces readers to Margaret Hamilton, “who loved to solve problems” and “came up with ideas no one had ever thought of before.” Eventually she became a part of the American space program at NASA.

As the author informs us:

“She helped Apollo 8 orbit the moon ten times. She helped Apollo 9 connect two ships in space. She helped Apollo 10 get within nine miles of the moon’s surface.”

Most famously, she helped Apollo 11 land on the moon even after several computer alarms had been triggered, becoming a hero of the mission. In 2003, she won NASA’s Exceptional Space Act Award for her groundbreaking contributions to the U.S. space program. The Award recognized her achievements, stating “Apollo lives on today, continuing to impact the modern world in part through the many innovations created and championed by Ms. Hamilton.”

Margaret was born on August 17, 1936. She was always curious, as the author explains, and especially loved solving problems in math. When computers first came into use, she was delighted:

“Margaret could use this new invention to answer so many questions about the universe!”

And she did, programming computers to do things they had never done before. In 1960, Margaret took an interim position at MIT to develop software for predicting weather. She later observed that at that time, computer science and software engineering were not yet disciplines; instead, programmers learned on the job with hands-on experience. From 1961 to 1963, she worked on a project writing software for military use in anti-aircraft air defense. This work led to her being chosen as Director of the Software Engineering Division of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, which developed on-board flight software for the Apollo space program.

After her work with NASA, she went on to found her own companies for systems design and software development.

In his Author’s Note, Robbins credits Margaret’s father with always taking her questions seriously, and making her believe she could be anything she wanted. She became “fearless.” In fact, Robbins said, when Hamilton became a pioneer in programming computers, “the job had no name, so she made one up: software engineer. She was one of the only female computer scientists of the 1950’s and ‘60s.”

Hamilton has published over 130 papers, proceedings, and reports about the 60 projects and six major programs in which she has been involved.

On November 22, 2016, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by U.S. President Barack Obama for her work leading the development of on-board flight software for NASA’s Apollo Moon missions.

You may recognize the work of illustrator Lucy Knisley from her adult graphic novels such as Relish: My Life In The Kitchen.. She employs cartoon-style illustrations – a perfect choice to convey the excitement of Margaret’s discoveries, and a variety of texts to punctuate the narration.

At the back of the book, there is an Author’s Note, a bibliography, and a list of recommendations for additional reading.

Evaluation: Both Robbins and Knisley are to be credited with making what could have been a dry story into more of an inspiring and entertaining comic book tale of a real-life superhero.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Alfred A. Knopf, 2017

The real Margaret Hamilton

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Review of “The Best Kind of People” by Zoe Whittall

George Woodbury is a prep school science teacher in the affluent town of Avalon Hills and a hero in the town for having stopping a school shooting almost ten years earlier. But on the day of his daughter Sadie’s 17th birthday, the police come to arrest him for accusations of sexual misconduct with female students during a weekend field trip he was supervising. He is held in jail without bail until his trial date, which would not be for another eight months.

George insists he was being set up, but there were four different girls making the accusations.

The community’s judgment is immediate, as is, surprisingly, the family’s. The story takes us through the period leading up to the trial, as well as its aftermath. There are any number of tragic repercussions, as well as some unexpected twists.

As the author writes about Avalon Hills, this was a community that “seemed ripe for parody, with its perfect greenery, cafes boasting fair-trade coffee and chocolate, a yoga studio on every block, and its low high school dropout rate.”

Sadie was a reflection of the seemingly perfect families in Avalon Hills:

“Sadie was in the accelerated academic program, a group of well-regarded students who, barring a stint in the eating disorder wing or a trip to rehab for Adderall addiction, were all heading to prestigious universities. . . . They ate lunch in the student government lounge, because naturally they were the student government.”

After her dad is arrested, Sadie is worried about all kinds of things: how do you know if a person is really good or bad? What makes someone do something bad? What if criminal behavior is hereditary? Sadie was also plagued by not believing her own father. It was not that he ever gave any indication of the behavior he was accused of, but she was socialized – by her father himself! – to give victims the benefit of the doubt.

Sadie said to her brother Andrew: “Dad is fucked. We’re fucked. Hasn’t it totally shattered your image of him?”

George’s wife Joan, a nurse, looks for a medical explanation, wondering, what if George has a tumor that made him do it? What if he’s physically sick?

Both Sadie and Joan discovered that “. . . if someone puts the possibility of something terrible in your head – and people around you believe it – you can’t go back to thinking its completely inconceivable.” Because at some level, the very fact of the accusations had a persuasive effect.

Joan felt like “[s]omeone had taken Joan’s only confidant, the one person who actually knew her completely, and her best friend, and replaced him with a monster. The person she knew and trusted was gone.”

Only Andrew, who is gay, has some doubts, because he knows how malicious high school girls can be from his own experiences: He tells his mom:

“Some of those girls accusing Dad, they look just like the girls who spit in my face, who had their boyfriends kick out my car headlights and kick me into a corner and then piss on me as I huddled there. That’s all I can see, when I see those girls – the evil suburban menace, you know?”

Meanwhile, not only George, but the rest of the family is now subject to the judgment and shunning of their community. How could the wife have been oblivious? She must be guilty of knowing or at least suspecting and not reporting it. And as for Sadie and Andrew, they are tainted by association: Sadie finds obscene graffiti on her things – “whore” and “Sadie Woodbury sucks big dicks!” And Andrew is pilloried by the local press for being gay, the implication being that the whole family is “perverted” in some way.

Sadie goes to stay at her boyfriend Jimmy’s house to get away from the harassment. Along with Jimmy’s mom Elaine, also living in the house is Elaine’s boyfriend and frustrated author Kevin. Kevin keeps stashes of pornography and pot in the house, and Sadie starts stealing his pot, as well as accepting Kevin’s offers to join him in smoking when he is around. Pretty soon she is turned off by Jimmy and fantasizing about Kevin. Kevin is paying a lot of attention to her and she misinterprets it.

Sadie gets more into drugs and drinking, and even gets a “dealer.” She blames her father. “Fuck my dad. Fuck him.”

But then there is an unforeseen development at the trial, and the family’s life is turned upside down once again.

Discussion: At the end of the book, a number of questions were left unanswered. But maybe the process was the point – i.e., what happened to everyone involved regardless of what the truth of the matter was.

It struck me as odd however, that not only does almost everyone almost immediately assume George’s guilt, but no one appears to be much interested in finding out the facts. There is a lot of discussion about rape and victimhood, and “he said” versus “she said” situations, but as for what specifically happened on the field trip, it seems not even George’s family is interested in the details.

I felt the author was making a point about the way this community turned on the family and tormented them, but there was also no “meta level” discussion about why they would do that. Wouldn’t a number of them feel sympathy toward the family or at least the kids? And if not, why not?

Finally, there aren’t really many likable characters in this book, with the exception of Sadie’s boyfriend Jimmy, who is, however, so clueless and feckless there is a limit to how much a reader can identify with him.

Evaluation: This would be an excellent book for book clubs. There are so many topics to discuss, from the specifics of the reaction of this family and community to the accusations, to the whole question of sexual misconduct accusations generally. One could also have a lively discussion about what different readers thought happened at the end; I would love to be in on that one!

Rating: 3.5/5

Published in the U.S. by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House, 2017

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Review of “Never Go Back” by Lee Child

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

Yes, all the Jack Reacher books are formulaic, but they are still fun and entertaining. The books are also easy to review since they have so much in common with each other!

Never Go Back is the 18th Jack Reacher novel. (This is not the most recent book; as of this date there are 22 primary works and 30 total works in the Jack Reacher Series.). Jack Reacher, according to the author, is 6’5” and 220-250 pounds, with a 50” chest. [You may wonder why he was played by Tom Cruise in the “Jack Reacher” movies. Apparently this had something to do with Tom Cruise having the money to finance the films.] In any event, Reacher served in the Army 13 years, and mustered out at age 36 with the rank of major. Now he just roams around the United States investigating suspicious situations and usually killing people – but only bad guys.

This one begins by Jack calling his old 110th Military Police unit, having found [in the previous book] that he likes the sound of the voice of Major Susan Turner, who has taken his former position as head of the department. Reacher then decides to hitch a ride from North Dakota to Virginia to meet her, only to discover that Turner has been arrested on bribery charges. To his surprise, he himself is also arrested for crimes he allegedly committed many years ago.

Jack, being Jack, fairly easily breaks out of confinement. He also secures Turner’s freedom by enlisting the aid of one of the U.S. Army’s competent and honest sergeants, who trusts Reacher because of his reputation and trusts Turner because she (the sergeant) has worked with her. Reacher and Turner set out to clear their names with the Army in hot pursuit.

Along the way Jack encounters (as he usually does) a couple of large men who challenge his manhood, much to their ultimate discomfiture. Jack actually fights them with his hands behind his back, surprising the first with a few well placed kicks and the second with a head butt. All in a day’s work.

Jack and Turner ultimately discover the slimy, high-ranking plotters behind their arrests — this is not a spoiler because Jack always gets his men — but it isn’t easy.

Evaluation: The Jack Reacher books by Lee Child tend to be easy and pleasurable books to pass the time, even if predictable.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Published by Delacorte Press, 2013

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Review of “The Inexplicable Logic of My Life” by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

This novel for young adults is chock full of “issues” but it seems realistic enough. The main protagonist is a Caucasian teenager named Sally (Salvador) Silva, raised by a Mexican-American family, who is experiencing changes in himself he doesn’t understand. He is 17, and as the story begins, it is the first day of his senior year at high school in El Paso, Texas.

After his mother died of cancer when Sally was still a toddler, he was adopted by Vincente, a (Mexican) gay artist, whose gender identification brings out the bullies against Sally at school. Sally’s female best friend Sam (note the gender reversal of the names) has a drug-addicted mother, so she practically lives at Sally’s house. His male best friend Fito has “the most screwed-up family on planet Earth,” and he too ends up needing a place to live. Vincente, a generous and compassionate guy who “could have been a counselor” ends up fathering these three seventeen-year-olds.

Turmoil ensues when Sally finds out his beloved grandmother Mima is dying of cancer; Sam almost gets raped by a date; and an old boyfriend shows up in Vincente’s life. On top of all of this, Vincente picks this time to give Sally a letter his mother left for him before she died. Sally is afraid to open it. All of the sudden Sally, formerly a mild-mannered, good-hearted kid, is consumed by fear and anger over all these disruptions in his life, and begins lashing out with his fists.

For the first time, Sally starts to wonder about his biological father. What was hiding inside him? Did he inherit pugilistic tendencies from him? “Maybe the kind of guy I was, well, maybe I was like someone I didn’t know. You know, the guy I’d never met whose genes I had.”

As Sally obsesses over this, Sam and Fito go through their own family crises, and all the kids have self-esteem problems and need support. Vincente’s family, as near to saintly as any family can be, provides it. As they keep telling all of the kids, it’s not where you came from that matters, it is where you are going.

Eventually, Sally comes has the realization that anger didn’t make him a “bad boy” – it just made him human:

“There was nothing wrong with getting angry. It was what you did with that anger that mattered. All this time I’d been so scared that I was going to turn out to be like a biological father I’d never met. I’d underestimated myself. In the end, wasn’t it up to me to choose? Didn’t we all grow up to be the kind of men we wanted to become?”

[Um, no, not necessarily. And how did he come to this epiphany? It seems the opposite of what he might have concluded when he finally found out about his biological father.] But in any event, Sally recognizes that his “real” father is the one who raised him, and that’s the only one he has to worry about. And obviously he could have no better role model, since the guy is universally considered to be just about perfect.

Discussion: Generally in order to get absorbed in a book, I don’t need it to tell a story from the perspective of the same race or culture I am from, or by a character who is the same age, gender and/or has the same gender preference. But I had trouble relating to this story. My best guess as to why is the author’s writing style, which is simplistic (albeit in a somewhat poetic way), and doesn’t reveal much “underneath” the characters.

Sally has a great heart, and is generous in spirit, but isn’t all that bright or sophisticated. He keeps saying he feels he acts more like a little boy than a man, and I have to say I felt the same about him. There is no doubt he is a good boy, but his character just seemed off to me since he was, after all, 17. Even his father talks to him as if he were much younger. And with all his wondering about who he was and why he acted the way he did, he didn’t gain much insight about it, and I didn’t get much either.

There are a number of good messages in this book, but I didn’t feel their emotional heft. There are also some issues unresolved at the end, but we are left with the idea that all the characters are now on the right track, and learning to deal with the inevitable losses of life that ultimately cannot be controlled. Rather, Sally decides, there is “an inexplicable logic” to life, which can be not only terrible but beautiful.

Evaluation: This is probably meant to be a coming-of-age story, but the lack of depth of the narration just didn’t fill in the blanks for me too satisfactorily. “Philosophical” questions get resolved sort of by fiat by the narrator rather than by an evolutionary process evident to the reader (or to this reader, at least). But I really liked some aspects of the book, such as the celebration of Mexican-American culture, and the loving portrayal of a family headed by a gay man.

Rating: 3/5

Published by Clarion Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017

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Kid Lit Review of “She Persisted” by Chelsea Clinton

The title of this book for children by Chelsea Clinton comes from the statement made by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in February 2017 about Senator Elizabeth Warren that soon went viral. In trying to silence Warren, McConnell said: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

Women responded in outrage all over the social media, using the hashtags #LetLizSpeak and #ShePersisted.

Clinton decided to adopt that phrase for the title for her collection of short vignettes about 13 women throughout American history who changed the country through their persistence. Obviously there are a plethora of women who could have been featured in this book. In an interview, Clinton explained she chose women who have inspired her over time, the challenge being to narrow down that list. She decided to include a mix of people who were well known and those not so well known, in the hope those in the latter category would become as familiar as those in the former.

The thirteen, most of whom engaged in social activism to bring about a more just world, include Harriet Tubman, Helen Keller, Clara Lemlich, Nellie Bly, Virginia Apgar, Maria Tallchief, Claudette Colvin, Ruby Bridges, Margaret Chase Smith, Sally Ride, Florence Griffith Joyner, Oprah Winfrey, and Sonia Sotomayor.

Clinton writes:

“Sometimes being a girl isn’t easy. At some point, someone probably will tell you no, will tell you to be quiet and may even tell you your dreams are impossible. Don’t listen to them. These thirteen American women certainly did not take no for answer. They persisted.”

Illustrator Alexandra Boiger uses watercolors that will appeal to the young audience for whom this book is intended.

Evaluation: In my own childhood, I heard all those same discouraging statements said to me as Clinton wrote in the quote cited above. I hope this book and others like it help teach young girls that obstacles can be surmounted and aspirations realized, if only one persists.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Philomel Books, an imprint of Random House, 2017

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