Kid Lit Review of “The Apollo Missions for Kids” by Jerome Pohlen

This book is part of the excellent series by Chicago Review Press featuring educational content plus twenty-one related activities.

The author, an engineer and former elementary school science teacher, educates kids about the groundbreaking NASA project that led to mankind’s first steps on the moon, which took place on this day in history, July 20, 1969.

As Pohlen relates in the Introduction, the Apollo missions included eleven manned flights into space, six of which landed on the moon. In all, astronauts brought back 842 pounds of lunar rocks and soil, which are still yielding new information to scientists as more modern techniques are applied to analyzing Apollo-era samples.

Twenty-nine astronauts flew Apollo missions, and we get to know all of them in this book. The author writes:

“Apollo was a bold, complicated, dangerous, and expensive adventure. But as [astronaut] Pete Conrad knew, it was also a lot of fun.”

The author begins with the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik, the world’s first satellite. This event led to the challenge issued by President John F. Kennedy after taking office in 1961 for the U.S. to take the lead in space exploration. The history continues through NASA’s initial forays in space achievement – beginning with Project Mercury, followed by Project Gemini. The Apollo program was conceived in early 1960. It ran from 1961 to 1972, with the first manned flight in 1968.

The Apollo 11 crew, from left: Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins. CreditNASA

The Apollo missions stimulated advances in many areas of technology incidental to rocketry and human spaceflight, including avionics, telecommunications, and computers. As interesting as finding out about all that is, what I like most about this book is its focus on the human element – the astronauts and the impact the program had on their lives.

I thought it was particularly fascinating that the effects could be so diametrically opposite. Jim Irwin, part of the Apollo 15 crew – had his Christian faith deepened by being on the moon. Looking back on the earth, he “was touched by a desire to convince man that he has a unique place to live, that he is a unique creature, and that he must learn to live with his neighbors.”

Bill Anders of Apollo 8, on the other hand, had the opposite reaction, and lost his faith. He said:

“When I looked back and saw that tiny Earth, it snapped my world view. Here we are, on a kind of a physically inconsequential planet, going around a not particularly significant star, going around a galaxy of billions of stars that’s not a particularly significant galaxy – in a universe where there’s billions and billions of galaxies. Are we really that special? I don’t think so.”

Pohlen also covers all the tense moments during the program, as well as the exciting triumphs. For example, Apollo 8 reached the moon on Christmas Eve. The crew relayed the first live televised pictures of the Earth and the Moon back to Earth, and gave their impressions of what they were seeing to an audience estimated at one quarter of the population of the world. Then the crew did a reading from Genesis in the Bible, ending with: “From the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you – all of you on the good Earth.”

December 24, 1968 – Christmas Eve Greetings from Apollo 8

There are a number of informative sidebars in the book. They explain concepts like Earthrise; illustrate the parts of the moon suit; and demonstrate how the Apollo lunar modules and command and service modules were put together. Other sidebars feature special short bios of contributors to the program, such as the mathematician Katherine Johnson, software pioneer Margaret Hamilton, and even the television show “Star Trek.”

Like the other books in this series, this one has twenty-one projects for kids that extend the lessons imparted in its history to other subject areas. Readers will learn how to pick out the most prominent features of the moon, how to calculate what they would weigh there, “Orbital Mechanics Made Easy,” and how to make “space food,” inter alia. The activities are fun, easy, and educational.

This cake, designed for the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first step on the moon, would also be a perfect project for kids (or their parents).

Photo by Javier Jaén for the New York Times, June 14, 2019

A glossary of acronyms, and list of relevant books, films, museums, and websites are at the back of the book.

Evaluation: This book and the others in the series provide an outstanding supplement to school materials for kids. The author’s experience as a teacher and creator of award-winning science kits is evident in the appealing and accessible nature of the material. The narration is interspersed with plenty of photos and graphics and to mix it up and keep it interesting.

Note: To commemorate the 50th anniversary of humans walking on the moon for the very first time, NASA has created a special website. From the home page, there are links to collections of both archival and retrospective videos, images, and audio recordings covering multiple Apollo missions, some of which can also be downloaded. Similarly, a Google Arts & Culture site dedicated to this event has a great deal of images and information.

Rating: 5/5

Published by the Chicago Review Press, 2019

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Review of “Stepsister” by Jennifer Donnelly

Jennifer Donnelly, one of my favorite authors, wrote in the preface to this book that she had always been fascinated by the story of Cinderella. It was not the main character who held her interest however, but the so-called “ugly” stepsisters. Donnelly explained:

“Like me, they were gawky, awkward, and lacking in the self-control department. They were selfish and impatient. They wanted things they weren’t supposed to want. … And even five-year-olds know that beauty always wins. Decades have passed since I first learned that the way for girls to survive in this world is to be pretty, good, and compliant. But I’ve never stopped wondering how it had gone for the stepsisters, for two girls who weren’t any of those things.”

Donnelly takes up the challenge of filling in the blanks of the original story by focusing on Isabelle, one of the stepsisters. Isabelle is not conventionally pretty, good, or compliant at all, and has internalized all the messages she has received that she is ugly and unwanted, especially vis-a-vis Cinderella. Donnelly avers, “I saw how all too often, we believe what others tell us we are. We let their words define us and direct us. We take the poison apple they offer us and bite right into it.”

In this young adult retelling, Donnelly explores what happens when girls refuse that poison apple, when they “fight the tyranny of Likes and Follows and Rates,” and when they “stop letting magazines, movies, and social media tell them who’s beautiful.” Rather, Donnelly hopes girls will find a way to start defining beauty for themselves, and critically, to find beauty in themselves.”

A competition between Fate and Chance for how Isabelle’s life will turn out frames the story. It reminded me a bit of the biblical story of Job, except thankfully, Fate and Chance don’t have the same power as God and Satan, and there is hope for Isabelle to overcome the cards stacked against her. But it isn’t easy:

“A wolf lives in Isabelle. She tries hard to keep him down, but his hunger grows. He cracks her spine and devours her heart. ….The wolves in the woods have sharp teeth and long claws, but it’s the wolf inside who will tear you apart.”

That wolf has grown dominant in Isabelle because in the world in which she lives, “an ugly girl is too great an offense.” But it’s not just perceived ugliness that works against Isabelle. Girls are supposed to act like people expect girls to act. As some of Chance’s female companions tell Isabelle, attempting to console her:

“Now, now, child. Ugly’s not such a bad thing to be called. Not at all! In fact, we’ve been called far worse . . . . Difficult. Obstinate. Stubborn. Shrewish. Willful. Contrary. Unnatural. Abominable. Intractable. Immoral. Ambitious. Shocking. Wayward. Ugly’s nothing. . . . Pretty … now that’s a dangerous word. Pretty hooks you fast and kills you slowly. . . . Call a girl pretty once, and all she wants, forevermore, is to hear it again. . . . Pretty’s a noose you put around your own neck. . . .”

Sadly, Isabelle’s mother is one of those caught in the noose. When their house, Maison Douleur, is set on fire, Maman only wants to save her mirror, risking her own life and those of her daughters to rescue it. She confessed, “I can’t leave it. I’m nothing without it. It tells me who I am.”

Maman had tried to force both Isabelle and her sister Octavia to be the type of girls they never could be – to be more, in fact, like her stepdaughter, Cinderella. But Isabelle secretly wanted to be the warrior she pretended to be when she was little, and Octavia aspired to be a scientist. They loathed enduring the “endless dreary days of teacups and cakes, fake smiles and small talk.”

[This wonderful line is reminiscent of the famous musings of Prufrock in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot, and was possibly Donnelly’s inspiration here, when Eliot writes: “For I have known them all already, known them all: Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons, I have measured out my life with coffee spoons . . . And I have known the eyes already, known them all — The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase . . . .”]

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The girls felt “trapped in sugar houses,” longing to be who they really were. And yet, it took Isabelle a while to figure it all out. At first she thought all her problems would be solved if only she were pretty. Being accepted (both by herself and by others) on the basis of any other criteria didn’t even occur to her.

The Fairy Queen tells Isabelle she will grant her wish (as she did for Cinderella) when Isabelle discovers what the lost pieces of her heart actually are. And who knows, maybe her wish (to be pretty) will change. Isabelle gets an unexpected insight from Hugo, a neighborhood boy, in this humorous exchange:

“‘You’re the worst girl I’ve ever met, Isabelle.’ Hugo added, with touching sincerity. ‘You’re so tough and stubborn, you give me nightmares.’ Isabelle gave him a tremulous smile. ‘Thank you, Hugo. I know there’s a compliment in there somewhere.’”

Isabelle also finds out that a true warrior does more than tilt at enemies. The Fairy Queen explains: “… a true warrior carries love, courage, and her conscience into battle, as surely as she carries her sword.”

Given those necessary attributes, is there any way Isabelle can realize her dreams?

Evaluation: Donnelly’s retelling is delightful: funny, poignant, and full of love for her flawed characters. As the Marquis de la Chance says to Fate, who pooh-poohs Isabelle’s striving:

“Can’t you see that the courage to risk, to dare, to toss that gold coin up in the air over and over again, win or lose, is what makes humans human? They are fragile, doomed creatures, blinder than worms yet braver than the gods.”

And for those who don’t like fairy tales, there is another way to read this story:

“There is magic in this sad, hard world. A magic stronger than fate, stronger than chance. And it is seen in the unlikeliest of places. . . . It is the magic of a frail and fallible creature, one capable of both unspeakable cruelty and immense kindness. It lives inside every human being ready to redeem us. To transform us. To save us. If we can only find the courage to listen to it. It is the magic of the human heart.”

This is an appealing story with inspiring messages.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Scholastic Press 2019

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Review of “Wherever She Goes” by Kelley Armstrong

I am still waiting not to love anything new by this author, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Aubrey Finch, 30, has been separated from her husband Paul, a well-off criminal defense attorney, for six months. She only sees her three-year-old daughter Charlotte (“Charlie”) on weekends. Aubrey lives in a run-down place, refusing to take any of Paul’s money; she feels she deserves her fate (at least, in the sense of karmic justice) because of her secret criminal past. Paul never knew about it, and feeling that she had to keep secrets from him inevitably created a wedge in their marriage.

One day while at the park with Charlie, she met a young mother with a son around five and they chatted a bit. Two days later, she saw the boy alone in the parking lot, and witnessed what she believed was his kidnapping. The police didn’t take her seriously because no one reported a missing child. The local news, however, showed her at the police station claiming a kidnapping had taken place. Now that her name and face were out in public, she realized she could be in danger if her former criminal associates recognized her, but knew she could not have just stood by without trying to help:

“If there is any chance that a boy is out there, in trouble, and no one is searching for him, then I must be that one person. The person who cares. The person who gets involved. Whatever the cost.”

And the cost turned out to be high, indeed.

Evaluation: This is a very compelling story with a great deal of page-turning tension. The relationship between Aubrey and Paul, and between each of them and Charlie, is a touching and poignant counterbalance to the dangerous and scary aspects of the story. If you are a fan of the author’s Nadia Stafford series, this book has similar elements, and you will not want to miss it!

Rating: 4/5

Published by Minotaur Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, a division of Macmillan Publishers, 2019

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Kid Lit Review of “Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story” by Lesléa Newman

This picture book for children is based on the life of the author’s mother’s best friend Phyllis. It is similar to, and thus emblematic of, the stories of other immigrants who passed through Ellis Island around the turn of the 19th century. Millions of people were desperate to get out of their own countries, or at least get their children out, in order to protect them from danger and/or to enable them to have better lives.

Many Jews, like Gittel, the little girl in the story, came from families who lived in “The Pale of Settlement.” The Pale, officially designated as such between 1791 to 1917, was a western region of Imperial Russia in which the residence of Jews was legally authorized. “Beyond the Pale,” Jewish residency was mostly forbidden. Jews from other parts of Russia and Eastern Europe were relocated to the Pale, although it was not exclusively Jewish. (The English term pale is derived from the Latin word palus, a stake, extended to mean the area enclosed by a fence or boundary.)

Pale of Settlement

In the late 19th and early 20th century, Jews in the Pale were subjected to massive anti-Semitic attacks called pogroms. These violent riots generally entailed looting, rapes, and even murders. They were carried out with government approval and even by government officials themselves.

The worst pogroms were in the years between 1881-1883 and 1903-1906, causing a mass exodus of Jews to other countries. Some two million Jews emigrated from there between 1881 and 1914, mainly to the United States.

[As it turned out, they were fortunate not only to escape the pogroms, but to be far away from Hitler’s advance troops into Russia in World War II, the Einsatzgruppen. The mission of the Einsatzgruppen as they went through the former Pale was primarily to kill Jews. They were remarkably successful, as only five percent of Jews in the area survived the Holocaust.]

When Gittel and her mother went to the port for the ship to America, Gittel’s mother was not allowed to leave because she was suspected of having a virulent and contagious form of eye infection. She insisted Gittel go on without her, and gave her a piece of paper with the address of a cousin in New York for when she arrived. [There is an interesting and informative article on the suspicion of immigrants having trachoma and its association with anti-immigrant sentiment, particularly against Jews, here.]

Needless to say, the address was illegible by the end of the trip. A Yiddish interpreter helped Gittel by putting her picture in the Jewish newspaper and asking if anyone recognized her. By the next afternoon, her mother’s cousin came to take her home.

In this story, Gittel’s mama arrives in the United States soon thereafter. In the actual story told to the author as related in the Author’s Note at the end of the book, Phyllis never saw either her mother or father again.

The Author’s Note also provides some information about the pogroms and Ellis Island.

The illustrator, Amy June Bates, commented in an interview that her art for this book drew inspiration from Ivan Bilibin, the great Russian illustrator from the turn of the century. She stated:

“I wanted it to have a little bit of a folk tale feel because I really feel like being an immigrant it is a part of our collective American story.”

She explained that she designed her pages to look as if readers were looking through beautifully carved window casements into a different world.

When you read the book you will notice that the windows change when Gittel arrives in America.

Besides the Author’s Note, the author includes a glossary and bibliography of materials related to Ellis Island.

Evaluation: This warm story presents the immigrant experience in a realistic light, providing resources for a more in-depth look if readers want to pursue the subject.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2019

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Review of “Big Sky” by Kate Atkinson

This very dark Fargo-like comedic fifth entry in Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie detective series is reminiscent at times of the classic Marx Brothers movie “A Night at the Opera.”

Brodie, ex-military police and ex-Cambridge Constabulary, is currently a private investigator working out of North Yorkshire. The majority of work for which he is hired consists of either following spouses suspected of cheating, or trying to trap innocent (so-far) fiancés and spouses to cheat, as a “test.” This summer he has the occasional assistance of his son Nathan, who stays with him when his mother Julia (and Brodie’s former girlfriend) is busy. Much of Jackson’s interactions with and observations of Nathan, aged 13, are quite humorous, and ring quite true to anyone familiar with teenagers.

In other chapters we follow a second family, Tommy Holyrod, his wife Chrystal, and their children Candy (3) and Harry (16), the latter being Tommy’s son from his first marriage. But Tommy is constantly busy with his company Holyrod Haulage, and Chrystal provides most of the parenting and companionship for both kids.

Yet another plot thread involves DC Reggie Chase and DC Ronnie Dibicki, who have been requested to conduct interviews in a cold case that just warmed up. The ten-year-old investigation – called “Operation Villette” – relates to two convicted sex traffickers, Bassani and Carmody.

There had been all kinds of accusations involving the two men: about “parties” they sponsored, pornography purveyed, and trips abroad for assignations with underage children. Most of it hadn’t been proved, although rumors persisted of a black book with details, and even of a third man in the operation who had never been named.

As one of the characters who surreptitiously carries on the business mused:

“[There were] limitless needs for sex in pop-up brothels, saunas and places that were even less legitimate, less salubrious. (You wouldn’t think that was possible, but it was.) Trade was good.”

And that ongoing business and those maintaining it form an additional plot strand. But of course the many subplots are connected in ways we don’t discern at first. The story is all about coincidences and interconnections among the characters. As Jackson Brodie always said: “A coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen.”

The connections form a malevolent network, and indeed, a deadly one. As secrets come out, bodies begin to pile up, and time – for some of the characters – is running out quickly.

Discussion: If you have seen “A Night at the Opera” you will be familiar with the famous stateroom scene, which has been parodied numerous times in popular culture, by performers ranging from Cyndi Lauper to Seinfeld. Atkinson uses it several times in this book; in this case so darkly funny and yet so deadly serious.

From the “stateroom scene” in “A Night at the Opera”

The book even ends operatically, with a scene from a famous opera, suggesting rather parodically that the story is not over “until the fat lady sings.”

Evaluation: It has been a long time between Jackson Brodie books for Atkinson, and although I read the previous entries in the series, I pretty much didn’t remember a thing. It didn’t hurt my enjoyment of this book, though, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it even as a standalone to anyone who enjoys noir humor, clever dialogue, and/or well-constructed crime stories generally.

Rating: 4/5

Published in the U.S. by Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, 2019

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