Jul 21, 2013

And A Light to Guide Us By...

Have you ever had one of those days, or weeks, when your plans just slid away, slipping beyond your grasp, for no specific but about a half million incidental reasons, none of which really amount to a single thing? Sort of like the previous sentence just did?

You've never had that experience? I'd like to be happy for you but, honestly, who are you trying to kid?

This past week was another one of those for me. My best intentions to have this post written and timed to launch (pun intended) on Saturday, July 20, never came to pass.  The occasion commemorated, the author/illustrator, and the titles shared all deserve a thoughtful treatment, even if it is a day or two after the anniversary.

Makes me feel that NASA was wise in not seeking me out to participate in the execution of their wonderfully successful plans, don't you agree?

This week marks the 44th anniversary of the first Apollo Moon Landing, and the first time this date passes without it's central figure, Neil Armstrong. He died last August, at the age of 92, but his legacy continues. Armstrong and his crewmates Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins were the team in the spotlight but their success was a direct result of a massive endeavor and commitment initiated by President John F. Kennedy in the first months of his presidency:
"First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal,
 before this decade is out, 
of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth."
That challenge was issued in May, 1961, and on July 20, 1969 Armstrong set foot on the moon.
Neil Armstrong/NASA Files
Brian Floca displays an uncanny ability to present overwhelmingly intricate and detailed information in picture books, including the story of the moon landing.
Atheneum/Richards Jackson Books
MOONSHOT: THE FLIGHT OF APOLLO 11 opens with endpapers depicting cutaways and labeled diagrams of the Saturn rocket that carried the team to the moon, along with paneled diagrams of each stage of the flight, landing, exploration, and return. The balance of accuracy and simplicity in both his illustrations and labeling  are  more than impressive and allow this book to defy a "target age" designation. The oversized format, simple fonts, double-page spreads, and lyrical text command attention.
"It climbs
the summer sky.
It rides a flapping
cracking flame
and shakes the earth,
and makes a mighty

Each page turn carries the reader along from the mundane (eating meals, toilet accommodations) to the heart-stopping (time and fuel are running out as the Eagle approaches the surface of the moon with no apparent place to set down safely). Concepts about the Moon, space travel, and the vastness of this accomplishment are developed with intrigue and inspiring appeal. Detailed back matter answers many questions for the curious and provides leads for those who want to explore further. 
Atheneum/Richard Jackson Books

Backmatter in LIGHTSHIP, another Brian Floca title, explains that the last lightship station in U. S. waters ended its service in 1983. This book tells the story of the long history of these remarkable ships and their crews in comparably spare but eloquent text and accurately detailed illustrations, both of which blend concepts, information, and inspiration. 
Check Floca's website for other titles that achieve similar remarkable effects.

I vividly recall standing in my living room watching that first Moon landing on television while the rest of my family sat perched on the edges of their seats, each of us more focused on the screen than the most avid game-player in a race for top score billing. I had to leave to work a night shift at the hospital but dreaded it, afraid I'd be en route at the moment of touchdown, one of the only people on the face of the Earth not watching. 

Then it happened. The Eagle landed. Armstrong's voice crackled from more than 200,000 miles away.
I saw that first step. Heard those first words.
Then left for work.

These days the looped replaying of everything from dance moves to a beetle mating can drive me crazy.  In a time before the internet I had seen my share of endless replays. The sixties were a decade of unforgettable and painfully historic events, including Kennedy's assassination, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination, Bobby Kennedy's assassination, the Watts riots, and countless images from the Viet Nam War. The Moon launch, landing, and safe return extended over several days, with countless replays of key scenes, much to the relief of those of us who had to go to work. What a difference there was between those uplifting, exhilarating scenes and sounds and those of tragedies and atrocities.

Floca's MOONSHOT brought back some of that excitement, thrill, and awe. Now that my life seems to be relegated to the pages of history, I'm thrilled when a picture book is able to make that history feel as immediate and alive for a new generation as it was for me. 

Picture books are as versatile and diverse as the readers who enjoy them. Join me to explore the wacky, wonderful, challenging and changing world of picture books.