Jun 20, 2019

Start Summer with STEM Books!

It's an old fashioned concept that summer vacation for kids is a wide-open, free-wheeling, choose-your-own-adventure time. If I were decades younger I'd might even doubt that it was ever true. But I lived that kind of summer. Sure, there were chores, family outings, even some short half-day camps sponsored by church or scouts or whatever. But the bulk of our long sunny days were ours to plan and execute.

Truth be told, I spent lots of my free time reading. But countless hours of summer were improvised, spur of the moment adventures with friends. That might involve cooking, camping out in the the back yard, making up new rules to old games, or packing a lunch for an all day bike trip of undetermined route or destination. (These explorations launched without today's ubiquitous cell phones, just a dime in a pocket in case we needed to use a phone booth.) 

That's certainly not the way of the world today, but here's my suggestion to salvage at least the spirit of what those days were like. Both are STEM books, and both are semi-non-fiction, relying on real events and back matter to blend exciting and fun stories into actual space-based science. 
Penguin Workshop, 2019

First, a suitably small book features little Mars Rover Curiosity as the central character. BIRTHDAY ON MARS is written by Sara Schoenfeld and charmingly illustrated by Andrew J. Ross. In wonderful dusty, rusty tones with a Rover-eye-view, Curiosity voices a first person account of why it is there, an awareness of its friends on Earth, and a sense of purpose. The clever small moments (taking a birthday selfie, peeking under rocks) make it a winning intro to space science for even the youngest. The topper is the blend of humor and fact in the story when it sings HAPPY BIRTHDAY to itself. Then back matter reveals that this little explorer did, in fact, sing happy birthday to itself on it's first anniversary on Mars. 
Roaring Book Press, 2019
I can't imagine a more appealing way to interest kids in space science, unless it is this next book. GO FOR THE MOON: A Rocket, a Boy, and the First Moon Landing is a big, bold opposite to the sweet little Rover book.Chris Gall wrote and illustrated this oversized, heavyweight, photo-realistic story of a space-enthralled little boy whose life mirrors the first moon launch and landing. 
With white-framed, double-spread illustrations readers open to a rear view of a young boy staring out his bedroom window. His walls, shelves, and toys all reveal a childlike but obsessive interest in space. Text is white on the night-darkened scene, emphasizing the full moon glow and the substance of the text:

"In the morning, three brave men will climb inside a giant rocket, blast off into space, and fly to the moon. ... The astronauts are ready for the mission and so am I."

From that page forward this lad duplicates each stage of the process, from his Tang breakfast, to launching his self-built rocket, to suiting up for the moon landing, to entering his cardboard landing capsule. Soon he and family are pictured stretched out in front of their black-and-white, grainy, scratchy console television. I was right back in my own living room, home from college and working a night shift at the hospital. I was able to stay long enough to see the lander touch down and hear the astronauts' voices in the capsule, I saw the door open, and watched that first footstep before needing to leave for work and follow the progress of the landing on the car radio. 
What a night that was. I was overwhelmed as an adult, but viewing it through the eyes of a space-struck boy in this book felt even more powerful. That little boy was the author/illustrator, Gall, and he details his own engagement with rockets and space in the back matter. 
That genuinely portrayed first person insight to the magnificent adventures of  those days is matched by this book's ability to make superlatives kid-friendly. Gall describes the skillful expertise demanded of the rocket-crane operators. (It has to do with raw eggs, but I won't spoil your reading with further details.) He compares massive weights and heights to stacks of elephants, the Statue of Liberty, and other familiar touchpoints.  Inserting science content and accurate descriptions provides informative facts to kids and to the adults who share this with them. 
There is much about Gall's illustrations that remind me of Chris Van Alsburg (JUMANJI, POLAR EXPRESS, and many others). There is much in these two new picture books, one tiny and clever the other massive and moving, to spark curiosity and challenge in young readers' minds. 
10 -9 - 8 -  Let  the summer explorations begin!

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