David Long is well known as the winner of the Blue Peter Best Book with Facts Award for his evergreen Survivors which has proved a winner with children and adults everywhere. Hot on the heels of this came Heroes and Rescue, two more books that emphasized story in the retelling of exciting real-life events.
In Survival in Space, Long has produced another extraordinary tale that relates the history of the Apollo 13 mission. Similar in style to the stories in Survivors et al., this book is slightly more extended with bite-size chapters ideal for sharing as a class read-aloud in Years 3 and 4 or a quick independent read in Year 5 or 6.
The universe is a source of eternal fascination for us all and children are no exception to its lure. One of the problems, though, with helping young readers to appreciate the full picture in any space-related information book is the magnitude of size, measurements, forces, masses. This book takes pains to explain many potentially confusing aspects of the theme, and the first part of the book, in particular, is notable for its clarity of expression. The text carefully explains the lead-up to the Apollo 13 mission and, through regular comparison to things more familiar to a child’s life, helps to ensure the fullest possible comprehension of some of the contextual complexities. Diagrams are clear and well-drawn: the magnitude of the Vehicle Assembly Building is particularly astonishing, and the illustration works really well in tandem with the text to help readers understand exactly why rain clouds can form inside the building! (I love this about information books like this: the way in which they can elicit spontaneous “Wow”s and “I never knew that”s!)
However, I have a few quibbles with some of the text; minor perhaps, but in a child’s information book, accuracy is vitally important. Humans do not ‘breathe in oxygen and breathe out a gas called carbon dioxide’; they breathe in and out air (with proportionally greater or less amounts of these gases). Also, carbon dioxide is not known as ‘the silent killer’; that name is given to carbon monoxide.
Having been wowed by Helaine Becker and Dow Phumiruk’s Counting on Katherine, I was also hoping Survival in Space would be an ideal companion text. Whilst I read Becker’s text with a sense of astonishment that these ‘hidden figures’ in NASA’s space missions could ever have been sidelined in history, I was uneasy with how Survival in Space made no mention of the names of these important women and people of colour, particularly as a book published only this year. A further issue, I feel, is found in the illustrations. Although they work well (as I’ve said) in particular parts of the book, I was struck particularly by the lack of representation shown. Couldn’t Katherine Johnson, for example, have been depicted on p.49 showing the geometric plan for the return to Earth of the rocket? And why in the last double-page spread is only one (white) woman clearly drawn?
Long’s message on the last page is spot-on: it’s the team that matters, so although we rightly remember the famous astronaut heroes who put their lives at risk, we should also know those whose passion and drive is equal in ensuring that we make those ‘great leaps’ for the human race. Let’s hope that their names and faces continue to become ever more familiar in the books we offer to children and for the creators of children’s information books never to miss that opportunity.
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These notes may be printed freely for use in classrooms but may not be reproduced in any other format without the permission of the author.