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Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream

Almost Astronauts

By Tanya Lee Stone
Non-fiction/Middle grade
Candlewick Press, 2009
ISBN: 0763636118/9780763636111
Awards/Recognitions: *ALA Notable Children’s Books *ALA Best Books for Young Adults *Amelia Bloomer Project Selection *Boston Globe – Horn Book Awards – Honor Book *Chicago Public Library Best of the Best Books *IRA Teacher’s Choice Award *Flora Stieglitz Straus AwardJane Addams Children’s Book Award *Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People *Sibert Medal *Smithsonian Notable Books for Children

Not that long ago, women in America weren’t allowed to rent cars, borrow money from a bank on their own, or play professional sports. In Almost Astronauts, Tanya Lee Stone tells the story of thirteen women who shared a dream of flying and becoming American astronauts. Known as the Mercury 13, these pioneers were dumped by their fiancés, served divorce papers, fired from their jobs, and objectified by the media as Astronettes because they were participating in the Women in Space Program.

The Mercury 13 volunteered to take the same tests that NASA required of male astronauts in order to prove women were capable of flying into space. Their results were superior – scientific evidence that women are as fit or fitter than men for space travel. It was near the apex of the Cold War, and Russia had put the world on notice that it intended to send women into space. Yet, in 1961 Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson still gave a shocking response to a request that he back a space program for women, a response that effectively kept women and people of color out of NASA for years.

So, quick: what was the first year a woman commanded a space shuttle? What was her name?

1998. Lieutenant Colonel Eileen Collins.

Thirty-eight years after Vice-President Johnson shut down the women’s space program before it could officially get started, Lieutenant Colonel Collins thanked the Mercury 13 for not giving up, for proving women were capable of being astronauts, and for insisting that women had the right to do so.

Almost Astronauts is fast-paced, urgent, and invigorating 20th Century history. It’s personal and political too, but it’s not secret history. Not any longer. As a mother, a writer, and a history-buff, I’m grateful to Tanya Lee Stone for telling the story of the Mercury 13 and for letting us get know these women who put it all on the line for all the women and men who would come next.

So. What will you say the next time you hear: A girl doesn’t have a chance? GA

Listen to an excerpt from Almost Astronauts audiobook!

Read the author’s tribute to the Mercury 13 Women.


See You at Harry’s

See You at Harry's

By Jo Knowles
Middle grade
Candlewick Press, 2012
ISBN: 0763654078/9780763654078
Awards/Recognitions: *Kirkus Reviews, starred review

Jo Knowles’ middle grade novel, See You at Harry’s, is a portrait of family life drawn from the perspective of twelve-year old, Fern, the youngest child until surprise-brother, Charlie, arrived. We join the family as Fern starts middle school, Charlie is now three; Fern feels invisible; her older brother Holden wishes he was invisible; and her older sister Sarah sees everything that everyone else is missing.

Fern’s folks are overwhelmed. Who wouldn’t be managing three teenagers, a toddler, and a family-restaurant? Mom and Dad keep themselves distracted from the struggles of their teen-age children – Mom by running off to meditate and Dad by working himself into a hilarious marketing frenzy guaranteed to embarrass his teens. Fern is a peacemaker by nature, but a feisty one who descends the steps of school bus hell in solidarity with her gay brother, Holden.

Things start to really unravel as Fern clocks a bully to give him a spoonful of his own medicine, Holden skips class to get away from everyone but Mr. Right, and Sara gets busted making out with a bus boy in the restaurant freezer. Hey, who’s running this family, anyway? And, what will it take to get the family back on its center?

In every family, there is heartache and regret, misunderstanding and misplaced guilt. In this family, there is also tragedy. When the unthinkable happens, everyone blames themselves and the family bond begins to fray even more. Fern is the hardest hit of all, a prisoner to her own isolated grief, and refusing, for a time, to let anyone in. Thank goodness for Fern’s best friend, Ran. I speak from experience when I say that the most exquisite and wonderful of friends are those like RAn who quote Julian of Norwich during times of crises and worry. All shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.

In the end, Ran is right, and that is the jewel of this book. We know that the very act of loving is to accept – even welcome – heartache, because even the cruelest night cannot squelch love.

Jo Knowles has captured the particular lexicon of this family with an expert-ear and perfect pitch. She is masterful in her portrayal of family life with all of its routines and surprises, guilt and absolution. She writes with such intimacy and heart that reading See You At Harry’s is almost like reading a memory that you know you never lived but now cannot quite dismiss the thought that maybe, you did. GA

Listen to an excerpt from the audiobook, See You at Harry’s audio


Shark Girl

Shark Girl

By Kelly Bingham
Young adult
Candlewick Press, 2007
ISBN: 0763632074 / 9780763632076
Hard cover, paperback, e-book
Awards/recognitions: * South Dakota Teen Choice Book Awards Reading List * Black-Eyed Susan Book Award (Maryland) * Florida Teen Read Award * Oprah’s Book Club – Kids Reading List * Bank Street College Best Children’s Book of the Year

Find a hammock, a beach chair, or a blanket. Go away to your backyard, the pool, or the ocean. Leave the tissues behind. It’s not that you won’t need them; it will just feel good to let your tears splash these pages. Kelly Bingham’s debut novel, Shark Girl traces one tragic and triumphant year in the life of fifteen-year old artist, Jane Arrowood.

A sunny day at the ocean in June turns into a national news story when a shark attacks Jane, severing her dominant right arm. Jane’s older brother, Michael, starts their day at the beach by teasing his sister about her pink bikini. Shortly thereafter it is Michael who pulls Jane out, saving her life. In a way, the rest of the story shows us how many people and how much time it takes to pull Jane Arrowood out of that moment that changed her life. Everyone works so hard at Jane’s recovery; no one harder than Jane.

Using poetry, journal entries, and interior dialogue to trace Jane’s recovery, Bingham tells the story in three parts. Part One occurs in the hospital immediately after the attack. Letters, cards, and flowers pour in from all over the world. People want Jane to be a hero. Jane just wants to be Jane, again. In the hospital therapy room, she meets a little kid named Justin who has lost his leg below the knee. When Jane tells him, “A shark attacked me,” Justin responds, “He ATE your arm?” Finally, here is someone who wouldn’t know how to walk on egg-shells even with feathers on his feet, and Jane’s recovery deepens. In Part Two, Michael, their mom, and her friends help Jane adjust to returning home. Everyone thinks Jane will never draw again. She remains friends with Justin, who urges her to draw him a picture, but Jane can’t. Part Three begins with Jane alone in the kitchen struggling to cook her own dinner. Flashbacks through poems that begin with “I remember” show us how long this journey has been and will continue to be for Jane. By Part Three, though, Jane is getting there. Her worries have shifted. She talks about make up; she accepts a ride and welcomes attention from a pretty cute guy. She gets angry when a friend makes her feel not good enough. And, Jane’s back.

Shark Girl is a book to be devoured. All in one sitting. I took a blanket and pillow out in the yard and read Shark Girl in an afternoon. Later, I let myself go back and take in the visual experience of how artistically the pages are designed and rendered to bring texture and illumination to the story. GA

Click here to listen to
an interview and reading with Kelly Bingham from Candlewick Press.

Learn more about author Kelly Bingham.


Poetry Speaks Who I Am

Poetry Speaks Who I Am

Edited by Elise Paschen; Series Editor: Dominique Raccah
Middle grade
Sourcebook Jabberwocky, 2010
ISBN: 13-978-1-4022-1074-7
Awards/recognitions: * National Parenting Publications Award

Oh man, do I love this book-and-CD collection – and I say this as someone who is not particularly drawn to poetry. (Forgive me poets!)

There are more than 100 poems here that range from the well-known masters you might find in school (Emily Dickinson, for example, and Langston Hughes) but there are also poems that deal with gym showers, bra shopping, and meeting Malcolm X’s mother. The collection feels accessible across cultures, across sexes, even across generations. I stuck the CD in my car, and soon enough, I was making up reasons to go to the store, just to hear the poets speak in their own voices. That is, until my eighteen-year-old daughter swiped it and took it to school for her own listening pleasure. Now, it makes me ache to think that we ever try to teach poetry without hearing it as spoken word.  MM

Click here to see what I mean. (Audio by permission of author Rebecca Lauren and Sourcebook Jabberwocky)

Check out their website: https://www.poetryspeaks.com/


What Comes After

What Comes After

What Comes After

By Steve Watkins
Young adult
Candlewick Press, 2011
Hardcover/ebook/audio
ISBN: 10-0763642509 / 13-9780763642501
Awards/recognition: Georgia Peach Award for Teen Readers

Once while at a writing conference, I heard a famous author ask, “Does the world really need more stories about child abuse?” Almost everyone in the audience laughed. I got kind of ticked off.

Does the world need more baseball stories? More World War II stories? More talking animal stories? Are children still being abused at the hands of their families? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. Our world needs many more stories of triumph over trauma, especially those told by authors such as Steve Watkins who infuse the telling with insight, beauty, and clarity.

What Comes After is the realest of realistic fiction. In this, his second novel, Watkins fictionalizes a harrowing and true crime of an orphaned teen beaten at the hands of her extended family to the point of hospitalization. The story begins with a newspaper account of the beating, which conceals the victim’s identity. From there, we meet sixteen year-old Iris Wight just after her father’s death, just before she is sent to live with distant relatives in North Carolina. The story’s main villain, Aunt Sue, sees Iris – or more accurately, Iris’ trust fund – as a meal ticket. Free labor for the family’s goat farm. Right away, Aunt Sue begins to withhold all sustenance from Iris and attempts to strip her of her identity completely.

Iris, however, instinctively reaches into the depth of her own heart and soul and memory, turning What Comes After into a story of resiliency. She writes letters to her deceased veterinarian-dad. She finds ease and relief in the natural world. As Iris begins to care for the animals on Aunt Sue’s farm with skills she learned while accompanying her father on his rounds throughout her childhood, we see vividly how her dad’s nurturing presence attends to Iris, even long after his death.

As a reader, I found myself grasping for Iris’ name about mid-way through the book. I willed myself not to forget the girl, not to let Aunt Sue take away everything even from the story. The almost-disappearance of Iris as a person throughout the narrative is no accident and is, I think, a sort of ghost journey for the identities of so many abused children, invisible and unknown to us. Watkins sets this up from the first page and though I wanted to turn away, put the book down, I did not do it because. Because I trust Steve Watkins and his knowledge of how resiliency works, how it unfurls and rises up when it is needed most. Because I do believe that we need to hear these stories so we remember there is work yet to be done.

Watkins is a mandated child abuse reporter who volunteers for his local Court Appointed Special Advocates office (CASA). In 2010, over 1,000 CASA offices throughout the U.S. restored 237,000 children in America to safety. Watkins brings his real-life experience of working to end family violence to his writing. From having witnessed healing and recovery, he knows that early nurturing, social connections, friendships, and support in a crisis are key to a child’s ability to survive and, ultimately, to thrive. Yes, he sends Iris on a journey to hell. Yes, he is very clear that the fictional character, Iris Wight, is willing to make this journey on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of children who we may only read about in the newspaper, but thankfully, Iris Wight is well-equipped to make the return trip. GA

Listen to an audio excerpt of What Comes After from Brilliance Audio

Learn more about author Steve Watkins.