Summer Space Reading Camp Pt. I: The New Moon

The New Moon is that time of the month when the Moon is passing close by the Sun in its endless circling of the Earth, making it very difficult to see, and it often goes unnoticed during that particular time of the month. A not inapt metaphor for the topic of the next series of articles here at Out of the Cradle.

The Lunar Library isn’t just about books for grown-ups. There is an extensive section devoted to resources and books for the youngsters. Since it’s summertime, there’s ample opportunity for everyone to read a few books. The Lunar Library is suggesting a summer Space Reading Camp to help develop space and technical interests, looking at a variety of offerings both recent and dated. These will be:

-The New Moon: relatively newer (and available) titles to directly appeal to today’s youth
-The Old Moon: classics from another time
-The New High Frontier: newer tales of the exploration of the Solar system
-The Old High Frontier: classic names which will never be forgotten

This week we’re going to look at some of the more recent Lunar books for youngsters, the New Moon that is waxing in our culture. If one pays attention, one can see that there are more inquiries popping up about science fiction, and books that are appropriate for children. The usual classic names get dredged up, which we’ll be looking at next week, but I wanted to highlight some of the newer fiction that is available.

I’m going to start out with the youngest readers, and then work up to around the early teens. It becomes harder when you get to high school students, because the brighter students are well into adult novels by that time, while a book they put away at 12 is perfect for the average young high schooler. So I’m just going to try to work it up to relatively more complex titles that might be considered ‘lite’ reading by adults. Here we go.

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The main thing that is apparent with the youngest books is the strong degree of branding associated with the titles. There’s a sense that parents tend to go for titles they can assume to be safe because they are popularly known names. Pajama Sam: Mission to the Moon is one that is quite popular at the Children’s Reading Space at the Frontiers of Flight museum in Dallas, and requires relatively frequent replacement (if a copy can be found). Any sense of scientific fidelity is absent, as this is just a fun story for youngsters, derived from the Pajama Sam software franchise, wherein the hero travels to the Moon to turn it up to full Moon so they can read their menus. Thomas on the Moon is another example of a simple fun story, though this time around there is some simple pedagogy, the order of most of the planets and some basic info (on the order of Jupiter is biggest, Saturn has rings). The kids even get to see a Moon rock!

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The Berenstain Bears on the Moon is another familiar name for families,

“Two little bears
and one little pup.
They are off to the moon [sic],
going up, up, up!”

The book introduces the ideas of freefall/microgravity, meteor showers as a space hazard, the need for spacesuits, and engaging in scientific investigation once on the Moon. Like mass, acceleration, and vectors in the Moonmobile and prodigious leaps of athleticism. After that trip they can always go with Richard Scarry on A Trip to the Moon. The local ne’er-do-wells hide in Mr. Fixit’s rocket. Mr. Fixit invites Huckle and Lowly to take a peek inside. Mr. Frumble loses his hat (…again), and the scene is set for Lunar hilarity. This one definitely doesn’t take its science very seriously.

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Not part of a series, but a name the corporate suits are trying to brand, is Man on the Moon (a day in the life of Bob). Bob is a tour guide on the Moon, which means he has the longest commute of anyone. He has a very structured and routine day, which doesn’t leave much time for nonsense and tomfoolery like aliens, which don’t exist anyway (per Bob). Apparently the children find this one entertaining, while I find the illustrations kind of weird me out a bit, like there’s something fundamentally creepy clown-ish about them. I don’t know, I can’t presume to speak for the entertainment tastes of young children. Far more parent friendly from a marketing standpoint is Lunar Jim, a kind of claymation-styled CGI series that I think started out in Canada and hopped over the pond to the U.K., where this Annual is from. The book does dispense some Moon knowledge, but not as much as might be hoped. It is written for several skill levels, and can kind of serve as a bridge to the next level of readers.

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Now we start getting into chapter books. Big text, numerous illustrations, easy plots. Our first title is again a fairly familiar name: The Magic Tree House, with the story Midnight on the Moon. Jack & Annie have a magic tree house that will transport them to anywhere they find in a book. This particular title is the conclusion of a four-book story arc involving the freeing of one Morgan le Fay, a ‘librarian’ from the time of King Arthur who is trapped by a spell and can only be freed by the finding of four things. The last thing is apparently on the Moon. This title is also available in Spanish, and there is an accompanying reference book/research guide entitled simply Space. From the other end of the behavior spectrum we have Horrible Harry, who Goes to the Moon as part of a class trip. This one quite a bit more scientific fidelity than the Magic Tree House story, and Harry turns out to not be such a bad guy after all. That’s about it for this level, and I think it’s a bit underserved.

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Now we start moving up into full blown chapter books with more complicated plots and a dispiriting lack of illustrations. All part of growing up, I guess. First up is the Darok series, Darok 9 and Darok 10. In Darok 9, Hank is researching a serum that will allow people to require much less water to live on the Moon. It promises to be a terrific breakthrough if successful, but Fourth Quadrant is up to no good, and so Hank has to rely on his nephew Will and his friend Maddie to help him out as the plot thickens. In Darok 10, the gang is back with a new mystery to solve. Dr. Schumann has disappeared, and Will and Maddie are determined to solve the conundrum, even if doing so unwittingly puts their very lives at stake. This is an engaging pair of books, and I know the first one is read by elementary school kids here in the metroplex. My nephew thought he had one on me when he mentioned that he had read a book set on the Moon (Darok 9) for school. Since Uncle Ken has to remain the ultimate in coolness, I replied that a quote from my review of the book was printed in Darok 10. (It’s the bottom one on the front page. The author gave me a unique autograph for that volume)

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Continuing our exploration of young adventures of derring-do on the Moon, we come to Maurice on the Moon, the story of a young man born on Earth, but taken to the Moon at a young age where he’s been ever since, unlike his friend Cassie. He’s full of schemes and ideas, but can’t find a structure for them in the close environment of the Moon, which means he’s often in trouble. Maybe sports will interest him? Turns out the high jump draws some interesting competitors. Our protagonist from Shanghaied to the Moon seems to have almost the opposite problem. Stewart keeps having these weird blackout/flashback episodes, as if there’s something in his past that’s been hidden from his conscious brain. He also feels a compulsion to go to the Moon, by any means necessary. He just didn’t count on being shanghaied! This one was Best of the Moon 2007 in Youth Moon Fiction

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Moonwake: The Lunar Frontier is my favorite title at this level. Written by Anne Spudis, with the assistance of her husband Dr. Paul Spudis, one of the renowned Moon advocates of our age. It’s similar in many ways to Maurice on the Moon, but perhaps more exciting in that it tells of the tale of Mike traveling (a bit reluctantly) to the Moon with his family. His father is a Lunar Geologist, and his mom is the newest teacher at the school. There aren’t many youngsters yet on the Moon, but his friend Toni helps keep him out of trouble, but doesn’t always succeed. A solid, wholesome adventure book about having to adapt to life on the Moon. This one was Best of the Moon 2006 in Youth Moon Fiction.

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For fun we’ll throw in a couple of the old Choose Your Own Adventure® books. The Computer Takeover from 1995 has the reader as the chief computer adviser to the World Federation’s surveillance outpost on the Moon where a massive AI supercomputer has been built. You’ve just gotten an emergency report that the computer has apparently been commanding the construction-bots to do something during the time when they’re supposed to be down, but what exactly is unknown. It was built on the Moon to isolate it from Earth. Has it figured out some way to take over the computers of Earth? It’s your adventure to discover based on your choices.

Moon Quest, from 1996, is definitely the better of the two, in part due to the much better good to bad outcomes ratio, and it’s just more Moon-ish. You’re a young adult on the Moon, and folks are looking to you to start carrying your weight more. You usually act as a tour guide (echoes of “Menace from Earth”), but you have expressed an interest in accompanying a geological team to the far side for a new survey. One day, both option come up. Which do you choose?

Both of these titles are out of print, and the message that I keep getting from the used bookstores is that no one ever disgorges those, so they’re pretty tough to find if you don’t go online. However, “Moon Quest” is being re-issued as #26 in the current print run of Choose Your Own Adventure® stories, and is slated for release in September, just in time for the return to school.

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This Place Has No Atmosphere is similar to Moonwake in that it is a tale of a teen transplanted against their will to the Moon, only this time it’s a girl, Aurora, and if you think boys have it tough with all the brushes with death and action danger and stuff, girls have it way harder, with, like, issues and drama and stuff that only the fairer sex can understand. This brute sure doesn’t, but it wasn’t half bad as far as stories set on the Moon go. Moonstalker has more of a scientifical element to it, as Tom Swift uses a deformable mirror telescope he’s just created to spot an object in orbit. A secret project is unleashed to foil Tom’s effort to figure out the puzzle, and Tom ends up going to the Moon to solve the mystery, only to find a far greater one.

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A bit harder to find, but considered definitive is Growing Up Weightless. Matt Ronay is a disaffected youth on the Moon who hates the Earth, always hanging there in the sky and taunting him with its distant beauty. He idles away his time with advanced RPGs (role-playing games, not rocket-propelled grenades) and running acrobatic mazes with his friends. They end up on an adventure to the far side of the Moon, an experience that helps to teach them some maturity. Of much more recent vintage, and really only available online, is Moon Blog, which tells about a kind of open-source, collaborative project to get to the Moon that combines ‘reality’ TV with the marketing skills of a D.D. Harriman.

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Last up is a title that only recently came out, so I’m not really familiar with it. One Small Step tells the fantastic story of a secret NASA program to run a test flight with chimpanzees to the Moon before risking human lives. When one of the chimps meets an unfortunate accident, the only thing NASA can do is substitute a boy who can learn the routine faster than a new chimp. 13 year old ace-pilot Scott is the perfect answer. One of the reviews notes some cuss words, so until I actually read it I can’t fully endorse it. Still, it’s a recent Moon story, so I wanted folks to be aware of it.

That’s this week’s assignment for the Summer Space Reading Camp. Next week we’ll look at some of the titles that the older folks are always going on about; their generation’s version of some of the titles above. This will help provide some socio-cultural guidance so you’ll know what they’re talking about when they start going off on how classic the stories were, timeless in their glory, &c. After that we’ll get to the stories, new and old, of intrepid youths venturing into the high frontier of the Solar system that awaits us…

Awaits us as we struggle out of the cradle of Earth.

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