Awesomely insane scientific reviews of children’s space books

Take an author with a degree in physics, throw in some NASA experience and an interest in children’s books and what do you get? You get children’s books reviews about space exploration containing madly detailed lists of technical flaws.

Marianne Dyson was “one of the first ten women flight controllers, working as a Flight Activities Officer in Mission Control” before she left NASA to raise her children. Because she artfully avoids telling us the true number, I’ll guess it means she was the tenth female flight controller, not the ninth or eighth or first. A precise statement would help clarify the issue.

No, I’m not being an ass. I’m exploring what it’s like to be a precision writer. Consider this book:

Cover image of the book I Spy a Rocket Ship that depicts a humanoid and a dog boarding a space ship.

I Spy A Rocketship, intended for preschoolers:

Spyler and CeCe are the book’s main characters (a child and a dog) and they have to find numbers to get the rocket ship’s countdown going. At the outset, we’re not told whether CeCe or Spyler is the child, a really troubling oversight, and it just gets worse.

CeCe says he/she can’t wait to blast into space, but when Spyler says they need to check out their countdown machine first, CeCe says they can go to the moon only if they are home in time for dinner. This statement made me not care if CeCe made it to the moon or not. He/She is the kind of character who is not willing to take a risk — even delaying dinner — to accomplish anything. That’s not the kind of attitude I associate with astronauts.

In that respect, Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things that Go is an excellent book because we can look to Dingo Dog’s temerity for risk taking as he speeds away from Officer Flossie, evading the fuzz and escaping unscathed from every car pile-up caused during the pursuit. Way to go Dingo Dog! You’re tenacious!

But on an accuracy scale, there’s NO WAY Gold Bug could get inside a different moving vehicle in every scene. After the first couple pages, I’m like, hey Gold Bug, that’s impossible, so I’m not going to look for you anymore because you’re a big fat lie.

Despite the moon book’s deficiencies, I Spy a Rocketship scored a 3.5 out of 6 on the reviewer’s accuracy scale. It’s primarily a look-and-find sort of book, but the reviewer rightly points out: did they have to make CeCe and Spyler dance at the end when they returned from the Moon before dinnertime? A real Moon trip takes longer than that!

I was even more unnerved that the reviewer kept referring to Luna as the Moon, like how people refer to Sol as the Sun instead of Sol. It’s Luna from the Latin. Moon is a generic popularization, and a rather dull one at that. Dammit people, details matter!

For the record, CeCe is the dog.

Cover image of the book If You Decide to Go to the Moon that decpits a boy wearing a space suit.

If You Decide to Go to the Moon, intended for kindergartners to third grade

Wow! Let’s get kindergartners interested in space using the one big object in the night sky they can see. What do you need to bring on your trip to Luna?

“The second page lists some things to pack for your trip to the Moon, including peanut butter, apples, and cake. While it is possible to take these foods, and they would ‘taste good in space,’ apples and cake are not very good choices. Apples bruise easily, so would need special packaging, and would not stay fresh very long. The inedible core would require a sealed garbage container. Cake, unless it is really dense or bite-sized, would produce crumbs that could get into equipment and cause problems. Breads also go stale quickly because spacecraft maintain low humidity levels.”

I suppose the author could have written a story about kids eating bruised, rotten apples, and about cake crumbs getting into the equipment, breaking the space ship and sending the kids to their deaths.

Hey, how about this gem about visiting a prior Luna landing site…

“Suggesting that it would be appropriate to replant the flag [placed on a previous, real Luna mission which is known to have fallen over] is like telling a child it is okay to color in the Gutenberg Bible.”

Wow! Total joy kill! Maybe her children were as bright as my daughter (reading at a fourth grade level in kindergarten!), but the average kindergartner doesn’t even know the alphabet when they step through the door on their first day. You can bet they don’t know anything about Luna, and I guarantee you they’ll need the encouragement to dream, like eating cake on the lunar surface, or helping out by replanting the American flag.

For its many egregious science sins, If You Decide to Go to the Moon scored a 2 out of 6 for accuracy.

Cover of the book Midnight on the Moon that depicts tow children bouncing around the lunar surface in space suits.

Midnight on the Moon for 9-to-12-year-olds

By now you’re wondering what it takes to score a zero. Look no further than the book that started it all, Midnight on the Moon. It’s #8 in the epic Magic Tree House series that sends two kids on adventures through history. It’s one of the few early reader chapter books for elementary school kids that doesn’t contain cartoons or crappy pop references to Hannah Montana.

Seriously, when you eventually visit a Scholastic Book Fair at your child’s elementary school, you will be depressed… lots and lots of fluff, and very, very few science-themed books that aren’t about skeletons or sharks.

Here is the cardinal sin that got this physics-savvy mother fired up:

“The worst mistake in the whole book is on page 27. ‘A person weighs less on the moon because of the moon’s low gravity and lack of air.’ No, no, no! The lack of air has NOTHING to do with a person’s weight! Weight is a measure of mass, and gravity depends only on mass and distance.

This error is perpetuated in the actions that follow. The children jump around like ‘moon rabbits’ and Jack feels ‘light as a feather.’ These are good descriptions, but they would have felt these effects WHILE STILL IN THE DOME.”

Of course, “the dome” is a Luna base built in 2031. It would be even worse for readers to assume the Luna base had some sort of strong artificial gravity that just wasn’t mentioned in the text.

I mean, just look at how pissed off Trekkies were at Star Trek: The Original Series because it didn’t mention that Kirk and Spock weren’t floating around the Enterprise because their starship had artificial gravity. Trekkies had to wait until Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country when, suddenly, of so conveniently, artificial gravity and gravity boots were mentioned because they became integral to the story when Yeomans Burke and Samno had to wear them to to assassinate Klingon High Chancellor Gorkon after the artificial gravity was disabled on the IKS Kronos One. Oh, but by then, it was too little too late. Burn in Hell Gene Roddenberry!

A Small, Glaring Clarification

I discovered Marianne Dyson’s reviews while researching the one (and only) interesting space book at my daughter’s school’s book fair this week. To be clear, I absolutely adore that Dyson is meticulously picking space books apart, providing a detailed list of factual inaccuracies. They will help me understand what, if any, factual corrections I should make when reading a book with my daughter.

I heartily recommend any children’s author writing on the subject use her services (she’s a freelance editor) so that books are both fun and accurate. I just wish she had more book reviews available, but it seems she reviews titles she just happens across and buys.

You can expect to see an upcoming review from me of a space book I happened across that earned a 4 on Dyson’s scale.

In the meantime, see my previous, not-fact-checked review of three children’s books about space and aliens or the real-life intergalactic flying saucer trials.


4 Responses to “Awesomely insane scientific reviews of children’s space books”

  1. observer says:

    the books are made for children to enjoy, not to give them an information overload. i rather like the silly things that get added such as the apples and cake going into space. they are not made to emulate real space food, just to be a part of the story so kids will enjoy it. not everything is supposed to be literal in a children’s book.

    March 17th, 2010 at 7:06 pm

  2. Paul says:

    AJ you have it just right … if you are not a space scientist then reviews like this will help you know what’s right/wrong in these books so you can discuss it with the kids (but let them knowingly enjoy it just like the fantasy aspects of most kids’ books).

    p.s. My kids LOVED the Max the space dog series and visit to alien planet you recommended a while back. Thanks!!!

    March 18th, 2010 at 2:08 am

  3. KGS says:

    I sympathize with Dyson’s ranting over inaccuracy in kids’ books about her field. When you’ve spent years being trained to get certain details right, it’s frustrating to see glaring errors, especially ones that could easily have been fixed after a brief conversation with a professional (or ones that make kids think the moon is closer to home than grandma’s house). She’s not saying that these books are bad or that people shouldn’t read them, just pointing out where they’re not accurate when they easily could have been. Presumably, the people who bother to visit her site are in the minority who care about such things.

    As for the “one of ten” issue: I imagine Dyson was one of several women who became flight controllers at the same time, so there’s no way to tell whether she was, for example, number nine or number ten. That would explain the phrasing, anyway.

    March 18th, 2010 at 9:57 am

  4. Penguinmommy says:

    When I was little and my mom would read to us every night, we delighted in finding things that were “just silly” in books like this… my favorite being Curious George… she would look over her glasses on the very first page and say “a monkey?” and we would all laugh and say “No, he’s not a monkey, he doesn’t have a tale, that’s so SILLY!”

    I love that my mom never implied that factual inaccuracy was intentional/deceitful/stupid… just “silly.” But we still always wanted to know better.

    March 29th, 2010 at 4:11 pm

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