Sunday, April 3, 2016

Imagining the Moon: Moon Landing Fictional Non-Fiction

You Will Go To The Moon by Mae and Ira Freeman.
Illustrated by Robert Patterson. Beginner Books Inc. 1959. 

 I wonder if there was a first human to look up into a moonlit night sky and wonder what it would be like to walk upon the faraway moon.

I can't help but feel that it had to have been a child.

I happened upon this children's book wedged into an overcrowded bottom shelf at Half Priced Books (which is quickly becoming one of my favorite book haunts).   It was an easy book to overlook--the spine is an unremarkable brown with white block letters spelling out the equally unremarkable title.  

But I slid it out anyway, and I am so glad that I did.

This book feels like a non-fiction book.   Easy vocabulary aimed at a 1st or 2nd grade reading level.   Specific scientific vocabulary such as "gravity", "centrifugal force" and "inertia" are discussed  in the text and then defined and described in detail in a brief, simply written glossary in back.

And perhaps in 1959 this was considered a non-fiction book of sorts--a scientific inspiration-sparker for young starry eyed someday astronauts designed to whet their whistles for the future of space travel.

But reading it now in 2016, 57 years after it was written and 47 years after the first actual moon landing, it seems almost campy--like a written version of early science fiction TV dramas.

Clearly the seeds for the actual moon landing in 1969 had been planted and informed by the Russian space endeavors, starting with the first ever earth orbiting satellite Sputnik 1 in 1957. (1).  This was followed closely by Sputnik 2 which sent the first living creature into orbit--a dog named "Laika". (1)

The gauntlet had been thrown down and the race was on between the USSR and the United States--who would get to the moon first?

Vostok 1 (4)

By 1961 the Russians had sent the first human (Yuri Gagarin) into orbit around the earth.(1)   Gagarin's spacecraft--named "Vostok 1", did not resemble the sleek rockets dreamed up by science fiction writers or even forward-thinking scientists. But the fuel for dreams was there--and I can't help but feel that images of these early Russian spacecraft fueled the illustrations for this book, at least in part.  And since the concept of multi-stage rockets has been around since between 1300-1350 AD in China (5),  both the authors Mae and Ira Freeman, and illustrator Robert Patterson must have had ample source material upon which to base the story and drawings.

But this book was written and published before Yuri Gagarin made his historic trip into orbit--and it shows.

Authors Mae and Ira Freeman must have been aware of where this book would stand--straddling science fiction and science fact.   To bridge this, they wrote the book in second-person future tense.  It reads like a narrator directing you through your particularly detailed and realistic dream and is reflected in the title You Will Go To The Moon.  

Take for example how space travel is depicted in the illustrations--the young main character and the "rocket man" (as he is called in the book) are shown wearing regular clothes, reclining in modified airline seats.

Also note the presence of a space station--depicted in the book as a kind of roadside rest stop at the halfway point between earth and moon.

*Please notice the obvious lack of women in space.  In fact the only woman
shown in this book is the boy's mother (accompanied by his father)
as they walk the boy to the rocket to see him off on his trip to the moon.

*Also space travel is not only devoid of  women, but also of any kind of
diversity.   Space travel in 1959 was evidently imagined as being solely
a "white guy" thing.   This makes me crazy.

In this space station, the young space traveler and his "rocket man" friend are able to enjoy various types of recreation while they wait for their "moon ship" which will take them the rest of the way to the moon.

The glossary  handily provides scientific definitions of "gravity" and "centrifugal force" to explain the presence of gravity on the space station.

The moon ship is shown as a 2-story vehicle encased in a dome of clear glass.

The text goes on to describe the three-day trip between the space station and the moon as a kind of weightless vacation in a space-age rec room replete with a tv showing a baseball game broadcast from earth, floating books to read, a magnetic chess set and various refreshments to enjoy.

Finally, one of the last pages in the book shows a "moon house", where evidently people will be able to live once they reach the moon.

When I read this book I ended up feeing rather wistful.  Once upon the time the idea of scientific endeavor and space exploration fired our imaginations and even built bridges between nations--shaky and perhaps short-lived bridges, yes, but bridges nonetheless--as we collectively tried to expand our understanding of the universe.

Now, in 2016, it seems that we humans have lost a lot of our curious spark, and have drawn away from imagining any kind of future except the kind we can peek at on the tiny screens we hold in our hands.

I admit my cynicism.

However I do take comfort in imagining the child who once owned this book.

Maybe a little boy or girl ("Ebward"?  "E.B. Ward"?) who read this book with a parent or a grandparent or a teacher and dreamed of going to the moon and living in a "moon house".

Maybe a little boy or girl who grew up and lived up to these dreams.

Who knows?







Friday, April 1, 2016

Pampeliška (Dandelion)

Dandelion by Ladislav Svatos. Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1976.

Finding a splendid vintage book with a complex history is so very satisfying when achieved in a bookstore.   However finding a splendid vintage book is infinitely MORE satisfying when you stumble upon it.

And when it comes to stumbling upon books,  I will blushingly suggest that I am a fantastic klutz.

I stumbled upon this treasure-- Dandelion by Czechoslovakian artist and writer Ladislav Svatos--in a Goodwill store in Wheaton, Illinois.

This particular Goodwill store has become one of my favorites.  Thrift stores depend on donations, and this particular Goodwill store seems to be fed a rich diet of library castoffs, attic evacuations and downsizing diamonds in the rough.

Much to my dysfunctional delight.

Finding out more about author Ladislav Svatos proved to be as eye-opening as it was challenging--primarily because most of the information about Svatos is in Czech.  And unfortunately I cannot read Czech.  However I AM quite skilled at plugging  Czech words into translator internet search engines.

And so I did.

Even with the inevitable garble of trying to read computer-translated Czech,  I immediately sensed that Ladislav Svatos was a man with a story to tell.
Ladislav Svatos (2)

Ladislav Svatos was born in 1929 in the Czech Republic. (2)  I wasn't able to dig up much on his early years, mostly I suspect because I cannot read Czech and thus cannot hopscotch between Czech-langauge websites to follow clues and hints as I do in English.

But I was able to uncover one bit of information on a Czech website that seems to be dedicated to former Czech political prisoners of the communist regime. (1)  This regime stretched from 1948 to 1989. (3)  Under this regime, those individuals deemed "dissidents"--including members of the Catholic church of which Svatos was a member (1)-- were removed from society. (3)

According to this website, in 1951 Svatos and a fellow church member were accused of being "agents of the Vatican" and were sentenced to imprisonment. (1)  Svatos was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment, while the other man was sentenced to 24 years. (1)

After being released from prison Svatos went on to have a family and to become a well-known designer and graphic artist (1), evidence of which I hold in my hands in the form of Dandelion.

The book Dandelion itself is visual poetry.   The stark black ink drawings on white with just touches of yellow and green  are graceful and  perfectly complement the clean botanical descriptions of the life of a dandelion.

As I read through this book several times, I was strongly reminded of Japanese ink drawings, where the simple elegance of black ink designs on white paper tells a story as much in what ISN'T there as what IS.

The empty spaces are nearly as beautiful as the illustrations.

At times, in fact, there seems to be hidden qualities in some of the drawings.  Take, for example, the drawing below of a dandelion sprout just starting to take root.  The shape of the root itself seems to take the form of a tiny human body, arms outstretched.

Similarly, in one of the last illustrations in the book, of a fully white dandelion flower just starting to release its seeds to the wind, there is something expressive in the way the dandelion is posed--almost like it is standing, tiny green hands perched on hips.  The releasing seed parachutes almost look like tiny outstretched hands.

Dandelion is a beautiful book, melding plant science and poetry in nearly perfect balance.   It celebrates one of the most ubiquitous and humble flowers--a plant that is usually uprooted as a troublesome weed and seldom held up for its simple beauty and usefulness (dandelions have traditionally been used as  food as well as to help treat various disorders). (4)

As far as I can find, while Svatos' work can be seen in various other areas, such as on book cover art, postcards and  in illustrations, Dandelion may have been his only children's book.

I find myself wishing this were not so.