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Children's and YA literature reviews.

Category Archives: tanya lee stone

Forty years ago this July, in 1969, NASA launched Apollo 11, the first manned mission landing on the moon. As history books tell us, with that mission came “one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.” What textbooks omit is the Mercury 13, a group of women who endured the same rigorous testing as male astronauts.

Tanya Lee Stone’s Almost Astronauts is the story of the Mercury 13, a group of women who shared the same dream as their male counterparts: to voyage into space.

In 1959, the chairman of NASA’s Life Sciences Committee, Randolph Lovelace, wanted to prove women were as capable as men. One of the developers of the NASA testing program, he believed not only could women perform as well as men under the intense exercises, but that women would save NASA money, due to females’ smaller size and lighter weights. Together with the air force’s Brigadier General Donald Flickinger, they formed Project WISE (Women in Space Earliest) and sought the first candidate.

Jerrie Cobb fit the bill. Having logged more than 7,000 hours in the air, the twenty-eight year old was an accomplished pilot, and could scarcely believe the offer to be the first female astronaut test subject. She said yes.

Cobb helped Flickinger and Lovelace scout other suitable women for testing, but WISE was over after the Air Force expressed little interest in women testing. Undaunted, Lovelace and Cobb continued the mission, planning to present a thorough case to NASA.

February 14, 1960 brought the first round of testing. Blood tests, countless x-rays, the vertigo testing, etc, all at the same intensity as those administered to the male astronauts. In an isolation tank, Cobb, broke all previous records, remaining in the tank for nine hours and forty minutes. Her second round of testing followed, at Naval School of Aviation Medicine in Pensacola, Florida.

Other women began volunteering for the program, once word of Cobb’s participation got out, thanks to a story in Life magazine. They entered the first round of testing, and then the call came. There would be no second round.

What followed seems straight out of the movies – a hastily scrawled “Let’s stop this now” note by Lyndon Johnson, buried in files for over nearly forty years, congressional hearings, and a damaging testimony by a noted female.

Stone’s approach to the obscure story of the Mercury 13 is refreshing, with the accounts of historical events told in an informative, yet never dull tone. She places the experiences of the women in context, discussing the media depiction of females at the time (I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show etc), and offers anecdotes of the trials the women endured as female pilots. She asks the reader to imagine themselves in the scenarios the women were placed within, and weaves in her own reactions to uncovering the story, piece by piece. Throughout the text, there’s a multitude of photographs. Historical documents, such as Johnson’s note, telegrams, political cartoons, and more fill the pages. But the book doesn’t stop at the Mercury 13, but traces the social advancement of women with Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Sally Ride, and other women in flight.

Almost Astronauts is an important book, not only for the rich and relatively unknown history it contains, but as a reflection of how far we’ve come in women’s rights. After finishing Almost Astronauts, you’ll want a movie, a statue, just something to commemorate the indelible mark these women left, and most of all, you’ll want to share it with a girl (or boy) who harbors big dreams of their own.
Visit TanyaStone.com for a poetic tribute to the Mercury 13 women, video of the author on CSPAN-Book TV and more.

Copy for review provided by the publisher.

Other Reviews

Title: Almost Astronauts
Date: February 2009
Publisher: Candlewick
Pages: 144
Format: Hardback & Paperback

Tanya Lee Stone served as an editor of children’s books for 13 years. Then she became a children’s book writer and has since published over 80 books. Her works cover a variety of topics from behind-the-scenes looks at how some familiar products are made (Made in the USA series) to picture books about famous females in history such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Her newest is A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl, which takes a honest look at love, sex, and identity in high school. The novel, written in poetry, captures a distinctive voice for each girl (Josie, Nicolette, and Aviva) as they relate how they each fell for the same boy. Hailed as the new Forever (which plays a poignant role in the novel), together the girls find themselves through heartache.

Tanya graciously granted me an interview. Going off some of the discussions we’ve had on feminism, I sent her a few questions on the “F word.”

What does being a “feminist” mean to you?

It has meant different things to me in different phases of my life, which relates mostly to my growing awareness of issues that concern me. When I was younger, there were times when I balked at any label at all. Now I embrace the word, especially at a time when its meaning has gotten tangled up in some circles with negative connotations. To me, being a feminist means that I do not allow the gender label to limit me in any way.

It also means that I am conscious of helping to raise education and awareness of the strength of women and the immensity of their achievements. It means that I am on the lookout for language and actions that try to diminish a person based on the fact that she is a female. It means that I support the empowerment of girls and women to be who they are and do what they dream, regardless of societal prejudices or even unconscious limitations related to sex.

In today’s society, with young women idolizing the latest Hollywood party girls, wearing shirts emblazoned with “babydoll, princess” and being image-obsessed, do you feel a new wave of feminism will emerge as a reaction to this mentality?

Yes, and I think it already has. There are several good books attempting to get at what is bothering so many of us–and that is that many young girls are being given a false and superficial idea of what “girl power” is. I think many of us who are mothers or even thinking about becoming mothers are extremely conscious about how waylaid the ideals of feminism can be in our current celebrity, commercial culture.

Why do you think girls don’t encounter a positive portrayal of feminism until they reach university, and only then are they given an image beyond the stereotypical “feminazi”?

I’m not sure I can agree with that as it feels too generalized of a statement to me. On the opposite side of the spectrum, I can tell you anecdotally that I am happily surrounded by women raising daughters with very positive portrayals of feminism. Every woman giving that gift to their daughter (or son, for that matter) is helping both with an individual’s consciousness and in a larger societal role.

When did you become a feminist?

I was probably always a feminist in my beliefs. And I was raised by a man who holds strong feminist beliefs. But I recall balking at the term even after college. Interestingly, it was a conversation with my best male friend from college that alerted me to my own prejudice about the term. We were talking about women’s issues and I was spouting some nonsense about how I never felt limited by my gender and isn’t it lovely how much the world has moved forward that I don’t need to label myself a feminist, and he nailed me. He said he didn’t understand how so many of the women he knew embodied feminism but pushed the label aside. It was an awakening moment for me! I was probably 23 at the time.

Who is a female (or male, lest we be discriminatory) you feel is a feminist?

There are so many, so I’ll choose one for fun, who you might not know some interesting feminist details about. Amelia Earhart. She lived her life, in every moment, the way she wanted to–limitations and pre-conceived notions of what a woman is, be damned. This included when she finally, finally, finally gave in to G.P. Putnam’s repeated marriage requests and said Yes. But the night before her wedding she wrote him a long letter that basically said, Look, let’s give this a shot, but if it doesn’t work out after a year we should agree to part friends. And oh, please don’t expect me to be faithful, it’s not in my nature! I’m paraphrasing, of course. 😉

What is a message you’d like a reader to take away from your novel?

To put your trust in yourself. Trust your instincts. Trust your gut. And don’t let anybody put you down, or make you feel small or worthless.

And this last one is just for fun’s sake..

If you could live inside any children’s book, which title would it be and why?

Well, if it was for a finite time, I’d say Alice in Wonderland. I would love to experience the surreal like that–but I wouldn’t want to stay there!