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Results 1 - 25 of 126
1. The Book Review Club - The Martian

The Martian
Andy Weir
Science Fiction - Adult

Pop quiz:
1) Do you ever stare at the night sky wondering if there is life out there?
2) Ever tried to levitate something with your mind?
3) Have you ever secretly (or not so secretly) watch Star Trek?

Houston, we have lift off. You like science fiction!

Science fiction has been fascinating readers from the moment Mary Shelley brought Frankenstein's monster to life. And writers of science fiction have been working to keep their edge ever since that first breath of life into their genre. Today, they're getting a little help from actual, real life physicists. Science fiction has become your basic rocket science.

How can this be? Some brilliant people at Tor had the great idea to pair up science fiction writers with NASA scientists. The result is a new list of science fiction titles, headed up by Andy Weir's, The Martian.

Basic premise: Robinson Crusoe on Mars.

More details: Mark Watney, a member of the Ares 3 Mars crew, accidentally gets left on Mars during the middle of a sandstorm. He has a habitat. He has oxygen and water. He has some food. But he doesn't have enough to last until the next Ares mission arrives. Cue creativity. How will Mark survive? Will NASA be able to help?

Weir's characters are wonderfully diverse and wickedly smart without being so smart they become inaccessible. The plot is scary believable. Accidents can happen, especially on a mission to a place as far away and foreign as Mars. The scientific does not way down the story, but rather, enhance it. Admittedly, there were moments when I did zone a little. Then again, that could have been the elliptical machine getting the better of me. I have books I "save" for work outs only. This was one. But I found myself sneaking more of The Martian whenever I could, like a secret stash of chocolate. And more than once that I had to remind myself this is NOT REAL. It's "just" a story (so stop crying!).

Tor has more books in the line up. One is about an elevator from earth to the international space station. Finally, a true fix for my science fiction addiction. I can't wait to see what they imagine up next. And...um...if it's not too much to ask, does anyone know how to get in the super secret society of writers who get to work with these amazing scientists?

For more April fling reads, check out Barrie Summy's website!

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2. Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

9780091956134This was of the funnest books I can remember reading in a long time. Gripping, funny and told in a totally original and authentic voice you can’t help but be hooked in by this part-Apollo 13, part-Castaway survival story.

Mark Watney is an astronaut, part of the third manned mission to Mars. Six days after landing on Mars a fierce dust storm forces Mark and his crewmates to abandon the planet. However during the evacuation Mark is left behind. Now he must work out how is going to survive on Mars until the next resupply mission. In two years time.

The majority of the book is told via Mark’s log entries detailing his survival. The log is written in a beautifully sarcastic tone where outright panic is only a hair’s breath away. There is plenty of self-deprecating humour and the log format works perfectly in detailing Mark’s day-to-day survival.

Mark is completely stranded. He has no way of communicating with his crewmates or NASA. He only has enough food and water to last half the time he needs. Mark puts to work his skills as an engineer and botanist to figure out if he can survive. The how is one of the most entertaining reads you will come across. Full of insane (but practical) problem solving you are glued to the book wanting to find out how Mark gets himself out of each new predicament he finds himself in. I defy anyone to be able to put this down once they start!

Buy the book here…

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3. Space

BUNNY ROCKET2– redo 450


After successfully landing on the moon, Neil “Cottontail” Armstrong was famously quoted as saying, “One small step for a bunny, one giant hop for rabbitkind.

Space is the “Illustration Friday” word of the week. So I dusted this old chestnut off and redrew it.

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4. What Happens When . . .

by Delphine Chedru

{published 2013 (in English), by Tate Publishing}

I’ve been thinking a lot about visual storytelling lately. Well, I pretty much am always thinking about visual storytelling. And that’s why I was so tickled and touched by this book. Thanks to Rebecca at Sturdy for Common Things for introducing me to this lovely find!

I bought it because of that cover. I didn’t know I’d open page after page of wow.Instantly, I was drawn to the simplicity of each layout. A spare white page on the left, graced only with one line of text. And on the right, a richly colored illustration to match the text. On this very first spread, you get a clear sense of Delphine Chedru’s suggested shapes and mastery of negative space. It’s graphic and bold and beautiful.

So what does the text say?

What happens when my balloon floats up, out of the zoo . . . ?

And then, this:Rather than turning the page, you unfold it. The text is still there to remind you of the story that gurgled up out of that wonder. Do you see your red balloon?The pages that follow are just as curious, and just as surprising. It’s impossible to not create a scenario for each posed question, and then be awed by the illustrator’s solution. And to my bucket when I leave it behind on the beach . . . ?What you might not be able to see in that picture is a WANTED sign for the shark, and a tiny red fish with a sheriff’s hat leading his capture, all with that bucket that you left on the beach. Adore.

And wouldn’t it be fun to create your own pages like this? Or respond to these pictures in writing? Isn’t all creativity answering ‘What if?’What happens when my left sock slips behind the radiator . . . ?

Well?What happens to Teddy when I leave him behind . . . ?

That bird on the boing-boing horse is just too much. Makes me laugh every time.

And then, a big, huge, monster question:What happens to stories once a book is closed . . . ?
This last page doesn’t unfold. This answer is up to you.

I am so under the spell of this weighty book with the lighthearted illustrations. I’m not sure how to answer that last question, and sitting with the ‘What if?’ is both challenging and satisfying, isn’t it?breakerWant more Delphine Chedru? Me too. I found this book trailer, and although I can’t understand the words, I can read the pictures. So charmed.


Tagged: color, delphine chedru, illustration, negative space, shape

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5. My Trip into Space

The opening of Gravity

It seems strange to be writing this from the comfor of my sofa, yet only yesterday this was my view: repairing the Hubble Space Telescope in low Earth orbit, from the next generation shuttle, Explorer. And it was breathtaking. I had front row seats for the UK premiere of Alfonso Cuorón’s Gravity at London’s Odeon Leicester Square, as part of the bfi’s London Film Festival.

Where IK catch the boltThe first dozen minutes of the movie are a single, beautiful shot of Earth from space, viewed in glorious 3D. Wow. We dive into the scene and eventually stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are unscrewing a panel on the Hubble Space Telescope, that they’re up there to repair. A bolt spins out of Bullock’s reach and I’m on hand to catch it as it flies past me. Wonderful.

Cuoron & Bullock introduce Gravity

Last year I found myself on the red carpet with George Clooney for The Ideas of March. This year, I entered with Sandra Bullock while Harry Potter producer David Heyman was being interviewed in the doorway. Having taken my seat, Cuorón, Heyman and Bullock took to the stage and introduced the movie.

The visual effects are extraordinary. Tim Webber and his team are surely nailed on for next year’s Oscar, having come up with all manner of new techniques for relatively low costs, to create such a realistic spectacle. Life of Pi had beautiful conematography and 3D, but I think Gravity is better, but of course that’s also partly down to the low Earth orbit setting. make sure you see the film on the biggest screen you can find, and you won’t be disappointed.

Author Keith Mansfield at the Gravity premiereI have experience being in space, while at the cinema before. When I worked at the Science Museum I was able to slip into their IMAX whenever they were showing Walking on the Moon: 3D. It really was the next best thing to being there, but that used a lot of genuine footage. There are two related jokes about Gravity, such is the realism of the film: one is that NASA is going to sue once it discovers Cuorón’s hidden cameras aboard the International Space Station (ISS); the other is that he actually considered filming it in space.

So far so good. I don’t know if I was so blown away with the experience that I didn’t pay much attention to the actual characters, or whether their story wasn’t particularly interesting. But while I’d give the visuals 11 out of 10, the backstory of lead characters Bullock and Clooney only seemed to merit a 4 or 5.

But the premise is good, so don’t let that put you off. Many scientists are becoming increasingly worried about space junk filling the area where most satellites are placed. There is a catastrophic scenario where the collision of two satellites, or one breaking up, could lead to a chain reaction with devastating consequences, where most if not all satellites would be destroyed. The movie opens with that happening and the debris careering towards the vulnerable shuttle. And even once it’s gone by, we and the astronauts know it will return within 90 minutes and none of us still want to be there.

You will find yourself ducking out of the way of space debris and maybe even longing to feel planet Earth under your feet again. Gravity must be seen for the beauty and brilliance of the visuals.

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6. ET and the Astronomy Photographer of the Year awards

When I was young it was my dream to meet aliens. In fact, the idea of being abducted by aliens and taken off round the galaxy was the root for the Johnny Mackintosh stories. But I also had this idea that ET would be as lovely and friendly as in the Spielberg movie of the same name. One of my favourite photographs at the Astronomy Photographer of the Year Awards earlier this week was hi hello by American Ben Canales. It’s a beautiful image that perfectly captures the longing not to be alone in the Universe – the aching to make contact.

The probability is that any aliens we encounter are likely to be vastly superior to us in every way. Even relatively tiny differences in abilities have led to the most dramatic consequences here on Earth. Look at the way the “old world” of Europe quickly dominated and devastated the cultures of the “new world” of the Americas. Or how with a relatively very small difference in brain power compared with our chimpanzee cousins, we dominate the planet while they pick fleas off each other (and we never invite them round for tea).

Of course aliens may not intentionally wish to destroy us, but just going about their business could have terrible consequences that they might not even realize, as we’d likely be so very alien to them. However, if some warlike ones came calling, I couldn’t help thinking it might look something like this submission from David Kingham:

This brilliant image of the Perseid meteor shower (combining 23 separate exposures) looks like an alien missile bombardment.

If you saw the wonderful Visions of the Universe down the hill at the National Maritime Museum, that used many photographs from the first four years of the Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition. “Visions” has just finished, but now you can see the brilliant new APotY exhibition (though without a glass of champagne in hand) at the Royal Observatory until 23rd February 2014.

Should we attempt to communicate with ET? Various attempts have been made over the years, from sending radio telecrope messages to specially targeted star systems and the plaque on the side of the Voyager space probes. But really these are irrelevant and the point is moot. For over a century, Earth has been lit up in the cosmic firmament, like a beacon or lighthouse, brightly beaming our radio and then television programmes into space. Are they a warning or an invitation? When aliens watch Independence Day or Star Wars, or the latest episodes of The Simpsons, what do they think? Are they eagerly awaiting the next instalment of Monty Python’s Flying Circus?

The overall winner of the competition was this Guiding Light to the Stars by Mark Gee. It’s a southern hempisphere Milky Way anchored by a lighthouse on the right-hand side, leading all the way to the Magellanic Clouds:

In the northern hemisphere we can see the Andromeda galaxy, the Milky Way’s twin, but south of the equator are these two smaller galaxies (upper left), probably satellites, possibly just hurtling by. While the distances between stars compared with their sizes are unimaginably vast, the relative distances between galaxies, certainly within our “local” group, are comparatively small.

If aliens came calling to take me I’d still go with them in a heartbeat, whether that was just around the Milky Way, or a little farther afield.

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7. Celebrate Moon Day

In July of 1969, human history changed forever when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon’s surface.  In honor of the upcoming anniversary of the moon landing, we’ve compiled a list of space-related museum exhibits. From space shuttles to simulated treks across Mars, these exhibits all immerse visitors in the story of the space race and educate them about what’s beyond this world.

Space Shuttle Enterprise
Located in New York City, the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum’s newest exhibit, which just opened on July 10, is the Space Shuttle Pavilion which now holds the Enterprise. The Enterprise was NASA’s original orbiter. It conducted tests within Earth’s atmosphere in the late 1970’s and was crucial in the success of America’s shuttle program. NASA retired the shuttle in 1985, and the Enterprise is now being showcased on the Intrepid in Manhattan. Visitors are greeted with 35-year-old audio recordings of astronauts exchanging radio calls with flight controllers.  The exhibit includes stories about the orbiters and the people involved with them, the early designs of the shuttles, technological innovations, and much more. 


Destination Station
At the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, WA, visitors can immerse themselves in the story of the International Space Station. From the international cooperation that makes the constant scientific research at the station possible, to the audio and visual technology that connects visitors to space, this exhibit will enthrall anyone who has ever wanted to go to space. The exhibit is open until Sept. 2.

For those of you in the Columbus, OH area, the COSI has a fantastic exhibit all about outer space. Visitors can explore the surface of Mars, ride in a space capsule, compare the effects of gravity from planet to planet, and watch live NASA TV. This exhibit gives visitors all kinds of information on rocket technology, the attempt to find life in the universe, and more.


Space Shuttle Endeavour
At the California Science Center in Los Angeles, CA, visitors can hear the space shuttle Endeavour’s story before actually viewing the Endeavour itself at the Samuel Oschin Pavilion. Endeavour: The California Story tells the story of how the Endeavour and other shuttles were produced in California and showcases the artifacts that helped make them functional. Then at the Samuel Oschin Pavilion, visitors will get up close and personal to the shuttle and learn about its missions and the people involved with them. Entrance requires a separate ticket with a $2 service fee, and the museum strongly suggests purchasing that ticket in advance.

The Air and Space Museum
The Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. is dedicated to flight both within and beyond the earth’s atmosphere and is a treat for anyone who is passionate about air and space. Exhibits include everything from the Mercury Capsule 15B, Freedom 7 II, to the Manned Maneuvering Unit, to the space shuttle Discovery and much more. Anyone in the D.C. area who likes flight cannot miss this museum. 

If you are not near one of these museums celebrate with us and read Meet the Planets or Solar System Forecast!

0 Comments on Celebrate Moon Day as of 7/19/2013 9:54:00 AM
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8. Design is a Dandelion

by Janice Lovoos

{published 1966, by Golden Gate Junior Books}

I was in Seattle a few weeks ago. You remember the library, right?

I went to Pike Place Market, because of course, but also because flying fish and dudes in galoshes are a spectacle worth checking out. And I also wanted to get up close and personal with some bluefin tuna eyeballs.

There’s a real reason for that, trust me. But they didn’t have any tuna, so this happened: Screen Shot 2013-05-17 at 11.51.46 AM

There’s not a real point to that story except that I adore that tweet (and those two Favoriters) and it’s what I did just before I wandered into Lamplight Books.

It’s like I stole something. Fifteen dollars? Sixty quarters? It still has that magical, musty smell of hidden secrets. And it was mine in a fraction of a split second. That fast.


 I’m in love. From the texture of a porcupine, to the form of mountains and weeds, to the repetition inside a squash, design is everywhere.

Design is a Dandelion ends like this, with truth and a charge:

Design is everywhere. It is for everyone. All you have to do is to learn to see it. Open your eyes and take a big, long look.


Tagged: design, form, line, nature, shape, space

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9. Grandfather etc.

Two more pages from my upcoming Memoirs.
Paper53 on iPad. Click to enlarge.

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10. Fat Boy-Ji

Remember the fat boy? Well, he's still at it apparently. My illustration originally published in The Fanatic.
Pen and ink with Letratone and Pantone film. Click to enlarge.

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11. Aliens at school, and how (and why) to choose books to read to large groups of kids

For last week’s book+activity session I held at the girls’ school we read and played aliens. First up was a new book by Sue Hendra, Wanda’s Space Party.

For Wanda’s birthday treat, her friend, the alien, takes Wanda to his planet for a special space party. Wanda is amazed by all the new things she sees on the way to the party and the different ways things are done on her friend’s planet. But will she like the what her friend has prepared for her birthday celebration? Or will alien customs be all a little too… well, alien for Wanda?

With her trademark gorgeously bright, bold, modern and zingy illustrations (which look oh so ripe for adaptation to tv animation – think Octonauts, which has a not dissimilar aesthetic) Sue Hendra has written a lovely story about differences and similarities across customs and cultures. Kids will enjoy the apparently far-out traditions on the alien’s planet (such as brushing your toes instead of your teeth before you go to bed). On a more serious note, it provides an easy route in to talking about how we’re not all the same, and that such differences are enriching rather than threatening.

Next we read Colin McNaughton’s The Aliens are Coming (I think originally recommended by a reader of this blog, but I can’t track down who it was – thank you to whoever you are!).

An alien invasion has been launched. All sorts of aliens are heading this way; wobbly ones, two-headed ones, ones that have eyeballs stuck on stalks, the list goes on… It’s a terrifying prospect! But as the aliens approach and catch sight of us, the readers, what do they do? What do they see? Who is more frightened? Us or them?

This book is so much fun to read aloud! It’s told in rollicking rhyme so the words just bounce along and the illustrations are hilarious (even when trying to be scary). The yuck factor is just right (with squelching, smelly gases and some burping) and the denouement is perfect – [spoiler alert] the penultimate page has a mirror in it, so we can see what the aliens see… and what they see is enough to stop the attack and get them retreating back to outer space. The listening kids emerge as the victors, more mighty and powerful than a whole host of extra terrestrial life forms. Hurray!

For our session at school we had several different activities on offer after reading the books (all photos below are from the dry run I did at home with M and J as I’m not allowed to take photos in school). Kids could make alien spaceships out of foil plates and plastic bowls, decorated with permanent pens and stickers.

3 Comments on Aliens at school, and how (and why) to choose books to read to large groups of kids, last added: 5/28/2012

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12. Feat. the Unrelated Catstronaut

A poster for a local gig at the lovely & cocktail-filled Toast bar, which is mainly lovely because of said cocktail-filled-ness.

When people give me free reign it tends to end in space toast.  So sexy.

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4 Comments on ILLUSTRATION FRIDAY ~ SPACE, last added: 6/23/2012
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14. My art studio


I might have shared this before, but here it is again. www.gregpizzoli.com

Greg Pizzoli shares shots of his studio space.

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15. heyoscarwilde: Soviet Space Dogs illustration by Jess...


Soviet Space Dogs

illustration by Jess Bradley :: via venkman-project.deviantart.com


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16. Postcard from Io

I imagine they sell postcards like this on Io.
Silkscreen monoprint. 10cm x 15cm. Click to enlarge.

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17. Saving Apollo 11

It's the 43rd anniversary of Apollo 11!  

I did a guest post for the IRA blog (International Reading Association) a few months back called "The Timeless Draw of Dinosaurs and Space" with some ruminations about CHRONAL ENGINE and LITTLE GREEN MEN AT THE MERCURY INN.  One thing I talked about was the fact that children (and young readers) can make scientific contributions and queries in these fields on their own, for example discovering fossils and asteroids.

Along these lines, a few days ago, I came across this great story on the CNN web site about "The 10-year-old who helped Apollo."  It's about Greg Force, a 10 year old boy whose father worked at the tracking station in Guam at the time.  It seems that, at the last minute, as the capsule was returning to earth, a bearing in the station's antenna failed.  Because it would've taken too long to replace the bearing, Greg was enlisted to lubricate it, which only he could do -- the access opening was only two inches wide...Anyway, check out the whole story at the link.

And for a gorgeous picture book account of the moonshot, check out Brian Floca's book: 


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18. Eight Days Gone - a review

McReynolds, Linda. 2012. Eight Days Gone. Illustrated by Ryan O'Rourke. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge.

In simple, four-line rhymes, Linda McReynolds has captured for a new generation the eight breathtaking, breath-holding days of the Apollo 11 mission.  Eight Days Gone recounts the July 1969, launch, orbit, landing and return of the spaceship Columbia and the lunar module Eagle.

It begins on a cheerful, sunny, colorful day in Florida,

Hundreds gather.
Hot July.
Spaceship ready -
set to fly.
McReynolds skillfully distills this immense project, this watershed accomplishment into its most basic elements, yet she disregards no aspect of the mission, giving recognition to Aldrin and Armstrong,  the nation, the command center, Collins (who stayed aboard the Columbia), even the Navy - remember the days of "splashdowns?"

The words are not always simple, but O'Rourke's stunning oil paintings fill in the necessary details. The font is either black or white and appears in a corner, never obscuring the double-spread, full-bleed illustrations.  Because of the subject matter, much of the artwork is in the creamy colors of the lunar surface, the spacecraft, and the astronauts' clothing.  Against the black of the universe, the colors of the American flag, the striped parachutes, the faces of the astronauts, and the dazzling blue and green of the earth, demand the reader's attention. 

Most striking is the painting of the "earthrise" on the black lunar horizon, a small astronaut placed in the lower left corner,

Silent. Dark.
Tranquil sea.
Barren. Stark.
Our tiny place within the cosmos is illustrated, but is boldly followed by the illustration on the following page where the astronaut fills a third of the page, confidently setting forth across the lunar landscape,

Haul equipment.
Careful test.
Lunar quest.
May we always be reminded of both our infinetesimal status and our immense capacity to overcome it.  A stunning book. Highly recommended.

A photo, bilbiography, author's note and websites are included.

This is Linda McReynolds' first children's book.

Other Eight Days Gone reviews @

NASA offers a K-4 student website as well as a 4 Comments on Eight Days Gone - a review, last added: 7/23/2012
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19. Curiosity [Updated!]

[Update II] SUCCESS! Cyn and I watched on NASA TV last night.  Gratifyingly, the cable news channels also had fairly extensive coverage.
Curiosity landed at 10:32 p.m. Aug. 5, PDT, (1:32 a.m. EDT Aug. 6) near the foot of a mountain three miles tall and 96 miles in diameter inside Gale Crater. During a nearly two-year prime mission, the rover will investigate whether the region ever offered conditions favorable for microbial life.
More here.

[Update]  Check out this great post on How to Watch the Mars Curiosity Rover.

There's much awesomeness afoot on Mars this weekend.  Tonight, in fact.

Or, early Monday morning (for those of us in the central and eastern time zones), to be exact.  NASA's Mars Curiosity rover is scheduled to set down.  If you haven't heard of Curiosity, here's the deal: it's a rover about the size of a MINI Cooper that's scheduled to set down via a "sky crane."  Take a look at the JPL/NASA web site here.

Here's the NASA video on how Curiosity is going to make its descent, titled "Seven Minutes of Terror":

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20. Johnny Mackintosh lands on Mars

This morning at 6.31 am (British Summer Time), Johnny and Clara Mackintosh (and their Old English sheepdog, Bentley) made history: thanks to NASA and its Mars Curiosity rover, they became the first literary heroes to literally land on another world. And all broadcast live in Times Square – wow!

Johnny, Clara and Bentley, lowered to the Martian surface on the back of Curiosity (courtesy JPL)

The descent was scary (I wrote a piece about it for Bookzone4Boys) – even NASA had described it as “seven minutes of terror”. Eventually the Mars Science Laboratory landed by “skycrane” in Gale Crater, a perfect location to examine millions of years of Martian geology in one go. Onboard was a microchip onto which had been etched the names of some of the people of Earth, the very first ambassadors to land on another planet. And among those names were:

  • Johnny Mackintosh
  • Clara Mackintosh
  • Bentley Mackintosh

I confess I’m delighted to say “Keith Mansfield” was also included.

Some great fictional stories have been set on Mars, but the paper or celluloid that tells them remains firmly grounded here on our island Earth. John Carter may have disappointed in cinemas lately, but Edgar Rice Burroughs’ series of “Barsoom” books are classics. A film that brought the red planet properly to life saw the now-Governator of California star as Doug Quaid in Dutch director Paul Verhoeven’s 1990  masterpiece, Total Recall. Why anyone feels the need to remake a movie that was originally so stunning is a mystery, but I’ll reserve judgement until I’ve seen Len Wiseman’s remake.

As a child I grew up reading the late, great Ray Bradbury, whose thoughtful Martian Chronicles helped inspire the stories I’ve written. In the first two Johnny Mackintosh books there are mentions of Mars and Johnny and Clara always intend to go there, yet somehow they never quite get round to it. In Battle for Earth they finally make the trip (I won’t spoil it for future readers by saying whether or not they find Martians).

David Bowie famously sang “Is there life on Mars?” and in a fun Doctor Who tribute, Steven Moffat christened the first fictional human settlement “Bowie Base One”. I’ve written a few pieces on whether or not there’s life of some kind on the red planet over at my Keith Mansfield website.

We’ve always found Martian exploration difficult. On page 3 of Johnny Mackintosh: Battle for Earth we read:

“Johnny and Clara had been planing their first ever visit to Mars, with Johnny telling his sister about all the probes scientists had sent to the red planet, but which had mysteriously failed to arrive.”

and then, a little later on page 61:

“Early space probes had taken intriguing but inconclusive photographs of the Martian surface, showing what were called the Pyramids of Elysium, next to what appeared to be a gigantic human face gazing upward. Johnny had always meant to visit and see for himself. For his part, Alf was curious to hear about the probes that had gone missing, so Johnny repeated the conversation he’d had with Clara, in a little more detail. Given the great expense of space exploration, the failure rate for Mars was unusually high. It wasn’t only Beagle 2 that had bitten the dust as it neared the planet. Over the years, around half the missions launched had failed for one reason or another.”

Of course the “giant face” is no more than an optical illusion, but sometimes you can’t let details like that get in the way of a good story. I first came across the pyramids through Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and these don’t only feature in Johnny Mackintosh – Total Recall also centred around the mysterious “pyramid mine”.

Nowadays we know a huge amount about this near neighbour, not least because there are actually three satellites in permanent orbit around the red planet. In the 1970s we sent the twin Viking landers to search for life (you can see a third in the Smithsonain Air and Space Museum in Washington DC). These tantalized, but also frustrated. Given the track record of previous Mars missions, this one played it relatively safe so the spacecraft set down in what proved rather dull areas – and that’s where they remained. The great thing about Curiosity is that it’s mobile.

Mars rover family portrait showing Sojourner, one of Spirit/Opportunity and then Curiosity (courtesy NASA)

We’ve come a long way in a short space of time with Mars rovers. The first was Sojourner, a little add on to the Pathfinder mission that landed in 1997. It was the size of a remote-controlled child’s toy and could only travel a few metres from the main landing station, getting up close and personal with a few interesting nearby rocks. Sojourner started the ball rolling, and the momentum was magnificently maintained by another pair of twin landers, the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which set down early in 2004.

Mars panorama using composite images from Opportunity, showing the rover’s own tyre tracks (courtesy NASA)

Larger, more independent and mobile, it was hoped these two would function for around 90 days. Spirit lasted fully five years, becoming immobile on 2009 and finally ceasing communication in 2010. Opportunity is still going! These two have shown that we are more than capable, not just of landing on Mars, but traversing its surface.

Curiosity being put through its paces on Earth (courtesy of JPL)

Curiosity is in a different league altogether. Weighing nearly a tonne, it’s around the size of a small car. It doesn’t move quite as fast, travelling at what’s almost literally a snail’s pace, but wherever it goes, Johnny, Clara and Bentley will go with it. I hope they and I are able to move across the surface of this faraway world for many years to come.

Buy the first book in the series, Johnny Mackintosh and the Spirit of London.

Buy the third book in the series, Johnny Mackintosh: Battle for Earth in which Johnny and Clara visit Mars.

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21. Making history on Mars

In case you missed it, Johnny Mackintosh (and Clara and Bentley, and even me) only went and landed on Mars this morning: read all about it!

We’re all here, etched onto the back of the Mars Curiosity rover, in the Gale Crater:

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22. Toys in space [said like the Muppets' "Pigs... in... spaaaaace"]

Toys in Space by Mini Grey is our kind of book, all about stories providing comfort, where what is a ‘story’ and what is ‘real life’ become beautifully blurred.

It starts with an observation about family life which is tiny but which resonates loudly with us; it being summer holidays here and lots of time spent out in the garden, on more than one occasion it has happened that some of the kids’ toys have been left outside over night.

So a great start – we open Mini‘s latest book and the girls already think it is about our home (or so easily could be). Then a tiny bit an anxiety is introduced; the toys are a little scared by the night and what it might bring. Anxiety is ratcheted up to another level of worry when the toys are beamed aboard an alien space ship…

This worry is transformed into sympathetic concern when the toys discover the alien is only looking for his very own very toy which he has lost. Will the toys be able to help the alien? Will he be reunited with his own Cuddles? And will the toys make it back to their own garden?

Without giving away the details, the emotional arc we went through, which started with “delightful recognition >> anxiety >> worry” then continued “hope >> happiness >> relief >> great satisfaction (with a giggle)”. A perfect journey for a picture book!

As well as the thrilling emotional ride this book takes you on (with just the right amount of nerves for young children), this book scores highly for its adorable cast of characters. Having fallen in love with Traction Man and Scrubbing Brush, I did wonder if any new characters from Mini Grey could find a similar place in our hearts, but the crowd here are great and surely offer wonderful opportunities for more stories in the future featuring the same cast (What do you say, Mini?).

The visual narrative in the book is perhaps more complex than many picture books you’ll find on the bestsellers’ list, with a Jack Bauer / 24 style split screen take on events running concurrently. I like the richness this brings, and although my kids had absolutely no problems understanding how events are unfolding I wonder if some parents who are not confident readers might be put off by this.

I hope not, because Toys in Space is an exciting and heart warming story about losing (and finding) your favourite toy and is bound to delight children far and wide.

Hoctopize – the alien in search of his lost Cuddles

My girls were very keen to act out Toys in Space as soon as we’d read it for the first time. We gathered their favourite toys together, but didn’t have a suitable alie

4 Comments on Toys in space [said like the Muppets' "Pigs... in... spaaaaace"], last added: 8/20/2012
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23. Dinosaurs from Outer Space!

Ankylosaur from Museum of Ancient Life, Utah
Or something like that.  Last week, the Washington Post reported the finding of a dinosaur footprint on the land of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.  The track is believed to belong to an armored dinosaur called a nodosaur, a relative of the more famous Ankylosaurus.  The footprint is about fourteen inches long and hails from around 112 million years ago (Early Cretaceous).  That's roughly the same time as the Glen Rose dinosaur tracks, just north of Waco (they're the ones I based the footprints in CHRONAL ENGINE on).

Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA's first space center, was established in 1959.  They employ around 10,000 engineers and scientists and other personnel, and are responsible for a variety of earth and outer space explorer satellites, going back to the 1950s with the Project Vanguard.

All the equipment, and look they found in their own back yard. :-).

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24. 2 books which shouldn’t be shelved: High Times and Swan Lake

Once you’ve finished a book what do you do with it? Shelve it away so it can barely be seen?

How about, instead, exhibiting it on a window sill or mantelpiece to invite comment, to become an ever present part of your life?

Not all books lend themselves to this of course, but High Times: A History of Aviation by Golden Cosmos, and Swan Lake by Ping Zhu are not your everyday sort of book.

An almost wordless, non-fiction accordion book, High Times: A History of Aviation takes you on a journey from Icarus via Leonardo da Vinci, to the Wright Brothers, through the Second World War on to Concorde and the Space Shuttle. Key dates and inventions are picked out and briefly explained in the book’s wrap-around cover, which acts as a key for details to spot in the exciting and broad landscape presented as the book opens out.

Ping Zhu’s Swan Lake, which takes the same format, is entirely wordless. One side of the book shows the audience watching a performance of the ballet, whilst on the reverse you can see behind the scenes as the ballerinas prepare themselves to go on stage.

Both books are wonderfully tactile to hold and interact with. Printed on heavy-weight card these are books you really want to feel between your fingers.

Swan Lake‘s illustrations reminded me of 1960s illustrations, and the girls really enjoyed exploring the audience and making up stories about the different characters they could see, from the bored looking lady with a pearl necklace to the rather mysterious animals who have somehow snuck in to the theatre (they made me think of a Finnish illustrator I like, Hannamari Ruohonen, who also creates fabulous wordless picture books).

The printing technique and bold colour scheme of High Times ensures the book feels both retro and modern. Again, there is lots of fun to be had looking for details, from the family going on holiday with their rubber duck, to the zoo animal being transported by Boeing 747. This book is a great example of how science (in this case, engineering and inventions) can also be explored through art. Team it up with The Fabulous Flying Machines of Alberto Santos-Dumont by Victoria Griffith, illustrated by Eva Montanari (which I reviewed here) and The Story of Inventions, by Anna Claybourne, illustrated by Adam Larkum (which I reviewed here) and you’ve got a terrific trio of books to inspire the next generation of flying machine inventors.

But these books are not just for the young. Both NoBrow books are immensely stylish, and as such, will no doubt appeal to adults as well as children. I can easily imagine them unfolded and on display in beautiful, architect designed houses. And why not?

Displaying stories and illustration on your walls is great way to integrate books into your lives, and at £10 a pop I can’t think of a cheaper way to get some eye catching, discussion-inducing art up on your walls.

Inspired by the idea of displaying an illustrated story, the girls set about making their own “mural book”. I blu-tacked a length of fax paper (yes, such a thing still exists, I got mine from Rymans) up our staircase and the girls took turns to illustrate a story chinese-whisper style.

M would illustrate a stretch of paper, then J would take over the story and add her twists and turns. Because I was nervous about pen marks going on the wall I illustrated a simple border along the length of the paper and explained that the girls had to draw inside the border. This worked really well and The HWA (Humane Wall Association) can confirm “No walls were harmed during the making of this book”.

The story grew and grew…

The narrative was somewhat complex, with lots of free association going on, but some of my favourite cameos were these:

“Zeus sent down thunderbolts onto the dinosaurs escaping by bicycle.”

“The dragon and the unicorn came to the magic castle.”

The girls’ mural book is still up on the wall and it’s the first thing anyone sees when we open our front door. I rather like how a story welcomes people into our home.

Whilst we were all illustrating we listened to

  • Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky (although dancing on stairs is not to be encouraged…)
  • Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines
  • The Flying Machine by The Sippy Cups

  • Other activities which could be fun to get up to alongside reading High Times: A History of Aviation or Swan Lake include:

  • Making an accordion book. Here’s a tutorial from Susan Kapuscinski Gaylord.
  • Watching Swan lake ballet clips. making peg doll ballerinas and more – as per our Swan Lake round up from last year.
  • Creating a cardboard airplane you can fly in – I love this one from Joe’s Secret Lab.

  • What books have you enjoyed recently that are gorgeous enough for you to want to display them as art?

    Disclosure: I received free copies of High Times: A History of Aviation by Golden Cosmos, and Swan Lake by Ping Zhu from NoBrow Press. I was under no obligation to review the books and I received no money for this post.


    5 Comments on 2 books which shouldn’t be shelved: High Times and Swan Lake, last added: 9/19/2012
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    25. The Keith Moons

    A self portrait as, er....moons.
    123D and PShop Touch on iPad. Click to enlarge.

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