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Viewing Blog: Robert A. Black, Novelist for Middle-Grade Readers, Most Recent at Top
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The latest information, thoughts, etc., on the writings of a "You Can't Do That On Television" script writer turned novelist for middle-schoolers.
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1. A Spacey Summer is Coming...

You may recall my entry from a couple of months ago, about the Japanese anime series Twin Spica. In case you don't recall, it was about a group of kids in the near future, who have been chosen for the first class in an official Japanese astronaut academy.

Well, now the NHK network has announced that it's making a live-action version of the story, which will premiere June 11. 16-year-old newcomer Nanami Sakuraba will play the lead role of Asumi Kamogawa. I don't know about her acting, but visually she's a good match:

The Japanese space agency JAXA is acting as an advisor for the production. They did the same thing on the anime series Rocket Girls, and did a great job of it.

Meanwhile, a bit closer to home, the History Channel is working on Moonshot, a new movie about the Apollo 11 mission. It will premiere July 20, which is the 40th anniversary of the moon landing.

The only cast member I know of so far is James Marsters, best known as Spike on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who will play Buzz Aldrin. The SciFi Wire has an interview with him about the production. Among other things, he says the latest in miniature camera technology has enabled them to use actual-size spacecraft sets, instead of the larger ones that have been used in the past. Alas, they didn't have the same budget Ron Howard had for Apollo 13, so no Vomit Comet weightlessness this time.

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2. New Year Changes

Happy 2009! Okay, I know I'm late with that, but better late than never, right?

The new year brings a big change for my publisher. Windstorm Creative has reorganized and is now Orchard House Press. I even get my own author page at the new website - you can find that here.

Meanwhile, I'm working on getting a new manuscript started, and that means I'm moving on to new research topics. I'm leaning toward a World War II story that's been going through my head, so today I'll offer you a link related to that. Words at War was a radio program that ran from 1943 to 1945. It was a series of half-hour book dramatizations, each related to some aspect of the war effort. The Internet Archive has all 87 episodes available for download - you can find them here. They're an interesting window into that era - and at half an hour, they're the perfect length for playing on my mp3 player during my lunchtime walk!

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3. Recommended viewing

Ken Murphy over at OutOfTheCradle.net has previously written glowing reviews of two anime series, Planetes and Rocket Girls (the latter winning a "Best of the Moon" award along with Lunar Pioneers), but there's one other series he hasn't mentioned. That's probably because it isn't commercially available in the US, although you can find it online if you know where to look.

Twin Spica (or Futatsu no Spica in Japanese) is the story of five kids who make it into the very first class at a special Japanese astronaut training academy. In this version of the near future, Japan has had its own manned space program, but suffered a disaster when one of its rockets malfunctioned on liftoff and crashed into a Japanese city. The main character, 16-year-old Asumi Kamogawa, lost her mother in the accident. Her father was an engineer in the space program, but now he works elsewhere. Asumi's dream since childhood has been to become a "rocket driver." Her main ally in her quest is the ghost of an astronaut who died in the accident - he always wears a big lion-head mask over his head, and so Asumi calls him "Lion-san."

Twin Spica is a "slice-of-life" drama - something you don't see in American animation. It takes its time moving the story forward, stopping to explore smaller, less-noticed themes along the way. It gives the characters a chance to develop and makes them more well-rounded. Their training at the space academy focuses on physical and psychological preparation as much as it does on physics and astronomy, which is probably a realistic depiction of what high school for future astronauts would look like. They get pretty creative with some of the tests the kids have to go through.

What I like best about this show is the way it depicts the dream of going to space. It's not a dream where everything's rosy - it doesn't hide from the fact that getting into space is difficult and not everyone will get to do it. But that just makes the dream more appealing, because the characters know what it requires and are willing to go for it anyway. Each of the five kids has a reason for being there, and we get to see what spurs them on.

As I watched this show, I couldn't help wondering how Asumi and her friends would get along with the astronauts in Rocket Girls. Asumi herself is very small for her age, which means she'd be a natural at the Solomon Space Agency. Her cheerfulness and never-say-die optimism might be too much for Yukari Morita, though.

Twin Spica also exists as a manga that is still ongoing, continuing the story well beyond the end point of the anime. I'll have to look for that and see how things turn out.

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4. "In the beginning..." - 40 years later

This Christmas season is a special one in space history. It was 40 years ago, Christmas 1968, when Apollo 8 sent the first human beings to the Moon. They didn't land - the Lunar Modules weren't ready yet - but they made ten orbits and sent back the first TV transmission from another world. For the first time, people could see the entire Earth as a planet floating in space. They also read from the King James Bible on Christmas Eve.

There are lots of online commemorations you can check out if you're interested:

National Public Radio ran a story on Morning Edition that you can listen to here. There's also an online video bonus story.

David Livingston welcomed space historian Robert Zimmerman to Monday's edition of The Space Show, to talk about Apollo 8 and the Bible reading in particular. You can listen to that here.

Finally, NASA-TV is running Apollo 8 coverage all day today and tomorrow. You can check out the schedule here.

Merry Christmas, everybody!

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5. Whew!

It's been quite a whirlwind the past couple of weeks.

It started right after Thanksgiving, when Lunar Pioneers was named...

Best of the Moon 2008

Youth Moon Fiction Category

For OutOfTheCradle.net's complete list of the winners, you can click on the banner above.

Since then, I've been scrambling to get the word out, and also getting ready for my trip to Indianapolis. Last Saturday was the Holiday Author Fair at the Indiana Historical Society. Here's how it looked:

While I was in town, I also paid an author visit to Park Tudor School, where I talked to middle school and high school book lovers:

Now I'm home again, and ready to get back to work. There are new projects ahead!

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6. Yum, yum...

CNN's Anderson Cooper brings you... Thanksgiving in space!

That's what they're having on the space shuttle Endeavour today. You can find out more here.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

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7. Wow, someone actually noticed...

Today, NPR reports that the Government Accountability Office has listed NASA among "13 urgent issues facing the new administration."

Yup, you heard that right. With all that's going wrong in the country these days - the stock market crashing, homes being foreclosed, the auto industry going bust - NASA made the list of things that President-elect Obama needs to focus on.

Specifically, the GAO is concerned about the multi-year gap between the retirement of the space shuttles and the launch of the new Ares rockets. I've mentioned that in this blog before. Now that the International Space Station is almost done, we're going to be stuck relying on another country - most likely Russia, who isn't being entirely friendly right now - to get there. It's got people worried.

And Barack Obama wasn't exactly the most NASA-friendly presidential candidate. A position paper his campaign released early in the year proposed cutting NASA's budget and delaying the Ares in order to divert money to education. But Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), who has actually flown on the space shuttle, went to Obama and confronted him on the issue, and in August the campaign released a new position paper that space enthusiasts will like much better.

What will happen in the new year and the new administration? Only time will tell. But it sure would be nice if we had a space policy that didn't look like it was just floating around aimlessly.

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8. Recommended viewing

The first Japanese citizen in space was Toyohiro Akiyama, a journalist who visited the Mir space station in December 1990. He's best known for the acute case of space-sickness he developed during the flight. Supposedly the Mir crew called down to Moscow at one point and said, "We've never seen anyone throw up so much before!"

But if you compared the way space is depicted in Japanese and American popular media, especially in media aimed at kids, you'd think the Japanese were the ones with the long history of space exploration, and we Americans were the ones whose first astronaut spent the entire flight barfing. The Japanese have a long track record of producing stories about space flight that are far more realistic than what you typically find in the US.

The latest example is Rocket Girls, a 12-episode anime series based on a set of children's novels. The premise starts with a private Japanese company that is trying to get into space, but is struggling with a booster that can't lift a fully grown adult. Their solution? Recruit a bunch of small, lightweight teenage girls to be their astronauts!

The show has its share of silly and cheesy moments, but it's got a lot of reality in it, too. It should - the Japanese space agency JAXA had a consulting role in the production, and a JAXA astronaut even makes a cameo appearance in one episode. It's a shame no one in the US is interested in asking NASA for that kind of help.

Ken Murphy over at OutOfTheCradle.net has a full review, complete with a link to the DVD listing at Amazon.com. You can find it here:


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9. Interview highlights and more

If you were interested in my interview on The Space Show, but didn't have time for the entire program, I now have the highlights posted on my author website. You can find them here:


Meanwhile, India has reached the Moon! The Chandrayaan-1 probe went into lunar orbit this past week, and is now getting ready to begin its exploration. You can find out more here:


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10. Were you listening?

I had a pretty fun time on The Space Show this past Sunday. The first half-hour or so turned out to be more about my time writing for You Can't Do That On Television than anything else, but eventually we got around to Lunar Pioneers. I hope everyone who heard me enjoyed the program.

The podcast is now online at the Space Show website. You can find it here. Meanwhile, I'll have some excerpts posted in a few days.

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11. Space Shows

The PBS series Nova has turned out some really great episodes about the space program over the years, and last night's episode was no exception. "Space Shuttle Disaster" took a look at the 2003 Columbia accident - not just the accident itself, but the social and political factors around it, through the past and into the future. They made a good case for the claim that the Columbia accident was a product of the environment that made the Shuttle what it was in the first place, and then explored the ways that the accident has changed NASA's plans for the future. If you missed it, you can look for your local PBS station to rerun it, or go here to watch it online:


Meanwhile, I've got a space show of my own to do. The Space Show, in fact:

I'll be on the air from 12:00noon to 1:30pm Pacific Time this Sunday, talking about Lunar Pioneers. You can hear the show streamed live from the Space Show website or download it as a podcast later. Be sure to check it out!

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12. We're Number One - but for how long...?

This is my author blog, where I write about things related to my books. With that in mind, my aim is to avoid politics as much as I can. If you want to know who I support for president this year, I've made that pretty clear in other places around the net. I don't need to repeat it here.

Nevertheless, I wanted to point out this new opinion piece in the New York Times - "Houston, We Have a Problem". It's about the challenges facing our next president, whoever he may be, if the US is to keep its leadership role in space.

The columnist asserts that, "Not since John F. Kennedy, has a president truly understood the incalculable value of space." It's a credible claim. Richard Nixon killed the Apollo program. Ronald Reagan gave us the International Space Station, but with so little support that today's scaled-down version still isn't finished. George H.W. Bush tried to interest us in Mars, but failed to follow up his initial proposal. Bill Clinton's NASA director tried to do things faster, better and cheaper, but mostly what that got us was a bunch of debris scattered across the Martian landscape. And now we have George W. Bush, whose Moon/Mars initiative is ambitious, but so badly planned that we're going to be left without our own means of getting to the space station we built for at least four years.

The Moon of Lunar Pioneers is an international Moon. My main character, Blair Kelly, is an American, but her mom works for a Chinese company, the ferry that takes her to the Moon has an Indian captain, and her best friends on the Moon are Russian and Japanese. I think that if humanity is going to settle space, we've got to do it together. But that means the US has to do its part. If we don't, someone else will - and then they'll be going out there without us.

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13. Reviews are coming in...

...and they're a mixed bag, as reviews always are. But that mix looks rather curious to me.

On Amazon.com, I've got a review from a 37-year veteran high school science teacher, who praises my book as being "scientifically accurate." I've also heard from the reviewer at the "Lunar Library" at OutOfTheCradle.net, who tells me he thinks "the book would be great for schools." But then there was the reviewer at the National Space Society, a former NASA flight controller, who absolutely hated the book, and proceeded to write me a long diatribe pointing out all the things I got wrong. And she didn't even make it all the way through the book.

(Just as an aside, this is exactly why I decided not to be a science-fiction writer. No matter how hard you work to get all your details right, there's always someone who will come along and pick at everything you missed. It's the nature of the fandom.)

As I said, every book, movie, play, TV show, etc., gets a mix of good and bad reviews. It goes with the territory. I've always known that. Here's what strikes me as so curious, though - if my book is so riddled with inaccuracies, then why did a veteran science teacher and a major space advocate miss them? I mean, I'm giving the NSS reviewer the benefit of the doubt and not simply writing her off as a nit-picker. (She did seem inexplicably hostile toward my publisher, but like I said, I'm giving her the benefit of the doubt.)

One thing I point out in my book is in the days of the American frontier, any regular person who could hitch a horse or an ox to a wagon could head west and try to start a new life. A lot of them didn't make it, but a lot of them did, and that's how the west was won. Space isn't like that - but is it so complicated that you can't even get in the game without an advanced degree and years of experience? If so, then the "final frontier" is never going to be settled. It's simply not going to happen. There aren't enough people that smart.

Or should I not be giving the NSS reviewer the benefit of the doubt? Maybe I am being nitpicked, out of intellectual techno-snobbery or something. But if that's the case, it opens up another range of issues. If the people with the know-how try to set themselves apart from the ignorant masses, they're going to end up frustrated by the unwillingness of those ignorant masses to give them any money for space development. And once again, the final frontier never gets settled.

I'll have to discuss those ideas with my brother the Harvard PhD and my sister-in-law the Yale MD/PhD, the next time I see them.

Meanwhile, my book is what it is. I gave it my best shot. I'm thankful for everyone who likes it. And for those who don't... well, I thank them for their time and move on.

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14. Heading back to the Fair

It's official! The Indiana Historical Society has invited me to participate in their sixth annual Holiday Author Fair, which will be held December 6 from noon to 4:00pm at the Indiana History Center in Indianapolis. Full event details haven't been released yet, but you can get some information here:


I went there two years ago with Liberty Girl. This time, I'll have both my Windstorm books at least, and possibly all three. I still need to discuss it with Royal Fireworks.

Meanwhile, Lunar Pioneers is the latest entry at Ken's Lunar Library. I've been told to expect a review there soon.

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15. Get ready for... SPACE POWER!

I was still in high school when I first read about the idea of getting solar power from space. Up above the atmosphere, you can collect a lot more solar radiation, and since there's no wind or gravity, you can make the solar panels really big. Loads of energy, right there for the taking. All you have to do is figure out how to get it back down to Earth.

Well, according to SPACE.com, we're getting closer to reaching that goal. A former NASA scientist has set up an experiment in Hawaii, and has converted solar power to radio waves and beamed them 92 miles between two of the islands. It wasn't a complete success, but it shows that the idea works in principle. Now we just have to figure out how to make it work.

The experiment will be featured on tonight's episode of the Discovery Channel program, Discovery Project Earth. Be sure to check it out! I know I will.

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16. In the air / On the air

I'm working on lining up a guest appearance on The Space Show, and I seem to be making some progress. They read an email of mine the other night, and it sounds like they were interested in what I said:

Audio Clip from The Space Show

Meanwhile, this week I've also learned that junior high and high school students can now sign up for this year's Team America Rocketry Challenge. The goal is to design a model rocket that will lift an egg to 750 feet and keep it in the air for 45 seconds - and the egg has to be lying on its side, like an astronaut sits. Winners get to go to next year's international air show in Paris, among other prizes.

I had a great time with model rocketry as a kid, and even won a regional tournament once. It's definitely something all young space enthusiasts should look into.

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17. Oh wow...

Mythbusters tackles the Moon Hoax Conspiracy Theorists

Premieres tomorrow, August 27, on the Discovery Channel. Set your VCRs, DVRs, Tivos, etc...

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18. Kids in Space!

Okay, it hasn't happened yet, but that hasn't stopped kids from wondering what space is like, and it hasn't stopped teachers from wanting to teach them.

In the latest edition of the internet radio program, The Space Show, host David Livingston talks to the authors of a new book, Kids to Space Mission Plans: An Educator's Guide. As the name suggests, it's all about how teachers can put more space-related materials into their classrooms. I picked up a copy of the first Kids to Space book at Worldcon a couple of years ago, and it would have been really handy when I was writing Lunar Pioneers. The broadcast is available for download, so be sure to check it out.

And what will those kids do when they grow up and become astronauts? Space.com has a new article describing ideas currently floating around for the first permanent lunar station. The forerunner to Clementine Colony, perhaps? Be sure to check that out, too.

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19. Something to talk about

I've heard it from several people now - if I'm going to use their forum to talk about my book, I've got to do something more than just an "infomercial." I've got to do something more substantial than just stand up there and say, "Hi, buy my book."

Works for me. I'm a terrible pitchman. I don't like it when I have to sit through a sales pitch like that, and I sure don't want to inflict that on anyone else.

So what do I talk about, then? With Lunar Pioneers, I do have some options. One reason I wrote the book was because I think science fiction doesn't do enough to get kids interested in real science - Buzz Aldrin made a similar comment just recently. Another topic I might be able to talk has to do with my being more of a historical fiction writer - I like the idea Jane Yolen talked about once, of showing kids that history is a "living and continuous process." Since Lunar Pioneers is set in the reader's future, but touches on the reader's past, I feel like I'd have something to say about that, too.

Any other ideas?

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20. Lunar Pioneers - Where to find it

Now that Lunar Pioneers is available, where can you get your copy? Unfortunately, you probably won't find it in a bookstore, although I'm going to pitch it to the bookstores near me, especially Vroman's in Pasadena. For most of you, though, the best place to look is online. Right now, there are three options:

(1) My publisher, Windstorm Creative, has it at their website:

(2) Amazon.com has a listing for it, although right now they say it's out of stock:

(3) You can get a signed copy directly from me. Just go to my own author website:

That's it for now, but as other opportunities come up, I'll be sure to let you know.

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21. I was concerned about this...

From CNN: Reliance on Russia makes NASA weak

With international tensions rising in the wake of the Russia/Georgia conflict this week, I couldn't help noting that in just a couple of years, the only route to the International Space Station will go through Russia. NASA is retiring the space shuttles in 2010, and even the most optimistic estimates now put the first launch of the new Orion capsule toward the end of 2014. For at least four years, if you want to get to the ISS, you'll have to use the Russian Soyuz.

Granted, that's not very high on the priority list while the bullets are still flying and the tanks are still rolling. But this crisis will get worked out sooner or later, and then we'll have to look at the bigger picture. If American foreign policy takes a more hardline approach toward Russia, our space program is going to suffer. The Russians can cut us off, and there's nothing we'd be able to do about it.

Unless, of course, some private company manages to get into space during that time. It's a long-shot, I know, but there's nothing wrong with trying...

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22. Hello there...

As the title says, my name is Robert A. Black, and I write novels for middle-grade readers. I've been at LiveJournal for almost six years, but now I want to create a separate "author blog," where I can write about my published books and my upcoming projects.

Let's start with the basics. First, here are my books:

Lunar Pioneers is my new release. I just got my first copies this week, in fact. It's a science fiction story about life on the Moon in the 22nd Century.

The Real Life Channel was my previous release. It's an adventure/fantasy that pays tribute to my time writing for Nickelodeon's You Can't Do That On Television.

Liberty Girl was my first book. It's a historical novel set in Baltimore during World War I, and it's based on my grandmother's remembrances as an 11-year-old girl.

My "official author website" is at http://www.rablack.com/. Be sure to check it out! And check back here for more news.

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