Cars on Mars: Roving the Red Planet
By Alexandra Siy
Sometimes I think that adult authors of children’s non-fiction subjects get so wrapped up in their material that they forget (or, more likely, never knew how) to make the thing they are talking about palatable to kids. Here’s a pretty good litmus test for any work of non-fiction: If you, the grown-up, fall asleep mid-sentence, then there’s a pretty good chance a kid will do the same. Then they’ll vow never to read non-fiction ever again. And I admit, I don’t always notice this. I read a lot of children’s literature, and it’s easy to forget how boring a kid would find one type of writing or another. The nice thing is that when I read something really readable and child-centric, I notice. I noticed with Cars on Mars, as it happens. Picture this: robots with extraordinary life spans exploring a planet 303,000,000 miles away. It’s not science fiction, it’s fact. And so kids can learn about two exploration rovers who beat the odds and withstood storms, freezing winters, and even sandpits in their efforts to explore a planet none of us have ever been to. Woot! Go, team, go!
In the summer of 2003 two little Mars Exploration Rovers named Spirit and Opportunity were launched from earth towards our distant neighbor. Both rovers landed safely and spent their time exploring their new home. Running on sunshine, the rovers were expected to last around three months. As of this book, they’ve covered almost six years and taken more than 217,000 photographs. They’ve survived several near death experiences, and yet they keep on plugging along. This is their story of what they found, with tons of photographs taken along the way. The book contains a Glossary of terms, a Bibliography, Source Notes, Photo Credits, Index, and a remarkable list of websites, including one that offers “the most up-to-date reports on the rovers.” As of this review, they still appear to be functioning and moving along.
I have two theories about the scientists who worked on the Mars project and why this book is so kid-friendly. It could just be that they all have childlike sensibilities leading to incredibly fun information for children. One area of Mars is labeled Home Plate, and when a rover accidentally digs a ditch and exposes a bright patch of dirt there, the path is “Named Gertrude Weise, in honor of the 1944 star left-handed first baseman in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.” Huh! They have a way with names, these scientists. A patch of rubble accidentally crushed is dubbed Innocent Bystander. And then between the RAT (Rock Abrasion Tool) holes and the blueberries (little circular balls of hematite), the names keep you fascinated.
My second theory is that Siy is the one making it interesting. What she chooses to include makes all the difference. Sometimes it’s a case of including photographs of people like the kid who won the Name the Rovers Contest. Other times it’s how she chooses to describe things. For example, when it comes to the rovers, “Cruising speed is ten times slower than that of a wood turtle – averaging less than two feet per minute.” The rover stumbles on a “Berry Bowl” and it’s described as “A bunch of blueberries clustered closely together, like berries in the bottom of a cereal bowl.” Layers of rock are compared to cakes, and referred to as a good thing when it comes to scientists studying the chemical composition of the layers. So therefore, when coming across bedrock Siy will sometimes mention, “There were no yummy rock layers here.” It’s that kind of writing that keeps kids from nodding off while reading. There’s always some way of describing a situation or a scene that’s going to keep the reader going. You just have to look for it.
There’s also the fact that the story is so much fun. I mean, when you break it all down this is basically a tale about exploring. And, as with any explorer, things do not always go according to plan. Everything’s just going fine and dandy until THWWPT! Spirit shuts down and the scientists have to figure out how to fix it. The problem? It crashed. The computer crashed. Even with all our smarts and our technology, computers still crash on Mars. I mean, the scientists manage to fix it from earth (no mean feat) but it’s still one of those stories that gets you thinking. One of many.
So here’s the thing about the pictures. It’s not as if the two rovers have ever run into one another. So basically, if you see a picture in this book of a rover sitting on Mars, it’s a fake shot. A computer generated simulation of what the scientists think it would look like. I guess it’s as close as you can get to factual information, but it’s still odd to pair photographs with CGI suppositions. Not that the book doesn’t distinguish between the two each and every time. If there’s a fake shot to be had, Siy is going to tell you. Just the same, it’s hard to know what to think when you come across the third kind of photograph: the false color image. What does that mean? Dunno. No explanation is given, so kids will just have assume that if it says “false color” then the shades and hues seen there are fake.
I keep thinking back to an old Simpsons episode where NASA is trying to figure out how to get the general public interested in space exploration again. Sometimes I feel like NASA struggles with that same question in real life. How do you get people excited about space when they feel so jaded? How do we recapture our obsession with it? Maybe the answer is the get the children while they’re young. Kids have a natural aptitude for dreaming about the sky. Tap into that and what you have is a whole new generation of potential scientists and explorers. Lots of children’s books discuss the original moon landings or what it means to be an astronaut. Until now, I feel like Mars has gotten short shrift. No longer. Cars on Mars grips the kids with its title, then hauls them into a great story laden with facts that are consistently interesting. Throw in a heaping handful of photographs and images and brother, you’ve got yourself a potential fan.
Near the end of the book Siy mentions that “When this book went to press in late 2008, the rovers had been on Mars for almost five years.” You gotta appreciate the fact that the woman places this book within the context of its times. For all she knew, the rovers would discover skeletons of ancient space bats the month after she turned in these pages. So many children’s books about exploration set their stories in the distant past. How different it is to read about exploration that’s happening NOW? You know those kids fascinated with exploration? Tell them about this book. Make it clear to them that explorers still exist, and that sometimes they’re both 303,000,000 and sitting in a lab on Earth at the same time. The world has changed a lot since the days of De Soto. Maybe Siy’s book is exactly what kids need to transfer their exploring instinct from outward to upward.
On shelves now.
First Sentence: “The summer of 2003 was the perfect time for traveling to Mars.”
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