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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Review of the Day: Astronaut Handbook by Meghan McCarthy

Astronaut Handbook
By Meghan McCarthy
Alfred A. Knopf (Random House imprint)
ISBN: 978-0-375-84459-1
Ages 4-9
On shelves now

Back up! Back up swiftly now, because I don’t know how much longer I can hold her in. She’s coming out, I can feel it. Yes… YES… It’s the return of Curmudgeonly Old Lady and there’s nothing I can do to stop her tirades! Flee for your very life!

Why when I was a mere wisp of a girl of four or five do you know whom every girl my age wanted to be? No, not Mary Lou Retton (though that would be a strong guess). It was Sally Ride. Every child my age knew exactly who Sally Ride was. First American woman in space? How awesome was that? And because I’m talking about the height of Sally Ride fever, we kids spent a lot of time thinking about outer space and what it would be like to travel to the moon. The moon landing was a mere fourteen years before and the Challenger tragedy would happen when I was eight. Basically, space stuff was in the news and incredibly important. Now look at these young `uns today. Do they have the same space fervor of my generation? We’re almost prepped to go to Mars, but do they care? Well, probably a lot of them do. But where are the books out there meant to feed their fever? The titles that make traveling in space sound fun and interesting? And not the older stuff for the ten-year-olds either. I’m talking picture book non-fiction titles for five-year-olds that make outer space out to be really cool. Well, there’s probably one or two titles out there already in existence, but I doubt that many of them are as enjoyable and visually arresting as author/illustrator Meghan McCarthy’s latest. A specialist in the realm of the fun informational picture book, Ms. McCarthy presents the reader with four kids bent on becoming astronauts. If ever there was a space-related whistle whetter, this would be it.

Fact meets the ultimate childhood fantasy as Meghan McCarthy tells you just exactly how to go about becoming an astronaut in this day and age. After determining what kind of astronaut it is that you would like to be (would you prefer to fly the shuttle, perform scientific experiments, or do repairs?) it all comes down to studying hard in school and doing well. Being an astronaut means keeping fit, getting along with others, and then the real work begins. McCarthy covers everything from the Vomit Comet and food in outer space to astronaut’s toilets, the mechanics of a space suit, and liftoff itself in simple words and phrases. Young kids will get a big kick out of this child-based tutorial on what it takes to reach the stars.

It’s funny. You might think that a book that extols the virtues of hard work, exercise, getting along with other people, etc. would come off sounding preachy or at least a little didactic. Oddly it isn’t like that at all. It takes a good writer to deliver stereotypically "boring" information in a manner where kids might actually listen, particularly when that info is true and good. McCarthy sort of perfected this technique with her picture book biography of Charles Atlas in Strong Man, where she emphasized the importance of exercise and hard work. Astronauts are simply the natural next step.

 When you read a children’s book as an adult you have all this mental ephemera floating around your brain that sort of keeps you from viewing the book as a child would. It is remarkably difficult to think like a kid, but there is one part of this title will suck everyone in, old and young. Admit it. You’ve always wanted to know how toilets work in outer space, haven’t you? Haven’t you? Of course you have.

Ms. McCarthy’s thick paints are the joy of her books. Here is a lady unafraid to slap down some serious looking brushstrokes. The design of these pages is broken up in a variety of different ways, sometimes in small separate pics on a white page, sometimes in vertical views of liftoff that require you to turn the book. Some professional reviewers have been getting a bit confused as to whether the people in this book are kids or adults. It’s a pretty easy thing to determine, though. McCarthy’s kids have round faces and short little bodies. Her adults are elongated in comparison (a fact evident when paging through the section on the different kinds of astronauts). That brings up the question of why kids would be traveling to outer space, but the whole point of the book is that it’s a kind of child wish fulfillment. Understand that and you won’t find it confusing in the least.

 One of the things I just love about McCarthy’s books is that no matter how young her intended audience might be, she always goes the extra mile when it comes to factual backmatter. The backmatter in this book will prove to be of particular interest too since she includes clarification on a number of matters that both kids and adults will want to know. How do astronauts keep clean in outer space? What happens to the human waste? How long does it get to reach orbit? What is an astronaut’s average age? And did you know that "Astronauts see sixteen sunrises and sunsets every day that they are in orbit"? I was particularly intrigued with the portion that attempts to lure our good men and women of the teaching field into the world of space travel. A small section notes that NASA is looking for applicants that have B.A.’s in various sciences and teaching experience. A Bibliography at the end contains a lists of books, web sites, videos, and places to visit, though unfortunately it’s hard to read much of this information due to the deep, almost black, blue background the works to obscure the black of the font.

Informational books for young children often begin with Gail Gibbons and end with Byron Barton with very little wiggle room in between. Now I Want to Be an Astronaut has a more sophisticated and enticing companion for those star struck children just itching to travel up up and away. Astronaut Handbook offers the facts you want in the format you need and is a heckuva lot of fun along the way. If I’ve ever harbored any fears that kids today don’t have adequate books to feed their love of space, those fears can now be put to rest. A must have purchase for any library system.

On shelves now.

Notes on the Cover (Font):
  After seeing the Pixar movie Wall-E in the theater recently I was delighted to see that both it and this book sport a dated font, reminiscent of early computers and old Commodore 64s.  My kudos to the designer that made this tiny detail possible.

Other Blog Reviews:
Open Wide, Look Inside, The Children’s Book Review, and Kids Lit


About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova says:

    With all due respect to Sally Ride, I think you mean “first American woman in space,” comrade!

  2. D’oh! >hangs head in shame and then waits impatiently to change review<

  3. The Children's Book Review says:

    I really enjoy reading your blog. Thanks for the link – much appreciated!

  4. Betsy, Don’t feel bad. ‘Keith’ Ledger, oy! My stuffy sinuses have clogged my brain cells 🙂 tee hee! BTW, the astronauts are hot in 2009 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first moon walk.

  5. Astronauts, heck. The publishers are hot to celebrate the 40th anniversary as well. That’s why I was a little surprised to see them releasing this in ’08 rather than ’09. I guess they already have some different astronauty (I hereby copyright this word) fare for that time.