The Moon over Star by Dianna Hutts Aston, pictures by Jerry Pinkney
Give me a second. I am a mess. Let me get a Kleenex.
I was four years old when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon (while their shorter, funnier counterpart, Michael Collins, circled the block in the car), and I still feel privileged to have witnessed that moment. Hell, my husband and I named a cat Buzz Aldrin, we're still so impressed with this human feat. So I guess I should have expected that this book would give me goosebumps.
But my goodness - this is one damn fine book. I summarized it to a jury of my (younger) peers later in the evening, and just my synopsis made them all choke up.
Dianna Hutts Aston gives us that day in 1969 as experienced by an eight-year-old girl (who may or may not be Mae Jemison) on her grandfather's farm in a town named Star. Mae and her cousins pray for the astronauts in church in the morning and build a rocket ship out of scraps from the barn in the afternoon. Mae is the oldest, so she gets to pretend to be Armstrong as they count down to liftoff together. Later, they watch Cronkite on TV and hear those immortal phrases, "The Eagle has landed," and even later, "One small step for man..."
In between times, Mae thinks about the astronauts' children and whether they are proud but also scared, and about President Kennedy, who did not live to see this dream attained, and about her own grandfather, who does not approve of the space program. "Why spend all that money to go to the moon when there's so many folks in need right here on Earth?"
When I googled this title, I learned that President Obama read this book aloud to a group of second graders at a charter school in D.C. two weeks into his presidency. Well. If I wasn't impressed by this man before (and I was), I am now. If I tried to read this thing aloud, I do not think I could manage it. Which, given the class of second graders I know best, would still be a fine thing, because they would want to know why, and I would have the opportunity to tell them.
Or I might just show them the back cover of this book, with Jerry Pinkney's freakin' masterpiece of a full moon, and then open to his two-page spread of the Apollo 11 rocket clearing the launch pad. When I see that image, I always think of my dad explaining to me, "The U.S. space program was miserable in the beginning. People used to say, 'Our rockets always blow up.'" (Tom Wolfe quoted the exact same line in The Right Stuff.)
But hundreds, thousands of people believed that we could do it, and in the end, that rocket didn't blow up, and those astronauts had the courage to strap themselves into it, and we went to the damn moon. And if all that can happen, and if Jerry Pinkney can paint the Moon just as beautifully if not more beautifully than he has always painted people and trees and birds... well, then, an eight-year-old black girl in the town of Star can do anything with her life, and that's the message of this book, and now I'm snifflin' again.