29 June 2009

Rave Review: One Giant Leap by Robert Burleigh; paintings by Mike Wimmer

This summer marks the 40th anniversary of the first lunar landing. I wish it was an event I could look back on--I missed out by a year--but my husband can clearly remember it; a little boy in England watching from the cafeteria at school on televisions set up specially for the occasion. The juxtaposition of an everyday activity as mundane as eating lunch, with the truly otherworldly occurrence of men walking on the moon, is part of the incongruity of this event in history: the astronauts nationalistically planted an American flag, but the famous "giant leap" was recognized as significant for all mankind; they were able to reach the moon, but there was no guarantee that they could leave it; the people at NASA were able to send Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins into the majesty of space, but their return was an undignified drop into the ocean, completely at the mercy of gravity. Today, in an age where shuttles can fly into space like airplanes, and space tourists actually exist, the achievement of the Apollo 11 mission seems almost quaint.

In the hands of Robert Burleigh and Mike Wimmer, however, there is nothing quaint about the first lunar landing. The breadth and ambition of what those pioneer astronauts set out to achieve is clearly and poetically described. The book is devoid of all scientific jargon and instead focuses on the wonder of the mission. Author and illustrator take advantage of seminal moments from the event, utilizing Armstrong's famous commentary, for example, and recreating his iconic photograph of the American flag reflected in Aldrin's visor. But they also infuse a thoughtful perspective of their own. Burleigh spares a moment for third crewman Michael Collins, orbiting the moon by himself for over twenty hours, waiting and wondering if the Eagle will be able to return to him. He describes the smell of the moondust as Armstrong and Aldrin finally remove their spacesuits, a subtle reminder that the fear of lunar pathogens was a legitimate concern and that the astronauts would immediately be quarantined upon their return to Earth. And Wimmer's paintings have the realism of a photograph and the spontaneity of, well, two boys playing on the moon. This is non-fiction that reads like an adventure story, perfectly suited for the picture book format.

Perhaps where this book succeeds most is in portraying space exploration as an amazing opportunity, and not just a news update scrolling along the bottom of a tv screen. In the quiet majesty of Burleigh's exact prose and Wimmer's transcendent paintings, is the realization that the Apollo 11 mission was important not just for what it achieved scientifically, but for what it represented in terms of reaching for goals and achieveing them. An Author's Note at the the end spells out as much, but it is unneccessary to enjoy this magnificant book.


Pam T said...

Great review. I am going to go hunt down this book for my kids. I remember that event clearly, and it looks like this book will work to convey the wonder.

Z-Kids said...

I love Mike Wimmer... We'll have to check this out

Kara Schaff Dean said...

I was not familiar with his name, but once I saw the list of books he has illustrated, then I knew where I had seen him before.

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