Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream by Tanya Lee Stone

Lynn: I am one of those people who needs a good dose of indignation now and then but even if you are hard-wired for calmness the story told in Almost Astronauts (Candlewick, Feb. 2009) is guaranteed to hit a ten on anyone’s IQ (indignation quotient) scale. While working on another book, Stone came across an obscure mention of a group of women called the “Mercury 13.” This tidbit took her on a journey of research that not only led to this fascinating book but also changed the focus of Stone’s writing. This is the story of two visionary men, thirteen determined women who longed to fly into space and the individuals and cultural mindset that blocked their way. Stone takes the reader step-by-step through her original research, creating a gripping story of inspiring achievement, personal sacrifices and deeply ingrained prejudice. Filled with perfectly chosen photographs, Stone provides outstanding source notes, a bibliography and an author’s note that will inspire young researchers to learn more. This book is so engaging that the injustice left me outraged and yearning to hand copies to everyone I met. Since that is clearly impractical, here I am, still indignant, and urging everyone to read this book and put it in the hands of every teen you can!

Cindy: Lynn’s right, this book will get your dander up. I want the movie! The determination and perserverance of these women who fought for the rights of women to be astronauts is a heart-wrenching story. The obnoxious comments of President Johnson and celebrated hero, John Glenn, and of the other men who dismissed these pilots because they were female make me furious. Indignation isn’t the half of it, but it’s a good start. The plight of the Mercury 13 program starting in 1961 is well-documented in black and white photographs, but when the story hits July 23, 1999 when the space shuttle Columbia launched with the first female commander, the photos turn to brilliant color and current female astronauts are featured in all their glory. Accessible to middle school students but engaging for high school students who might use it as a stepping stone to a research project on one of these women, the book is for everyone. I tried to read it on a recent trip and was interrupted by my airplane seat mates every flight as they saw the photos and wanted to know what I was reading! Stone’s book is a natural for fans of Karen Blumenthal’s 2005 title, Let Me Play: The Story of Title IX: The Law that Changed the Future of Girls in America. This book publishes tomorrow, Feb. 24th. Get your hands on a copy and let’s keep the indignation going!

Bonus: For the release celebration, Candlewick Press and Tanya Lee Stone are making available a poetry tribute to the Mercury 13. Click here to find Tanya’s poems, highlighting the moment each woman knew she wanted to fly.

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About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

8 Comments on "Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream by Tanya Lee Stone"

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  1. twonickelsoradime@gmail.com' Laura says:

    This looks like a must-read, especially with National Women’s History Month coming up fast. Thanks for pointing it out.

  2. sharyn@sharyn.org' sdn says:

    i haven’t yet read the book — and i will, posthaste — but wasn’t the main reason because they weren’t military test pilots? (of course, there were no female military test pilots at the time, so the indignation should go back a few steps to that bias.)

  3. Sharyn, you are right, that was a sticking point, and Stone covers all the issues involved with the jet-test-pilot issue. More infuriating was the fact that the female pilots in the WWII WASP program were allowed to fly military aircraft during the war, but not after. And, Russia and other countries were allowing female jet test pilots when the U.S. wasn’t. Can’t wait to hear what you think after you’ve read it. Please report back.–Cindy

  4. lauraalutz@gmail.com' Laura Lutz says:

    I loved this as well, especially with all the photos. Cindy – you’re absolutely right; this would make a FANTASTIC movie!!!! Not only is the story compelling, but I want to see all the fab 50s/60s wardrobes!

  5. Yes, Laura, we MUST have the movie! And I agree, the wardrobes would be fabulous.–Cindy

  6. jameseoberg@comcast.net' Jim Oberg says:

    The story of the women’s activities and thoughts is very well portrayed. My objection as a historian is that everything about the context is slanted to the point of falsification.

    Symbolically, look on the copyright page, where the author admits that the term used on the cover, ‘Mercury 13’, and throughout the book, is bogus — a ‘misnomer’, she calls it, not the word I’d use in a book aimed at children. who would understand better if the author used an age-appropriate vocabulary and just said ‘fake’. Other designations, such as ‘Lovelace-13’, have been offered, and are much more accurate in their denotations and connotations.

    The greatest historical atrocity in the book, as I see it, is the portrayal of all opponents of setting aside existing standards to let one or more of these women fly into space as bigots and racists and egomaniacs (the author’s savaging of feminist hero Jackie Cochran based on some imagined mind-reading ability was particularly vicious). LBJ in particular is singled out for vitriol that has no factual basis — he was opposed to changing standards to cater to any particular group, because he was concerned of where it would lead as additional demographic subsets began demanding equally preferential treatment. What he did about it — sadly but not surprisingly not reported in this book — was have officials find representatives of such groups and encourage assignments and training to raise their vitae to preset levels so there would be no hint of ‘reverse discrimination’. This succeeded as early as 1967 with the selection for astronaut training of Robert Lawrence, an eminently qualified black Air force pilot and scientist. On page 98, she pooh-poohs the 1978 selection of woman and racial minorities as second-rate since “they were all mission specialists” — not pilots. This is incorrect, and easily fact-checked if anyone had bothered: one of them, Fred Gregory, became the first black pilot-astronaut, mission commander, and ultimately top NASA HQ official, none of this mentioned in the book.

    Equally horrifying is the treatment of the Soviet woman-in-space mission of Valentina Tereshkova on pp. 84-5. The idea that an American decision to fly a woman symbolically would have been a ‘first’ is a delusion since the USSR had decided as a matter of policy to be first with its women-cosmonaut, from a special group selected separately without any of the credentials of the male team, and consequently would have launched before any American scheduled woman’s flight. The symbolism of Tereshkova’s flight was hollow, as the subsequent lamentable chronology of Russian women in space (what few there were) as propaganda gimmicks shows — despite the wide success of the gimmicks in convincing much of the world (particularly Jane Hart) of a ‘false reality’ of advantages women in the USSR were supposed to have had (but never did, and still don’t). Comparing the subsequent achievements of American women in space to the actual — not politically idealized — history of Russian women (ten times fewer) demonstrates which approach was more advantageous to attainment of a more gender-neutral situation, but isn’t the kind of bashing the book chose.

    And the idea that the United States led the world — aside from a handful of fool-the-gullible propaganda stunts from Moscow — in this genuine, solidly-based shift in age-old cultural patterns doesn’t seem to be the message the book wants to instill. Resentment and gender-bigotry drip from nearly every page. For some purposes, this approach may be understandable, and eminently useful, but it does not serve the purpose of true history.

    See www dot thespacereview dot com slash article/869/1 and
    www dot jamesoberg dot com slash 2007womenspacecraftcommanders_sta dot html

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