Tuesday, September 15, 2009

You are the first kid on Mars by Patrick O'Brien - review and interview

You are the first kid on Mars by Patrick O'Brien

2009 is the fortieth anniversary of the first manned mission to land on the moon. Did you know that? Yeah maybe the astounding array of commemorative books tipped you off. We've had books by everyone from Buzz Aldrin to Norman Mailer hit the shelves this year. Many, if not most, of these books have been inspiring and beautiful. Many, if not most, have made me cry.

But while I am fully aware of the importance of the Apollo 11 mission as a concrete example of the highest heights that can be achieved - by man and by mankind - I have wondered just how engaging this story is for young people. My own children are mystified and a little alarmed when I get all choked up reading them Brian Floca's atmospheric and detailed Moonshot or try to explain to them the unique perspective represented by former astronaut Alan Bean's paintings in Mission Control, This is Apollo.

That's why I think Patrick O'Brien's work of "speculative non-fiction" is so important this year. For my kids, and for their friend Alex, who is the model for the kid in the book (disclosure: Pat's family and mine have been friends since our 3rd-grade boys were barely walking, much less traveling the solar system), space travel is not something that happened on a tiny black-and-white TV set in the kitchen forty years ago. Space travel is not even the - let me take a deep breath and try to use an adjective that is not pejorative - somewhat tepid space shuttle program.

Space travel is "huge ships shaped like pine cones with lots of little sonar devices and everyone wears goggles that can switch from night vision to underwater vision to sunglasses!" (I asked.) They think the future will involve "a permanent space colony on the Moon as big as Texas!" "Or maybe at one of the Lagrange points!"

But ok, that's my kids. Not every kid knows that the gravitationally stable Lagrange points are good spots for a space station. But I will argue that my kids are representative of many kids when they think that space travel is part of their future. And Patrick has done our kids a service by writing and illustrating, with his usual blend of meticulous research and stunning art, a reasonably plausible conception of travel to Mars. His journey includes a space elevator up to a geosynchronous orbit point, a nuclear thermal ship that gradually accelerates to 75,000 miles per hour as it covers the 35,000 miles to Mars, and a Mars lander that bombs through the Mars atmosphere before parachutes drop it gently to the dusty red plain.

The friendly, explanatory second-person narration contrasts nicely with the giant grin on the face of the kid as he bounds across the Martian surface. Makes it feel like the book is being narrated by a teacher chaperoning a really good field trip, trying to keep from letting on that she is just as excited as the kids are.

Anyone familiar with O'Brien's previous books (on topics like sailing ships, extinct mammals, knights, and, er, dinosaurs in space) will know that the man researches like a maniac. Marianne Dyson, herself an author of numerous kids' books on space, picked apart every fact presented in You Are the First Kid On Mars when she reviewed the book, but revised her opinion when the author emailed her, addressing her objections and supporting his every phrase. It is really nice to know that the book stands up to that kind of scrutiny.

The artwork in this book was done on a computer, a departure for O'Brien, who, in addition to illustrating his own books, paints large oils of ships under sail. His mastery of the software and techniques involved is impressive - many of the illustrations look like they could be photos, which is important for those kids who want things to be above all else "real".

We had the delightful O'Brien family over for dinner this weekend, and after my husband's excellent fish tacos, I had the chance to ask Pat some questions about the book.

Your Neighborhood Librarian: What was your inspiration for writing You Are the First Kid on Mars?

Patrick O'Brien: My editor, Tim Travaglini, was really into the whole space idea. It was his idea to do a speculative book about going to Mars. My books usually come from my ideas, but this one came from him.

YNL: Was there anything different about writing about future science vs. your usual subjects?

PO: All of my other books are about historic and prehistoric nonfiction subjects. It is fiction, because it hasn't actually happened, but I was treating it as a nonfiction book. The reason that it’s in the second person is I read some books like that as a kid. You will go to the Moon is the one that I remember most clearly. And they had it all wrong, it’s really funny to see all that. Presumably, my stuff will be all wrong.

YNL: What was your research process? Do you regularly read science periodicals like Wired or Scientific American? Or was this a new area for you?

PO: I’ve always been a science guy, I was a biology major in college, but my son is really into space. We watch a lot of space stuff on TV. When Alex was really young, he liked real space more than the fictional movies. We'd watch NOVA together, and his toys were Apollo models, not Star Wars toys. I read a lot about space with him, and on my own.

I used the most up to date, most accurate information that I could find about what it would take to get to Mars. I went through the NASA website, books on space travel.

YNL: Is this your first work created digitally?

PO: This is the first book I illustrated on the computer.

YNL: You're such a good painter though - why did you decide to do it using techniques that are new to you?

PO: Well, for fun, as a change. It was different, and I just thought it was appropriate to the subject matter. The thing about using the computer to do the art, a lot of people who don’t do it think you just push the spaceship button and you get a spaceship. You push the astronaut button, and you get an astronaut, and then you make it do what you want. But you still have to draw it, you still have to paint it. It’s just one more medium. When they invented watercolors, it didn’t put the oil painters out of business.

But there are advantages. You can make infinite changes - with watercolors, pretty much once it's down, it's there. You can make a certain amount of changes with oils, but with the computer, you can keep adjusting it until it's just what you want. I used Corel Painter X and a tablet, so it’s a lot like painting. It wasn't hard to learn.

YNL: Did you find it hard to stop making changes? Was it tempting to keep touching it, trying out variations?

PO: No. A little. I know what I’m going for, I have a picture in my mind, and when I've made that, it’s done.

There you go, folks. I made it, it's done. You will go to the Moon was, not surprisingly, on my shelf as a kid too.

No comments: