Review of the Day: Mars Is by Suzanne Slade
Mars. That’s an easy one. That’s the red planet, right? The one that’s all dusty and reddish, where Matt Damon lived on potatoes. Mars. Ray Bradbury had tons of stories set there. A dry wasteland, like a desert, where a person could slowly go mad. Unlike, say, Neptune or Uranus, Mars is the one planet that a lot of people here on Earth have a pretty strong feeling for. We know that folks would like to colonize it someday. And I’ve personally made it a point of pride to read every middle grade novel I know that’s set there. Mars. It’s incapable of surprising us anymore. Right? Well, it turns out that everything I thought I knew about Mars, right down to what it looks like, was dead smackin’ wrong. I did not know about the snow. I did not know about the bedrock. I didn’t know about what the sun does to Mars in its spring or just the sheer number of different textures its surface is capable of. And, naturally, the reason that I didn’t know any of this is because it wasn’t until a powerful camera started sending back highly detailed photographs, that anyone knew what Mars actually resembled. Imagine you’re one of the scientists in charge and you start sifting through images of deserts, volcanoes, yardangs (say what?), landslides, and many with these brilliant enhanced colors provided by the camera itself. That thrill of discovery has now been translated into Mars Is. With deft wordplay, Suzanne Slade explains to kids what you are seeing, why it’s important, and in the process she feeds the imaginations of a whole up and coming crop of scientists in the making.
Leave it to earthlings to always want to know more. It hasn’t been enough for us to stare up into the sky at Mars. We want to see onto its surface. To probe its secrets and find out what lies in store for us there. So in 2005 a powerful camera was sent up into space. Called the HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) it began orbiting Mars in 2006. Since that time it has sent 60,000 photos, with new ones coming home all the time. After enhancing the color, the photographs are an amazing array. Canyons that dwarf our own. Dormant volcanoes. Impact craters galore! Suzanne Slade walks young readers through marvel after marvel, explaining the science in an accurate and understandable way. By the end, kids will have a firm grasp on not simply what Mars looks like, but how its surface can offer clues to its mysterious past. Backmatter includes information on the camera’s trip to the stars, further info on the camera, and some facts about Mars itself.
I love having a six-year-old in my house that I can bounce books off of (not literally, of course – that would be rude). Each morning we have a little time to read something, so I like to have some kind of science book or bio on hand. Mars Is gave us all kinds of fodder for discussion too. I mean, we’re talking about a planet that’s essentially chock full of dry ice. Then I went into a whole explanation about what dry ice even is (along with a remembrance of an ill-fated ice cream shop in my hometown that would serve ice cream desserts with dry ice inside). Turn a page and there’s an image of a gigantic crater caused by an asteroid long ago. That led to a talk about dinosaurs and the possibility of Earth ever encountering an asteroid. Turn a page and we’re looking a large boulders that can move. That leads to us talking about tectonic plates shifting. A truly good informational book for kids allows for this kind of conversation. It’s a piss poor book that doesn’t make you split off onto tangents and explanations with every page. This is the kind of book that helps kids to create new memories, even as it indulges and informs.
A word about photography. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Photography gets short shrift in the children’s literary world. In the old days this was somewhat understandable. Printing processes simply weren’t up to the task of replicating color photos, so you ended up with a lot of black and white books. That led to some pretty interesting stuff (The Lonely Doll, anyone?) but in general, photography was considered inferior to illustration. That attitude hasn’t shifted much. Heck, the closest it’s ever gotten to a Caldecott was when Mo Willems used photographs (which he himself took) as backgrounds in the Knuffle Bunny series. But times change. Technology, and cameras, improved considerably. Printing techniques were upgraded and now we have the ability to recreate sumptuous images on the page. Just in time too. I shudder to think what kind of books we’d be seeing if the HiRISE had existed twenty years ago. And while the book never explains how many images Suzanne Slade had to sift through, surely this title stands as a landmark work of photography in a work for kids.
So what’s your favorite photograph in the book? I mean, you have to have one. It’s a tough choice, though. My first instinct would be to say those blue-gray dunes in the Lyot Crater. Their curves resemble nothing so much as the folds of some kind of alien fabric. They’re cool, but can they really hold a candle to the linear ridges you’d find in a dry valley? Or the mesas, man, the mesas! In “Mars Is” the colors are also a key part of the allure. Reds and blues and grays. Granted, these aren’t entirely accurate. As the backmatter explains, because our human eyes “can’t detect color above 700 nm”, the camera enhanced the photos so that the visible colors are made brighter and more intense. And the textures! I give this book inadequate praise if I do not point out how important the textures are in each image. You just want to reach out and pet them. Some enterprising soul should consider making this book into an interactive board book and stat. It would sell like hotcakes.
One book that this immediately reminded me of is Benjamin Grant and Sandra Markle’s Overview: A New Way of Seeing Earth. Like this title, the shots are entirely from a long distance above. Unlike this book, it’s got a bit of an Earth-only focus (crazy, right?). Ditto The Alphabet from the Sky by Benedikt Groß and Joseph Lee. I think the real advantage here is that while those books are neat, they’re not particularly unexpected. A subdivision that looks like the letter “A” doesn’t carry the same weight as round slabs of carbon dioxide in the form of ice or beautiful alluvial fans. Still, the audience may already be built in. Thanks to its good p.r. department, Mars hotter than ever before with kids. All you need is to do now is a Mars readaloud session with a slightly older crowd to lure them in all the way. Want to instill Mars fever? Then you gotta catch this book.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Interviews: Read this Q&A with Ms. Slade as conducted by her publisher.
This is pretty neat. Take a gander at this interview conducted by the bookstore Politics & Prose between Suzanne Slade and Ari Espinoza the HiRISE Outreach Coordinator:
About Betsy Bird
Betsy 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.
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