The Time I Called out a Children’s Book Author for Letting Girls Down

From Medium:

A few years back, I read a children’s book about the moon landing to my then-3-year-old daughter. It’s a great book in so many ways. But one thing stood out to me: Men.

Men, men, men. The word men over and over, in glowing terms, and nowhere a mention of anybody else.

The book, Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11, written and illustrated by Brian Floca, is a gorgeous, informative read, made to inspire another generation of stargazers. Unlike many dry books on the topic, this one has a gripping narrative. It managed to keep even my 3-year-old engaged.

Still, as I read I found myself changing words to make the story more gender-inclusive. Instead of “men,” I said “people,” “astronauts,” “scientists.” I wanted my daughter to be able to picture herself on that rocket ship, or in Mission Control.

Our storytime happened to take place in October 2017, just as the #MeToo movement was starting to gain momentum. Women were going public with stories of sexual harassment and outdated, gendered power structures. My own #MeToo stories were swimming in my head when I read Moonshot to my daughter. That night, I could not abide one more message of men’s competence alongside women’s invisibility. Fired up, and bursting with anger at the patriarchy, I did something I don’t usually do: I wrote the author to complain.

. . . .

Raising a kid in this highly gendered society is hard, I told him. The only thing stopping my daughter from imagining herself as one of those astronauts were stories like his that say it’s only something men do. I didn’t expect him to respond — I was used to men overlooking their privilege, ignoring their blind spots, and doing everything to preserve the status quo.

Then two days later, he wrote me back.

. . . .

In his email, Floca thanked me for writing and admitted he had known at the time he was writing the book that he was leaning exclusively on “men.” He said he’d tried “people,” but found the word to be clunky on the page. Plus, in reality, the three Apollo 11 astronauts were men, and he believed each person in Mission Control was a man as well. So he chose the gendered framing because it felt honest, simple, and specific.

Floca did, in his email, mention Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, and an interview where she discussed how she wished she’d seen other women astronauts when she was a girl. She was inspired by the Apollo program, Neil Armstrong specifically. Floca said he hoped my daughter would find inspiration in the Apollo 11 story as well.

But there was one line in his response that stood out, a sentence that told me my own work here wasn’t done: “If anyone can find the story of a woman who was working there,” Floca wrote, “I’d be happy and interested.”

I emailed him back one more time.

I found plenty of resources about women’s contributions to Apollo 11. There was Frances “Poppy” Northcutt, the first woman engineer in Mission Control, starting with Apollo 8. Or Joann Morgan, Margaret Hamilton, and Katherine Johnson. But it wasn’t just well-known scientists or astronauts who were left out of the narrative. As I told Floca, female spectators experiencing this historic, cultural event, were omitted from the story. And you would never know from reading Moonshot that in 1969, 17.5% of NASA workers were women, most of them working low-wage jobs.

I didn’t want Floca to draw in imaginary women or to change the focus of the book. I just wanted to put the issue on his radar — we can do a lot better than just saying the moon landing is something men did.

. . . .

Then, this month, out of the blue, I got another email from Floca.

Dear Darcy,
What’s your address?

Floca mailed us a free, signed copy of the new expanded edition of Moonshot, released in honor of the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. He made changes. Wonderful changes. I cried, with the realization that my anger, my voice, had made a difference.

The word “men” still shows up often in the book, but it’s not there alone anymore. On the Launch Control/Mission Control page, just as I requested, he changed “each man” to “everyone.”

Link to the rest at Medium

11 thoughts on “The Time I Called out a Children’s Book Author for Letting Girls Down”

    • Or… maybe he was writing about reality, and not “corrected” history?

      Woman! Find another book (I’m sure they are out there, even for children) about the Shuttle program, or one about returning to the Moon to establish a permanent base, or going to Mars.

      Very, very few women were involved in Mercury, Gemini, or Apollo – at least not in any significant role (obviously, not as astronauts at all). That is the history. The present is better, and the future can be better still. Although, with the differences inherent between the sexes (in general, not individually!), there will still be a preponderance of men in the “hard” (math) areas. Women will only be heavily represented in the biosciences* and chemical areas.

      * Don’t get me wrong here. The biosciences are CRITICAL to any endeavor like permanent Moon bases or long trajectories to other planets. Besides the fact that men in extremely long isolation from women get more than a little batty…

      • Some context:

        The early space program was deemed (and was) extremely risky. Early on it focused on military pilots. Hence, no women. When politicians, eager for photo-ops, pushed to sell the projects as safe and routine, we got CHALLENGERS.

        When bureaucrats, eager to brown nose politicians, replaced a fried and true insulation used a couple times a year for an “environmentally friendly” one, we got COLUMBIA.

        Space travel isn’t easy or safe but it is vitally necessary. It’s not for children or sensitives.Hats off to the men and women who do it.

        • Right up through Apollo 17, every flight had some new technology on it, which if it went wrong, could be disastrously wrong. Thus, test pilots. (Even when they did have some crew that wasn’t, every commander was a former test pilot.)

          Even “tried and true” systems had actually been flown less than a dozen times (albeit, for many more miles than the typical commercial airliner in testing).

  1. I’m actually shocked every time SpaceX completes a launch successfully. They’re loaded with ex-NASA that quit in disgust so they know what they’re doing but they still crowd the limits of what’s known to work and regularly cross them.

    Every launch is a one of a kind one way or another.

  2. The OP points out that the book was published in 2009. Darcy read it in 2017, and sent her complaints to the author. I’m curious: what material was available in 2007-8, when he was writing and illustrating the book? How easy would it have been for him to find the material the article-writer wanted included in the book?

    I’m glad it was updated with additional details and information for the 50th anniversary, but I’m tired of people beating up authors for not including material that might not have been available at the time of writing. (Full Disclosure: I’m a historian by trade.)

  3. And yet, despite that “sexist” rendering of the actual truth – that it was MALE engineers and pilots that sent MAN into space, I managed to be inspired to become a computer geek, ham radio operator, Linux afficianado, and physics and chemistry teacher.

    Unlike the writer here, a writer specializing in Vegan Parenting(?). Education in journalism and religion.

    NOT an empowered STEM specialist. Evidentally, she was one of the MANY that used the lack of “female role models” as an excuse to forego rocket science.

    Sweetie, if your girl doesn’t become an astronaut, it’s probably more about your loopy-doopy career choices, than too many men in science books.

    • I’m with you on the inspiration. Reading about men or boys did not keep me from dreaming of becoming an astrophysicist. I didn’t stop and say, “Oh, hey, there are no good or outspoken female role models, so I can’t do it.” That’s utter nonsense. When we base aspirations on whether a role model’s gender or race matches ours, we limit ourselves.

  4. Can’t believe that no one has mentioned “Hidden Figures” (the movie or the book), a story that highlights what WOMEN did for the Mercury space program. Clearly, women were involved. They were just overlooked time and time again.

    • Astronomy has a long history of ignoring the contributions of their women “computers” and Caroline Herschel’s contribution was largely discounted in earlier histories. This is gradually being corrected, in much the same way as the “Hidden Figures” female contribution was ignored (though I understand that racism also played a part in their case).

      Not having read the book I don’t know whether anyone in these background roles – male or female – figures in the story.

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