Space! The universe you’ve never seen it before” is a book that has a large variety of topics. Sadly, it lacks in in-depth explanation on most topics. This book could potentially be used by older FLL junior teams and younger FLL teams to figure out what their topic could be. However, if your FIRST team has already decided on a topic, I would not suggest buying this book.  -- D.J., Age 12, Robotic Rhinos FLL team #30485

Title: Space! The universe as you've never seen it before"
Publisher:  DK / Smithsonian Institution, 2015
ISBN: 978-1-4654-3806-5
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Scott Kelly's 2.5 books.

Scott Kelly has two books out:  Endurance (for adults), and My Journey to the Stars (for little kids).  A young reader's edition of Endurance is in the works.

There are numerous reviews out there about Endurance, Scott Kelly's autobiography, so I'm going to focus mostly on (non)suitability for FLL.  For more a general review, check out this New York Times review.  For the kids' book, scroll on down!

Endurance includes many details about Scott Kelly's childhood, including how he was a poor student and didn't really figure out how to be successful until a couple years into college.  Briefly putting on my college prof hat, I can see it being a great book to read with freshmen.  There are also a bunch of details about life in space that were fascinating.  The past is interleaved with the time on the ISS.  I enjoyed Kelly's comparisons between the American and Russian way of doing things, cultural differences, and such.  In parts, he comes across as very jaded about Mission Control, and bits of the book feel pretty dark.  Some of these issues never really resolve in the book.  He's upset about the carbon dioxide levels on the ISS and that both CDRAs aren't running to fix it, but we learn that Mission Control has agreed to do something about it only in the epilogue's list of what he learned.  Several other narrative threads are similarly dropped.  That's just how life works, but it doesn't make for entirely satisfying reading.  I wanted him to have some epiphany about his life during the "present tense" time on the ISS, but that never really happens in the book.  It's more of a series of interesting vignettes.

So, on to the FLL-oriented part.  This review is of the regular book, NOT the young reader's edition (not due out until October 2018).  This regular book is going to be problematic for FLL-age kids. The F-bomb is dropped repeatedly.  There's also a fair amount of drinking, including some party-hard behavior, and many trips to bars.  Kelly is living with his girlfriend (when not in space), which may also be a problem for some more conservative families.  And there's a level of darker rumination and/or cynicism woven through the retelling of these amazing accomplishments.  As an adult, I'm going with "interesting, but not really heart-warming."  If you'd like to use an adult book with an FLL team, either Chris Hadfield's or Tim Peake's books look more suitable, and I've got reviews of those to follow.

I'll be updating this review in November, once I've had a chance to look at the young reader's edition of Endurance.  I suspect that by the time all the drinking and swearing is cut out, it'll be about the right length.  I'm not sure that the current interleaving will work for younger readers, so I'll be interested to see how much a rewrite it gets.  Stay tuned.

My Journey to the Stars is another book entirely.  This is a lovely picture book, a mix of illustration and vintage photos that tells Scott Kelly's autobiography story at a little kid level.  My almost-6 year old loved it, and we read it over and over until the library wanted it back. My almost-12 year old snuck in to listen a few times, too.  It's very well done, and I recommend it, but the target age range is about at the bottom of the FLL age range.  It'll be a great option for FLL Jr teams this season, either for reading aloud or independent reading.

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Planetary Science

I really want to like this book.  An actual planetary science book for middle schoolers, with occasional interspersed comics of two kids of color and a hijab-wearing astronomer?  What's not to like, right?  It is also up-to-date, including the upcoming InSight, ExoMars, and Mars 2020 missions.

Title:  Planetary Science
Author: Matthew Brenden Wood
Publication year: 2017

Mostly, I do like it, but there's this absolute screamer of an error:

I'm not a planetary scientist, and I found this one pretty quickly. I hope the publisher and author will commit to a better quality control process for the second edition, because I really want to love this book!

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Documentary: The Farthest: Voyager in Space

All, here's a free DVD opportunity for "The Farthest: Voyager in Space", a two hour documentary on the Voyager missions, done primarily as interviews with the scientists and engineers who were involved. HHMI sent this DVD at no charge when I requested it at the link below. (I'm US-based with a .edu email. YMMV.)  Here's the link to request it.

My 11 year old and spouse thought it was awesome, and Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic agree. My almost-six year old thought it was too many talking heads, and that she'd rather watch something with rovers. So I got to see about half of it and am looking forward to seeing the other half some night when the rover fan is asleep.
It /is/ heavy on the talking heads, but very interesting, and the editing is well done such that it moves right along. I was pleased to see several female scientists included in documentary - especially with older missions, that can be a challenge.
After I requested it, the DVD took several weeks to arrive, so you may want to order is NOW if you'll want it this fall.
Amazon also has it, if you need to pay stream it NOW instead of waiting for the DVD to arrive: 

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Mars Rovers

This is a K-2 book about Mars exploration, heavy on sight words.  If you're book shopping for younger FLL Jr teams (or a teammate with a reading delay), check it out.  I wrote it, and I hope you'll find it useful.

The ebook is FREE on 6/3 and 6/4, or permanently included in Kindle Unlimited.  Here's a link:

Here's a link for those of you who prefer a paper book.

NOTE:  The Kindle book and printed book have the same text and images, but the layout is different due to the constraints involved in making a Kindle book work on phones and tablets without major pinch and zoom.

Feedback welcome.
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Welcome to Mars

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin takes us on a speculative romp to Mars colonization.  Unlike many other Mars books that focus on what we've already done, this book discusses the future of humans on Mars, and may turn out to be a really good resource for teams looking at colonization.

Title: Welcome to Mars
Authors: Buzz Aldrin and Marianne Dyson
ISBN: 978-1-4263-2206-8

The writing style is chatty, and mixes current knowledge of Mars and history of exploration with speculation of how setting up the first Martian colony will happen.  Most of the speculation is in present tense, and treats the child reader as one of those who'll colonize Mars.

The book addresses travel to Mars, why space travel is so expensive, use of the Aldrin cycler, what we'll need to take to Mars (and how it might get there), what life on Mars might be like, issues with dust and radiation, how to get power, water, and food.  The coverage isn't especially deep, but it could definitely help teams get some ideas for what challenges will face a colony on Mars, and some possible solutions.

The book also includes the history of Mars exploration and what we already know about the planet, interleaved with the "story" of our going to Mars to colonize it.  (But if you want more detailed coverage of the rover missions, see Mighty Mars Rovers or Cars on Mars.)

With a 900L Lexile score, this is a fairly easy read, and should be accessible even to younger FLL team members, while still being interesting to older teams.

Finally, this book is much better on diversity than some of the others out there.  The people depicted are men and women (and boys and girls, given some of our colonists appear to be children), and although white colonists appear to be the majority, there are at least a few colonists of color depicted.

Click here to see all our reviews!

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Book review: Cars on Mars

Cars on Mars summarizes the first years of the Opportunity and Spirit rovers, with great photography.

Title: Cars on Mars: Roving the Red Planet
Author: Alexandra Siy
Year: 2009

Like Mighty Mars Rovers, this is a book about Spirit and Opportunity.  Unlike Mighty Mars Rovers, Steve Squyres is much less prominent, although he's still introduced early and quoted sporadically.

The Lexile score is NC1240L, which surprised me, given Mighty Mars Rovers' 940L.  Cars on Mars is printed in a larger font and is a substantially shorter read, despite the higher difficulty score.  Cars on Mars also feels a bit more juvenile.  ("If Spirit had had robotic children onboard, they would have complained 'Are we there yet?'")

Many of the pictures used in the two books are the same, perhaps unsurprisingly.  And indeed, the content is rather similar, both books being a chronological recounting of these two rovers' work, although there places where each book has a bit more depth than the other.  Cars on Mars has more depth in discussing the updates in driving technology that were pushed out to the rovers, for instance.

Because this book is three years older than Mighty Mars Rovers, it does not extend to the end of Spirit and Opportunity's arrival at Endeavor.

Which book should you buy?  I lean towards Might Mars Rovers, given newer content, a more exciting telling, and easier reading (despite the increased length).  This book is also a solid addition to any FLL team's library, but more as a research source than a devour-it-whole story.

Click here to see all our reviews!
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Book review: Mighty Mars Rovers

Summary: This is the story of the first two Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity.  There are numerous books about these rovers, but this book is better than most in delivering a narrative story, rather than a list of facts.

Title: The Mighty Mars Rovers
Author: Elizabeth Rusch
ISBN: 978-0544932463

The book focuses on Steve Squyres, and his picture appears in the book almost as often as the rovers! There’s nice material on failing and trying again and on testing many ideas to find the most promising, but I wonder if the author couldn’t have introduced us to some of the additional members of the team (especially any women and people of color), without disrupting the narrative).  I haven’t yet read it to my daughter (although I’m sure I will - it’s a great story), but I’m also looking for more opportunities to read stories about people other than white men doing science and engineering.

There is a lot of text.  (About two hours silent reading for this adult.). It’ll work for most middle schoolers (and adults will enjoy it, too).  The Lexile score is 950L.  The text also works as a read-aloud over multiple days - there’s much too much here for a single session, but it flows pretty well for out loud reading.

Recommendation: Buy it. But don’t make it your only book about scientists and engineers.

Click here to see all our reviews!

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Oh so many books to look at!

We'll be using this section of the website to share reviews of books that might be suitable for Mission Mars (FLL Jr, 2018-2019 season) or Into Orbit (FLL, 2018-2019 season).

To see additional books that look interesting but we haven't reviewed yet, visit our list on Amazon.  Book ideas for Mission Moon and Into Orbit

Loving the reviews?  Please help us support teams in the Roanoke Valley with a book purchase!  RVR4Y's wishlist

Click here to see all our reviews!

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If you were an astronaut

With fabulous photos of astronauts in action, this two-decades old book is still worth owning, or reading online for free!

Title: If you were an Astronaut
Author: Virginia Schomp
ISBN: 0-7614-0618-2
Publisher: Benchmark Books, 1998

We discovered this out-of-print book in our public library.  This is a great read-aloud book for FLL Jr teams or a good independent reading source for older FLL Jr or younger FLL team members.  (Lexile 780L, Guided Reading K.)

The book is now a bit dated, coming from the space shuttle era, but the description of what it is like to be an astronaut and the photos of life in space are excellent, and may help kids envision some of the problems and solutions of life/travel in space.

There are used books listed on Amazon, or you can find an electronic copy (free with registration) from the Internet Archive

Click here to see all our reviews!
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Space Encyclopedia (National Geographic Kids)

A gorgeous book, mostly focused on the solar system and known universe, with some interesting speculation and futurism at the end.  Kids may need help distinguishing imagination/speculation from current knowledge in a few spots.

Title: Space Encyclopedia
Publisher: National Geographic Kids
Author: David Aguilar
Year: 2013
ISBN: 978-1-4263-0948-9
This is a gorgeous book.  Most pages are covered in photo-like illustrations.  Some captions clearly distinguish art/illustration from actual images, while others do not.  The Lexile is 1100 and there's a lot of text, so this book is going to work best for stronger readers.

The book is mostly a tour of the universe, with the first 150 pages dedicated to planets, stars, and so on.  The author makes use of the idea that one is traveling on a fusion-powered space ship on some pages.  The very end of the book gets into the question of life and possible future space travel, along with the possibility of terraforming Mars, solar sails, and asteroid mining.  Because of the survey nature of this book, this section isn't especially deep, but it might be a good source for early inspiration, that'll need some follow-up from another source.

Younger users of this book may need some help with understanding what's real and what isn't.  For instance, a page on alien life has photo-like images and present tense descriptions of the aliens in the figure captions.  Coaches might need to clarify what's imagination and speculation, and what's current knowledge in some spots.

This is a neat book to have in your FLL team's library (or to check out from your actual library).  List price is somewhat high ($25), but mark-downs and inexpensive used copies are fairly common.

Click here to see all our reviews!

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Core values recommendation

Let me take a break from reviewing books to recommend Lift it!  Played in team format, it becomes a  non-stop Core Values exercise.  Team members compete (against the clock or another team) to build the structure shown on the card, using a hook attached to strings attached to their foreheads or held in the hands.  Or one team member holds the card with the directions and tells the other player what to build.

Control of the hook is pretty marginal, so players have lots of opportunity to practice communicating and dealing graciously with failure.  Highly recommended!

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Max Goes to Mars: A science adventure with Max the dog

In this somewhat silly read-aloud book, Max the dog goes to visit Mars.  This is a fun off-season/read-at-home opportunity for FLL Jr teams, but probably not as high priority as the books focusing on humans and robots.

Title: Max Goes to Mars: A science adventure with Max the dog
Author: Jeffrey Bennett
ISBN: 0-9721819-1-1

This is a cute read-aloud book for younger kids, part of a series that includes Max the Rottweiler's visits to Mars, the Moon, a space station, and Jupiter.  My five year old loved it, so the others are probably in my future as well.

Nearly every page has a panel with smaller text that seems to be targeting adults or much older reader.  Although my five year old loves the story, she has no interest in these panels, which is too bad, because that's where the explanations of the science are.  For instance, the communications gap is only dealt with in the panels.  The story itself implies that a video call would make sense.

The story is cute, although a bit silly in spots.  (Max's space suit allows him to smell things?  Um, ok.  It's a bit hard to imagine a plan that brings a 100 pound Rottweiler to Mars, in lieu of more scientific equipment.  The silliness is acknowledged in the side panels, and while its possible that space explorers might bring an animal for companionship, a house cat seems more likely than a Rottweiler.)

This is a fun off-season/read-at-home opportunity for FLL Jr teams, but probably not as high priority as the books focusing on humans and robots.

The book has a Lexile of NC1120L, which probably reflects the more complicated writing in the side panels.

Update:  You can see the Max books read on the ISS, via "Story Time from Space"!   How totally awesome is that?

Read the rest of our reviews!

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Team Moon: How 400,000 People Landed Apollo 11 on the Moon

"When those millions of people tuned in hoping to witness the moonwalk, one thing they wouldn't see [...] were the nonastronauts, those beyond the glare of the limelight.  The regular folks whose efforts made an impossible mission possible in the first place."  (From the text.)

Title: Team Moon: How 400,000 People Landed Apollo 11 on the Moon
Author: Catherine Thimmesh
ISBN: 978-0-544-58239-2

I bought this book because I hoped to read about teamwork and a variety of roles needed to execute a mission to the moon.

The writing is breathless. And given to sentence fragments.  The reading level would be OK for older FLL team members.  (Lexile 1060L / Guided reading Y.)

The photos are lovely, although the white lettering on black background leaves something to be desired for these old eyes.  The inclusion of quotes is neat, and tells the story differently from some drier retellings for the moon landing.

Did I get my stories of teamwork?  Sort of.  There are stories about programming alerts coming through as the Apollo 11 astronauts are trying to make a moon landing, being low on fuel, frozen fuel.  The teams here are engineering teams and mission control.  One doesn't get a sense of many specialties coming together.  The section on the space suit is a bit better, and we get quotes from a space suit "model" and a seamstress who assembled the suits.  Then comes a story about wind nearly messing up the transmissions for the first moonwalk.  The discussion of tracking the astronaut's life support performance by hand is interesting, but again is mostly focused on the engineering aspects.

The section on photography was fascinating.  The astronauts received training on how to take photos and what to take photos of (because you can't change film in a space suit), and then there was the question of how to decontaminate the film (without damaging it!), in case there were lunar germs.  It's a great story.

I came away from the book with the impression that a wide range of engineering specialties were needed, but less so a sense of the non-engineering specialties needed.  From the choice of featuring the seamstress in the promotional materials, I'd hoped for broader coverage of all the specialties and skills needed.

FIRST teams need a huge range of skills, not all of them engineering.  While this book is beautiful and interesting, it didn't quite have the hoped-for message about non-engineering skills also being needed.

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FICTION: Young Explorer's Adventure Guide (any year)

Despite the title, this is a collection of science fiction short stories, with book of stories released each year.  The stories have child/teen protagonists.  This is a kids' book, but big kids/adults will find plenty to enjoy, too.  There is nothing objectionable for elementary school kids, although some stories are too scary for my five year old.  (Disclaimer: my five year old finds some G-rated Disney movies to be too scary, too.)

Diversity:  Oh yes.  There are lots of girls, and they're mechanics, pilots, scientists, and leaders.  Children of color are present, sometimes as protagonists.  Some stories include children with disabilities, or with very different body shapes caused by growing up in space.  Chances are excellent that your child will find someone to identify with in this book.

Will you kid learn a great deal of space science from these books?  No, probably not.  Will your kid get inspired to learn more about space, how we might live on other planets, and be inspired to engage in the Into Orbit / Mission Moon challenge topics?  Quite possibly!

Click here to see all our reviews!
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Discovering Mars

This is an encyclopedic (or perhaps "everything but the kitchen sink") book about Mars, suitable for upper elementary grades. It is jammed packed with facts related to Mars. To me, it felt a bit incoherent, but kids needing to do research on Mars may find it a good reference.

Title: Discovering Mars
Author: Melvin Berger
Publication info: Scholastic, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-545-83960-0
Sample page:

This is an encyclopedic (or perhaps "everything but the kitchen sink") book about Mars, suitable for upper elementary grades.  (Guiding reading level T / Lexile 910.)  It is 62 pages jammed packed with facts related to Mars (including pages about how it got its name, the 1938 Halloween radio hoax, canali, etc).  To me, it felt a bit incoherent, but kids needing to do research on Mars may find it a good reference.  Individual page spreads look great, but the first part of the book skips from page to page a bit disjointedly.  I picture it as a research source, but not as independently great reading.

There's nice coverage of the different missions and the search for life in the second half of the book, concluding with a couple brief pages of speculation about what it would take to get humans to Mars and back.  Pages range from line art to actual photos to photo-realistic illustrations.  I've included one sample page, but they're so widely variable that no one page really represents the full range.

Diversity:  The few scientists mentioned by name or pictured are white males, BUT most of the book is photos of the planet and robots and probes, so the lack of diversity is less apparent than in some books.

My five year old is a huge book fan, especially books about science.  She'll gladly sit to listen to an hour of reading, but I lost her a few minutes into this book.  Coaches of FLL Jr teams might pick a page or two for reading aloud during a team session, but it is better as a reference than a narrative.

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Life on Mars (Carson)

Summary: An excellent book for FLL Jr and youngest FLL teams interested in learning more about the possibility of life on mars and the scientific process of learning about a distant planet's biology.  An inexpensive addition to any elementary-level collection of books about outer space.

Title: Life on Mars
Author: Mary Kay Carson
Publication information:  Scholastic, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-545-93548-7
Sample page:

This easy-reader gives a nice run-down on questions about whether there could be/has been life on Mars and about more than five decades of missions that have tried to answer these questions.  There are numerous pages dedicated to the various rovers (robots) that have visited Mars, which is a nice tie-in for FLL and FLL Jr.  

Books at this level (Guided reading level N / Lexile 550L) are often thin on content due to the need to keep the text at the right level, but this book is better than most.  The writing style is simple, but there's a lot of scientific process and evidence packed into it.  Most pages have color photos or photo-like illustrations.  This book could be a good option for an FLL team member with reading delays.

Most of the book uses an impersonal "scientists think" style, with no actual scientists pictured, but one page late in the book is dedicated to the work of Dr. Nathalie Cabrol.

Overall summary:  Buy it if the reading level is appropriate!  Highly recommended.

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You wouldn't want to be on Apollo 13

Summary: Fun choice for FLL Jr and FLL teams, but a major miss on diversity.
Title: You wouldn't want to be on Apollo 13 (revised edition)
Author: Ian Graham
Publisher: Scholastic, 2017
ISBN: 978-0-531-23157-9

This is a fun book.  I know I've got a cross-age winner when I'm reading to my five year old and my eleven year old ends up parked on the couch next to us, listening.

The book tells the story of Apollo 13, relating the story with a good dollop of the funny and gross to keep the kids entertained (floating vomit, bags of urine, that sort of thing).  The art is a goofy, engaging, comic style.  At about 30 jam-packed pages, there's too much here for a read-aloud during a single team meeting, but it'd be a solid book to loan out to FLL Jr or FLL team members of any age.  (Reading level:  Guided Reading R, IG880L.)  There's a lot of science and history, with a big focus on what it was like to be a human in space, which could be very useful for teams this year.

So, now on to the problem:  Of course all the Apollo 13 astronauts are white men.  That's a fundamental challenge in teaching kids about early space travel.  You get lots of white men, and indeed the historical photos of mission control show a sea of white men.  But, given this book is illustrated, I found myself wishing the illustrator had snuck in a couple of women or minorities in the drawings of the ground crew and mission control.

Hidden Figures briefly mentions the participation of Katherine Johnson (a woman of color) in calculations of the lunar module return (in successful Apollo missions) and in a way to navigate without the computers that was used on Apollo 13.  A couple sidebars might have addressed the diversity issue.

If you have a recommendation for a kids' book that shows a little bit of diversity in early space history, please tell me!  I'm still looking....

One minor annoyance, unlikely to bother anyone but an adult scientist: it is clear that the person doing the conversions from km to miles didn't really think about significant figures.  For example: "On April 13th, Apollo 13 is 204,431 miles (329,000 km) away from Earth."  Yeah, no, that should be 204,000 miles.

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The Magic School Bus Takes a Moonwalk

Strengths: Fun for the little kids, diverse children shown exploring the moon
Weaknesses:  Not enough science to bother
Recommendation: Skip it.

Title: The Magic School Bus Takes a Moonwalk
Author: Joanna Cole
Series: Magic School Bus (easy reader version)
Publisher: Scholastic, 2004
ISBN: 978-0-439-68400-2
This is not the Magic School Bus series that is jam-packed with interesting information and humor. This is the easy reader version, with minimal text and only a few call-outs with more facts.

FLL Jr teams are going to need a range of books, to accommodate younger teams where the coach reads aloud to the team and older teams who'll be able to individually tackle texts of various reading levels.  Having said that, I can't figure out where this book would fit in, even for the very youngest teams.  There's too little here to help FLL Jr teams learn about moon science.

My five year old (who just finished her rookie year of FLL Jr) enjoyed the book (because Magic School Bus), but didn't learn anything from it.

Click here to see all our reviews!
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Mae Jemison (Rookie Biographies)

Recommendation:  FLL Jr teams, as a read-aloud choice or for more advanced readers
Strengths: Diversity (woman of color), positive messages about science.
Weakness: Not much space science. This is a biography, not a book about space travel.

Title: Mae Jemison
Author: Jodie Shepherd
Series: Rookie Biographies
Publisher: Scholastic, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-531-20997-4
Sample page:

This is a small book, 32 total pages, and about 6x7 inches with large print that will be comfortable for younger readers.  The story follows Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to go to space, from early childhood through the 100 Year Starship project.  It is illustrated with historical photos, with photo quality ranging from grainy black and white to to crisp full color.  There's an emphasis on hard work, interest in science, and service.

There's an error in one of the side-bars. Sally Ride is the first American woman to go to space. If this book gets a re-print, I hope they'll fix it.

Five year old daughter vote: thumbs up.
Eleven year old son vote: nah, not interested

Take-home:  Great inexpensive buy for FLL Jr teams, as a read-aloud choice or for more advanced readers (Lexile NC790L, guided reading M).  Consider reading and discussing as part of a team meeting.

Click here to see all our reviews!

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