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Barbara Bondar

The Life and Times of a Space Junkie

by Joe Shepstone

Volume 21 Number 6
1993 November

The author of On the Space Shuttle: Eight Days in Space is more than just a space junkie, as you will discover in this profile of an articulate writer with a passion for communicating science to young people.

"I hope you did your homework because today we're moving on!"

My grade 8 science teacher was John Wayne. I remember closing my eyes as he spoke to see his arm pumping up and down in true cavalry fashion. He turned in slow motion and pointed to where we were aheading.

Then, in my dream, I saw him pick up a road map and wave it about for all to see. It would show us the way, he hollered, to a place called Science. Our horses, eager to be off, stamped their hooves. This was going to be as easy as watching TV! Trail dust and squeaking leather lent the scene importance.

We were a wagon train of settlers finding our way in a new land. And we would be safe, he said, as long as we kept moving and did our homework. Wow, good old John Wayne! He had the map and he would show us the way

I remember hearing the giggle of bugles and from up front whoosh! a rocket was launched, though I didn't know why. It made a loud BANG as it broke through the sound barrier. The air seemed to rip apart and I jumped clean out of the saddle! Boy!

Then I opened my eyes. My teacher, and not John Wayne, was staring, no glaring down at me. The textbook he had been holding was now down on my desk. Flat and looking kind of squashed.

He asked if maybe I was tired. "No," I answered. He then asked (not so nicely this time, it seemed to me) if maybe I had worked ahead and was already finished today's lesson. "No, sir," I answered. Then I wouldn't mind staying behind during recess to catch up, would I? "No, sir, I wouldn't mind." More glaring...

During recess, while my friends chased each other up and down the field and threw rocks on top of the school roof, I sat and contemplated the textbook from which I was supposed to learn science. It was filled with silly graphs and diagrams, black-and-white photographs, and boring words.

It contained none of the drama and excitement I saw on TV while watching Apollo spacecraft landing on the moon. Was this textbook what real science was all about? Yuck. Where was the adventure? Where were the cool pictures? My daydream had turned to nightmare and in the process I almost right there and then abandoned any interest in a career in science. Almost.

The teacher (I won't tell you his real name but he was no John Wayne!) seemed to say that everything I needed to know was up there smeared on the blackboard in layer upon layer of chalk, or sandwiched between the thick cardboard covers of the often indigestible and boring, really boring textbook.

For me his science was difficult to understand, and remote from what I wanted to learn. I now know that many elementary school kids were, and continue to be, turned off science just because it was taught in a style kids don't use.

The book my teacher slammed down on the desk was great at getting my attention but useless at telling me anything I wanted to know. It wasn't talking to me. In the current vernacular, I lacked "science literacy." But it wasn't my fault.

Oh, how times have changed! Today, a teacher or parent can turn to any number of special interest books to help initiate and satisfy a child's natural craving to understand. These books are fun, fast, and inviting, designed to compete in today's world of hot new video games and special effects movies.

How are they different from a cardboard sandwich? Smaller, for one thing. (They hardly make a bang at all when thrown down on a desk.)

I recently spoke with children's nonfiction author Barbara Bondar, whose most recent publication is On the Shuttle: Eight Days in Space about the new wave in children's science books. She told me, "Nonfiction books are tools. [They] explain a principle and act as a springboard for enthusiastic kids." Obviously, they don't pretend to be everything.

On the Shuttle follows the final preparations for the launch and flight of the space shuttle Discovery in January of 1992. Inside the shuttle's cargo section was the first International Microgravity Laboratory (IML-1), the formal name for a jam-packed cylinder of experiments put together by hundreds of scientists from around the world.

On this mission Bondar's sister, Roberta, served as a payload specialist in IML-1. In so doing she also became the second Canadian to take a trip into space.

The book is a story about the flight. It introduces who the people were and what they did. Any kid who picks up On the Shuttle can discover for herself the answers to such questions as how the shuttle stays in orbit, how things move in three dimensions, or how things behave in low gravity.

She will also have a good reference book to help her understand what the shuttle is and how it works. The next time a shuttle is shown on TV blasting off or touching down she will know what is going on. More importantly, she will know that space is a place where real people go to work. Now, that's science literacy.

Like traditional science books, the new books often have an index, a glossary and of course a table of contents. Nice, but there's a hitch. Some kids read as little as possible, so they probably don't use these parts of a book much. After all, reading is slow when compared to the speed at which information shoots out of a video.

The answer to the problem? Pictures! These wonderful new books have great pictures and a design concept that's sympathetic to the way kids process information. Kid's can "scan" a book from back to front to decide what they want to read. The pictures function as the traditional index/table of contents.

The textbooks I remember had lousy pictures. In On the Shuttle the images are a mix of bright colours, monochrome, photos, illustrations, big, small, square, round, cartoon, straight and offset. The pictures in this book make a great index. Modern books pay as much attention to the design as they do to the words. One complements the other.

And what about the words? How do non-fiction writers like Bondar come up with a text that will interest their readers? The book grew, she told me, out of the talks her sister gave to school children immediately after the flight. The questions the kids asked were recorded. There were questions like

"How did you work?" and "Did you get enough sleep?"

These questions and many others told the sisters that kids were very much interested in the day-to-day aspects of a shuttle flight. So that is what the author concentrated on: telling the story of one particular flight of the space shuttle.

"We began with a preparatory set of questions a child would have before ever opening the book," said Bondar. "We can't read without asking questions."

And was it easy to write? Yeah, | right. "No," she said, "it was challenging to write, to make doctoral science lucid without using jargon."

Bondar describes her work as an entry-level science book, a tool for parents and teachers. It is about how primitive space flight still is (she says the shuttle can be compared to the Kitty Hawk in a world where the Concord flies) and how the research carried out in the IML-1 is really basic stuff. She hopes "kids get a sense of what the flight was about--excitement over the flight but recognition of how primitive it is."

"This is not a handbook for the shuttle showing all the controls," Bondar told me.

So, as a grown-up fourteen-year-old, what can I say in conclusion about On the Shuttle and the new generation of non-fiction science books? The new science books do not pretend to be an entire course: they are not everything I need to know. Instead, they isolate a few interesting facts and interpret them within the context of a story. That's right, a story. Kids understand story and feel secure there. The books are based on a "prep" set of questions, are integrated into a story, and are kept simple, personal and enthusiastic. They talk.

And the final test of whether books like these work is that they are read. Sure they're bought by schools and libraries but, more important, they are bought by moms and dads and aunts and uncles, and they are read. Kids and not just teachers are actually reading these books, all on their own!

Reading and thinking about real-life science, not just doing your homework, is how you get to the land called Science. John Wayne would be proud.

Bondar, Barbara, with Roberta Bondar. On the Shuttle: Eight Days in Space. Toronto, Greey de Pencier Books/Books from OWL, 1993. 64pp, paper, ISBN 1895688-10-8 (paper) $9.95, ISBN 1895688-12-4 (cloth) $16.95. CIP

Science writer and story-teller Joe Shepstone works from a cottage in the Gatineau Hills of West Quebec. His most recent contribution to CM was "Farley Mowat: On Writing Fiction, Non-fiction and Autobiography," which appeared in November 1992.

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