Category: Children’s Books
Reviewed by: Clifford R. McMurray
Title: Countdown: 2979 Days to the Moon
Author: Suzanne Slade
Illustrator: Thomas Gonzales
NSS Amazon link for this book
Ages: 9 to 14
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 144
Publisher: Peachtree Publishing Company
Date: September 2018
Retail Price: $22.95
ISBN: 978-1682630136

Hard though it is to believe, we are into the third generation that has no memory of watching humans walk on the Moon. With all the books published to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s historic “one small step,” it’s good to see some of them are geared to younger readers. Countdown makes a fine addition to any grade schooler’s bookshelf.

Author Suzanne Slade begins the story with John F. Kennedy’s “before this decade is out” speech. From that address to the day of “one small step” 2,979 days flew by in a seeming eye blink. In a short narrative for young readers, Slade didn’t have time to say anything about the Mercury and Gemini flights, but she covers all the Apollo missions through Apollo 11, beginning with the Apollo One fire. It’s laudable of her to include this tragedy and Kennedy’s assassination in her story. Even youngsters should know that the world isn’t a perfectly safe place for anyone, including (and perhaps especially) for people pursuing lofty goals. Slade presents the tragedies and the dangers without dwelling too much on them. But the story is mostly about accomplishment and daring and triumph, and Slade conveys that well, in short, exciting sentences. This book is advertised as written for readers in grades 5-8, but although there are some fairly big words, I’d say the reading level is more like grades 4-6. If your child isn’t reading at a higher level than this by 8th grade, it might be time to consider another school.

What’s especially wonderful about this book are the illustrations by Thomas Gonzales that adorn almost every page. Gonzales’ notes at the end of the book say he begins with a rough sketch, goes on with pastels, watercolor and colored pencils, and finishes with fine-tip black markers and airbrush. The result is some of the finest space art I’ve ever seen. Sometimes the effect is merely suggestive; other times it’s photo-realistic. There are a few photographs in the book as well, and sometimes I had to look twice to tell which image was a painting and which was a photo. In every single case, Gonzales’ choice of subject and treatment is a perfect complement to the text, and adds to the drama of the story.

I have one serious problem with the book. Slade chose to tell the story in present tense. “Armstrong peers through his window, searching for lunar landmarks….” No. Armstrong peered through his window, 50 years ago. The English language has a past tense, and it’s something young readers should get familiar with. It’s also the natural way to tell a story. A number of children’s book authors seem to think using the present tense adds to immediacy; this reviewer begs to differ. It’s an affectation, and a fad that will hopefully pass.

Set this objection aside for the beauty of the story and the artwork. Countdown has won a number of well-deserved awards, including the National Science Teachers Association award for best STEM book of 2019. Parents and grandparents will want the book to introduce their children to this historic adventure. Other adults will covet the book for Gonzales’ magnificent artwork.

© 2019 Clifford R. McMurray

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