Book review: Astronauts: Women on the Final Frontier, by Jim Ottaviani, illustrated by Maris Wicks

Ottaviani, Jim. Astronauts: Women on the Final Frontier. Il. Maris Wicks. First Second, 2020. $19.99. 159p. ISBN 978-1-62672-877-6. Ages 10-14. P8Q9

In 1963, Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to fly in space because of the sexist attitudes of the U.S. government. Sally Ride didn’t become the first U.S. woman in space for another 20 years. With charm, humor, and insight, U.S. female astronauts, especially one of NASA’s second group of female trainees, Mary Cleave, tell the stories of their drive to go into space and the ways that women were blocked from taking part in the space program although they were often better qualified. Color panels of their biographies and training are mixed with such funny diagrams as the extensive testing for participation and dialog such as male concern for a “dress code” for women but not men. Details about Tereshkova and U.S. women show how little mentally equipped the men in charge of the U.S. program and male congressional members were to deal with even the concept of women in space although one of those chosen was married to a senator at the time. Wicks uses a faux-Cyrillic font developed by Kevin Cannon for Tereshkova’s dialog.

Verdict: An important part of the graphic narrative is the story of the “Mercury 13,” women trained in the U.S. as astronauts but then rejected because of politics. (Tanya Stone immortalized this experiment in Almost Astronauts.) Tereshkova’s experiences, when she was accepted as a colleague, are skillfully interwoven with testimony by Janey Hart and Jerrie Cobb, members of Mercury 13, at a congressional hearing where the qualified women were refused the chance to serve as astronauts, despite Hart’s husband being a senator. Humor is well-delineated with facial and body expressions indicating male mockery and cluelessness and the women’s frustration. The elements of science from the training show the women’s talent in doing essential work as scientists and pilots. The action-filled artwork in space brings reality to the women’s hard work, and Cleave’s narration ties together the prejudices, politics, and science of women in space. Recommended for all libraries.

May 2020 review by Nel Ward.