Brain Pickings

The First Book of Space Travel: How a Female Author & Illustrator Got Kids Into Science in 1953

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“If I were a fairy godmother, my gift to every child would be curiosity.”

Vintage science illustrations hold a special charm, and illustrated children’s science books by women are a (heartening) rarity even today, so a woman who got kids excited about science half a century ago is nothing short of a cultural hero. Such is the case of Jeanne Bendick, who authored and illustrated more than one hundred mid-century children’s books about science and technology. An advocate of questions over answers as the key to the scientific mind and a champion of combinatorial creativity who recognized that all ideas build on those that came before, she articulated her ethos with inspiring eloquence:

One part of the job I set for myself is to make those young readers see that everything is connected to everything — that science isn’t something apart. It’s a part of everyday life. It has been that way since the beginning. The things the earliest scientists learned were the building blocks for those who came after. Sometimes they accepted earlier ideas. Sometimes they questioned them and challenged them. I want to involve readers directly in the text so they will ask themselves questions and try to answer them. If they can’t answer, that’s not really important… Questions are more important than answers… If I were a fairy godmother, my gift to every child would be curiosity.

In 1953, half a decade before the dawn of the Space Race and cosmic optimism, sixteen years before the first human on the moon, and more than half a century before space exploration took a tragic nosedive to the bottom of government priorities, Bendick penned and illustrated The First Book of Space Travel (public library) — a whimsical and illuminating primer on astro-exploration and the known universe. From the physics of how rockets work to the scale of the solar system to the essentials of astronaut lingo, her charming illustrations and rigorously researched yet clear text live at the intersection of curiosity and wonder.

Decades before Sally Ride, the first American woman in space and the youngest astronaut to ever launch into the cosmos, shared her first-hand account of what it’s like to launch on a space shuttle, Bendick illustrated the experience:

A quarter century before Carl Sagan, Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury pondered the possibility of life on Mars, Bendick envisioned extraterrestrial life:

And because every budding astronaut should know how to space-talk, she broke down the essentials:

Fifteen years before the birth of the revolutionary Apollo space suit, Bendick presented a surprisingly accurate design anatomy:

The First Book of Space Travel is sadly long out of print, but used copies are not yet impossible to find. Complement it with this wonderful modern-day, vintage-inspired illustrated chronicle of the Space Race and Diane Ackerman’s vintage verses for the planets.

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