The Time I Called Out a Children’s Book Author For Letting Girls Down
A few years back, I read a children’s book about the moon landing to my then-3-year-old daughter. It’s a great book in so many ways. But one thing stood out to me: Men.
Men, men, men. The word men over and over, in glowing terms, and nowhere a mention of anybody else.
The book, Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11, written and illustrated by Brian Floca, is a gorgeous, informative read, made to inspire another generation of stargazers. Unlike many dry books on the topic, this one has a gripping narrative. It managed to keep even my 3-year-old engaged.
Still, as I read I found myself changing words to make the story more gender-inclusive. Instead of “men,” I said “people,” “astronauts,” “scientists.” I wanted my daughter to be able to picture herself on that rocket ship, or in Mission Control.
Our storytime happened to take place in October 2017, just as the #MeToo movement was starting to gain momentum. Women were going public with stories of sexual harassment and outdated, gendered power structures. My own #MeToo stories were swimming in my head when I read Moonshot to my daughter. That night, I could not abide one more message of men’s competence alongside women’s invisibility. Fired up, and bursting with anger at the patriarchy, I did something I don’t usually do: I wrote the author to complain.
I’ll admit, it wasn’t a very tactful email. I started out by sharing the many elements that I appreciated about the book — the art, the poetic feel, the spark of curiosity that it inspired for my daughter. But soon, I was funneling my feminist rage.
I told Floca about how I changed the gender of his characters. I tried giving him (some) benefit of the doubt — after all, the era of space exploration described in the book was notoriously hostile toward women and minorities; maybe this modern children’s book was simply tone-deaf in trying to sound more like the times. Other points were less forgiving: “My husband’s take is that you clearly have an agenda (men’s rights sort of thing) and made this choice very consciously,” I wrote, adding that I hoped this wasn’t the case.
Raising a kid in this highly gendered society is hard, I told him. The only thing stopping my daughter from imagining herself as one of those astronauts were stories like his that say it’s only something men do. I didn’t expect him to respond — I was used to men overlooking their privilege, ignoring their blind spots, and doing everything to preserve the status quo.
Then two days later, he wrote me back.
Floca is an accomplished author and illustrator. He’s a Caldecott Medal winner, for his 2014 book Locomotive, and when he published Moonshot in 2009, it was on so many recommended books lists — including the New York Times’ 10 Best Illustrated Children’s Books of the Year. Clearly, a lot of readers loved Moonshot exactly the way it was.
In his email, Floca thanked me for writing and admitted he had known at the time he was writing the book that he was leaning exclusively on “men.” He said he’d tried “people,” but found the word to be clunky on the page. Plus, in reality, the three Apollo 11 astronauts were men, and he believed each person in Mission Control was a man as well. So he chose the gendered framing because it felt honest, simple, and specific.
Floca did, in his email, mention Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, and an interview where she discussed how she wished she’d seen other women astronauts when she was a girl. She was inspired by the Apollo program, Neil Armstrong specifically. Floca said he hoped my daughter would find inspiration in the Apollo 11 story as well.
But there was one line in his response that stood out, a sentence that told me my own work here wasn’t done: “If anyone can find the story of a woman who was working there,” Floca wrote, “I’d be happy and interested.”
I emailed him back one more time.
I found plenty of resources about women’s contributions to Apollo 11. There was Frances “Poppy” Northcutt, the first woman engineer in Mission Control, starting with Apollo 8. Or Joann Morgan, Margaret Hamilton, and Katherine Johnson. But it wasn’t just well-known scientists or astronauts who were left out of the narrative. As I told Floca, female spectators experiencing this historic, cultural event, were omitted from the story. And you would never know from reading Moonshot that in 1969, 17.5% of NASA workers were women, most of them working low-wage jobs.
I didn’t want Floca to draw in imaginary women or to change the focus of the book. I just wanted to put the issue on his radar — we can do a lot better than just saying the moon landing is something men did.
I returned the book to the library, but the question stuck in my head: How is anything ever going to change if we are so stuck on reporting history as it’s always been reported?
I’ve since become very deliberate in my speech, using gender-nonspecific language everywhere I could: saying mail carrier instead of mailman; firefighter instead of fireman; ballet dancer instead of ballerina.
Then, this month, out of the blue, I got another email from Floca.
What’s your address?
Floca mailed us a free, signed copy of the new expanded edition of Moonshot, released in honor of the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. He made changes. Wonderful changes. I cried, with the realization that my anger, my voice, had made a difference.
The word “men” still shows up often in the book, but it’s not there alone anymore. On the Launch Control/Mission Control page, just as I requested, he changed “each man” to “everyone.”
And he added an entire page of drawings, featuring a diverse group of people working to make the moon landing possible.
I can’t know how many emails Floca received about the gender problem in Moonshot — did my email make this happen? In the introduction, he wrote of his research journey ahead of putting out the new edition. He wanted to know more about the women and people of color who contributed to the moon landing.
Moonshot is part of the state curricula, Common Core. These simple changes could have far-reaching results. I’m proud to read this new edition to my daughter, who answers the question, “Do you think you’ll ever go to the moon?” with “Of course.”
Haven’t we all considered calling somebody out (or in), but stayed silent, because we think it won’t make a difference? Well, in this case at least, it did.