Good Reads With Ronna is thrilled to be the third stop on the Good Night, Oppy!Blog Tour. I didn’t hesitate to join in when I heard thatJames McGowan’sdebut picture book was about the Mars rover, Opportunity. I live less than a mile or so from NASA’s JPL (Jet Propulsion Lab) where the rovers are created, maintained, and communicated with so I was eager to learn more about Oppy. She was first launched in 2003 when I still lived abroad and was raising children, with little time to think about planetary exploration.
In McGowan’s story, he’s anthropomorphized the rover and introduced us to Oppy, one of two rovers on the Red Planet in 2004 searching for signs of past life. He blends the fictionalized narrative of hard-working and fun-loving Oppy, a solar-and-battery-powered robot roaming Mars and reporting back to her handlers on Earth, with fascinating scientific facts on most spreads. Plus, the onomatopoeia of the sound effect “Ping! Ping!” before a command from Earth adds an extra atmospheric touch that kids will enjoy repeating.
Readers learn that Oppy, as an Interplanetary Detective, remained in daily contact with “Teams of scientists and engineers …” who command and operate spacecraft using the Deep Space Network (a system of huge antennae throughout the solar system). I always wondered how that worked! In fact, my friend’s husband was one of those JPL experts who, among other key responsibilities, received Oppy’s real-life signals on Earth. Equipped with cameras and other equipment for info transmission, Oppy’s job was to photograph and navigate Mars, report back and explore, explore and explore. In fact, over her lifetime she trekked twenty-eight miles providing invaluable information about the Red Planet for scientists and engineers.
Having successfully dodged many potential disasters, things changed for Oppy in June of 2018 when she went to recharge her battery. She needed a place where the sun could reach her solar panels unobstructed, but a powerful dust storm approached. Getting a message to Earth was impossible as layer upon layer of dust covered her panels. Oppy’s power was running low. With the sun obscured, she’d be unable to recharge. She managed to outrace the worst of the storm and transmit one last time to Earth before losing power forever.
What a game changer the rovers have been! Some of Oppy’s finds have been groundbreaking including her discovery of the mineral hematite on the surface of Mars meaning that at one time there had been groundwater. Another time Oppy got stuck in a sand dune and the process of getting her out required clever commandeering (see art above). That unfortunate experience also helped future rovers and technicians know what areas to avoid! Oppy was productive and persevered well beyond what the teams had ever expected. McGowan’s Author’s Note explains that both Opportunity and her sister rover, Spirit, were designed for ninety-day missions yet Spirit worked for six years while Oppy “worked for almost fifteen years!”
Carter’s expansive illustrations in an array of red tones depict the vastness and dryness of Mars. Spreads are never stagnant and present an expressive Oppy on the go, investigating, soaking up the sun, and receiving commands from Earth that dictate which activities to pursue. I like how several times we’re transported to JPL command central for a different perspective of Oppy’s daily life. And, as the massive storm that ultimately ended Oppy’s career bore down on Mars, I felt sad when Oppy fell silent. By humanizing the rover, McGowan’s made Oppy’s contributions feel that much more important than they already are. Presenting Oppy’s story in this way makes it more compelling to younger readers and those more reluctant to pick up a STEM book. I learned so much and children will too. Such a great way to make kids care about our universe. Thank you and good night, Oppy! If you want to read more about Good Night, Oppy!, check out the other bloggers on the tour listed below.
Blossom Valley is opening a new community center! But they need to generate buzz for the grand opening. Layla and the Bots know how to help: they will build a cupcake machine for the party! But will their invention be a piece of cake… or a recipe for disaster? With full-color artwork on every page, speech bubbles throughout, and a fun DIY activity that readers can try at home, this early chapter book series brings kid-friendly STEAM topics to young readers!
Meet the robots Blink and Block in this STEM-inspired, Level Two I Can Read Comic by debut author-illustrator Vicky Fang.
Blink is scanning the playground for treasure, but Block is pretty sure there’s no gold to be found. When Blink finds a penny and decides to make a wish, will these two new pals find treasure after all—or maybe something even better? Blink and Block Make a Wish is a Level Two I Can Read Comic, geared for kids who are comfortable with comics, can read on their own, but still need a little help.
Colleen Paeff: Hi Vicky! It looks like I caught you right in the middle of two book launches. Layla and the Bots: Cupcake Fix came out on June 1 and Friendbots hits bookstores on June 22. Congratulations! How exciting to have two books coming out in one month! How does it feel?
Vicky Fang: It’s so much fun but also quite exhausting! Social media is such a strange place and two book launches means I’m on it more than I’d like to be. But I had the amazing opportunity to do an in-person launch party for Layla and the Bots: Cupcake Fix with Linden Tree Books and it was amazing! Even though it’s my sixth book (gasp!), it was my first launch party! I had so much fun celebrating the book with friends, new readers, and even some Layla and the Bots fans I met for the first time.
CP:Oh, my gosh. That sounds amazing! It must have been so nice to see your fans live and in-person. Friendbots is your debut as an author/illustrator. How was the experience of creating that book different from your previous experiences writing the text alone? Were you surprised by any particular aspect of the author/illustrator process?
VF:Illustrating a book is so much work! I mean, writing a book is too, but there’s definitely a different kind of pressure to illustrate a whole book within a few months, including revisions and cover illustrations, etc. I do think that between Book 1 and Book 2 I got much better at designing panels that would be fun to draw. I also had a much better sense of how long the drawings would take. Creatively, I’m more comfortable incorporating wordless panels as the author-illustrator. Somehow, it feels less like I’m just leaving a hole there, because I know I’m the one who’s going to have to fill it!
CP:One thing I love about your Layla and the Bots books is that I can never anticipate what’s going to go wrong (and something always does!). When you set out to write those books do you start with the problem, the solution, or something else entirely?
VF: Ah, that’s a great question! I usually start with the solution, in some rough form, just in the sense that I think about something that would be fun to design! So an amusement park for dogs (Happy Paws), a suped-up go-kart (Built for Speed), or a cupcake machine (Cupcake Fix). From there, I think about the problem they might try to solve and that leads to the specifics of the solution they come up with. It does feel a bit like a fun puzzle trying to plot those books!
CP:Coding plays a big part in your books–even the board books. What would you recommend to parents who are intimidated at the thought of coding, but who want to foster a love (or at least a level of comfort) with coding in their children?
VF: A lot of people ask me this question! First off, I incorporate coding into the books because I think computational thinking is so important for all kids, whether or not they want to code or become software engineers. It’s really about being able to break down a problem logically and think through the solution in small, logical pieces. I’m just hoping kids start to think in these logical blocks: if/then, and/or, etc. And they do already naturally! It’s just about seeing those logical blocks and realizing that those blocks are how you give instructions to a computer. Besides books, there are also great tools and toys out there. Scratch/Scratch Jr., Code-a-pillar, and Sphero are just a few that parents might look into!
CP:Awesome. Thank you! You’ve written (and sold!) a picture book, chapter books, board books, and an early graphic novel series. What do you like about writing in so many different formats and do you have a favorite?
VF: As a former product designer, I get inspiration from the strengths and restrictions of the different formats! The format is part of the ideation process for me. I don’t have a favorite. I love the conceptual and tactile nature of board books, the poetic precision of picture books, the fun of chapter books, and the theatre-like quality of graphic novels!
CP: How do you know which format is right for which story idea?
VF: I usually have an idea floating around in my head and it will click with a format, based on some of the qualities I described above. I have an ongoing list of ideas that I keep, usually of vague picture book ideas. But then separately, I’ll decide I want to try a particular format and read a lot of books and realize, oh, this is perfect for that idea about X! And then I start writing it. It becomes a bit of, what format has the right shape to fit the story I need to tell? Which will give me enough room for the characters and the plot? Which will support the visual needs? Which will fit the age group the best?
CP:I understand you worked as a technology product designer for Google and Intel. What exactly is a technology product designer and what are some of the coolest projects you worked on during that time?
VF: Yes! I designed the user experience for products, which means I designed how things should work. By the end of my time at Google, I was a design lead, which meant I oversaw the creative team, which included interaction designers, visual designers, writers, and even voice/audio designers. I loved working on projects that used technology to create surprising and delightful experiences! I designed DIY cardboard robots that you could build and code yourself, interactive voice games for kids, and a building that lit up and played music when you held hands in the space. Those are just a few of the projects that I loved!
CP:That sounds amazing! Tell me something I might not know about working for Google!
VF: Ah, what wouldn’t you know? Hmm … I think you hear all about the amazing perks and the amazing people. So what wouldn’t you know? One time, we took dozens of our cardboard robots and set up a giant robot dance party in the hallways in the middle of the night and videotaped it. We had a lot of fun—but we did a lot of work too!
CP:Hahaha! I love that!! I read that you were a theater major in college (me, too!) and an actress on Charmed and other TV shows. How did you get from theater to tech?
VF:Oh, cool, I didn’t know that! I moved to LA to act but was working at some startups to pay the bills. One startup actually had very little work to do, so I spent my days teaching myself Photoshop and making little Quicktime animations in the most inefficient way possible. From that, I got jobs making Flash animations, which lead to coding Flash websites, and I eventually ended up going to grad school at Parsons School of Design to get an MFA in Design and Technology!
CP:What skills from your previous professions have been most useful to you as a children’s book author?
VF:One of the things I love is that I feel like writing pulls from ALL of my experiences! Acting I think is an obvious one, in terms of story and character, and emotion. It also helped with understanding the agent landscape! But I also feel like all of the design work helps me craft stories, and understand how to respond to critique feedback, and be creative on demand, etc. Both acting and design have helped me as an illustrator, in thinking about color and layout, and visual focus. In some ways, I think of myself as somebody who just loves creating in different mediums—whether that be technology or pictures or words!
CP:What is your favorite thing about writing for children?
VF: I love that I feel like I can make a positive impact on even just one kid with a book. It never feels like a wasted effort. I love seeing kids embrace the books and become inspired to make fan art or invent something or write a story.
CP: What are the three most important tools in your “Writer’s Toolbox?”
VF: First off, my critique partners. I met Christine Evans and Faith Kazmi in 2017 and I wouldn’t still be here if not for their moral and creative support. Secondly, my agent. Elizabeth Bennett is an amazing partner who gives me the most insightful and inspiring directional guidance. The third, I would say, is creative brain space. I find that I have to give myself space to create and forgive myself when I’m not able to (which inevitably happens with life, more than I’d like!).
CP:What’s next for you?
VF: I’m finishing up Friendbots Book 2, which launches this fall. And I’m excited for Layla and the Bots Book 4, Making Waves, which launches in January 2022. I have an unannounced project coming in 2023, and I’m always working on new ideas!
CP:Great! I look forward to reading them all. Thanks, Vicky!
VF:Thank you, Colleen! It’s been a pleasure chatting books with you!
Vicky Fang is a product designer who spent five years designing kids’ technology experiences for both Google and Intel, often to inspire and empower kids in coding and technology. She started writing to support the growing need for early coding education, particularly for girls and kids of color. She is the author of nine new and upcoming STEAM books for kids, including Invent-a-Pet, I Can Code, Layla and the Bots, and her author-illustrator debut, Friendbots. Find Vicky on Twitter at @fangmous or on her website at www.vickyfang.com. e
Having a website, I know a little bit about coding, little being the operative word. But author Josh Funk, a software engineer by day, knows a lot. Thankfully. So it’s no surprise that the end result of a Funk and illustrator Sara Palacios picture book collaboration, How to Code a Sandcastle,has yielded such a positive and inspiring read.
Beaches and bots, hmmmm … I had absolutely no idea before picking up my review copy how author and illustrator would pull off this phenomenal feat. I mean, millions, maybe trillions of grains of sand and machinery don’t exactly go together. That’s why I felt compelled to read on and am glad I did!
Narrator Pearl is spending her last day of summer vacation at the beach. She’s determined to build a castle because all of her previous attempts have been thwarted by freewheeling frisbees, slamming surfers and peeing pups. Today, however, she has her “trusty rust-proof robot, Pascal,” in tow who she will code to build a sandcastle. Code, your children will learn, is “special instructions that computers understand.” But Pearl soon realizes that in order to build said sandcastle, her instructions need to be specific because without doing so, Pascal could end up constructing the castle in the ocean or in a parking lot. We also see that there’s a sequence to the problem solving, a good tip for young readers just learning about the importance and practicality of executive functioning. So after 1. Finding a suitable place to build, it’s onto 2. Gathering up the sand, encompassing a three-step process of filling, dumping and patting down. Here’s where a coding trick called looping is introduced: repeating the three step process or sequence until all the steps are done and the sand is piled in place before moving on to 3. Shaping and decorating. When Pascal brings items to decorate the sandcastle that aren’t appropriate (a lifeguard stand, a live crab and a baby’s binky!), plucky Pearl relies on a cool approach called IF-THEN-ELSE to help the robot analyze what can and cannot be used.
When a wave washes away the masterpiece, Pearl doesn’t get discouraged because she has the key to quick and easy re-construction, the code that Pascal can implement. Only now she needs to program Pascal with a way to protect the sandcastle, a code for how to build a moat! Once that’s finished, there’s no telling what else they can do with their coding know-how. What a great way to end vacation!
Funk’s story is funny, creative and easy to follow. By using something as recognizable as a sandcastle for the coding project, How to Code a Sandcastle serves as an ideal vehicle for a gentle, accessible preview of computer science. If only we all could be assisted by robots when we head to the beach. Imagine the possibilities! In her illustrations, Palacios has combined sunshine, sand and STEM in a thoroughly modern and cheerful way. Pascal the robot, who is never portrayed as cold or remote but rather charming and accommodating, is someone any child would want as a friend. And Palacios’ diverse characters fill the pages with a realistic picture of what readers really see when they visit the beach. A two page spread of back matter, “Pearl and Pascal’s Guide to Coding,” explains all the code concepts covered.
If you never thought you or your youngster would get the concept of coding, it’s time to think again. With its goal of getting girls to embrace coding, Girls Who Code will, with the help of wonderful books like this one, succeed in closing “the gender gap” that currently exists in the technology fields. Start your own STEM-themed collection of books by visiting your local independent bookstore today.
It’s the adventure of a lifetime when best friends—and self-proclaimed superheroes—defeat bad guys of their own invention.
It’s wonk ’em time when Bucky and Stu have to stand up to Phat Tyre, TrashMan and Hose-Nose. No matter that the bad guys are all made out of household items that Bucky and Stu have assembled themselves—these bad guys don’t stand a chance against the boys’ power moves. Still, it’s quite a surprise when their latest villain, the giant Mikanikal Man, gets zapped during a lightning storm and comes to life! The battle—and thrill—of a lifetime ensue. Full of surprises and laughs, this upbeat, action-packed story celebrates imagination, creativity, and friendship in even the most unexpected forms. Cornelius Van Wright’s hilarious illustrations are full of surprises and are perfect for portraying the high-speed antics of two enthusiastic boys.
Q & A:
GRWR: This is a wonderfully imaginative and humorous tale that actually encourages and celebrates make believe and pretend play. How or when did the seed of this story get planted in your mind?
Cornelius Van Wright: Thank you for your kind compliment. The seed to this story came a couple of years ago when I painted a picture of a boy playing chess with a robot. I painted it for fun but people asked me what was the story behind it. So I thought about the picture and slowly this story came to me.
GRWR: As an author/illustrator, does the story come first or do you picture the characters and draw them then see where they take you?
CVW: For me the images always come first. I tried writing words first but it did not work for me. I see the world in images.
GRWR:Bucky and Stu remind me of so many kids at this age – inventive and full of big ideas. Were you primarily interested in exploring the friendship aspect of this book or the adventure the boys seek?
CVW: The relationships came before everything else. Bucky and Stu’s adventure is based on their relationship and that relationship extends to the Mikanikal Man.
GRWR:Is there one particular spread in the book that’s your favorite and why?
CVW: Visually I enjoyed the scene when the boys face certain DOOM after ticking off Mikanikal Man. But story wise, I care for the scene where The Mikanikal Man Spins Bucky and Stu around and around and the boys say, “We can fly!” This was the boys’ inner dream becoming reality.
GRWR:Do tummy rumbles take your mind off whatever you’re doing like they do for Stu and the Mikanikal Man?
CVW: Yes, this part is autobiographical.
GRWR:Are the boys modeled after anyone you know?
CVW: Bucky and Stu are modeled after two friends I met my first year in college. One was very thin and angular (Bucky) and his best buddy was rounder with shaggy blond hair (Stu). I always wondered what they were like as kids. So this was my first sketch of what I thought they would look like.
GRWR:What would you like the takeaway for readers of this story to be?
CVW: I would love for kids to play using their creativity and imagination.
GRWR:Who were some of your favorite authors and illustrators as a child and who do you admire now?
CVW: As a child my mother bought me lots of Little Golden Books and Big Little Books (many of which I still have). Today I admire Jerry Pinkney’s art and Mo Willems’s and Oliver Jeffers’s storytelling.
GRWR:What would you use in your office to build your own Mikanikal Man?
CVW: Lots of Amazon boxes and empty towel rolls!
GRWR:Can you tell us what you’re working on now?
CVW: I am continuing exploring kids going into imaginative lands and using their wits (and anything else on hand) to get them out of trouble! I make the sketches into books (with Scotch Tape bindings) and show them to publishers.
Check out the downloadable CCSS-aligned curriculum guide here.
Cornelius Van Wright wrote and illustrated When an Alien Meets a Swamp Monster, and has also illustrated several other picture books, including Princess Grace (by Mary Hoffman) and Jingle Dancer (by Cynthia Leitich Smith). His work has appeared on Reading Rainbow and Storytime and has been exhibited with the Society of Illustrators. He lives in New York City.
In a pale green, star-filled cosmos, a little red robot is relaxing with snacks and television when his mother announces that it is time for bed. With a reluctant frown, he turns on his stalling program. Little Robot will do anything to avoid powering down! He lingers by the pantry, hoping for a can of oil. Then he dallies at the sink, brushing his cogs at half his normal rate. When he asks Mom Unit to read him a bedtime manual, she chooses the thinnest one on the shelf. She even has the nerve to fast-forward!
Parents and kids will relate easily to this tale of bedtime resistance, told with pitch-perfect flair in Anna Staniszewski’s debut picture book. She has charmingly translated every kooky but common human toddler complaint about slumbertime into sweet, humorous robot-ese.
Mom Unit, firm but ever-patient, maintains her slight smile and weary half-lidded eyes as Little Robot moves into stalling phase part two. He needs his favorite toy -a riveted, antennae-sporting teddy. He wants to whisper secrets about the hummingbot. And Mom Unit must not forget to check the closet for rust monsters!
Little Robot resists and resists, but Mom Unit is determined to tuck him into his sleep module so he can power down and recharge for the next day. Can he continue battling bedtime, or will his programmed resistance to the fluffy pillows and soft blankets finally wear down?
Illustrator Tim Zeltner depicts an ultra modern, space age robot home with crisp, metallic elements. He balances the stark interiors with soft-eyed, expressive characters that gently gleam. Zeltner’s images are created with acrylic on plywood using unique combinations of stains and glazes. The colorful boy bot and his purple-pink mother pop against the muted backgrounds.
If your young cyborg fights sleepytime with a vast array of ruses and excuses, this is the book for you! POWER DOWN, LITTLE ROBOT will tame toddler tuck-in troubles and delight parents at the same time.
– Reviewed by Cathy Ballou Mealey
Where Obtained: I reviewed a promotional copy of POWER DOWN, LITTLE ROBOT from the publisher and received no compensation. The opinions expressed here are my own.