Lauren Baratz-Logsted is the author of more than 25 books for adults, children and teens, including the popular series The Sisters 8. In her new middle grade novel, I Love You, Michael Collins, the students of Mamie’s class are assigned to write letters to the astronauts who will journey to the moon. Mamie is the only student who chooses Michael Collins, and she fills her letters with stories of her troubles at home. She admires the part Collins plays on the mission; he may not land on the moon, but it is very important that someone stay with the ship. These engaging, folksy letters transport the readers back to 1969, where young Mamie contemplates what it would be like to be near the moon, but to not set foot on the surface.
In the summer of ’69, the U.S. was a country divided. We were in the midst of the civil rights movement; women’s liberation was gaining momentum; Vietnam, both the war itself and protests against it, was heating up; and on June 28, Stonewall, a seminal moment in the history of gay rights, occurred. The entire country was in turmoil, separated by divisions stronger than at any time since the Civil War. And yet, amid all that, there was one bright spot. . . .
Flash forward in time, to the 11 years between 1983 and 1994 when I was an independent bookseller in Westport, Connecticut. One of my favorite customers was a man by the name of Robert Hanrahan. He came in nearly every week, bought a lot of books and never made any trouble. What was there not to like? He also had steel-colored hair to match the frames of his glasses and suit, blue ties to match his eyes—here was a man who knew how to play to his strengths. One Friday, though, he came in looking like James Dean: worn blue jeans and a tight white T-shirt, the only thing missing a pack of smokes rolled up in his shirtsleeve. Naturally, I had to know: Why the change?
Mr. Hanrahan said he’d retired from his job that day. And, because for the first time since I’d known him he had time on his hands, we had the opportunity to chat. He told me that the first significant job he ever had was, in the summer of ’69, working for NASA right when they were trying to land a man on the moon for the first time. Having been 7 years old myself when Apollo 11 made its historic landing, I naturally had a lot of questions. Graciously, he answered them all. But one of the things that made the biggest impression on me was when he said:
“It was the most amazing time. Everywhere we went, when people found out we worked for NASA, they wanted to do whatever they could for us: clap us on the backs, buy us beer, pick up the tab for our dinners. The entire country was excited about what we were doing.”
The entire country was excited about what we were doing.
Flash forward yet again, this time to the present, nearly a half century since Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon. I write a book called I Love You, Michael Collins, a book that to me is about so much: a girl, a family, a very special astronaut and the importance of staying with the ship. It’s also about a divided country coming together in excitement over one common goal.
When you sit down to write a book for children, you’d better not be thinking, I hope my book educates you in some way! The truth is, if you can’t and don’t entertain your readers first, they won’t still be there by the time you get around to saying something important. So I hope kids are entertained by my book about one girl’s extraordinary journey. But beyond that, if I can dare to wish for something more, I hope that kids—kids who are living through a time in our nation’s history when we are more politically and starkly divided than in any time since the Civil War or the ’60s—get a glimpse of a time when we were all united by one common goal: putting a man on the moon.
Some days, I think that that’s what we need now: one goal to unite us. It seems so unlikely, but then the Pollyanna part of me—and the one who lay on the floor with my brother, watching men walk on the moon for the first time while the amazing, the incredible Michael Collins orbited, staying with the ship as he awaited the return of Armstrong and Aldrin—wonders: If it happened once, why can’t it happen again?