Sci Friday review of Cosmic

Welcome back to SciFriday here at the Mélange. I'm excited to be finding some science fiction titles that work for middle grade readers! If you missed it, check out last week's review of Human.4!

Cosmic - by Frank Cottrell Boyce
Published July 30th 2008 by MacMillan UK
Acquired from: my amazing community library. 

(Goodreads SummaryLiam is too big for his boots. And his football strip. And his school blazer. But being super-sized height-wise has its advantages: he's the only eleven-year-old to ever ride the G-force defying Cosmic rollercoaster - or be offered the chance to drive a Porsche. Long-legged Liam makes a giant leap for boy-kind by competing with a group of adults for the chance to go into space. Is Liam the best boy for the job? Sometimes being big isn't all about being a grown-up.

What I thought: 
Cosmic is a fun, light, humorous entry into science fiction. Don't let that fool you, though, there is excellent science to be explored in the story. Not only does the story touch on a lot of space and physics concepts, it also shows the main characters seeking out more information over the course of the adventure. This is a great example for kids, showing them that they don't already have to know it all to enjoy a science fiction story.

The story reminded me, in good ways, of a combination of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the movie Space Camp. (Yes, I know that I did just "date myself" with that movie reference.) Liam is competing with the adults for the right to go into space, but the other children have the same range of bratty behaviors that the kids at Wonka's factory showed. It also sprinkles in a healthy dose of fun, geeky references to Narnia, World of Warcraft, and the benefits of video games. All of these things should appeal to the target audience for this book.

There were also some excellent lessons about the importance of a father figure in a child's life. What role should that person play? When should they take the time to just have fun with their children, and how hard should they push them to excel?

Now, for a few caveats.
Portrayal of girls: The head of the space project is a woman, and her goal is to get her own daughter into space. Yet I had some concerns with the way that Florida, the female character, was portrayed. She started off as a flighty, goofy girl who is only interested in the latest celebrity gossip. I'll admit, I was almost at the point where I wanted to put the book down. Thankfully, she starts to explore her interest in the science at hand, and shows herself to be a quick study once she gets down to business. I just wish that it had felt more like her own initiative and less her response to Liam's "fatherly" influence. In all honesty, this tendency to hide your true intelligence is a sad fate for many of our middle and high school girls. By the end, I respected her more, and maybe it could springboard some discussion for girls who are tempted to hide their own curiosity from their peers.

Portrayal of gifted and talented: Fair warning here, I'm a teacher of gifted and talented students. So I may be overly sensitive to books that toss the term around too much. While I teach my students to understand that they have been labeled as "gifted", I avoid overuse of the label. I could go on for a while about my philosophy on this (and I may do that at some other time on the blog) but the short answer is that it rubbed me the wrong way every time Liam said things like "that's because I'm gifted and talented". Ugh, just no. Liam himself wasn't portrayed poorly. He was a great kid with passionate interests and excellent leadership skills. So I guess it was just the overuse of the term that bugged me a bit.

Overall, even with those few reservations, I think this is a great book for the middle grade age group. I will definitely get copies to have in my classroom library.

Science Topics:

Commercializing space (Space X, space tourism)
Early space travel (dogs)
Space fatalities 
Apollo program specifics (11, 13)
Astronaut training programs (centrifuge, vomit comet) 
Moon landing conspiracy theory
Gravity and weightlessness 
The perils of re-entry

Wonders and What Ifs
Why do we keep going into space, in spite of the risks?
Would you be willing to risk a trip into space?
Why do you think people still debate whether we actually went to the moon? (There is a fabulous Mythbusters episode on this conspiracy theory!)
What makes someone a good father? A good mother? A strong leader?

Narrator: Told from a boy's point of view, though there is a solid female character.

I'm pondering my next science fiction read for SciFriday. I read Brave New World as part of my Banned Books Week celebration, but I don't plan to review it. Perhaps I'll tackle Supernaturalist by Eoin Colfer, as my eldest son keeps suggesting. I love that he "book talks" me. Of course, I'll have to wrestle it away from his younger brother first...


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