Sleeping in Space

Goodnight, Astronaut – written by Scott Kelly, illustrated by Izzy Burton
Tundra Books, 2021

Everything is different in space, even sleeping.  Children often resist going to sleep, finding the daily routine of bedtime to be mundane, even frustrating, compared to the fun of being awake.  In Goodnight Astronaut, Scott Kelly and Izzy Burton make a convincing case of getting a good night’s rest, especially for aspiring space travelers, or anyone who needs energy for a day of adventure.  How could argue with Kelly’s premise, especially as he is an actual member of this select profession? “Luckily, sleep can be exciting if you’re drifting off in the right place.”

Burton’s pictures are infused with nostalgia, a comforting sense that childhood can be a good start for nurturing dreams.  Readers meet Kelly not as an accomplished veteran astronaut, but as a child reluctantly saying goodnight to his mother as he and his twin brother “fight sleep like an enemy.” When the Kelly twins are a bit older, they share time on the family boat, where the sensation of sleep returns as the rocking of waves, and foreshadows the future astronaut’s true vocation, where water mimics the weightlessness of zero gravity.  Kelly imaginatively describes each stage of his life as a step towards space. 

Time on a submarine as a young man is more nuanced than the simple comfort of a family boat trip. The underwater environment is also soothing, even womb-like, with the crew encased in bubbles, but there is pressure and stress.  “We’re secret sentries guarding against danger,” Kelly writes, and sleep is no longer an annoyance to be avoided. Instead, it is a desired part of the day which is rationed, because “there are more people than beds.”

Kelly’s story alternates between earth, sea, and air.  Flying in a military jet, sleep is an essential tool, a defensive weapon against exhaustion that allows the pilot to fly “whenever and wherever I’m needed.”  In every environment, sleep is a component of preparedness, a natural process, and a reward.  Unlike in books for younger children where the end of the day punctuates a routine with consistency and reassurance, here it is exciting, as well.  Kelly’s words and Burton’s pictures accomplish a true balance between the different qualities of rest. They even reinterpret the cliché of life in a fishbowl, where people feel themselves to be scrutinized and judged. Here, an explosion of colorful sea-life, in Kelly’s speculation, are the ones who feel themselves being monitored by the aquanaut’s respectful observation.

The relationship between the twins returns when Scott Kelly travels on the shuttle, Discovery, while his brother, Mark, also an astronaut. remains committed to his family, and to progress on planet Earth.  (The book omits the tragic, but ultimately inspiring, parallel story of Mark Kelly’s dedication to caring for his wife, then Representative Gabrielle Giffords, after she was shot.  Mark Kelly is now a United States senator.)  By the end of this book, children will have learned that family, dedication to a goal, and a good night’s sleep, are all essential to success.  Goodnight Moon, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and Goodnight, Astronaut, are all a beautiful sequence for sharing.

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