Laika the Astronaut
Allen & Unwin, 2014
hbk., 32pp., RRP $A19.99
On November 3, 1957, after the success of Sputnik 1 which put the Russians at the head of the space race and sparked the development of science and technology in a way not previously experienced, Sputnik 2 was launched to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. Aboard the craft was a stray dog from the streets of Moscow who had been named Laika (meaning Barker in English) whose sole purpose was to test the viability of putting a living creature into space, test its ability to survive weightlessness and thus pave the way for human spaceflight.
“Laika the Astronaut” is a gentle retelling of the start of Laika’s adventure. From being alone in the streets of Moscow, wishing on the stars for a family to love her, to her rigorous training and testing regime and finally blast off, it introduces the reader to this embedded-in-history creature. But even though everyone in the world knew Laika’s name as she circled the Earth, she felt more alone than ever.
Official records show that Laika actually died very soon into the flight from heat exhaustion, but Owen Davey has provided a much happier ending – one that he chooses to believe and one that will appeal to the reader and perhaps spark some speculation about her new life might have been like. “This poor little pooch plucked at my heartstrings, and I wanted to explore this idea of a soul living on through your imagination.”
Davey has rejected the claims that the ending is sugar-coated and that is has avoided the issue of death. He says, “My intention was to put a positive spin on how we remember our loved ones when they’re gone. The main theme of the book is about finding love and finding a family, but the deeper undercurrent revolves around the way we deal with loss.” You can read more of the background story at http://owendaveydraws.tumblr.com/post/59479947181 and with this knowledge in mind it might also be appropriate to begin introducing students to the notion of authors doing more than just telling a story to entertain, that many of the stories they enjoy have a deeper, more subtle meaning than appears on the surface and both the writer and reader are the richer for exploring it. In this case, the starting point could be questioning why Davey chose to change history in this way.
With its stylised illustrations in very muted colours which reach back to the style of the times, this is a wonderful picture book that could be used to introduce younger children to the history of space flight but which also has a place with older children who might be considering the ethical treatment of animals – scientists involved in the mission have even stated that they don’t think they learned enough from the mission to justify what they did – or even the ramifications of the Mars 1 project http://www.mars-one.com/ which proposes to have humans inhabiting Mars by 2023 and for which 28 Australians are still in the running. Does the means ever justify the ends?