Taking Off

Published in 2015; author Valerie Tripp; illustrator Julie Kolesova


Maryellen's tenth birthday is approaching, and she wants to plan something really special. Her friends offer several ideas, but the April 12, 1955 announcement of a safe and effective polio vaccine inspires Maryellen to make her party a way to spread the word and encourage people to vaccinate. She first thinks of doing a play, but isn't able to engage her audience, so lets her friends help her with doing a variety show instead. She plans to do a shortened monologue version of her play at the end, and she'll charge ten cents admission, to donate to the March of Dimes.

However, even her short version can't hold anyone's interest. It's frustrating, because Maryellen remembers how scary polio was, and really wants to be sure people know they can avoid it. During dress rehearsal, she's encouraged that finally people seem to be paying attention. Then she realizes they're actually laughing at Wayne, Davy's friend, acting out Maryellen's speech behind her. Upset that she's being upstaged when it's her idea and her birthday, Maryellen cancels the event and storms off.

It doesn't take long for Maryellen to calm down, with her sisters' help. She swallows her pride, calls her friends, including Wayne, and apologizes to everyone. Wayne must have mentioned the call to his mother, because just before the show starts, Maryellen discovers that Wayne's mother has finished the bridesmaid dress Maryellen is to wear at Joan's wedding--that is, finished it and fixed the mistakes Maryellen's mother made. The variety show goes on as planned, except for Maryellen get a terrible case of stage fright during her portion. She ends up basically standing still while Wayne ad-libs the important details. But Maryellen chooses to focus on how they raised $3.20 for vaccine research ($28.34 in 2016). She takes the money to the Post Office, and is happy to explain to the clerk what the money is for. She also gets a phone call from a doctor's office: he just had five patients come in for their polio vaccine because they saw the posters Maryellen made to advertise her show. He commissions another poster from her!

Then a phone call comes in: the mayor wants Maryellen to ride in the Memorial Day parade. She's being honored for raising the money and awareness. The mayor received letters from the postal clerk, the doctor...and Davy. She's on the news briefly, but only giving her name--no worries about stage fright there.

Soon after the parade, school winds down for the summer. Maryellen and Davy, now good friends again, sign up for a science contest. Wayne joins too. When they go to the first meeting during the last week of school, they're discouraged at how the older students dismiss them for being young, and Maryellen for being a girl (there are only two other girls in the club). But there's not much time for Maryellen to worry about that before school starts again, because her father surprises the family with the purchase of an RV. They're going to go on a road trip to Yellowstone, one last family trip before Joan gets married. Maryellen is excited to be able to look for ideas to build a flying machine, and plans to sketch every single thing she spies in the air.

During the trip, Joan is withdrawn. Her sullenness isn't explained until she and Maryellen stay at the RV to watch Scooter during a fireworks show (he's too afraid of the noises). Scooter escapes and while they search for him, Joan trips and sprains her ankle. Maryellen is able to splint the ankle and find a suitable branch to use as a crutch, thanks to the adventure shows she watches on TV. The girls find the dog and get back to the RV, and talk. Joan is excited to be getting married to Jerry, but upset at how much Mrs. Larkin is taking over the wedding. Joan and Jerry would prefer a smaller wedding, just family and close friends in the Larkins' yard. Joan also talks about how she wants to go to college and expand her horizons. Maryellen encourages Joan to talk to her mother and her fiance about her concerns.

Not long after getting back to Florida, Joan and Jerry get their wish of a smaller wedding, and work out a plan to stay in the RV, parked near a college campus. That way they won't need to worry about paying rent, freeing up money for Joan's college tuition (Jerry is going on the G. I. Bill, since he's a veteran), and freeing up space in the Larkins' driveway.

And then it's time to get back to school, and back to the science club. Maryellen, Davy, and Wayne are still ignored, and the club is a disorganized mess. When the older boys (the other girls quit over the summer) ridicule Maryellen and try to make her secretary, despite her having terrible handwriting, and shun her ideas, Maryellen remembers how her mother quit her factory job, and quits the club. In a heartwarming show of support, Davy and Wayne follow suit. When the three explain to Angela, Karen K., and Karen S. what happened, they all form their own club.

They spend some time with the leftover wedding decorations and Maryellen's sketchbook, finally coming up with an idea involving a small kite made of toothpicks and tissue paper, boosted by a series of deflating balloons. When the day of the contest arrives, Maryellen's team doesn't win, but they do beat the original club, still bickering and disorganized. The judges are impressed enough with their design that they award them the just-created creativity prize. A news reporter is on hand for the (multi-school) event, and recognizes Maryellen from the parade. She interviews her, and this time Maryellen is able to be composed and not show even a flicker of nerves. Maryellen talks about the importance of working together and listening to everyone--working together, people can make a difference.

Inside Maryellen's World

A lot was changing in the US during the 1950s. Advances in medicine and technology provided many opportunities people hadn't had in the past. But not everyone could enjoy them fully: segregation still existed (including in Florida). Bit by bit, segregation started to get chipped away. The 1954 Supreme Court decision for Brown vs. the Board of Education overturned school segregation laws, catalyzing the coming Civil Rights movement (I'll be reviewing the first Melody Ellison book in September). While things still aren't perfect, they've come a long way from "separate but equal."


This book is dedicated to Elizabeth Jane.

Jonas Salk was an amazing man. He refused to patent his vaccine to be sure the cost would stay low. After developing the polio vaccine, he found the Salk Institute and worked to create other vaccines. He died in 1995 while researching an AIDS vaccine. The institute is still active, and a great place to think of if you feel like donating to a worthy cause.

There is a good reason not to vaccinate: medical concerns. Being allergic to the vaccine, being too young for it, having a compromised immune system--these sorts of things are good reasons to avoid certain vaccines. For most people vaccines are safe and effective. Vaccinating provides not only yourself with protection against diseases that can cause brain damage, paralysis, amputation, blindness, deafness, sterility, and death; they protect those around you who can't be vaccinated, like infants or people undergoing chemotherapy.

Vaccines do not cause autism. The link was falsified. Autistic traits can be observed in babies before they ever get a vaccine. If vaccines cause autism, then they can also time travel. Even if they did cause autism, autism is better than death.

Vaccines are safe for most people (unless you're allergic to their ingredients). They are tested for years before they reach the public. Yes, vaccines put a weakened or dead virus inside you...like how regular full-strength germs come into contact with you all the time. It's better to first train your immune system with the weak or dead germs before encountering the real deal. Side effects are rare, and usually mild, like pain at the injection site or a short-lived rash. That's even accounting for the fact that things like spraining your ankle walking out of the pharmacy or doctor office after receiving a vaccine counts as an adverse effect.

Vaccines are not a money-making venture for Big Pharma or Big Insurance or Big Medicine. Most insurance plans cover them fully, and there are many low-cost clinics available. It costs far less for an insurance company or hospital to provide a vaccine than to treat a patient for diphtheria, tetanus, or pertussis (DTaP); measles, mumps, or rubella (MMR); or cancer (HPV vaccine).

Go be sure you and your loved ones are as up-to-date as possible on your vaccines.


Maryellen and the Brightest Star

Released on Youtube in 2015. Rated G.


Maryellen is thrilled to hear that a real rocket scientist, Dr. Teller, will be visiting her school. There's an essay contest, and whoever writes the best essay will get to ask him some questions in front of the whole school--and have the event broadcasted on the news!

Inspired by a comic book, Maryellen makes her own titled Astrogirl, detailing a girl's adventure from Earth to space. It's clear that she's illustrated her essay, but when she presents it in class, Mrs. Humphrey lets Wayne interrupt to declare the drawings cheating. Mrs. Humphrey won't even let Maryellen finish her first sentence, and says she'll need to discuss Maryellen's work with the principal. Due to not following directions, Maryellen's comic can't be entered in the contest. A boy from another class wins, prompting Maryellen to lament that boys win everything. Mrs. Humphrey points out how well Maryellen has been doing in science, which bodes well for excelling in physics: the first step to becoming a rocket scientist.

By the time Dr. Teller visits, the contest has changed, and now several students will each ask one question, rather than one student asking several. Naturally, Maryellen and Wayne are among the students chosen. When it's Maryellen's turn, she asks about an especially bright star she saw a few nights before. She hasn't been able to find it on any star maps. Turns out it was Mars.

The story ends on Halloween, with Maryellen going as Astrogirl...but deciding she'll put off her space flight dreams for a bit. She wants to go to space someday, but for now she wants to be near the people she loves.


Written by Maya Rudolph

This is a short film, only sixteen minutes.

Maryellen's supposed to be a good artist--the sketches on her wall aren't up to the level I was expecting.

This takes place in October 1954.

Maryellen's school is integrated; there are students of color in the same room with her.

Wayne, who is more misogynistic than just annoying like in the books, asks derisively, "Have you ever seen a girl astronaut?" No, Wayne. No one has seen an astronaut at all. This is 1954. The first person in space was Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. In 1961. The first astronaut (that is, from the US), Alan Shepard, followed a few weeks later. The first woman in space, cosmonaut Valentina Tershkova, ventured outside our atmosphere in 1963. Twenty years later, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space.

I understand that the contest had specific rules so Mrs. Humphrey couldn't let Maryellen enter...but couldn't she have let her finish her presentation in front of the class? You know, instead of humiliating her in public?

There's a scene with Maryellen, dressed as Astrogirl, and Wayne fighting. Mrs. Humphrey comes in out of nowhere and sternly tells the bickering students to come with her. As they leave, another student in the middle of the frame turns and mouths, "What?" I think she speaks for the audience--it's an odd scene.

Looks like Mars could have been visible in October of 1954. But I've seen Mars and even when it's in closer proximity than usual, it does not look like the object Maryellen saw. But at least she didn't see a satellite, because the first satellite to orbit Earth was Sputnik, in October 1957.

Maryellen Larkin-Harlie Galloway
Wayne-Francesco Galante
Mrs. Humphry-Rosa Pasquarella
Principal Carey-Patrick M. J. Finerty
Davy-Jordan Alveran
Dr. Teller-Tyrone van Tatenhove
Carolyn Larkin-Ashton Smiley
Beverly Larkin-Valentina Gordon
Tom Larken-Kaysen Steele
Jimmy-David Lansky
Classmate-Jeannine Briggs
Extras-Kennedy Fuselier, Azalea Carey, Nya-Jolie Walt, Malia Lehua, Camille Briggs, Baylie Hileman, Eduardo Castillo, Lucca Monti, Jo'ell Jackson, Kristian Ramirez, Michael Hill, Karina Monti, Tara Steele, Tancy Hileman, Azia Reed