In this guest post, author Emeline Lee pays tribute to her engineer and storyteller grandfather in her debut picture book. Bonnie’s Rocket will be published October 18 and is available for pre-order now.
As a child, I loved listening to my grandfather’s stories. My favorite ones were about his time as an engineer for NASA’s Apollo missions in the 1960s. I’d sit by his feet, looking up at his outstretched arms as he described the inside of the spacecraft. He’d pick me up and swing me around so I could feel like an astronaut floating through space. When I grew older, he patiently answered my many questions about what it was like working on the first spacecraft to take astronauts to the moon. Through him, I felt a personal connection to the historic achievement of the first manned lunar landing, and his experiences inspired my picture book, Bonnie’s Rocket. However, by the time I started writing the story in earnest, I found myself in a race against time.
My grandfather began having lapses in memory after his battle with colon cancer in his late seventies. At first, my family attributed it to “chemo brain,” a mental fog from his then recent treatment. We told ourselves that it was probably just the natural course of forgetting that came with old age. At the time, we were simply grateful that he was cancer-free and we were not prepared to face yet another illness that began to reveal itself: Alzheimer’s disease.
In the midst of this uncertainty, I felt a greater sense of urgency to record and preserve my grandfather’s stories. As his memory worsened, I realized I was losing my connection to his part of my heritage. I knew our family was from Guangzhou, China, but what was the name of the specific village? What was it like growing up during the Second Sino-Japanese War? How did he manage to get an education during such a tumultuous time? I had so many questions, and each chapter of his life felt like a vault of family history, waiting to be excavated before it was too late.
To fill in the gaps in my knowledge, I scheduled a round of informal interviews with my grandparents, covering a list of questions for the book and beyond. Those recordings are extremely precious to me, and this book holds a special place in my heart for motivating those conversations.
I learned how my grandfather, as a young boy, only narrowly escaped bombs during an air raid when Imperial Japan attacked his home. I learned how he lost many childhood friends during that time and had to boil bitter tree bark just to have something to eat. Through it all, he discovered a love of mathematics and sought out educational opportunities even while on the run. He studied at Lingnan and Nankai University, graduating with degrees in mechanical and electrical engineering, and embarked on his own to the United States in search of a job to support his family. After earning his masters from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn (today known as the NYU Tandon School of Engineering), he landed his first engineering job—designing air conditioning units—before securing a job with Grumman Aerospace Corporation. There, he developed safety systems for the F-14 jet fighter before becoming a part of the team responsible for designing the life support systems of the Lunar Modules for the Apollo missions. Hearing his story in such detail added vibrant color to what was previously only gray in my mind. These conversations provided greater perspective on his accomplishments and deepened my admiration of his tenacity and selflessness.
My grandfather’s mental decline was slow but steady. When I first told him about the book deal for Bonnie’s Rocket, he lit up with excitement, but then forgot again after a few minutes. This was in 2018, with the book originally set for release in 2020. However, the now infamous year of 2020 came and caused inevitable delays. Meanwhile, through the isolation that the pandemic brought, my grandfather’s condition took a rapid turn for the worse. These days, it is nearly impossible to entertain a conversation with him, and I am often just a stranger in his eyes.
Many families with a loved one suffering from Alzheimer’s disease say that you lose the person twice—once when their mind goes, and a second time when their body goes. But for me, it has felt like tiny little losses for each memory that slips away. I count myself lucky for knowing him so well before and that I can remember him as he was: the playfully competitive grandfather who would challenge me to recite more digits of pi (π), the gentle gardener who grew beautiful Chinese lantern flowers, and my Ye Ye, the engineer and storyteller who inspired my love of space.
Despite these difficulties, he remains a gentle, loving soul. He senses emotions, perhaps with greater sensitivity than most, and smiles the widest when our whole family is together. As much as I’d wish to celebrate Bonnie’s Rocket with him as he was, I’m extremely grateful that he is still with us and hope that, on some level, he can understand my gratitude for gifting me his story.
To me, the Apollo 11 moon landing not only represents one of the United States’ greatest achievements, but also serves as a reminder of my grandfather’s hard work, courage, and resiliency. Bonnie’s Rocket is my ode to him, and I hope that this story can inspire others to persevere and dream big.
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Emeline Lee grew up hearing stories about her grandfather’s work on the Apollo 11 moon landing, which inspired her own fascination with science. She studied English literature and environmental sustainability at Columbia University, and she now works in the renewable energy sector in New York City. This is her first picture book. Find her on the web at emelinelee.com and follow her on social media at @EmelineLeeBooks.