Moon machine

posted in: Shirley Hughes | 11
Photo: Diego_3363
Photo: Diego_3363

Shirley Hughes is one of our favourite illustrators in this house and although we’ve read and enjoyed many of her books (though not all 200 or so she has illustrated nor all 50+ she has written), over Christmas we came across a book of hers that was new to us – Abel’s Moon.

Abel Grable arrives home after a long time away from his family. He may be a missionary, or an explorer, or simply a sailor but whatever he is, it entails long periods away from his family travelling through jungles and swamps, in “remote places where there were no electric lights or street lamps, only the moon to guide the way.“.

His family, of course, are delighted to have him home and thrilled to hear his stories of adventure in lands far, far away. In fact, his young boys are so keen to hear Able tell and re-tell his stories that Able decides to put them to paper.

Photo: Hitchster
Photo: Hitchster
But this is not as easy a task as it might sound. Abel’s house is full of wonderful family noise – the boys playing wild animals in the living room and the mum and baby dancing to music in the workroom. Eventually Abel takes his writing table into the garden where he finds peace and becomes so engrossed in writing that the day passes and he ends up writing by the light of the moon.

Soon the time comes for Abel to leave the family once more for work. With Abel gone, his stories are read and re-read until they are known by heart by the family who miss Abel so much. With such longing it is no surprise that the boys take to playing in the garden where Abel’s desk has been left. They use the desk to create a jungle camp, a boat, and then a moon machine which perhaps could take them one day to “give Abel a wonderful surprise by dropping in on him, wherever he was“.


This is a story that could make you cry. A story of love, loss, the power of imagination to find ways through to connect with the ones you miss and long for. Although heartache is in some way at the centre of this story, it is ultimately a joyous tale, about how one can acknowledge one’s sorrow and still find a way to feel close to those far away.

All this sounds so terribly serious, especially for a picture book for young children, but the story is told sensitively, gently, with warmth but without sentimentality, in a way that entrances M and could certainly provide both parents and children with solace and hope should they ever be in a similar situation.

Abel’s family are so full of love and joy, despite the periodic hole in their lives and Shirley Hughes’ drawings capture that warmth incredibly well. As is typical of her style, her pictures are full of detail, the kids look slightly unkempt, the mum rosy cheeked and curvy, the house slightly chaotic and dilapidated but full of life.

After the first reading of this book M immediately determined to make her own moon machine. Unfortunately we didn’t have a table to upturn and transform, but we did have a large cardboard box so this is what we did:

1. We taped open the flaps of the box to make the inside space as large as possible.


2. In the style of Christo we covered the box in silver foil.


3. Inside we created a control panel – we reused the dial machine we had made for the last toy hospital, and taped that to the side of the box, along with the plastic tray from a box of biscuits. We made two levers by pushing wooden spoons through small holes, from the outside in.


4. We added the all important (ie exactly as in the book) rotating blades to the moon machine – two pieces of junk wood from the garage that I hammered a short nail through. It’s important that the nail is only a little longer than the thickness of the two pieces of wood as you don’t want this poking down too far into your cardboard box. Ours did poke down a little but we covered it with loads of sellotape to (a) hold everything in place and (b) to stop any little heads being impaled on the end of the nail!


5. Then it was lift-off and exploration of outer space began….



Abel’s Moon: ** (2 star)

Whilst flying their Moon Machine through the universe M and J have been listening to:

  • Fly me to the moon by Frank Sinatra
  • See you on the moon by Great Lake Swimmers
  • Moon River, performed here by the wonderful Louis Armstrong 🙂
  • For about a ker-jillion other moon related songs, check out this article (and comments) from the Guardian.

    We also like the look of these activities:

  • Build your own paper rocket from Georg Eggers
  • Build a bubble powered rocket designed by NASA!
  • Creating an astronaut suit with inspiration from this collection at or these tips form ehow
  • 11 Responses

    1. Jenny Schwartzberg

      Oh my. You really make me want to read this book, and that machine your daughter built is fabulous! What an imagination. Thanks for sharing the photographs with your readers.

    2. Maureen Hume

      Wow! Can I come and stay at your place? I bet you guys had an absolute ball making your machine. The delight on your daughter’s face says it all.
      Shirly Hughes is a very talented lady. I too enjoy the detail in her illustrations, they truly mesmerise me.

    3. Sarah N.

      This book is new to me too. It sounds like one my girls would love. And of course, turning a cardboard box into moon machine is right up their ally. I love the way you’ve used the insert from the box of chocolates.

    4. Ashley

      This is a book I’m definitely going to look out for as my husbands work takes him away from home for long periods, thanks for the recommendation.
      Love the cardboard box idea!

      • Zoe

        Hi Ashley,

        Great to see you back here! You might also enjoy Dear Daddy… by Philippe Dupasquier – another book about Dad being gone for long periods of time and how the children keep in touch with him. The drawings have a comic book / graphic novel feel to them and I liked the book, though it wasn’t as poetic as Abel’s Moon.

    5. Kelly Polark

      The illustrations in that book look gorgeous!
      The homemade rocket looks like so much fun! I imagine your daughter is having a BLAST in it!

    6. Kim

      Sounds like a great book. And isn’t it amazing how much fun a box can be! 🙂

      All my best,

    7. Ashley

      Thanks Zoe, I’m going to place an order for both, I can see “seperation anxiety” becoming an issue the older the little one gets, maybe these will help.

    8. vanessa@silly eagle books

      M looks so happy in her moon machine! I love it–especially that you got to reuse the control panel from the hospital machine–very resourceful!

      Just wanted to let you know that I FINALLY sent your Pay it Forward gift in the mail. It’s on its way! So sorry for the long wait.

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    CommentLuv badge

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.