Welcome to my ninth annual reviews and recommendations of space books for kids of all ages! In 2017 I received nearly 50 books to review, and I'm hereby recommending 25 of them. In a welcome change from last year, the 2017 book list includes several really fun read-aloud books for young children.
If you end up buying any of the books below, please also consider buying the space-obsessed kids in your lives a gift membership to The Planetary Society. They'll join an international community of like-minded space fans who want to see more successful missions produce science and adventure that will fill future books. If you don't want to buy a gift membership but want to show your appreciation for my work assembling this book list, please consider making a small donation to The Planetary Society. Finally, you may also want to check out my top recommendations from all years (not just 2017).
Books for preschoolers, ages 0-3
Touch the Brightest Star, by Christie Matheson
This is my new favorite bedtime or naptime book for babies and toddlers. Each page has a little action: "First wave good-bye to the sun's bright light. / Gently press the firefly. / Oh! Press again to light up the sky." Turn the page, and fireflies are everywhere! Meanwhile, as actions and words take you from page to page, the sky behind the illustrations goes red, then aqua, then blue, then darker, and stars come out (including Big and Little Dippers and a comet), then "Close your eyes and breathe in deeply. / Nod your head if you feel sleepy." It's gentle and lovely.
Good Night, Baby Moon, by James Mitchem, illustrated by Claire Patane
Where does the Moon go after it wanes? A rhyming story reassures toddlers that "when it goes away, it will always return." It's a cute book and a rhyme that's enjoyable to read aloud, but I recommend it with two reservations. First: there's a "light up the Moon" gimmick with a button you press on the front to illuminate the Moon on the front cover. The light doesn't do anything inside the book, only on the cover. So I fear "reading" sessions where the baby insists on shutting the book to press the button on the cover. Second: the illustrator has used a photo of the Moon to represent the actual Moon...but it's this Apollo image, centered on Mare Crisium, that is, an aspect you never see from Earth. This is not an issue for babies' appreciation of the book but may annoy Moon-obsessed parents.
Books for young children, ages 4-7
The Darkest Dark, by Chris Hadfield, illustrated by the Fan brothers
A parable about a would-be astronaut discovering the inner strength to overcome his fear of the monsters that hide in the dark, and discovering that the dark also harbors dreams. It's funny, heartfelt, and awe-inspiring, and a terrific book to read aloud.
A Hundred Billion Trillion Stars, by Seth Fishman, illustrated by Isabel Greenberg
A delightful book to read aloud to children who are thrilled by the sound of immense numbers, like ten quadrillion (the number of ants living on Earth, which together weigh the same as the seven billion five hundred million humans on Earth, according to Fishman). It's illustrated in a deceptively simple, colorful style that's easy to see from a distance -- a perfect library read-aloud book. Don't miss the author's note at the end, in which he explains a little bit about estimating such large, round numbers.
Life on Mars, by Jon Agee
Yet another delightful read-aloud book. An astronaut goes to Mars to search for life. He or she (it's narrated in the first person, so not specified) even brought cupcakes to share. But everywhere they look, they can't find life. The kids to whom you're reading the book will yell and shout at point at the enormous curious orange alien that the astronaut is missing! It's silly fun but, for those of us engaged in the search for life elsewhere, it's an important point that we can only find life where we look for it.
Aliens Get the Sniffles Too! by Katy S. Duffield, illustrated by K. G. Campbell
"Little Alien was sick. And sick is extra-terrestrial bad when you have two throats, five ears, and three noses." No remedies help Little Alien, not even a cold Meteor Shower to cool his feverish head, until loyal pet Mars Rover puts on an extremely silly show to make Little Alien smile. Read this book aloud to a pathetically congested child to make her smile!
Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code, by Laurie Wallmark, illustrated by Katy Wu
I knew Grace Hopper was an icon before reading this book, but Queen of Computer Code has turned me into a superfan. The book intermingles biographical storytelling with Hopper quotes that are simultaneously inspirational and funny. We learn about Hopper being an engineer from childhood (disassembling alarm clocks and building a motorized elevator for her dollhouse), and about her persistence in being allowed into the Navy despite her advanced age (36) and spindliness. She was clearly a force to be reckoned with and now I’m sorry I never met her. The text and images are fun and easy for young children but (in case you couldn’t tell) just as fun for older humans.
Margaret and the Moon: How Margaret Hamilton Saved the First Lunar Landing, by Dean Robbins, illustrated by Lucy Knisley
Margaret and the Moon is one of those wonderful books that presents as a picture book for young children but which has plenty to teach older readers. It's a succinct biography of the pioneering software engineer whose code enabled the success of the lunar landings. Along the way, it even manages to deliver terse summaries of different branches of mathematics. ("She liked moving around x's and y's in algebra. She liked measuring circles and triangles in geometry. She liked studying curves in calculus.") My only quibble is that in the climax of the story, so much credit is given to Hamilton that it suggests her software alone saved the day, without mention of Neil Armstrong's steady hand on the controls. But nearly every book about Apollo 11 makes the reverse omission, and I'm happy to see Hamilton get her day.
Serena Sees Her Footprints on the Moon, by Sean Reed, illustrated by Sam Beck
A central issue with books for kids about early NASA spaceflight is that all the people who actually got to go to space were white men. Feature Katherine Johnson and Margaret Hamilton's contributions all you want, but there have only ever been men on the Moon. Serena Sees Her Footprints on the Moon circumvents this problem straightforwardly, through the power of imagination: the protagonist, a Black girl, simply imagines herself on the Moon, making sneakered footprints next to the astronauts', placing a photo of her own family next to Charlie Duke's, using her hand mirror to reflect laser beams, and then, toward the end: "Her footprints are on the far side, the part that never faces Earth. Hers are the first footprints there! She goes where no astronaut has ever been."
Q & A About Earth, by Nancy Dickmann
A solid (ha) introduction to Earth as a planet, with geology facts written in age-appropriate language. Reading through it I marveled at how well Dickmann has encapsulated important geology concepts in simple language, avoiding unnecessary jargon, while not sacrificing accuracy. An example: "The deeper you go in the ocean, the darker it gets. The water gets colder, too. The huge weight of the water above presses down." Each two-page spread answers a basic question ("Why do volcanoes erupt? Where does the Sun go at night?") and in so doing, covers Earth science thoroughly.
Planet Kindergarten: 100 Days in Orbit, by Sue Ganz-Schmitt, illustrated by Shane Prigmore
Many kindergarten classrooms celebrate the 100th day of school with activities designed to teach children about the quantity of 100. This book, a sequel to the engaging Planet Kindergarten, features a story about a 100th-day-of-school space mission that almost goes very wrong, but teamwork saves the day. Shane Prigmore's illustrations are full of fun details that will entice a new reader to explore the pages.
Early grade books, ages 6-9
Exploring Constellations, by Sara Latta
One of the better books on constellations for children that I've seen, Exploring Constellations includes both southern and northern skies. Rather than listing one constellation per page, it describes constellations grouped by the seasons during which they're up after dark, which is, I think, a more accessible way to learn to find them. Another nice feature of this and other books in the series is that bold-faced vocabulary receives glossary definitions on the same page that the term is introduced as well as in the back. I also like Exploring Meteor Showers, by Brigid Gallagher, in the same series.
Space Machines, by Ian Graham, illustrated by Charles Ballesteros, designed by Martin Taylor
Snap out the cardboard parts and build your own interactive book of space machines! It's sort of like a pop-up book, except that the reader assembles the bits to make illustrations that move with levers and gears. It takes a bit of dexterity to assemble the bits and pieces. Plastic bolts need to be pushed through the back of a pegboard and held there while you push other bolts through, and I found I had to exert downward pressure on the front of the card to keep the bolts from spinning as I twisted the nuts onto them. (I wish the nuts and bolts were metal.) The text features fairly simple facts about the machines we use for space exploration.
Curiosity: The Story of a Mars Rover, by Markus Motum
I'm recommending this one with reservations. This book tells the story of Curiosity's mission: how and why it was sent, its journey from California to Florida, its cruise, landing, and basics of how it operates on Mars. (Amusingly, that's the same synopsis I'd give to my own book.) Author Markus Motum is an illustrator, and it shows in the gorgeous, stylized yet accurate illustrations on every page. I'm less enamored with the text; it's factually fine but drier than the wonderful illustration deserves, with occasional unnecessary jargon. According to the publisher, the book is aimed at 8- to 12-year-olds. I think the book is a missed opportunity -- the illustrations would've been better combined with text aimed at younger readers. I'd recommend this book mostly to parents who know and love Curiosity, who can tell their own stories about the mission using the wonderful illustrations.
The National Air and Space Museum, by Megan Cooley Peterson
Each two-page spread in this book is a visit to one of the artifacts in the museum. Some of them are famous, like the Wright Flyer. Some are comparatively obscure, like Anita, a spider (now preserved in formalin) that was sent to space in 1973 as part of an experiment to test whether spiders could spin webs while weightless. (They can.) The topics aren't in any particular order, so reading the book feels like meandering through the museum and picking a few specific objects and reading their labels, much as I used to explore Washington, D.C.'s museums with my young children. Read about Amelia Earhart's Lockheed Vega, then Gene Kranz's vest, then the world's first pressure suit. A museum in a book! (There are four other titles in the series, including the National Museum of American history, of Natural History, and the National Zoo.)
Middle grade books, ages 8-12
Exploring Space: From Galileo to the Mars Rover and Beyond, by Martin Jenkins, illustrated by Stephen Biesty
A very good introduction to the exploration of space by humans and robots, with detailed hand-drawn illustrations that remind me of my favorite David Macaulay books. It begins, as my own journey into space did, with Voyager's grand tour of the outer solar system, then steps back into time to the start of recorded astronomy in China. Throughout the book, Exploring Space gives all space-exploring and star-watching countries their due, with appropriate attention to the contributions of the U.S., Russia, Europe, China, Chile, and Japan. I was particularly pleased to see beautiful drawings of spacecraft like Magellan, Venera, Lunokhod, and Huygens, which are almost never mentioned in children's space books. The text comes back to Earth to talk about Earth-orbiting satellites before asking "Where do we go from here?"
Planetary Science, by Matthew Brenden Wood, illustrated by Sam Carbaugh
Planetary Science is essentially a planetary science textbook for middle-schoolers. It would be an excellent addition to a school library or a useful text for a science elective or independent study, with short, informative chapters containing discussion questions and ending with suggested activities. There are also cute little cartoon strips in which two schoolkids are taken on spaceship field trips to different planets by a hijabi astronomer, which is cool. The text is extremely up-to-date, featuring facts from Cassini, Rosetta, New Horizons, and Dawn, and there are even sections on "Planet 9" and exoplanets. Like most textbooks, it has a few factual errors -- hopefully a second edition someday will see those fixed.
This astronaut's-eye view of our home planet pairs Peake's photographs -- spread as large as possible across the page -- with tweet-length comments about what's in each picture. That's no coincidence: many (but not all) of the images in the book were first published on Peake's Twitter feed. It's not intended as a middle grade book but is totally accessible to this age level; although the commentaries are short, they contain an infectious excitement for every scene Peake viewed from space. There are also locator maps showing the Station's position for each photo. It's the kind of book you can start reading from any point, but once I started reading I couldn't help but turn page after page to see every awe-inspiring view.
Part of a series of books that tells the stories of photos having special historical significance, Hubble Deep Field looks at the challenge and significance of the iconic 1995 Hubble photo showing countless galaxies in a bit of space that could be covered by a grain of sand held at arm's length. The book tells the story of Hubble (both the astronomer and the telescope), explains what the Deep Field was and why it was difficult to capture, and then guides the reader through the scientific and cultural impact of the photo. It goes on to describe the later Deep Field photos -- the Deep Field South (1998), Ultra Deep Field (2004), the Ultra Deep Field IR (2010), and the Extreme Deep Field (2012) -- and explains how each of these reached deeper into the history of the cosmos.
Draw-It-Yourself Adventures: Alien Attack, by Andrew Judge and Chris Judge
This book is totally absurd and does its very best to break the whole concept of what a book is. It's a little bit anti-coloring book and a little bit choose-your-own-adventure and extremely silly. A space alien lands in the yard of the Doodletown public school, and you, the reader, get to take on the role of protagonist Daisy, helping her out as though you are Harold with his purple crayon, sometimes drawing solutions to her problems and sometimes drawing the problems. You occasionally get to fold and tear the pages, too. I particularly like the fact that the book starts the reader out gently, with fairly specific drawing instructions, but encourages increasing wildness as the story develops. I think any kid would find it fun but particularly recommend it to reluctant readers or to a kid who's shut in for whatever reason -- leg in a cast or stuck on an airplane.
2018 Young Explorer's Adventure Guide, edited by Corie and Sean Weaver
An anthology of 20 science fiction short stories featuring kid protagonists. They're widely representative of different genres of science fiction -- optimistic to apocalyptic, Star Trek technobabble to gritty reality, childlike fun-seeking to exhausted-age-beyond-years. To the extent that the characters are physically described, they're ethnically diverse, too. There's something here for everyone, and although it's accessible to a middle-grade audience, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and felt inspired to write my own sci-fi stories. (Full disclosure: I provided the introduction to this book.)
I Love You, Michael Collins, by Lauren Baratz-Logsted
This heartfelt middle-grade epistolary novel draws a parallel between the lonely and underappreciated flight of Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins and a girl who's (temporarily) lost between the cracks in the disintegrating marriage of her parents. Along the way, it delivers a fair amount of factual information about the architecture of the Apollo missions without being too pedantic.
Books for young adults, ages 13-18
View from Above: An Astronaut Photographs the World, by Terry Virts
Most of this book's pages are devoted to completely page-spread-filling photographs shot in space -- views of Earth, views of spacewalks, views inside the Station, all with brief and often funny captions written by the astronaut who took or features in them, Terry Virts. Virts launched to space twice, once on STS-130 in 2010 and again to join Space Station Expedition 42. He commanded Space Station Expedition 43 before returning to Earth in June 2015. He's as calm and brave and awestruck as any astronaut, and the stories he tells in the essays accompanying the photos mix humor, danger, and wonder. The only thing that made me sad about this book was the Moon's occasional appearance as a target too distant to reach, for now.
Ask an Astronaut: My Guide to Life in Space, by Tim Peake
The delightfully frank Ask an Astronaut consists of one- or two-page responses to hundreds of people's questions posed to the very approachable astronaut Tim Peake, who also published Hello, Is This Planet Earth? this year. Exploring space is awe-inspiring but also by turns uncomfortable, dangerous, and gross. It requires meticulous planning to avoid disasters if possible, and respond quickly to them if they're unavoidable. Peake describes his training, launch, flight, and return to Earth in fascinating detail. The text is accompanied by occasional cartoony but informative illustrations. The question-and-answer structure makes it the kind of book you can leave in a bathroom or tuck into the school bag, to be pulled out for brief reading sessions.
Apollo: The Panoramas, by Mike Constantine
There's been no Apollo book like this before. It's a great introduction to the Apollo missions, presented in a unique way: margin-to-margin panoramas shot by the astronauts on the lunar surface. Each panorama was lovingly assembled from about 20 individual Hasselblad frames by author Mike Constantine. They're presented in order, with brief but informative overviews of each successful mission. Turning page after page of gray Moon and black sky takes the reader to the lunar surface, in the boots of the astronauts. As Apollo 16 lunar module pilot Charlie Duke remarks in the foreword, the slow transition of flat terrain at the Apollo 11 site to the mountainous Taurus Littrow valley of Apollo 17 shows the increasing confidence of mission planners. For four of the missions, living Apollo astronauts contributed their remarks on what they saw in some of the panoramas. My only issue with this book is that lines of text stretch as wide across the page as the panoramas, making it difficult to read. I learned a trick from people with dyslexia that helps a lot to read wide text blocks: use a ruler to cover up lower lines of text and "underline" the line I'm reading.
Sky to Space: Astronomy beyond the Basics, by Steve Fentress
This is a funny-looking self-published book: 150 pages of handwritten text and diagrams. It's effectively a practical course in the geometrical principles of solar system astronomy, full of pencil-and-paper exercises along the way. It begins with very basic information (understanding distances, like solar system object sizes and orbital distances, through proportions) but the exercises engage the reader in developing an intuitive understanding of distances in the solar system, as well as practical ability in answering questions related to size and distance. What would the sun look like from Mercury? Are solar eclipses visible from other planets? After a brief chapter on some oddities of the Moon's appearance in the sky, it moves to exercises on understanding the geometry of the celestial sphere, the mathematics of synodic versus sidereal orbits, predicting how long eclipses last, and so on. A worthwhile book for anyone beginning to study the sky on their own.
Didn't find the right book in this list? Check out more lists from previous years:
Note to Authors and Publishers
Want to see your books on next year's list? Send review copies to Emily Lakdawalla, The Planetary Society, 60 S Los Robles Ave, Pasadena, CA, USA 91101
I had to turn down many nonfiction books this year because they contained too many factual errors. I am available for hire for fact-checking.