Emily LakdawallaNov 24, 2015

2015 Reviews of childrens' books about space

Welcome to my annual reviews of space books for children! There was a bumper crop of space-related books for kids this year; I received dozens of books for review from publishers, and bought a few more to fill out my fiction recommendations. Every book pictured on this page is one that I recommend for purchase.

This year, I was particularly interested in updating my 6- and 9-year-old children's public school library with the fact-filled nonfiction that they might use for reports on the planets, so you'll find those books listed first. Then I'll get on to more general recommendations, ordered by age group. Books can span ages, of course, so depending on what age kid you're buying for, you may want to look in the adjacent-age group for more suggestions. And the section for kids 12 and up includes many books intended for a general audience, not just kids.

I had so many books to review this year that this post needs a table of contents, so here it is:

 Multi-volume nonfiction book series

In a previous post, I talked about culling old, outdated books, and how desperately they needed updated books on Mars and Mercury. Reviewing stacks of new books for the school library, I kept these questions in mind:

  • Are there major factual errors?
  • Does it provide "wow" facts in addition to dry numbers and dates?
  • Does it discuss some recent science?
  • Does it talk about things we don't yet understand, questions that motivate us, why we need to keep exploring?
  • Are the images well-chosen to match the text?
  • Is the exploration section up-to-date?
  • Does the exploration section mention international missions, not just NASA ones?

Clearly, not all books can do everything, especially books for younger readers, but some were better than others. Here are books I can recommend, though some are recommended with reservations.

I reviewed three sets of multi-volume books on the planets and other things in the solar system. Of these, I can recommend two, one from Capstone and one from Scholastic. Both are intended for 7- to 10-year-olds, though I think they'd still have some use for older children. For both series, the books are written by multiple authors, and not all the books in the series are of the same quality. In particular, I found the Mars and Earth books in both series to be somewhat weak compared to the rest. Both series include recent Keck Adaptive Optics images of Uranus and Neptune and discuss how both worlds have changed since Voyager 2 explored them. Overall, I have a slight preference for the Capstone series, although both series were very close to each other in quality.

The Capstone series has eight books, on The Secrets of Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Three each were written by Emma Carlson Berne, Kassandra Radomski, and Thomas Adamson. The Mercury and Venus books are particularly good, with up-to-date science and exploration sections, mentioning Bepi-Colombo though not Akatsuki. In the Venus book, there were mentions of recent Venus Express results along with caveats like "signs still need to be confirmed" of present-day volcanism and "scientists don't know why" the winds are getting faster -- it's really not common for young kids' books to present science as anything but settled fact, so I appreciated those touches. The Earth book suffered from trying to cover too many topics (not just Earth but also the Moon, eclipses, Earth-based astronomy, all kinds of stuff). In an otherwise good exploration section the Mars book failed to mention any non-NASA missions. The outer planets books were uniformly pretty good with decent attention paid to some of the interesting large moons, although there were a couple of factual errors in the Jupiter book. All the books featured one current scientist (the list includes Louise Prockter, Adriana Ocampo, Mark Bordreaux, Ashwin Vasavada, Steve Vance, Carolyn Porco, Leigh Fletcher, and Heidi Hammel, respectively), and all have a closing page talking about questions for future exploration missions.

The ten books in the Scholastic series are The Sun, Planet Mercury, Planet Venus, Planet Earth, The Moon, Planet Mars, Planet Jupiter, Planet Saturn, Planet Uranus, and Planet Neptune. Five were written by Christine Taylor-Butler and five by Ann O. Squire. I like the way that this series presents facts in front and mythology and history toward the back, which is the reverse of the way most kids' fact books are organized. This series is heavy on vocabulary (with vocabulary words in bold text), but the text is still perfectly readable. My biggest problem with this series is that everything is fact; there's no sense of what we have left to discover, no future questions to answer; but as I mentioned, it's not unusual for kids' books to lack this. Overall, the books on the Sun, Mercury, Venus, and Jupiter were excellent; the other outer planets books are very good although I felt there could have been more in each one on the moons; and Earth, Moon, and were Mars only okay. One good thing about the Earth book in this series is the number of ways it discussed how we explore Earth -- not just with spacecraft but with surface geology and undersea subs. The Venus book had the most thorough summary of Venera missions I've found in a book for kids this age. The Moon book had a disappointing lack of any mention of non-NASA missions, and spent too much time on tides and eclipses and not enough on lunar science. The Mars book was not as up-to-date as I had hoped.

If I were to put together a series of books for my school's library, I'd recommend the Capstone books on Mercury and Jupiter through Neptune; the Scholastic books on Sun, Venus, and Earth; and Eric Berger's Mars book (see below). I'm still looking for a better book on lunar exploration, and I hope that next year I'll find a new book on dwarf planets featuring Dawn and New Horizons photos.

 Books for 0- to 3-year-olds

I only have one recommendation for this age group this year:

On the Launch Pad: A Counting Book About Rockets starts with the number twelve and counts down -- twelve stars, eleven workers, ten engineers, all the way to "three launch towers slide away," "two rocket engines rumble and roar," and "One shining rocket aims toward the stars. BLASTOFF!" Refreshingly, it doesn't attempt to rhyme; it just counts down. The illustrations are friendly cut-paper collages. I can imagine kids listening to this book being read to them -- and then taking over the book for themselves, flipping pages and counting down: 3-2-1! I wish it came as a board book, becuase the big floppy pages may not hold up to a 2-year-old's desire to flip through them fast. It was written by Michael Dahl and illustrated by Derrick Alderman and Denise Shea.

Books that I've reviewed in the past for this age group that are still in print (and still recommended) are Eight Spinning Planets and Space Walk.

 Books for 4- to 7-year-olds

Bright Sky Starry City, by Uma Krishnaswami and illustrated by Aimée Sicuro, is a story about an astronomy-loving girl and her dad seeing the stars come out in the sky over a city after a passing rainstorm knocks out power. Both the text and the illustrations are lovely. The text is sparse, written in blank verse that inspires you to speak it slowly and carefully as you read it aloud: "Above the newly washed city, / with the power still out, / glowing, sparkling, gleaming lights / painted the night -- some faint, some brilliant, / some clustered together / and some scattering fiercely / through the inky darkness. / Stars in the hundreds, some in constellations / that Phoebe had only ever seen / in pictures." It's a wonderful book but it makes me sad that the stories we tell city kids nowadays about how they can see the stars require power to be knocked out to a whole city.

For a kid who's reading on their own, Buzz Beaker and the Outer Space Trip is a fun adventure in which a kid inventor and his dog meet aliens (and their alien robot cats) and avert inter-species strife by sharing cookies. ("Aliens love cookies.") In its slim pages and text it manages to reinforce lots of excellent lessons for young kids -- for instance, failure is frustrating, but to succeed, you have to try again; and solving problems requires imagination -- without being too overly preachy. And the lessons are leavened with humor that had my 6-year-old laughing. She read it several times in a row when I first gave it to her. The cartoony illustrations are full of action; it requires little mental stretching to imagine them in motion. There are quite a lot of Buzz Beaker books; I'll probably check more of them out.

I don't see many space-related biographies written for early readers. Mae Jemison, by Luke Colins, is an easy-to-read story about the first African-American woman astronaut. It's a small book, but every page contains a big photo, very well-chosen to match the short text, and the text talks about how she became an astronaut (she had to try more than once) and what she has done since to help and inspire others.

So many nonfiction books focus on delivering facts to kids. I Wonder takes the opposite approach, following a girl and her mother as they ask questions about the universe. Some of the girl's questions, her mother can answer with facts; some, she can't. And when she doesn't know the answer, the mother finds something to celebrate in that: "When no one knows the answer to something, it's called a mystery. A mystery is something for everyone to wonder about together." In a note at the end of the book, author Annaka Harris said she wrote it because she observed that "before my daughter turned two, she began ignoring questions she couldn't answer. Then she moved on to giving answers she knew to be false." She looked for a book that could teach her daughter that the "right" answer to a question is often: "I don't know!" I think this is such an important lesson for kids. They must say "I don't know" in order to desire to learn knew things, and they must realize that adults don't have all the answers, either -- that we are all of us working together to answer questions that we don't know the answers to. I Wonder was illustrated by John Rowe.

There is something for all ages in Odd Duck, by Cecil Castellucci and Sara Varon. The adorable illustrations make it appear to be a young children's picture book, but it's not as simple as it looks. Theodora is a duck who likes things her way, and her organized life is disturbed when a strange and wild duck Chad moves in next door. But they find common ground in a shared love for astronomy, and the shared interest in the stars opens up the opportunity for them to become friends. Later, Theodora's world is rocked again by the discovery that her other neighbors think she is as odd as she thought Chad was. The simple book and text hide a sophisticated story about the shame of discovering oneself to be weird -- and the joy in finding friends who share your weird interests.  As a recovering sixth-grade outcast (who am I kidding, I still haven't recovered), I identified with Theodora. And yet Castellucci and Varon tell the story in a way that gripped my six-year-old as I read it to her. It's a wonderful book.

 Books for 8- to 11-year-olds

Since I found the Mars books in both the nonfiction series lackluster, I was delighted to find Discovering Mars: The Amazing Story of the Red Planet, by Melvin Berger. For readers 8-12, It has the usual fact-filled front section, laid out with an engaging design. The science facts are followed by a very thorough retelling of the history of NASA's Mars exploration that describes not just dates and capabilities of the missions, but mentions a scientific contribution made my each mission. It goes right through Curiosity, with a photo of one of the drill sites and a mention of the discovery of organic compounds. It mentions a future with Mars balloons or airplanes or sample return. Unfortunately, no Russian missions are mentioned, and Mars Express gets the barest mention in a timeline; and its U.S.-centrism continues into the measurement units (miles only, whereas the above book series include both U.S. and metric units). But it's by far the best children's book on Mars exploration in my pile.

I recommend with reservations Demoting Pluto: The Discovery of the Dwarf Planets, also by Steve Kortenkamp. The text is great; the book does an excellent job of explaining the formation of the solar system and the history of the discovery of Ceres and the asteroid belt and later Pluto and the Kuiper belt and how each step in understanding made scientists reexamine what they thought the solar system was. However, I can't help but feel that this book was published one year too early; there are long sections on Dawn and New Horizons that would be much better if they had been written this year, after each mission arrived at its target. The book actually includes one Dawn photo of Ceres that was taken in February, which is sadly pixelated; I'm sure it was the best available at the time. If only they could've waited until July to send this book to the printers! The book does do a good job of going beyond the "official" dwarf planets to discuss how very many other likely dwarf planets there are in the Kuiper belt, and how many are yet to be discovered.

I really enjoyed A Visit to a Space Station, by Claire Throp. It addresses the reader as a future ISS astronaut, telling you what you need to do to train, how you will ride a Soyuz to the Station, and how you live and sleep up there. It's fairly up-to-date, featuring photos of the cupola and of ATVs, though it does include a confusing variety of exterior shots of the ISS that are not in chronological order. (At least one photo shows the fully assembled ISS, while there are other photos going as far back as the launch of Unity.) I don't think that's a serious problem, as the point of the book is to get kids to imagine themselves living in space as astronauts do, and for that it's quite effective. And yes, there is a photo of an astronaut toilet!

"Adventures in Space" is an excellent four-book series telling the history of human space travel as experienced by four famous astronauts: Yuri Gagarin and the Race to Space; Neil Armstrong and Traveling to the Moon; Sally Ride and the Shuttle Missions; and Chris Hadfield and the International Space Station. The books are absolutely packed with information, and yet the stories are told with drama. Sidebars and pull-quotes contain even more facts. Pictures and illustrations are perfectly matched to the text. These are not complete biographies of the four astronauts, but rather use the astronauts as characters in human exploration history to engage readers in the story. The device works very well.

Fatal Faults: The Story of the Challenger Explosion is compelling and well-written -- but difficult to read, at least for me, because of its subject matter. Eric Braun tells the story of the Shuttle disaster through the points of view of a dozen key characters, including engineers, astronauts, and members of the Rogers commission. In very short chapters the point of view shifts from one person to the next, creating an unavoidable momentum toward the disaster. I didn't want to keep turning pages, knowing what was about to happen to the astronauts. The book even speculates on what Mike Smith may have done in the final seconds, as the still-intact crew cabin plunged toward the ocean. But most of the book deals with the aftermath, showing us the investigation through the anguished perspectives of engineers Allen McDonald and Roger Boisjoly, with appearances by Richard Feynman and Sally Ride. The book is heavier on text than images, although there are photos sprinkled throughout, and may be more suitable for 10-14-year-olds. I was 11 when the Challenger blew up; I couldn't say whether a kid who's currently 11 would feel the story to be as emotionally gripping as I do. Likely not, but there is plenty of emotional content in this book.

 Books for 12-adult

I received a few hard-sci-fi novels for review this year, but the only ones I liked well enough to recommend were Tin Star and Stone in the Sky, by Cecil Castellucci. The duology tells the story of young Tula Bane, a human girl who is left for dead on a backwater space station inhabited only by varied aliens. In this universe, humans are a relatively powerless species, and the first part of Tin Star is quite grim as Tula barely survives. But by watching and learning from the aliens and adapting to their ways, she comes into her own and eventually plays a key part in the complex machinery of interstellar politics. There are story elements that require some willful suspension of disbelief (like the fact that the young protagonist could spot a conspiracy that much more powerful denizens of the story universe do not). But I love Tula's character, a model for both determination and compassion, who uses her wits and ordinary empathy rather than magical powers or magic technology to survive. The books remind me of the universe C. J. Cherryh built in her Chanur series, but is more accessible to a much younger audience; in fact, only some yucky romance elements (to speak from the point of view of my older daughter) and the long, grim start to Tin Star prevent me from recommending these books to 8-11-year-olds. Castellucci told me she doesn't plan to write more novels in this series, but pointed me to a prequel short story available for free at tor.com as well as a freely downloadable tabletop RPG (rules - adventure PDFs) that takes place in the same universe.

Reading Sally Ride: A Photobiography of America's Pioneering Woman in Space feels like sitting in a living room, looking through a scrapbook, listening to a family member tell stories of a departed person that she loved. And that's what it is; the book is written by Tam O'Shaugnessy, Ride's partner later in life, and her friend since childhood. Every page is full of family photos and scraps of memorabilia. I never met Ride myself but now I wish I had. O'Shaughnessy details Ride's many accomplishments, but doesn't gloss over faults and challenges: the difficulty she had in finding a field that inspired her to put out her best effort (being an astronaut eventually was that); the depression she suffered after her first flight, an introvert receiving too much attention; and the private final days of her life, before pancreatic cancer ended it. But these sadder elements are rare; mostly the book tells the story of a uniquely talented woman. "Just as the boys on the block in Sally's childhood picked her for their teams, the men in the physics department at Stanford and now the men at NASA had picked her for their teams, too. All her life, people wanted Sally to be part of their team -- because she was competent, determined, and cool under pressure, and because she was truly a team player."

My school's library had very old copies of the very popular Dorling Kindersley picture-rich nonfiction space books, so I requested new copies for review. Eyewitness Universe and Eyewitness Space Exploration are books for younger readers (8-12) that get reissued every few years with incremental corrections and upgrades. Unfortunately, I found them to be insufficiently updated to recommend them at this time. But DK has two new books about space for all ages, and they're excellent: Space! and The Planets. Space! has fantastic, up-to-date, lovely illustrations, and very well-chosen photos. There are thorough lists of moons for each planet, with scale diagrams, but only two (Titan and Io) get their own two-page spreads. The exploration section does a good job of generalizing the kinds of different vehicles used for exploration and is quite up-to-date. In general, it achieves good factual detail given the broad scope of the book. Because it has a narrower focus, The Planets contains a lot more factual detail on individual missions (including really nice two-page spreads with exploration timelines for each planet), as well as more information on the moons, plus lovely two-page spreads for each solid planet and several of the moons showing artist's concepts of the landscapes you might see if you could stand on their surfaces. There's also a good comparative planetology section in the back with tables comparing interiors, magnetic fields, ring systems, atmospheres, and more. Given the size of the book, I was a little disappointed that there wasn't more information on each of the moons as individual worlds.

I received What If? last year and forgot to review it; so now I have two Randall Munroe books to recommend this year! What If? is now one of my favorite all-time science-related books; I'd recommend it as a gift to almost any adult and to STEM geeks age 12 and up. Go check out Munroe's What If blog to get an idea of its content, if you haven't already. It's a wonderful exercise in back-of-the-envelope calculation at the same time as it's completly absurd and hilarious, although it's a bit alarming how often his answers to the "What If" questions his blog readers submitted to him result in the end of the world as we know it. 

Munroe's latest book is Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words. Thing Explainer grew out of Munroe's immensely popular xkcd comic "Up Goer Five," in which he used the ten hundred most common words in the English language ("thousand" is not one of them) to explain how the Saturn V rocket works. Thing Explainer includes "Up Goer Five" as well as many other space-related subjects, such as the "Shared Space House" (ISS), "Red World Space Car" (Curiosity rover), and "Worlds Around the Sun" (the solar system and the spacecraft that explore it). Sometimes the prose sounds natural, sometimes painful as Munroe works through the sieve of his permitted word list. There's a tension between the choice of funny but unhelpful names for things (like the words he came up with for all the different Mars missions) and phraseology that makes complicated concepts more clear (like in his wonderful explanations of general and special relativity, "The Space Doctor's Big Idea," which is not in this book but illustrates the prose style.) The balance works most of the time, and I can laugh at the space pages and learn something from the pages on things that are not about space, the whole time musing on how I can do better at simplifying my own language -- but not too much.

In Cosmos: The Infographic Book of Space, by Stuart Lowe and Chris North, simple-looking line drawings encode a vast amount of information about everything from telescopes to the 30,000 nearest galaxies. Each graphic occupies all the available area on every two-page spread. Although the graphics are organized by topic, I was often surprised as I turned from one page to the next. One page shows relative sizes of planets and moons; the next, an enormous chart summarizing future lunar and solar eclipses throgh 2050; the next, an amusing comparison of the solar system's top ten tallest mountains, biggest lakes, longest channels, and largest craters; the next, scale comparisons of the interior structures of the 14 largest worlds orbiting the Sun. (I had no idea that Loki Patera's lake of lava is the same size as Lakes Baikal and Tanganyika. Yikes.) It's the kind of book that you can pick up and turn to any page and enjoy what you find, but you have to read it cover to cover to be delighted by each and every page.

That's it for my book reviews this year. One final related recommendation is Steve Cariddi's Year in Space 2016 Wall Calendar. I'm biased about this one, because it's developed with the cooperation of The Planetary Society, but I do think it's a great gift. Each enormous calendar page focuses on a different spacecraft or space topic, with beautiful photos, tons of facts (including one Bruce Betts Random Space Fact), interesting stories, and a profile of a scientist or explorer. I know that Steve works hard to make sure that those profiles are diverse. Each month's calendar page includes a sky guide for the month, phases of the moon, events in space history, American and Canadian national holidays, and Christian and Jewish religious holidays. Almost every calendar date features at least one historical space event, and some feature as many as five!

If these recommendations aren't enough for you, check out my previous book reviews. And if you know of new-ish books that you think belong on this list, let me know

The Planetary Fund

Your support powers our mission to explore worlds, find life, and defend Earth. Give today!