Emily LakdawallaOct 29, 2012

Reviews of space-themed story books for children

There are perks to being a journalist. One of the ones I enjoy the most is the ability to request, and receive, free copies of dozens of new books each year. I'm not gonna lie: I enjoy the kids' books (and toys!) the most. In the past, I've split my kids' book reviews up by age group, but this year, I'm splitting it somewhat differently. My first set of kids' book reviews is of eight beautifully illustrated story books. I've listed them below in order of my preference, from most to least favorite. (I don't review grownup books that I don't like, but I think it's worth letting people know about kids' books that I think should be avoided.)

One more thing: We've finally re-signed up for an Amazon Affiliates account, which means that if you buy the books on Amazon by clicking through the images in this post, The Planetary Society gets a small portion of the sales price.

Pieces of Another World

This is such a sweet story, by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by Salima Alikhan. A child is woken from sleep in the middle of the night by a father who promises to show her the titular "pieces of another world." The child sees her own world at night for the first time, both her urban world (empty grocery store, busy all-night restaurant) and her natural world (nocturnal wildlife). Finally, she sees the promised other worlds, which you and I knew all along were meteors, but which may be a surprise to young kids being read this story. This book would be a super way to prepare kids for their first trip with you to watch a meteor shower.

Solar System Forecast

A story book about planetary meteorology? Yes! And a really fun one, too. Kelly Kizer Whitt's text is in the voice of a weather reporter, giving the day's forecast for airy bodies across the solar system, warning of dust devils on Mars and methane drizzle on Titan. The pencil drawings of Laurie Allen Klein are also fun, featuring rover weather reporters on Mars and snowman-building robots on Pluto. Back pages contain denser facts and a couple of questions to make kids think.

Meet the Planets

Another book with fun pencil illustrations by Laurie Allen Klein, with John McGranaghan's sometimes silly but fact-filled text introducing each planet as if it was a contestant in a pageant. The text is good but the illustrations are what make me enjoy this book so much; crowding around each planet are historical figures and personified (yet still recognizable, if you know your stuff) spacecraft. Back pages contain challenge activities for kids, better, I think, than the usual couple of pages of dense facts.

Saturn for My Birthday

Author John McGranaghan's second entry in this list, another story that delivers lots of facts about Saturn with the silliness. It's a relief to have a fact-filled book that doesn't start with Mercury and work predictably out to Neptune. A boy tries to convince his Dad to get him Saturn (and all its moons) for his birthday, explaining all the fun things he could do with it ("I'll make up names for the moons that don't have them yet!") and what good care he'd take of it (he can bathe it in the bathtub, he says, because it would float). Back pages include a few facts and fun activities. I think I'll make the Saturn's-rings ice cream ring with my kids...

Annie Jump Cannon, Astronomer

A nicely illustrated biography of the first woman to receive a(n honorary) Ph.D. from Oxford, told straight and with little embellishment. The story is told so straight, actually, that it's almost anti-dramatic. Cannon's setbacks -- the bout of scarlet fever that left her partially deaf, the sudden death of her mother -- are mentioned briefly, and not as often as sentences describing her happiness and cheerfulness. Cannon's story is interesting because she achieved so much more than most women of her time were permitted to, yet she was also held back by those limitations. Her achievements were as enabled by privilege as they were constrained by prejudice. The role her gender played in what she was able to accomplish is stated matter-of-factly, as when her employer Edward Pickering is quoted as saying that women were as good at "routine work" as men, yet better because they could be paid at one-fourth(!) the salary. The text passes no judgment on this, and unlike any of the other books on this list, there are no end pages with further information or suggestions for discussion. That makes it problematic. There are great questions that could be asked about this book, questions without obvious answers, questions about the roles of privilege and prejudice, that explore gray areas (was Pickering "good" in that he recognized women's ability and employed them, or "bad" for paying them so little and not realizing they could be astronomers as well as he could? Can he be both? Would Cannon have been able to achieve what she had, if she'd been born to a less wealthy family?) It's up to a parent or teacher to supply those questions and stimulate that discussion, because the text doesn't do it.

How the Moon Regained Her Shape

The stylized illustrations of this book, written by Janet Ruth Heller and illustrated by Ben Hodson, remind me quite a bit of one of my childhood favorites, Arrow to the Sun. It's a nice story in which the Moon is chastened by an overbearing Sun and loses her brilliance. Traveling to Earth, she is reminded by people and creatures she meets of how much her nighttime light is valued. It's another of those teaching-kids-the-moon-shines-only-at-night books that I've pedantically complained about before, but it's very pretty and provides an opportunity to talk with kids about bullying. One thing that bothers me a little is that the end pages say it's "influenced by Native American folklore," but it doesn't actually state anything more specific. The illustration employs Pueblo design elements, but unlike Arrow to the Sun, which is based upon an actual Pueblo folktale, there's no indication that there really is any connection between this specific story and the Pueblo, or if it's just a made-up story that's being given more weight by pretending it comes from a Native Culture.

Born with a Bang: Book One, the Universe Tells Our Cosmic Story

I can't decide what I think about this book, written by Jennifer Morgan and illustrated by Dana Lynne Andersen. It tells the story of the origin of the Universe from the big bang to the initial formation of the solar system in a narrative form that achieves a reasonable amount of detail, while avoiding unnecessary vocabulary. For instance, one page describes inflation (the initial, faster expansion of the universe, before the slowing to the modern rate of expansion) without calling it "inflation." The thing I'm unsure about is the voice of the book: the book is narrated in the first person by the Universe herself, writing about your (that is, you, the reader) origin in the form of a letter to you. In the book the Universe talks about the dreams of things she wanted one day to create, and of her pride in the accomplishments of the Mother Star (the star whose supernova created the elements that our Sun formed from). It's not that I mind the Universe as a narrator, but I think I'm disturbed by the sense of agency implied by the story told by the narrator. In this book, the Universe first imagined things she wanted to create, and then created them. How much you like this book will depend, I think, on where your philosophy lies on the spectrum that spans the space between "The universe was created" and "the universe just happened." If you're closer to the first, you may like it. If your personal universe is one where things don't happen for a reason, they just happen, then you might find it troubling. But still not a bad introduction to the facts as currently understood about how the universe came to be. There are two other books in this series, but the publisher didn't send them to me.

Going Around the Sun: Some Planetary Fun

By Marianne Berkes, illustrated by Janeen Mason. Definitely my least favorite entry in the list, which is disappointing because it was the only one I received this year that was aimed at preschoolers. It introduces each planet with rhyming couplets that manage to deliver practically no information except the order of the planets from the Sun. There are much better books of this ilk that I've reviewed in previous years suitable for the youngest kids, like Eight Spinning Planets and Dogs in Space.

Coming in a week or (more likely) two: reviews of kids' space science & exploration fact & history books.

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