To the Stars!
Aquila: The Moon; Usborne Big Book of Stars and Planets; Star Stuff; Find the Constellations; Looking Up
It’s late August, and we just saw peak Perseids in the Northern Hemisphere, restrained but not totally deluminated by the surging sturgeon moon. We often miss these shooting stars when we’re at home because of summer fog and city lights. But this year we were away, in a beautiful and immensely dark place with clear skies, so we caught both the show and the massive moon. When we returned home, we flew on an airplane named Kealiiokonaikalewa [sic], aka Canopus, the second brightest star in the night sky, and actually larger and more massive than Sirius, but further away, so it appears a bit less bright to us. A few days after returning home, we caught a 40th-anniversary screening of E.T. Whatever your level or angle of interest, wherever you’re looking up from or through, here’s a small shelf’s worth of heavenly resources to ferry your gaze.
Aquila is a monthly educational magazine with a great sense of humor. Each issue features a mix of informative short articles, thematically relevant fiction, and activities that extend learning around the month’s topic. Last November’s Moon issue interviewed a space materials scientist, described daily life on the International Space Station, overviewed moon myths from around the world, explained the science of Alan Shepard’s lunar golf game, and roadmapped how to make your own stomp rocket.
Aquila: The Moon. November 2021. Editors: Freya Hardy, Benita Estevez. Target age: Gr2-6 [order the issue, issue resources, interview with Bee Rich]
The Usborne Big Book of Stars and Planets is an excellent early introduction to space stuff. Starting from where we are, Earth, the book contextualizes our place in the solar system, other stuff in our solar system, our sun, other stars, other star clusters, galaxies, and then some of the tech we use to learn about and explore space. The book finishes with a final spread describing easy to observe features in the night sky. Each oversized cardstock spread (including many foldouts) features brightly colored illustrations with bold keyword labels and brief descriptions.
*Caveats: Usborne has some strange distribution practices, including a direct-sales program. This title is a bit old now, but it’s still out there. Take this as an example of a format that works well for introducing this content. Also, I’ve run across some Usborne books and products that are total fluff or straight up garbage. This recommendation should not be read as a broad endorsement of this publisher.
The Usborne Big Book of Stars and Planets. 2013, Emily Bone, Fabiano Fiorin. Target age: PreK-Gr2 [libraries, flip-through].
Star Stuff is a picture book profile of Carl Sagan. Yes, it talks about space, and like the Usborne book above it will help very young readers understand what and where space is and how we learn about it. However my favorite aspect of this book is the human story. Readers will quickly appreciate that Carl’s curiosity led him to discover something he was passionate about, the ways he grew and followed that passion from a very young age throughout his life, and how he shared his passion with the world. Excellent author’s note, annotations, sources, and further reading at the end.
Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the Mysteries of the Cosmos. 2014, Stéphanie Roth Sisson. Target age: PreK-Gr2 [libraries, bookstores, read-aloud]
If your kiddos are inclined to get into actual constellation hunting, H.A. Rey’s “Find the Constellations” is an excellent resource. Yes, you *can* just point your smartphone at the sky to find them, but there’s something about recognizing constellations on your own that feels very connected and powerful. It’s a bit like navigating around your town without Google Maps telling you when and where to turn. H.A. Rey (co-creator of Curious George) was an enthusiastic amateur astronomer, and he pioneered a graphic method of illustrating constellations that broke with previous methods. The old allegorical method used very detailed Renaissance-esque drawings that hardly corresponded to the stars within; the more recent geometrical illustration method looked more like a connect-the-dots of the major stars, but those lines were not really pictorial. Rey’s graphic method is both minimal and semantic, so that the lines connecting Gemini’s stars actually create two stick figures standing arm-in-arm. Rey’s method is now the norm. The book speaks directly to the reader, and although it is intended for school-aged children, the language is “simple enough even adults can understand,” as the apocryphal quip goes.
Find the Constellations. 2017 (first published 1954), H. A. Rey. Target age: K-Gr4 [libraries, bookstores]. More about Rey’s method and a comparison of the styles here.
For young readers who are keen on the tech of space-gazing, Looking Up explains how telescopes work, beginning with the mechanics of lenses like we have on our own eyeballs, and the way light moves and is perceived. With each technical aspect that is described an example of a telescope that uses that technology is profiled (reflection and collection → Keck Observatory in Hawaii; invisible light → VISTA telescope in Chile and Webb telescope in space; millimeter radiation → Atacama Large Millimeter Array also in Chile; and so on). Readers will learn about very long light waves from very VERY long ago, ultra hot light from baby stars, x-ray traps, etc. This might seem a bit like the hot rods selection on the reading list – it is – but I really appreciate the frequent references throughout this book to telescopes working together to solve big challenges.
Looking Up: An Illustrated Guide to Telescopes. 2020, Jacob Kramer, Stephanie F Scholz. Target age: Gr2-5 [libraries, bookstores, flip-through]