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What Even IS Time?
Ticktock Banneker’s Clock; The Story of Clocks and Calendars; The Moon Tonight; Every Month Is a New Year; Time Is A Flower
I’ve been thinking on this set for a while now. Hoped to get it out to you back in January, closer to the New Year, but a couple viruses spent a few weeks wreaking havoc on our routines, and I’m still kind of in catch up mode. Maybe it’s fitting that a collection of books about calendars and timekeeping should be late. Researching for this set I came across an interesting short talk by David Rooney, caretaker of the Long Now’s prototype 10,000 Year Clock. In it, Rooney offers a mini history of clocks as instruments of control and targets of political resistance. I’ve also been thinking about Black History Month, and black representation in the fields of astronomy and horology. I’ve only just come across it, but I’m glad to have found a read aloud for Shana Keller’s 2016 children’s book about Benjamin Banneker, an accomplished practitioner in both fields, as well as almanac writing [libraries, bookstores]. And I can’t help but notice the footnotes in Banneker’s Wikipedia article discussing an over-attribution of accomplishments to him (mostly, it seems, with regard to a role he is supposed to have played in surveying the land that would become Washington D.C. – side note: I’m shocked there’s no Talk page activity for this article – is that still a thing?). And THIS, this posthumous over-working of a farmer/astronomer/clock-maker, makes me think of Tricia Hersey’s book Rest Is Resistance and the larger project of resisting grind culture. So, with all of that said, I present four children’s books on timekeeping. They span social and technological history, lunar mechanics, poetry, and straight up sweet picture book meditation. The last two are not strictly nonfiction – you know I like to mix it up!
The Story of Clocks and Calendars covers a wide range of deep history, including ancient bone and stick calendars (30,000 to 10,000 BCE), monolith calendars (6,000 to 1,500 BCE), Sumerian lunar datebooks (5,000 BCE), the Egyptian lunar calendar which they converted to solar in 2772 BCE, and just a tremendous number of really messy conversions by many other civilizations from lunar to solar for a long time thereafter, except the Mayans who pretty much nailed their calendar circa 500 BCE (they calculated the length of the solar year to be 365.2420 days, but it’s ACTUALLY 365.2422). Published in 1999, this book opens with quite a bit of talk about the new millennium, and the hotly anticipated arrival of the year 2000. My kids were a little baffled by all the to-do over a year that is basically ancient history to them, but we took the opportunity to talk about a year that feels really far away to them, but that they look forward to experiencing and that represents “the future” to them… clearly, 2050. I think this little sidebar actually helped to establish the arbitrariness of specific years, and then we transitioned easily into the rest of the book intro, which talks about human history versus geologic history, and then the wide range of calendars that are in fact still in use today, Gregorian being dominant but by no means the only. The book also covers smaller increments of time, including not only clock time but also event-based time. It’s quite information-dense – we split the reading into several nights – but there are also many wonderful illustrations of all the cool ancient time tech, like astrolabes and liquid-crystal digital display watches. I borrowed this book from the library, but even though it’s nearly a quarter century old (😵😵😵), I’d like to buy a copy to keep.
Note: I couldn’t find a read aloud for the Maestro’s book, but I did find this fantastic lecture from a professor of experimental physics, D.L. Carroll. The lecture was delivered at a university, but the audience is general, and the lecture covers almost exactly the same topics that are in the Maestro’s book. It’s long, but I think older kids will enjoy it, perhaps in installments.
The kids already know I’m a moon loony, but after reading about the extensive use of the lunar calendar throughout documented human history, I thought it fitting to revisit the mechanics of its movement. The Moon Tonight beautifully illustrates the dependability of the moon, simply explaining the difference between waxing and waning, and the predictable schedules of each of the moon’s phases. Children will learn where and when to look for a waxing crescent moon, and they’ll know the waning crescent is a treat reserved for the hardiest partiers and the earliest risers. All the diagrams are as lovely as they are instructive – you’ll wish you could hang them over lampshades to enjoy their soft glow.
PS: In case your kids ask you, as my eldest recently did, why the moon sometimes looks larger or smaller, here is an excellent resource from a former NASA astrophysicist on perigree and apogee.
Marilyn Singer’s poetry collection Every Month Is A New Year describes what New Year celebrations look like in different parts of the world. Each poem is short, but evocative, drawing on significant celebration details. The back of the book offers a brief history of each holiday, including when and where it is celebrated. The holidays span Scotland, Russia, China, Iran, Thailand, Jordan, New Zealand, Chile, India, Ethiopia, Israel, Ecuador, Spain, and the US. I like this book because it shows that new-year celebrations generally share many similar sentiments, but differ quite a bit in the details of their celebration. Also, some are secular and some are religious, and some coincide in seasonal patterns.
Time Is A Flower is a short, sweet picture book that encourages kids to think about time in terms of events and visible change. It falls into the realistic fiction category. Simple juxtapositions like a flower losing its petals, a tree growing from a sapling to giant, a shadow moving across a room, are changes that very young children have seen and can observe intentionally. I especially like the spread that shows how time is experienced differently depending on where you are (one person’s nighttime is another person’s day time).