Book Review: Four Astronomy Books for Kids

The Planets by Gail Gibbons is a primary level reader. Go outdoors with a youngster and point out the bright red dot of Mars. Then, return indoors and peruse the friendly and accurate portrayal of this planet in the book. For instance, with Mars, there is a diagram that shows its relative orbital position about the sun and a realistic drawing of the Martian globe. There is one diagram per page and underneath each diagram there is some text with relevant facts. Again with Mars, we read how it is the fourth planet from the Sun, about 142 million miles away and two robotic vehicles are exploring its surface. Each of the planets has a two page spread and appropriate factual data.

This book would easily satisfy the bedtime story for the young space buff. A touch of history, a sprinkling of physics and some clever visual representations might instil some knowledge and even awaken that nascent curiosity. For those who are just learning to read, this book will acquaint them with words more challenging than ‘See Spot run’. Further, because of the faithful rendering of the planets, they will knowingly begin to associate traits with names, e.g. the rings belong to Saturn.

Whether you are doing the reading or helping a younger one with theirs, The Planets will start opening up the concept of space and where we are within it.

Admittedly, children grow up way too fast. Primary readers quickly become outdated and children will seek new challenges. The book Stargazer by Ben Morgan is just the solution. Within it are many outdoor and indoor activities to keep a child’s mind turning and their fingers busy.

Within it are more than thirty ways of exploring the skies. Following these will enable youngsters and their elders to happily spend time learning in harmony. Together you can make a planisphere, set up an experiment to check for life and prepare a lunar calendar. These and the other activities will push children into the more abstract thinking associated with the sciences, and at the same time their significance can easily be grasped by an adult so as to relay their deeper meaning.

In keeping with the shorter attention span of the young, the activities are fairly simple and for the most part quick to complete. A two page description is all most have and need. Each has background information, a list of ‘ingredients’ and step by step instructions. For instance, the atmosphere of Jupiter is discussed. Then using simple kitchen items the reader is guided into making patterns of liquids similar to Jupiter’s great red spot. Side comments note the Galileo probe and the Voyager probes that each visited Jupiter.

Stargazer encompasses a broad range of experiments to help a child learn get acquainted with the scientific method and further appreciate the enormity of our universe. In its small format, it is easy to carry and use at club or group meetings while fold-out field guides to the constellations would assist in outdoor discoveries.

In a similar way, Joe Rhatigan and Rain Newcomb in their book Out of This World Astronomy set their own stage for discovery and learning by doing. Within this book are fifty science projects to help grasp the nuances of our solar system, galaxies and even the big bang. With photographs, drawings and sketches, their projects can be accomplished with ease while intertwined related material lets a young reader explore further.

The projects are clearly laid out. A preliminary rationale demonstrates the activity and its relation to the real-life scenario. Again there is a list of required elements and then a step by step guide takes you through the project toward any conclusions. For instance, to grasp the relative distance of the orbits, the reader can head to their nearest football field, place a marker for the sun at one end zone and then use the yard lines to place markers at the appropriate location for each of the planets. Like most of the others, this activity is clear, simple, yet, succinct.

Between the projects, Rhatigan and Newcomb have included many of the mainstays of star watching. The proper use of red lights, how to estimate angles using finger widths, and the construction of the telescope types are all presented. Helpful hints guide the user in finding the planets. Quizzes reinforce the understanding of significant attributes while historical tidbits show the influence the stars have held on generations gone by.

Given the larger format and hardcover, the book Out of This World Astronomy seems better as a static reference. The experiments probably need a bit of planning and the information pages between the experiments are best for a single person sitting down and contemplating. However, the activities are of course more fun with another person or in a group.

The fourth book in this review is a junior level reference work, the Scholastic Atlas of Space. Perhaps the ubiquitous science project is raising its head or your child is asking questions that are beyond your ken. The simple explanations and inviting pictures included within this book will have the two of you happily learning more and getting homework done in no time.

As in keeping with a reference, the book is divided into particular subject matters. Each has background information, relevancy and association. For example under “looking into space” the text discusses the history of observation, broadens the knowledge by discussing the electromagnetic spectrum and then highlights the current top-of-the-heap ability, the Keck telescope on Mount Mauna Kea and the Hubble space telescope.

The subjects extend through the typical space arena. The beginning of the universe, galaxies and formation of stars lead into solar systems. Then, of course, each of our solar system’s planet gets portrayed with their own two page spread of pictures and drawings. The book concludes with a list of facts, star charts for the northern and southern hemisphere, and a helpful glossary.

Though the Scholastic Atlas of Space is a great reference, it really isn’t an atlas. However, one point where it and the Stargazer are well thought out is that they provide units in both metric (i.e. kilometres) and imperial (i.e. miles) values. Out of This World Astronomy give values only in imperial units though it does have a conversion chart in the very back. Nevertheless, all four excel at emphasizing visual imagery rather than text information, a fact alone that sets them apart as being well suited for the young audience.

The stars are free to anyone who wants to view their beauty. Sharing in their twinkling makes their value even greater. So don’t spend too many late nights alone watching the stars spin and rotate about. Use any of the four books described above to easily introduce the wonders of the night skies to young children and together you can expand your horizons.

Review by Mark Mortimer.