Two bright stars in space – timely astronomy books for kids

With every blog post I publish I feel like I’m taking a risk, but none more so than with this one.

It doesn't get much riskier than a space walk! Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
It doesn’t get much riskier than a space walk! Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

The inspiration for it is something that might end up being a totally unremarkable damp squib, or – quite literally – a trail blazing light through our skies.

I’m talking about Ison, a sun grazing comet which may or may not become visible early tomorrow (Monday) morning, following a close encounter with the sun at the end of last week. It’s been in the news a lot the past few days, as have a couple of other exciting space events: An Indian probe has just set course for Mars, whilst any day now China is due to launch an unmanned spacecraft with plans of soft-landing it (ie not just crashing it) on the moon – the first time such a landing has been attempted since an unmanned Russian mission in 1976.

As space is so topical (to say nothing of the seasonal story about a bright star guiding people to a stable) now is the perfect time to tap into and to feed your family’s / class’s / friends’ curiosity about all things astronomical, and so I’ve got two books for you today which will do just that. One has already won a major award, and the other is destined to do so.

look-inside-spaceUsborne’s Look Inside Space, winner of this year’s Royal Society’s Young People’s Book Prize, is ideal for younger astronomers-to-be. In chunky, almost board-book format, packed with over 70 fact revealing flaps, this book is pitched perfectly for 5-7 year olds (in other words, a little younger than the crowd for the companion book from Usborne, See Inside Space), with language and information at a level they can read and process more or less themselves. Carnegie longlisted author Rob Lloyd Jones has done a perfect job – offering up an enticing introduction to space without becoming overwhelming.

Full colour unmistakeably Usborne-style illustrations are fun, and I really like the final spread dedicated to questions, encouraging curious minds to discover more about space – an outward looking conclusion showing that this book is just a starting point, a stepping stone to learning more.

Click for larger image
Click for larger image

Although it’s a shame that there is no simple index in this book (there is a contents page), and it is already slightly out of date (the Voyager probe has left the Solar System since this book was published ), this book still deserves a place in every school library.

astrocatProfessor Astro cat’s Frontiers of Space by Dr. Dominic Walliman (@DominicWalliman) and Ben Newman (@bennewmanillo) is aimed at 7-11 year olds and is from a completely different galaxy. Whilst solidly packed with information and explanations about everything from the birth of stars to life on the International Space Station, via constellation maps and suggestions for how space exploration may develop in the future, this book does something which I think is particularly clever.

Space is one of those things which photographs can illustrate majestically.

Spiral Galaxy M106. Photo: Hubble Heritage
Spiral Galaxy M106. Photo: Hubble Heritage
Earth Rise as Seen From Lunar Surface, Photo: NASA on the Commons
Earth Rise as Seen From Lunar Surface, Photo: NASA on the Commons

So what happens when you decide you want to illustrate a book about space, without photographs but where beauty, awe and wonder are still very much a part of the experience?

It would seem you call on the eye of Ben Newman, who, with a nod to post war graphic design, a limited earthy palette, and a stylish infographic-esque vision has turned this book into one which you’ll want to keep long after you and your family have outgrown the facts inside.

The creators of this gorgeous book, cloth bound and as beautiful as any “gift” book you’ll come across, have used humour and surprises to keep young readers’ attention; it really is a cat (with a mouse side-kick) who leads you through this intergalactic journey. Along with masses of information, there’s a dusting of jokes (the mouse, for example, claims his father went to school with Laika, the first animal to make a full orbit of the earth), and plenty of space for curiosity to roam, with the final pages looking more like something out of a sci-fi novel as Professor Astro Cat discusses what alien life could look like.

Click for larger image.
Click for larger image.

Although there’s a useful glossary, Professor Astro cat’s Frontiers of Space contains no contents page nor index, and its aesthetic and quirkiness means it feels light years away from a typical non-fiction book. It takes risks, but I think they will be highly rewarded; anyone who joins Astro Cat in his StarTrek-like mission to explore the frontiers of space will learn plenty whilst having lots of fun.

Professor Astro Cat himself!
Professor Astro Cat himself!

Whilst we’ve been enjoying these two books we’ve been tracking progress of Ison, China’s Chang’e-3 rocket and India’s Mangalyaan using the following resources:

  • An animation of Comet Ison’s trajectory
  • Comet Ison on Twitter: @cometison2013
  • India’s Mars Probe on Twitter: @Mangalyaan1
  • Indian Space Research Organisation
  • CCTV’s news feed about the Chang’e-3 rocket

  • Some more general online space resources we’ve enjoyed include:

  • NASA’s kids’ club
  • New Scientist’s catalogue of articles about comets and asteroids.
  • Astronomy Picture of the Day
  • Chris Hadfield’s YouTube channel
  • Stellarium, free planetarium software that shows exactly what you see when you look up at the stars.
  • Zooniverse – a repository of science experiments/research which members of the public can take part in, including exploring the surface of the moon, and studying explosions on the sun.

  • Some space music we like:

  • When I Look Into The Night Sky by Lori Henriques
  • Holst’s Mars suite, with an animation showing the journey of the Mars Rover
  • First Kid in Outer Space by The Not-Its!
  • The Ballad of Davy Crockett (In Outer Space) by They Might Be Giants
  • Space Girl by Peggy Seeger

  • Some space activities we’ve enjoyed in the past include:

  • Learning about meteor impacts with flour, cocoa powder and space lego!
  • Getting a handle on interplanetary distances using our garden path

  • And we like the idea of making our own comet – here’s a tutorial for creating a fairly realistic comet though I’m not sure how kid-friendly it is as it requires ammonia. Here’s one which is much less realistic, but beautiful and fun, whilst here’s a third that gives a great illusion of a comet tail.

    When did you last do some night-sky gazing? I hope your skies are clear tonight so you can watch the stars sparkle above us.

    Disclosure: I was sent free review copies of both books in today’s post by their respective publishers.

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