The Usborne Big Book of Stars and Planets written by Emily Bone, illustrated by Fabiano Fiorin is a first primer in astronomy, full of simply explained and rather beautifully illustrated facts about the Solar System, different types of stars and how they group together, and space exploration and observation. Four large flaps fold out (a little like the expanding universe), to reveal further facts and some lavish astronomical vistas.
Usborne has history when it comes to astronomy books and the Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize: Last year Usborne’s Look Inside Space (which I reviewed here) won the prize, and in 2011 The Story of Astronomy and Space (which I reviewed here) was shortlisted. So how does The Usborne Big Book of Stars and Planets compare? Is it an award winner?
Many Usborne books are characterized by cartoony illustrations, and here, The Usborne Big Book of Stars and Planets does something rather different and really worthwhile in my opinion: Fiorin’s illustrations do justice to the beauty of space, with the use of vivid watercolours, particularly effective in the section on nebulae.
As to the information presented, I have come up against a problem. Whilst I don’t fact-check everything in the non-fiction books I review, I do always check a few “facts”, to get a feel for how the book presents information. Unfortunately with The Usborne Big Book of Stars and Planets I very quickly came across a few statements which made me slightly concerned: the thickness of Saturn’s rings and the length of Uranus’ day don’t match what is stated on NASA’s website (65 ft thick vs 30-300 ft thick, 17 hours and 54 minutes vs 17 hours and 14 minutes). I know that “facts” are often much more complicated than presented, especially in books for the youngest of readers, and that simplification is sometimes necessary (and that my research skills can always be bettered) but it makes me uneasy when with just a little investigation I can find contradictory information from reliable sources.
I love the look and feel of The Usborne Big Book of Stars and Planets but I can’t help feeling unsettled by it too; why doesn’t the information I’ve looked up elsewhere match with some of the information presented in the book? Hmm.
[UPDATE 21 November 2014. Since publishing my review, I have heard from Usborne, and they have told me that the wording with regard to thickness of Saturn’s rings will be amended in future editions, as will the stated length of Uranus’ day. The latter inconsistency crept in as a result of advances in the understanding of Uranus’ behaviour between the time of finalising the original text of the book and it eventually being published. It’s a great thing that science is progressing all the time, but sometimes this means texts can date quicker than we would wish they did!]
Inspired by the patterns and colours of the planets in the illustrations, and such photos as the one below, where Jupiter appears in pastel colours because the observation was taken in near-infrared light, we decided to make our own set of planets.
We used marbling paint and different sized polystyrene balls to replicate the colours and patterns.
Having created a swirly pattern with a toothpick the girls slowly dipped their “planets” into the paint/water. (In order to hang up the planets to dry, we attached string to them before we dipped them).
The effects were just lovely!
Once dry, we put our planets into orbit in the windowsill:
We shall never have a dull sky at night now.
Whilst marvelling at our marbled planets we listened to:
Other activities that would go well with reading The Usborne Big Book of Stars and Planets include:
When you read reviews of non-fiction books do you expect some commentary on factual accuracy? When can a book still be worth recommending even if it appears to contain errors? I wrote a review of a non-fiction book for a print publication at the start of this year. The book contained an error (double and triple checked by me), but my review was never published, and in all the other reviews I’ve seen of the book, the error has not been mentioned. What do you think of this? Should errors be overlooked because they can be corrected in future editions?
Disclosure: I received a free review copy of The Usborne Big Book of Stars and Planets about Your Body from the Royal Society.
Each year the Royal Society awards a prize to the best book that communicates science to young people with the aim of inspiring young people to read about science. The Usborne Big Book of Stars and Planets is on this year’s shortlist for the The Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize. The winner will be announced 17th November.