The Usborne Big Book of Stars and Planets – a Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize shortlistee

posted in: Emily Bone, Fabiano Fiorin | 9

7277409-MThe 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.

usbornestarsbook

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!]

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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.

Triple Jupiter Eclipse. Photo:  NASA on The Commons, ESA, and E. Karkoschka (University of Arizona)
Triple Jupiter Eclipse. Photo: NASA on The Commons

We used marbling paint and different sized polystyrene balls to replicate the colours and patterns.

planets3

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).
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The effects were just lovely!

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Once dry, we put our planets into orbit in the windowsill:

planets1

We shall never have a dull sky at night now.

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Whilst marvelling at our marbled planets we listened to:

  • The Monty Python Universe Song
  • The Planets suite by Gustav Holst. ‘Mars’ recently featured in the BBC’s 10 Pieces, a project designed to get primary school aged children really excited about classical music. The BBC created a video to go with the music, which you can view here.
  • For the Planet Pluto by The Music Tapes


  • Other activities that would go well with reading The Usborne Big Book of Stars and Planets include:

  • Making a scale model of the Solar System down your garden path or along the pavement to school. Here’s how we did it (all measurements included).
  • Watching some of the experiments carried out by Chris Hadfield when he was in the International Space Station. He’s got his own YouTube channel where you can hear him sing (not just the Bowie song) as well as explore many of the amazing things that happen in space.
  • Signing up to find out next time you can send your name into space! Occasionally NASA sends probes into space on which you can have your name inscribed – my girls’ names will be launched into space with Bennu in 2016 – and if you sign up you can find out when the next such opportunity arises.

  • 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.

    royalsocietyprizebuttonEach 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.

    9 Responses

    1. SIMONE FRASER

      Beautiful beautiful solar system… Inspiring as ever!

    2. What beautiful planets you have created!

      And yes, I would expect comments on fact accuracy, particularly if they are wrong! As a school librarian with thousands of non-fiction books on my shelves, it worries me greatly that books nowadays are still being printed with factual inaccuracies. Librarians cannot check the facts in every book they purchase and rely on publishers to do so. In fact, one of my points when delivering a lesson on Internet searching and reliability to my year 7s is that anyone can post anything on the net without it being checked whereas published books go through a thorough system of checking. There goes my theory …
      If I can’t trust books to give the right information to my students, then I have lost my fight against the “always use the Internet for homework” frame of mind, and that’s a really depressing thought :0(
      Library Mice recently posted..Spooky Reads!

    3. I LOVE those planets you’ve made – just beautiful!
      Elli Woollard recently posted..Nobody

      • Thanks Elli and Simone, they are beautiful – and so easy to make! Kids have since made up names for each of their planets and also fact files about rocks/temperatures/gases and so on.

    4. Your planets are gorgeous, and look much more difficult to make than they were (according to your instructions anyway!)

      I notice Usborne constantly repackage and reissue material and I wonder if the problem here was that they didn’t check the text against rapidly evolving knowledge of the subject.
      Ruth Waterton recently posted..The Scottish Referendum – Heart says yes, head says no

    5. Hi Ruth, I don’t know to what extent this is repackaged material – I checked the other usborne books and it didn’t seem to me to be directly repackaged (eg a different author is attributed to the book, different illustrators used, the text whilst similar is not the same), but of course books sometimes don’t reflect latest state of knowledge because things have moved on. For example this book doesn’t mention that there have recently been calls to reclassify Pluto as a planet (http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2014/10/02/pluto-planet-solar-system/16578959/) – but that’s fair enough as the book came out before this proposal.
      Zoe recently posted..The Usborne Big Book of Stars and Planets – a Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize shortlistee

    6. Oh my, those planets are gorgeous! re factchecking, it’s certainly appreciated. I occasionally stumble across errors simply because the subject is familiar to me, and it does shake my confidence in a book.
      Ana recently posted..More Binny, Please

    7. What do you all need to make the planets?

      • Hi Gretchen – all the details are above in my post. We used polystyrene balls and marbling paint, and then some thread to hang them up 🙂 Hope you can give it a go!

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