“We had the sky up there all speckled with stars and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them and discuss whether they was made or just happened.” ~Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Summer is the perfect time to begin an investigation into the wonders of the night sky, an exploration that can go on all year and extend to watching dazzling moonrises or quiet stargazing, and always and forever hours of delight in stories of the constellations. The night sky is our oldest picture book! There are so many references in literature for all ages to the awe of looking up at the sky “all speckled with stars”; we think you’ll start noticing them everywhere, just as we have in the process of creating this book flight. We begin with 2 read-alouds for the whole family to put you in the mood, and follow with a mix of fact, fiction, poetry, and folktales. Want more? Check out our suggestions for further family explorations of the Night Sky.
Read-Alouds for the Family
“The Evening Out” from Mary Poppins Comes Back by P.L. Travers
While the movie is (of course!)adored and the new-ish stage production is tons of fun, both have the Disney shiny-happy veneer. If you’ve never read the original series, there is an abundance of acerbic wit and whimsy – not to mention a whole other level of magic – that can only be found here. This is a perfect read aloud chapter that stands on it’s own, but will also make you want to pick up the first book and dive in. While the evening out in question is Mary Poppins’, she leaves a way for the Banks children to follow, perhaps to teach them a lesson as just that evening, Michael was wishing for the moon. Remember the saying, be careful what you wish for? For Mary Poppins’ evening out turns out to be a circus in the stars, where the children dance with Castor and Pollux, the sun is the ringmaster and Orion takes the tickets. And who is the guest of honor? If you want further Mary Poppins adventures in the stars, try Chapter 8 in Mary Poppins, “Mrs. Corry”, from the first book. It will have you wondering along with Jane, “Are the stars gold paper or is the gold paper stars?”
Zoo in the Sky: A Book of Animal Constellations by Jacqueline Mitton, illustrated by Christina Ballit
You can’t go wrong choosing this book to introduce your family to the delights and wonders of the constellations that have been named for animals. Published by National Geographic Society, each beautiful image is accompanied by an explanation of the stars that make up the constellation, a clear description of the stars that create the animal are set in the sky , and the story that inspired it, written by science writer and astronomer Dr. Jacqueline Mitton. The endpapers show starmaps and carry other references for interested readers. But it is the stories and pictures of the “zoo in the sky” that are the most compelling part of the book. The poetic descriptions are engaging for pre-schoolers and elementary school children, yet lyrical enough to delight older readers as well. Great to carry along on camping trips, or just bring out into your backyard to see the stories and animals in the sky, waiting to be found.
Pre-school and Early Readers:
How to Catch a Star by Oliver Jeffers
The simple drawings and slightly wistful story break a parent’s heart a little bit with each re-reading, both of those things are what resonate so strongly with children. A little boy who loves the stars very much would like one of his very own. But even though he gets up early to catch one, it doesn’t seem to work. It ends happily, and cleverly reminds us all to always reach for the stars, and somehow you’ll get one. The final picture of a boy reading to his star stays with you. Jeffers’ other books are equally enchanting, especially our family’s favorite, The Incredible Book Eating Boy.
Little Bear, You’re a Star!: A Greek Myth about the Constellations by Jean Marzollo
This is an engaging introduction to Greek mythology and the stories of the constellations with this recent retelling of the story of Callisto and Arcus who become the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. Readers also learn why the North Star (Polaris) plays such an important role in the heavens. Besides crafting a really lovely version of the myth itself, the author uses a clever device of a kind of Greek chorus of talking birds who keep up a running commentary at the bottom of the pages. There’s a very well-done Parent/Teacher Guide at the back–less a guide than some helpful information you might want to share with children. The watercolor and ink drawings are very effective in making the story come to life–and introducing the style of Greek vase paintings. The pictures of the bear family are lovingly drawn; warm and appealing, children seem to be quite drawn to them.
Constellations: A Glow-in-the-Dark Guide to the Night Sky by Chris Sasaki, illustrated by Alan Flinn
This little nonfiction book is a terrific introduction to the night sky for the younger set. Two-page spreads introduce the constellation, with a brief narration of the story behind it as well as the illustration. Then, with the lights turned off, you can see the glow-in-the dark stars in your own bedroom night sky! The worldwide myths are written in clear simple text and includes science as well as stories. It really encourages a family to get interactive with the book, looking at the star patterns on the walls as a beginning to finding them in the night sky.
The Star People: A Lakota Story by S.D. Nelson
Sister Girl and her younger brother Young Wolf are two Lakota children who wander away from the outskirts of their village and become lost. They are rescued from a fire, and from drowning in the river when they look to the skies–and are guided by the spirit of their Grandmother. The star groups that help lead them home are in the shapes of familiar animals–an elk, horse, eagle, wolf. And there are the the other Star People themselves: “the spirits of the Old Ones who once walked the Earth.” The acrylic illustrations are vivid and colorful and very appealing to young readers (and their families).
Great for Kids, but a Useful Resource for Adults as well:
A Child’s Introduction to the Night Sky: The Story of the Stars, Planets, and Constellations–and How You Can Find Them in the Sky by Michael Driscoll, Illustrated by Meredith Hamilton
More than just a book, this is a whole package of inspiration! You’ll probably want to start by playing with the starwheel that helps you figure out where in the sky to look for different constellations over the course of the year. The other treats waiting for you in this inviting book: myths behind the constellations, biographies of astronomers, scientific observations, even beginning principles of physics. There are great sky maps, cartoons, detailed illustrations of the constellations, and even a sheet of glow-in-the dark stars tucked into the endpapers. Written in very engaging and accessible prose yet packed with information.
Tweens and Teens:
The Same Stuff as Stars by Katherine Ann Patterson
Katherine Ann Patterson is one of the most beloved and accomplished authors of books for adolescents and young adults. She writes realistically about tough contemporary issues with insight and compassion. Angel, the main characters, is a strong 12-year-old who by default is the adult in her family. Her father is in jail, and her mother Vera dumps Angel and her brother Bernie with an old woman they have never met, their great-grandmother. Angel has to shoulder the burden of complete care of this little family of 3 including shopping, laundry, cooking, cleaning. What does this novel have to do with the night sky? Angel’s only bright moments come from her stargazing, the peace that she finds in the majesty of the stars. Her Uncle Ray–a war vet damages by drugs and jail time–becomes her friend and mentor in exploring the heavens. A complex, yet compelling story with the metaphor of the stars and galaxies at its heart.
Young Adolescents and older:
Dot to Dot in the Sky: Stories in the Stars by Joan Marie Galat
Much like Constellations: A Glow-in-the-Dark Guide to the Night Sky–but for an older audience. It serves as a wonderful brief introduction to the stories and science of the night sky, where to look for the most prominent constellations, and includes great science sidebars in each chapter: “Space Notes” and “A Closer Look,” which both give more astronomical information.
Every Soul a Star by Wendy Mass
The main event of this story is the coming of a total solar eclipse, which becomes the central event for three teenagers whose lives are changed forever. The three first-person narratives are told alternately, and scientific information about astronomy are woven throughout each of the character’s stories. The Great Eclipse can only be viewed at the Moon Shadow Campground, set in the wilderness and run by Ally’s family. Bree, on the other hand, comes form a very different background–intending to become a model, her world is the mall and her friends. She can’t believe her parents, both physicists, want to drag her to a remote wilderness. Artistic Jack, the third teen, is a lover of science fiction, but not science, until his teacher brings him to the campground. There is both humor and tension in this story, with lost of twists and turns in the plot. Great characters, too. The description of the eclipse itself can’t help but entice readers into learning more about astronomy.
First Star I See Tonight by Robert Eklund
Exhilarating/Dry winds wake and small shy stars/Dance in a dark sky. Robert Eklund is a poet extraordinaire; he has that special sensitivity that allows him to concentrate, watch, listen, and create images on the page with his words. Oh yeah, he’s also a scientist and science writer who works at the Mount Wilson Observatory in California. Haikus, like the one quoted at the start of this review, pepper this book of essays, observations, quotes, and drawings. Poems about black holes, essays about Orion and his friends, musings on the sky in different seasons come together to create a beautiful and original experience for the reader.
An Intimate Look at the Night Sky by Chet Raymo
Prepare to be inspired! Scientist Chet Raymo writes like a poet while he invites readers to be as in love with the stars, planets, and the night sky as he is –equally delighted by the wisdom of the ancients and the wonders of modern physics. The 24 star maps all illustrate what can be seen by the naked eye throughout the year (here in the Northern Hemisphere, at least). Beautifully written, illustrated, and presented, this book is the perfect companion to your family’s stargazing adventures, organized by seasons. Written for adults, but bursting with the joy and enthusiasm that we all hope to instill in our children.