Literary Madeleine: Grasping at Stars

by Vic­ki Palmquist

How many chil­dren, over how many years, have learned from their par­ents to iden­ti­fy the stars that make up the Big Dip­per? Can you see them stand­ing out­side, point­ing to the stars in the dark sky, trac­ing the make-believe line that draws a saucepan in the heavens?

The Stars and Find the ConstellationsMy moth­er told me some of the sto­ries she knew about the con­stel­la­tions, about the Great Bear and Ori­on and Androm­e­da. When her sup­ply of knowl­edge (and inter­est) were exhaust­ed, she bought me Find the Con­stel­la­tions by H.A. Rey (yes, the author of the Curi­ous George books).

When I want­ed to know more, she bought me The Stars: a New Way to See Them, also by H.A. Rey.

Besides cre­at­ing books for chil­dren, the jack­et flap says Mr. Rey’s inter­ests “extend­ed from biol­o­gy and lan­guages (he was flu­ent in four and acquaint­ed with half a dozen more) to his­to­ry and, of course, astron­o­my.” Thank good­ness! He awak­ened that inter­est in me and I’m pret­ty sure dozens and dozens and hun­dreds of oth­er chil­dren. (And adults, go ahead, admit it.)

In Find the Con­stel­la­tions, which is updat­ed through 2016, you’ll find expla­na­tions that com­bine facts, and sto­ries, and sci­ence. Any­thing less would not be sat­is­fy­ing. Bet­ter yet, the man could draw, and his illus­tra­tions are light­heart­ed but sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly sound. When he draws a “Sky View” as though we were priv­i­leged to be inside the USA’s best plan­e­tar­i­um, we can see sea­son­al depic­tions of the way the stars appear in the sky, and the way they might appear in our brain, find­ing the con­stel­la­tions. There are charts and maps and tips for stargazing.

Finding the Stars

In The Stars, we find a book for old­er chil­dren and adults. There are con­stel­la­tion charts with view­ing notes:

CRAB (CANCER): Faintest of all con­stel­la­tions in the zodi­ac. Its main attrac­tion is the so-called BEEHIVE, a small hazy spot [marked by a cross on the chart], just vis­i­ble with­out glass­es under best con­di­tions. Glass­es reveal a clus­ter of many faint stars.

Finding the ConstellationsThese are info­graph­ics at their best, long before we began using that term. The Cal­en­dar Charts show where the stars will be in the sky on a cer­tain day, at a cer­tain time. There are even lat­i­tu­di­nal charts so peo­ple in dif­fer­ent parts of the coun­try can more accu­rate­ly observe the stars.

The sec­ond half of the books includes more won­ders, includ­ing how stars die, the celes­tial clock, how the earth wob­bles on its axis, and how con­stel­la­tions have moved through the ages. When the right child finds this book, there is an astronomer in the mak­ing, whether as a pro­fes­sion or as a hobby.

Wait! There’s more! If you buy the hard­cov­er of The Stars, you will find that the dust jack­et unfolds to a large poster of a Gen­er­al Chart of the Sky. I had this hang­ing on my bed­room wall through­out my child­hood. Is it any won­der I love read­ing sci­ence fic­tion? Check these books out of the library for your curi­ous child. When you find your­self con­sid­er­ing a tele­scope, it’s time to buy them for your own library.


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Jane St. Anthony
Jane St. Anthony
9 years ago

Thank you, Vic­ki, for shar­ing these love­ly books and your expe­ri­ence with them, too. What a wise and lov­ing moth­er you had. These titles would be per­fect gifts for young would-be astronomers as well as those who missed out on these won­ders as a child (i.e., me).