March 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Exploring the Universe | Focus On

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Space ImageLike their Common Core counterparts in language arts and mathematics, the recently released Next Generation Science Standards ( are certain to fuel fresh focus on increasing students’ store of basic factual knowledge while helping them acquire useful tools for critical thinking and systematic further learning. This is what science and the scientific method have always been about anyway—with the primary goal, always, of understanding the physical universe and our place in it.

The assortment of recent books surveyed below examines both historical milestones and current research that have illuminated our understanding, with explorations in two opposite (or maybe not so opposite) directions: toward the universe’s smallest and most fundamental components and forces, and outward to the stars and beyond. Along with picture books that will have very young audiences thinking beyond the playpen, selected fiction and poetry are tucked into this list to demonstrate less typical but no less valid ways of introducing scientific wonders and concepts. Several of the titles also serve todispel the notion that science is for nerds; the sometimes provocative biographies of nuclear physicists Ernest Rutherford and Richard Feynman, for instance, profile men whose personalities were every bit as big and powerful as their brains.

Strip of Covers

Real Stuff

Primary Ingredients
of the Universe

BAXTER, Roberta. Ernest Rutherford and the Birth of the Atomic Age. (Profiles in Science Series). Morgan Reynolds. 2011. PLB $28.95. ISBN 978-1-599-35171-1.
Gr 6-8
Though not well known today, Rutherford was a renowned experimental scientist in his own time. Not only did he make epochal discoveries about radiation and the atom’s structure, he also trained much of the generation of theoretical physicists who went on to develop nuclear power and quantum physics. This solid profile, well stocked with photos and leads to further information, offers insight into Rutherford’s life and character, as well as his brilliant scientific career.

BERNE, Jennifer. On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein. illus. by Vladimir Radunsky. Chronicle. 2013. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-0-811-87235-5; ebook $13.99. ISBN 978-1-452-11309-8.
Gr 1-3
Einstein transformed dreams of traveling on a light beam into essential discoveries about the nature of light, gravity, space, and time. In the meditative illustrations, he floats on the page, a solitary thinker pondering the universe’s mysteries; more personal images of his “favorite shoes,” “favorite equation” (guess!), and “favorite saggy-baggy pants” help to bring him down to Earth (and closer to mortals like us). Closing notes for older readers detail Einstein’s insights and later career.

HAWKING, Stephen & Lucy Hawking. George and the Big Bang. illus. by Garry Parsons. S & S. 2012. Tr $18.99. ISBN 978-1-442-44005-0; pap. $10.99. ISBN 978-1-4424-4006-7; ebook $9.99. ISBN 978-1-4424-4007-4.
Gr 5-7
–The third in the Hawkings’ occasionally suspenseful and always informative science-fiction adventures sends young George and his friends to the Large Hadron Collider for more near disasters and further exposure to scientific concepts related to the universe’s macro and underlying structures. Thanks to a flurry of mini essays by Stephen and other real-life scientists, readers will come away with plenty of brain-stretching quantum and other physics concepts.

OTTAVIANI, Jim. Feynman. illus. by Leland Myrick. First Second. 2011. Tr $29.99.ISBN 978-1-596-43259-8; pap. $19.99. ISBN 978-1-596-43827-9; ebook $9.99. ISBN 978-1-466-83244-2.
Gr 6 Up
–Presented in graphic format, this searching biography offers a multidimensional portrait of a theoretical physicist known as much for his vivid, irreverent character as for his profound insights into how the universe works on the subatomic level. Along with the ups and downs of his personal life, his brilliant, relentless curiosity about the nature of reality will make a lasting impression on readers.

Right Stuff

Astronauts (and Space Probes)
at Work

ANDERSON, Michael. Pioneers in Astronomy and Space Exploration. Rosen. 2012. PLB $32.90. ISBN 978-1-615-30695-4.
Gr 5-7
–From Galileo and Isaac Newton to Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride, the 37 historical figures systematically profiled here form a roster of thinkers, observers, and doers who probed the high frontier and went—in one way or another—where none had gone before. These are the giants on whose shoulders the explorers of today can stand.

BORTZ, Alfred B. Seven Wonders of Space Technology. (Seven Wonders Series). 21st Century. 2011. PLB $33.26. ISBN 978-0-761-35453-6.
Gr 4-6
–From Stonehenge to the Mars rovers, Bortz charts a select number of technological advances that have played central roles in our understanding of the solar system and the universe beyond. Not only does he present a clear picture of how each “wonder” was constructed and used for new discoveries, he also instills a sense of wonder in readers—particularly in final chapters about future spacecraft and voyages to the stars.

DELL, Pamela. Man on the Moon: How a Photograph Made Anything Seem Possible. (Captured History Series). Compass Point. 2011. PLB $33.99. ISBN 978-0-756-54396-9; pap. $8.99. ISBN 978-0-756-54447-8.
Gr 4-7
–Dell relates the eye-opening story of how the electrifying photo of Neil Armstrong standing on the Moon’s surface beneath the Sun’s harsh light was made, the immense technological effort that made the photo possible, and how the image came to change people’s perceptions of our future in space. A case study in how a picture can be worth much, much more than a thousand words.

HOLDEN, Henry M. The Coolest Job in the Universe: Working Aboard the International Space Station. Enslow. 2012. PLB $23.93. ISBN 978-0-766-04074-8; pap. $7.95. ISBN 978-1-464-40077-3.
Gr 4-6
–With an enticing mix of photos and explanatory commentary, this look at life aboard the “Base Camp to the Universe” provides glimpses of the station’s residents at work and play. From accounts of how the ISS was built and some of the research that has been done there, readers will come away with new insight into what it will probably be like to live in space, rather than just make short visits.

KELLY, Mark. Mousetronaut: Based on a (Partially) True Story.illus. by C.F. Payne. S & S. 2012. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-1-4424-5824-6; ebook $9.99. ISBN 978-1-4424-5832-1.
K-Gr 2
–Trained with human astronauts, a small mouse named Meteor joins a space shuttle crew and rescues the mission by going where no mouse (or man) has gone before. A soaring adventure, written by a retired astronaut and illustrated in crisp, accurate detail. Fans take note: Meteor will be going to Mars in a new voyage this fall!

MAYO, Margaret. Zoom, Rocket, Zoom! illus. by Alex Ayliffe. Walker. 2012. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-802-72790-9; PLB $17.89. ISBN 978-0-802-72791-6.
PreS-Gr 1
–This high-energy blend of kinetic rhyme and cut-paper collage pictures will put stars in the eyes of new and pre-readers as it introduces spacecraft from rockets and shuttles to Moon buggies. An irresistible invitation to visit the International Space Station, walk and ride on the Moon, then travel far, far beyond.

MCREYNOLDS, Linda. Eight Days Gone. illus. by Ryan O’Rourke. Charlesbridge. 2012. Tr $16.95. ISBN 978-1-580-89364-0; pap. $7.95. ISBN 978-1-58089-365-7.
K-Gr 2
–“Rocket orbits./Engines fire./Toward the moon./Soaring higher.” Simple rhymes and equally simple cartoon illustrations capture the drama of Apollo 11’s lunar mission, from liftoff to Moon walk to victory parade. For audiences who may regard that flight as ancient history, the closing author’s note and photo will serve nicely as springboards to a greater understanding of a pivotal event in our exploration of space.

RUSCH, Elizabeth. The Mighty Mars Rovers: The Incredible Adventures of Spirit and Opportunity. (Scientists in the Field Series). Houghton Harcourt. 2012. RTE $18.99. ISBN 978-0-547-47881-4; ebook $18.99. ISBN 978-0-547-82280-8.
Gr 4-6
–Rusch takes readers to the red planet, where a 2003 exploratory mission that was initially scheduled to last just 90 (Martian) days is still ongoing. Photos aplenty depict the rugged Martian surface, the scientists back on Earth who planned the mission and nursed it through numerous crises, and the two rovers—down to one now—that survived so long past their expected lifetimes. Mighty, indeed!

Silverman, Buffy. Exploring Dangers in Space: Asteroids, Space Junk, and More. (What’s Amazing About Space? Series). Lerner. 2012. PLB $20.95. ISBN 978-0-761-35446-8; pap. $8.95. ISBN 978-0-7613-7882-2.
Gr 2-4–
Recent news events (not to mention disaster movies) have raised awareness of the destructive potential of high-speed encounters with both natural and artificial space objects. Not that the hazards haven’t always been there—just ask the dinosaurs—but this clearly written and evocatively illustrated introduction gives readers a clearer idea of just what to worry about as well as how scientists search for asteroids or other items on a collision course with our planet.

SKLANSKY, Amy. Out of This World: Poems and Facts About Space. illus. by Stacey Schuett. Knopf. 2012. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-0-375-86459-9.
Gr 3-5–
“The highest mountain is on Mars,/the deepest canyon too./Yet clouds of dust could stop me from admiring the view.” In poetry laced with fact and supplemented by substantial prose commentary in sidebars, Sklansky presents readers with a space tour that is both informative and vividly experienced. Schuett’s dark, starry illustrations add an appropriate sense of depth and distance.

SNEDDEN, Robert. How Do Scientists Explore Space? (Earth, Space, and Beyond Series). Raintree. 2011. PLB $33.99. ISBN 978-1-410-94158-9; pap. $8.99. ISBN 978-1-410-94164-0.
Gr 5-7
–Budding astronomers will get a good grounding in the tools of the trade with this basic but broadly focused survey of types of telescopes, kinds of satellites, and some major space probes—and what they all can tell us about the universe. Big, bright photos add revealing visual aids.

WEITEKAMP, Margaret A. with David DeVorkin. Pluto’s Secret: An Icy World’s Tale of Discovery. illus. by Diane Kidd. Abrams. 2013. Tr $16.95. ISBN 978-1-419-70423-9.
Gr 2-4
–Illustrated with cartoon scenes of Pluto itself literally dancing about in its strange orbit (“Cha-cha/Cha-cha-cha”) and making side comments, this lighthearted account of the search for “Planet X” is at once compelling and amusing. Besides giving due notice to one of modern astronomy’s greatest discoveries, the informal illustrations and hand-lettered-style narrative add a winning sense of fun.

Far-Out Stuff

Wonders of Deep Space

CARSON, Mary Kay. Beyond the Solar System: Exploring Galaxies, Black Holes, Alien Planets, and More: A History with 21 Activities. Chicago Review Press. 2013. pap. $18.95. ISBN 978-1-613-74544-1.
Gr 3-6–
Enhancing this mind-expanding survey of our historical progress in discovering what the universe is like beyond the atmosphere, low-tech projects made with commonly available materials—from a model of the constellation Orion to a telescope—provide young dreamers and experimenters with hands-on tickets to the stars. The projects and Carson’s introductions to the work of astronomers, past and present, are illustrated with a generous mix of photos, diagrams, and line drawings.

DECRISTOFANO, Carolyn Cinami. A Black Hole Is Not a Hole. illus. by Michael Carroll. Charlesbridge. 2012. Tr $18.95. ISBN 978-1-570-91783-7.
Gr 4-6
–“A black hole is nothing to look at. Literally.” With great verve and a rare ability to explain weird physics clearly, DeCristofano introduces young readers to the basics of star life cycles, gravity, how black holes form, and where they are found. The mix of astronomical photographs and artist’s conceptions add both insight and drama to this spectacular look at some of nature’s most inscrutable and (literally!) attractive phenomena. Audio version available from Live Oak Media.

HOSFORD,Kate. Infinity and Me. illus. by Gabi Swiatkowska. Carolrhoda. 2012. RTE $16.95. ISBN 978-0-761-36726-0.
Gr 1-4
–Looking at the stars raises a question in young Uma’s mind, and by sharing that question with others and mulling their various responses, she comes not to comprehend infinity (who could?) but to reach a wise, philosophical accommodation with it. The beautiful illustrations add seemingly paradoxical (but not really) notes of intimacy, and closing comments expand on both the concept and how it is applied in science and mathematics.

JACKSON, Ellen. Mysterious Universe: Super­novae, Dark Energy, and Black Holes. (Scientists in the Field Series). Houghton Harcourt. 2008. Tr $18. ISBN 978-0-618-56325-8; pap. $8.99. ISBN 978-0-547-51992-0.
Gr 4-6
–Ranging farther afield than any other entry in an exemplary series, this introduction to astronomers who study some of the observable universe’s strangest and most powerful phenomena will kindle a sense of wonder in readers. They will be amazed not only by deep space mysteries, but also at how our understanding of their causes and nature is leveraged from seemingly inscrutable clues gathered with incredibly sensitive modern telescopes and other instruments. Also memorable here: the photo of a scientist dressed as a black hole.

KOPS, Deborah. Exploring Exoplanets. (What’s Amazing About Space? Series). Lerner. 2012. PLB $29.95. ISBN 978-0-761-35444-4; pap. $8.95. ISBN 978-0-7613-7878-5.
Gr 2-4
–Some of the most exciting news in astronomy these days is coming from scientists who search for planets orbiting other stars—because the planets are there, and in abundance! This simple account of how those scientists work, the tools they use, and some of the dazzling discoveries they are making is illustrated with tantalizing images of what those distant worlds may look like close up.

John Peters is a Children’s Literature Consultant in New York City.