by Dava Sobel – HarperCollins Publishers, 2006
adult / nonfiction
In 2007 I was with a group of teenagers on a four-day camp. They were a delightful group and it was a fairly structured affair—catered and full of activities—and every morning at breakfast and again at dinner each night I shared fun facts from Dava Sobel’s book The Planets. (You could be forgiven for imagining rolling eyes and bored looks but they loved it! It wasn't long before some of the other groups on the camp were asking for fun facts too.)
I cherry-picked the big numbers because those are always fascinating. For example, here are a couple of the excerpts I shared:
"The glorious Sun of our time, the planets’ progentor and chief source of energy, embodies 99.9 percent of the mass in the Solar System. Everything else – all the planets with their moons and rings, plus all the asteroids and comets – account for only 0.1 percent.
Mercury takes only eighty-eight Earth-days to complete its orbital journey … Day breaks over Mercury in a white heat. The planet has no mitigating atmosphere to bend early morning’s light into the rosy-fingered dawn of Homer’s song."
But this isn’t just a collection of facts— it’s a collection of stories. You can hear Dava Sobel talking about how she wrote the book and reading a substantial portion of the Mars section here to see if it sounds like your type of book.
It’s fascinating and great for someone just like me who really didn’t know much about the planets. Of course, this is just one small book and I still don’t know much about the planets—but at least I know they’re endlessly interesting.
And for the younger members of the family, or those with an eye for art....
WHEN I HEARD THE LEARN’D ASTRONOMER
by Walt Whitman, illustrated by Loren Long – Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2004
ages 4 and up / heartwarmers, s.t.e.m.
When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer is about as beautiful as a book comes. It’s a delight to read aloud, a delight to look at and the perfect length to stretch and inspire young thoughts.
The story follows a young boy at an astronomy lecture.He tires of adult company and ideas, so he wanders outside to observe the magnificent night sky.
Loren Long's artwork is stunning and Walt Whitman's poetry is, as always, mesmerising:
"When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars."
Also … this book about Galileo to whom we owe much of our collective interest in and knowledge about astronomy.