The stars have aligned this holiday season with the publication of 3 children’s books on the sky

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By a strange, almost cosmic coincidence, this fall saw the publication of three enchanting children’s books within weeks of each other, each of which explores the mysteries of the universe, and in each of which Maine plays a lead role (play of words intended).

“Skywatcher”, by Jamie Hogan

“Skywatcher” written and illustrated by Jamie Hogan. Tilbury House, 32 pages, 6-8 years old. $ 18.95

A young city dweller named Tamen longs to roam the galaxies, like the eponymous heroine of his favorite comic, Skywatcher. But you can’t do a trek without stars to guide you, and all it can see in the night sky is the glow of the city.

“Where are the stars?” He asks his mother as they walk past a pizza shop bathed in the glow of its “Open 24/7” sign. I like his simple, non-judgmental explanation: “The city is beating them.”

But she knows what he needs and the following weekend she leads him away from the city, through woods populated with tall woodpeckers, moths and owls, to an unspecified wilderness. They camp here – “in the middle of nowhere” – but the setting, with its rocky, fir-pointed shoreline and the loon’s “wobbling cry”, might just be Maine. Here, finally, Tamen can see the stars, his favorite constellations, and the most magnificent of all, the Milky Way.

In “Skywatcher,” by Jamie Hogan of Peaks Island, the writing is smooth and simple. Like Tamen’s mother, Hogan doesn’t lose his words but lets the illustrations illuminate the story. Using mainly yellows and blues, she plays with the different palettes of light and dark: the harsh yellow glow of the city’s streetlights and the dystopian glow of its skyline; the warm light of a campfire and the bottomlit glow of a flashlight on faces inside a tent. All of this contrasts sharply with the cold white light of the moon, the starlight resembling “reverse twinkles” and the eerie faint whirlpool of the Milky Way.

The awe of finally seeing the universe that always surrounded him is recalled by Tamen’s observation as he admires all the splendor of the sky: “The black is SO big, but I have it. impression of being part of it. “

“You are. People are made of stardust,” his mother replies. “The atoms in us were forged in the stars a long time ago.”

And that is really the point of the book: why it is important to be able to literally see our place in the universe, something that 80% of the world’s population is unable to do, because so many people live in places with pollution luminous erases the stars. “Our ability to see the stars is our window to the universe,” Hogan wrote in a postscript. Light pollution “threatens to close this window”. She adds information about the night sky and how to become a “sky watcher”, visit a dark sky preserve and “defend the dark” against threats of light pollution.

“Ada and the Galaxies” by Alan Lightman and Olga Pastuchiv, illustrated by Susanna Chapman.

“Ada and the Galaxies” by Alan Lightman and Olga Pastuchiv, illustrated by Susanna Chapman. MIT Kids Press, 40 pages, ages 4-8. $ 17.99

The first time I visited Monhegan, the night was so dark that I literally ran into a photographer who had set up a tripod in the middle of the street to photograph the Milky Way. “Ada and the Galaxies” doesn’t take place there, but it could very well have been. Like “Skywatcher”, the story involves a city kid who runs away to the countryside so that he can see the stars at night. In this case, the refuge is an unnamed island in Maine.

Who better to have written this book than Alan Lightman – and not just because his last name conjures up images of a superhero in search of the galaxy. Lightman is a physics professor at MIT and author of “Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine” – a meditation on religion and science inspired by a spiritual experience with the night sky on his summer island at Harpswell. “I felt connected not only to the stars,” he wrote, “but to all of nature and to the entire cosmos. “

This picture book is certainly Lightman’s attempt to translate this experience for children – especially for his own granddaughter, also named Ada. To do this, he wisely enlisted the help of a children’s translator, children’s book author Olga Pastuchiv. The story opens with Ada’s arrival on her grandparents’ island, determined to see the stars. His teacher grandfather (deliciously nicknamed Poobah, as in “great Poobah”) is equally eager to show him. However, a story about stargazing while Poohbah gives Ada a seminar on astrophysics would have been hopelessly boring. Rather, Pastuvich helped create a screenplay that, combined with Lightman’s ideas and Susanna Chapman’s stunning night sky illustrations, makes this a anything but boring book.

Ada spends the day doing what the kids on the Maine coast do: build fairy houses, collect seashells and moss, catch crabs. When night finally falls, the Maine fog ruins almost everything. Poobah suggests they look at pictures of stars. A deeply disappointed Ada reluctantly accepts. But she is quickly charmed by the book, which features real photos from the Hubble Telescope (artificially incorporated here).

The conversation soon turns to the life forms that might exist there – something like the seashells and moss that Ada found today? Probably, Poobah replies, explaining (in much the same language as’ Skywatcher ‘), “Because everything in the universe is made of the same substance. It’s all part of nature. There might even be’ some sort of people, ”he told her.

And when the fog clears (of course), they venture outside to see the resplendent night sky. The idea – that we are not alone, that we are, as Lightman said in his adult book, “connected to all of nature” – inspires Ada to greet both the stars and “other people happily. “that she imagines” looking at us straight now. ” As with “Skywatcher”, “Ada and the Galaxies” offers a deeply reassuring view of ourselves and our place in the universe.

“Down to earth” by Betty Culley

“Down to earth” by Betty Culley. Crown Books for young readers, 210 pages, 8-12 years old. $ 16.99

The protagonist of “Down to Earth”, Henry, 10, has two obsessions. First, he learns everything he can on the rocks. But his main concern is the fear that he will never become a dowser like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, that this special gift will be denied to him, as he was to one of his uncles. He is desperate to continue what is not just a family tradition, but the family business, which drills wells finding water trapped under the granite.

One day, he wakes up in the middle of the night “as if a voice is calling me” and comes out just in time to see a meteor light up the sky. As in the two galaxy picture books, Henry saw a revelation that night: Although he had read about the vastness of the cosmos, it was only “watching the light burst above I felt the reality, how big the universe is ”.

The giant meteorite comes to earth in a field above her house and becomes her new obsession, her special secret – until she sets off an underground gush. The torrent floods Henry’s house, dries up the town’s wells and pits the townspeople against his whole family.

It all sounds rather biblical for a book that initially seems heavily based on science. And it’s here that “Down to Earth” (by Mercer resident Betty Culley) falters, as it tries to merge hard science with the supernatural. It’s a difficult marriage. Certainly, there is a truly mysterious element in the art of dowsing – well captured by Culley here. But when the meteorite seems to cure Henry’s grandmother’s arthritis, and when a British scientist arrives and claims the meteorite caused the gush by simply drawing water, and he knew of one that once had started a flood that left half of the city of Nottingham, England. , underwater “like Atlantis”, while apparently curing his chronic illness – the story turns unbelievable.

But the main delights of this book are Culley’s loving description of three generations of a tight-knit family in a tight-knit rural town in Maine, and his knack for creating an environment that feels timeless. Although the story is set in 2002, it is more like the 1950s. Henry’s house is wood-fired and there are no cell phones, video games, or the internet (Henry’s homeschooled is based on the World Book Encyclopedia). Culley fills the story with authentic details: making maple syrup on the porch, drinking from canning jars (long before the hipsters did), a house that “smelled like the pine cones that mom used to use for. light the fire and the herbs she hung in the kitchen ceiling. ” Despite its cosmic overtones, the book is best when it is truly down-to-earth.

Amy MacDonald is a freelance writer and children’s book author who lives in Portland. She can be reached at [email protected]


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