July 26, 2007


Astronauts and Other Space Heroes. By Sarah L. Thomson. Smithsonian/Collins. $16.99.

Our Solar System. By Seymour Simon. Smithsonian/Collins. $19.99.

      Striking design, excellent visuals and interesting information combine in these two books to create winning collaborations between the publisher and the Smithsonian Institution. Astronauts and Other Space Heroes, for ages 8-12, opens with a photo of Buzz Aldrin on the moon, then sweeps back in time to the imaginary space journeys of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, then forward to rocket scientists, animal astronauts and human space travelers. There’s a real sense of history throughout the book, thanks not only to the accuracy of dates involving space exploration (each person and event has a “Time Line” attached) but also to brief “at the same time” notes that help explain the context of space-related events. There is some blandness to the narrative – for example, in the late 1950s, “the United States and the Soviet Union were enemies, and Americans didn’t like to think that the Soviets had gotten ahead of them when it came to space.” Or, in discussing Wernher von Braun, creator of the V-2 rocket used by the Nazis, Sarah L. Thomson writes, “The V-2s were built by prisoners from concentration camps, who were starved and abused. Many of them died.” Still, Astronauts and Other Space Heroes is not a political tract or a general history lesson, and is designed – quite handsomely, by Jacob Packaged Goods LLC – to focus on heroism and scientific accomplishment, not the seamier sides of space-related events. So the brief stories of moon walkers, of entertainment figures interested in space (Gene Roddenberry and George Lucas), of tremendous triumph (the first landing on the moon) and tragedy (the Challenger and Columbia disasters), come together very effectively, giving a glossy once-over look at all that has been accomplished and all the frontiers that remain to be explored. Web links for further Smithsonian Institution information are a helpful added touch in a book that effectively conveys the drama and hopefulness inherent in voyages beyond our planet.

      For a view of some places that humans may someday explore, Our Solar System by the redoubtable Seymour Simon offers simplicity and scientific accuracy for readers ages 5-9. Tables on the inside front and back covers give at-a-glance comparisons of the eight planets of the solar system (yes, eight – Pluto is excluded, in line with the latest scientific thinking, which Simon elucidates in his usual easy-to-understand style). Within the book, gorgeous Smithsonian Institution photos and illustrations are coupled with straightforward explanations about the nature of the sun and planets. Simon is sometimes careful to explain big numbers in terms that young readers can understand: “If Earth were the size of a basketball, the sun would be as big as a basketball court.” But in other cases, sometimes even on the same page, he simply throws out huge numbers that neither children nor adults can truly comprehend: “The sun uses about four million tons of hydrogen every second. Still, the sun has enough hydrogen to continue shining for another five to six billion years.” On balance, though, Simon explains complex subjects very well indeed: the greenhouse effect on Venus; the Great Red Spot on Jupiter, which “has not changed position and has kept the same oval shape for centuries”; the rings of Uranus, “made of chunks of an unknown black material”; the storms of Neptune, the largest of which “is big enough to swallow the entire earth.” From the sun at the solar system’s center to the asteroids, comets and meteoroids throughout it, the phenomena of which we earthlings are a small part all get brief, informative treatment – just enough, perhaps, to send interested young readers to the Web sites mentioned at the back so they can learn more.

No comments:

Post a Comment