Friday, October 28, 2011

Up above the world so high...

'Twinkle twinkle little Star' was probably the first nursery rhyme that A learnt. A star is a thing of beauty, of mystery, of boundless imagination. Anything is possible.

So it was for those long ago people, who were mesmerised by the wondrous objects that appeared in the skies every day, and seemed to move across the night sky. Soon, they must have noticed certain patterns about them.

Zoo in the Sky
A book of animal constellations
Written by Jacqueline Mitton
Illustrations Christina Balit
Published by Frances Lincoln Publishers
Age 6-9yrs

It is a veritable zoo. We have a lion, bears, a fox and a hare, a swan and a peacock, a dog and a wolf, a scorpion and a dragon, fish and a whale, and much more. Creatures that appear to be in the sky, structured around groups of stars called constellations. One could just draw the stars in the correct place and draw the animal around them. Much like the easy to use 'I can draw' books for beginner artists. Or like complex rangolis drawn on a grid of dots.

Each double spread has a full size glittering picture with a few lines of text about the stars in the constellation featured, with a bit of the myth around it thrown in. Enough to introduce a 6+ years old to the stars and their mythology. Also enough to tantalise and whet the appetite of a 10 year old for more. Certainly a good introduction to an interest in star-gazing. To this end there are maps of the northern and southern night sky on both end-papers, with a note on how to use them.

Jacqueline Mitton, who describes herself as an astronomer and writer, has been long on the Royal Astronomical Society, UK, a consultant for DK books on space and astronomy, and has had an astroid (Mitton- Astroid 4027, 1990) jointly named after her and her husband-colleague, Simon Mitton.

Her associate, illustrator Christina Balit grew up in the Middle East, and her illustrations have the unmistakeable stamp of those growing-up years. Rich in detail and colours, with flowing lines, they contribute hugely to make the book a work of art.

The team has come up with other books for children in the same series ( Zodiac: Celestial circle of the Sun, The Planet Gods: myths and facts about the Solar System, and Once upon a Starry Night: a book of constellations ) that are also worth exploring.

A girl from India was inspired enough to dream...and reach for those stars!

Kalpana Chawla
India's First Woman Astronaut
Written by Dilip M Salwi
Published by Rupa & Co. under the Charitavali series.
Ages 8-12yrs, 12+ yrs

On 1st February, 2003, as the world watched in disbelief, the spacecraft Columbia turned into a fireball and disintegrated in the sky, 16 minutes away from a safe touchdown after a fortnight in space. All 7 astronauts aboard were killed. Among them was 41 year old Kalpana Chawla, born in India on 17th March 1962, and who had joined NASA as a full astronaut in 1998. This had been her second foray into space.

This biography is a tribute to the memory of Kalpana Chawla, a small-town girl from Karnal, Haryana, who followed her dream and became the first Indian woman astronaut, and the first Indian to be a full member of a NASA team that went into space on a mission.

Born in a place that does not really celebrate the birth of girls, Kalpana struggled against many prejudices, even in her own family, to get an education, and then a higher education- on her own terms. At every step, she had to face the mindset that holds girls back from flying high enough to reach their dreams, and succeeded beyond all expectations.

She went on to obtain a degree in Aeronautical Engineering, then applied to and secured admission for further studies at the Department of Aerospace Science and Engineering at the University of Texas, Arlington, on a scholarship. It was then that her father was convinced, and supported instead of obstructing her.

From then on, Kalpana did not look back. She single-mindedly went after her childhood dream of becoming an astronaut and reaching for the stars.

This lucidly written biography by science writer Dilip M Salwi is peppered with photographs provided by Kalpana's family, teachers, colleagues, husband Jean Pierre Harrison and NASA- even those taken of her in the spacecraft.

A was distraught on reading the chapter on the destruction of the Columbia. I had told her the story of Kalpana's life before handing the book to her, but the description still struck her hard. It was a few days more before she picked up the book again, keen on knowing how she became an astronaut. The technical details are simply narrated, and by the time A put the book away, her eyes were shining with idea of the infinite possibilities.

As Kalpana had written in her last email to the students from her alma mater in India from the space shuttle, "The path from dreams to reality does exist. May you have the vision to find it, the courage to get onto it and the perseverence to follow it."

As a step ahead in man's exploration of space, unmanned spacecrafts have gone further and collected photographs, samples and other data that go a long way in giving a clearer picture of the solar system. Based on all that, if we were to have a handbook for a future space traveller, what would it be like?

A Traveler's Guide to the Solar System
Written by Patricia Barnes-Svarney
Illustrated by Gilbert Ford
Published by Sterling Publishing
Ages 8 -12 yrs, 12+ yrs

The tour stars at the innermost planet- Mercury- and continues to the outer ends before returning to Earth. So what facts do we learn about our stops?

A Mercurian 'day' lasts 176 Earth days- a long enough time to plan all the sightseeing you want to do here. But what do you see? As there is no atmosphere here, the sky is always black, even though it is day and the Sun occupies a quarter of the sky! And if you feel like a game of golf, your hit could put the ball into orbit! But all that if you are dressed to stand the extreme temperatures- around 537 degrees Celcius in the day versus minus170 degrees in the night! All because of a lack of an atmosphere and proximity to the Sun.

Travel on to Venus, which looks so beautiful in our sky- and you'll never think of it in those terms again. Temperatures of above 450 degrees, thick, sulfuric acid clouds above an atmosphere that is mostly carbon dioxide- so thick that it exerts pressures of more than 90 times that on our Earth-- walking through that is likened to walking through maple syrup. Add to that multiple volcanoes that dot the surface, with lava flows everywhere--Oooff! I'm feeling stifled just by imagining it! Your sense of direction would go for a toss, too, as the heavens seem to rise in the west and set in the east- Venus spins in a direction opposite to that of the Earth.

It goes on this way with fun facts about each planet on the way, their moons, the asteroids- leaving us in no doubt that our Earth is our only home. One place that we have to take care of if we are to survive.

This fun book reminded me of an exhibit in our local science museum, where one can find out one's weight on different planets- with astonishing results. Illustrated beautifully with full colour pictures in glittering paints, and with full colour actual photographs sourced from NASA, it is a complete guide to our Solar System.

As A said-"This is a cool book, Aai!"

(Images courtesy --


Praba Ram said...

Cool picks and dazzling reviews, Sandhya! Love the title, Zoo in the Sky! Would love to check all three out. Thx, S!

Choxbox said...

Okay some serious swapping coming up!

Artnavy said...

I am booking these books as well!! Once chox is done

ranjani.sathish said...

Very interesting and different kind of books. The first one would interest both the kids I think...will check it out ! Thanks for these lovely reviews Sandhya !

Playing by the book said...

What a wonderful selection of books. I love the illustrations by Christina Balit - so jewel like. We have her planet book, and I believe she's a new book out for Christmas about Greek or Roman gods.

sandhya said...

Thanks, all.

@Chox and Art: Done!

@Playing by the book: Lovely to have you comment. She has recently published two books- 'Treasury of Greek Mythology' (published by National Geographic) and 'The Scarab's Secret' (published by Frances Lincoln). Haven't yet got my hands on either, but would love to. We have 'The Adventure of Odysseus' by Barefoot books. Lovely!

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