a book review by Karen Bellenir
Many people know author and illustrator H. A. Rey through a literary acquaintance with a mischievous monkey known as Curious George. Less well known is the fact that Rey loved astronomy and authored two books to introduce young people to the joys of stargazing. They are The Stars: A New Way to See Them, a guide intended for students ages 12 and up, and Find the Constellations, an introduction for younger readers. Adults who want to get to know the night sky will also be delighted with the clear and succinct explanations.
Both books feature Rey's innovative re-drawing of the constellations to make stick figures that look like the people, animals, and other items they are intended to represent. In some cases, such as the well-known constellation Orion, the figures are similar to traditional views. In others, Rey offers innovative reconstructions. For example, many people have trouble identifying a bear in the constellation Ursa Major (the Big Bear). Rey's drawing suggests a different orientation. Instead of using the three stars in the handle of the Big Dipper as the bear's anatomically incorrect tail, he turns the bear around and the familiar arc becomes the bear's neck. The bowl of the dipper sits like a saddle on the bear's back.
Sky watchers who are already familiar with more traditional constellation depictions and associated mythologies may notice that although the new drawings make the images more recognizable, they also take some steps away from traditional lore. For example, the bear's stretched-out long tail plays an important role in the ancient account of how the Bear was placed in the heavens. Or, for another example, Rey's drawing of Hercules forms a man with a raised club, but in order to better capture the likeness of a human figure, the hero is no longer kneeling on the head of the dragon.
People predisposed to favor conventional drawings, however, are not Rey's primary concern. His inventive pictures, designed for young people and others new to astronomy, provide clues for more easily identifying landmarks among the lights in the sky. In addition, the clarity of his diagrams enables the users of his maps and charts to envision his pictures even when an entire figure is not visible. This is especially helpful for people who observe under light-polluted skies. Observers who can find the brighter parts of an image can mentally fill in the gaps where connecting the dots requires the use of dimmer stars.
The Stars: A New Way to See Them, Second Edition begins with an introduction to the constellations, including stick-figure drawings, the position of other patterns nearby, and tips for when and where to most easily spot them. The next section provides a series of sky charts for every month of the year. In order to help people learn how to find stars and constellations, each chart is in two side-by-side versions. One chart shows just the stars as they would appear in the sky. The other side features the same star field with added constellation lines as an aid to identification. Rey suggests that his readers practice finding the patterns in the chart without the lines because there are no lines between the stars overhead in the night sky. The book concludes with a section that discusses the why and how behind the astronomical phenomena that can be observed from one's own backyard.
Find the Constellations, Second Edition is written for children in grades four to six. It talks about the brightest stars in the sky and includes information about the most easily identifiable constellations. A section with simplified star maps gives these young readers something to look for during every season of the year. The end of the book offers stargazing tips and some facts about the planets and the solar system.
The second editions of both titles have been updated with new scientific information, including facts about the reclassification of Pluto as a dwarf planet.
If you, your children, or grandchildren grew up laughing at the antics of Curious George, the images in these two classic books will feel friendly and familiar. Once you've used them for practice, the night sky will also become a familiar friend.