Look up at the Night Sky. Roy Moss selects some super children’s books to encourage young astronomers to get out into the field and observe.

We can all look up and see the majesty of the night sky*. Some places and times of the year are better than others, but it’s one of the things that we can experience regardless of any social or economic barriers.

And we’ve been doing this for as long as we’ve been aware of our thoughts. Astronomy (‘astro’ meaning ‘star’ and ‘-nomy’ meaning ‘see’) is, without doubt, the oldest science and also the easiest to experience.

All you need to do is observe. (I think the distinction of language is important. It’s not just about ‘looking’. To observe means to also register its significance. Observatories aren’t called ‘lookatories’). But a few items will certainly help you: binoculars, a telescope, an app… and a book or two.

Space doesn’t get a huge amount of, well, space, on the curriculum. So it’s up to schools how they tackle the topic. The books I want to explore in this post focus on Astronomy, which may not get as much exposure as the books that take a broader, more generalised approach to space. They also have a large interactive element to engage, fascinate, and inspire.

*I don’t want to exclude the visually impaired. The whole spectrum of wavelengths is used to observe the night sky. Visual astronomy is more about how scientists present information (wonderdome.co.uk). There is also a new project to allow people to hear the universe too. https://www.ukri.org/news/audio-planetarium-to-inspire-young-visually-impaired-astronomers/

I think it’s fair to say all schools will have at least one book from publisher Wayland Books. They’ve been specialising in educational books for over 40 years. Science for Looking into Space is a book which is now three years old, but it proves that older books shouldn’t lose coverage to brand-new ones. There are thirteen astronomy experiments with straightforward instructions. And each one is relevant to the work scientists have done, or are doing, today. For example, one of the experiments shows how astronomers hunt for alien worlds.

Wayland also has an Astronomy book for younger readers in EY/KS1. The Awesome Night Sky is a nonfiction picture book with simple explanations of the celestial objects seen at night. There is also a Things To Do page and notes for teachers and parents. And even a list of books for further reading. I would adore seeing this in more nonfiction. I hope a new edition will be published updating the Hubble Space Telescope with the James Webb.

Wonderful for the classroom or at home but perhaps not out in the field. When you are, you need a field guide, like the one from National Geographic. Night Sky is a pocket-sized guide you can take with you on your sky-gazing exploits. The sky charts are particularly interesting and cover every season, what is visible, and when. The book also shows the movement of the planets and many other things visible from Earth.

There’s an obvious problem with reading books in the dark, but it’s a good excuse to buy a head torch. Sometimes it can seem like there’s a conflict between books and technology, but using this with a sky-gazing app would enhance the experience. My experience with the apps is limited, but I do find I’m staring at the screen more than I was looking into the sky. They also do all the work for you, and part of the fun is finding objects in the night sky yourself.

One of my favourite school trips is when the Year 5s go to the Science Centre. The best part is the planetarium. Seeing and hearing the children gasp at the projections on the dome are those educational moments done right. There are companies which bring planetariums into schools, too, and they are well worth researching. These experiences aren’t within everyone’s reach. But can a book be a planetarium? Well, actually, yes. 

This Book is a Planetarium from Chronicle Books isn’t just a planetarium. It’s also a speaker, an instrument, spiralgraph, decoder, and a perpetual calendar. Taking pop-up books to another level, the interactivity is impressive. For the planetarium, you put a bright LED light or mobile phone into the dome and a sky chart of constellations is projected onto the room around you. 

Another book with a more traditional wow-factor is Planetarium and Planetarium Junior Edition curated by Chris Wormell and Raman Prinja in partnership with the Science Museum. The large format is perfect for displaying Chris’s awesome illustrations, which project the same majesty as a real planetarium. The only difference is that the reader conjures their own sound effects and animations.

Another book I’ve been wanting to explore is Space Maps by What on Earth Books. The beginning of this one made a good point: I’ve written about the night sky from a scientific perspective, but what Space Maps shows is that people look at the night sky with different lenses. The first few maps compare the scientific map with the Ancient Greek, Chinese, and South African skies, reminding us of different cultures, traditions and folklore. 

The rest of the book is scientific, and my favourite map is of the moon. Something which children can look at… ah no! I mean observe, and locate different features. Another map shows the easy-to-find Orion constellation and which bodies it comprises. Betelgeuse is a giant star 400 times the size of our sun and is about to go supernova. There are also three nebulae, although you will need a telescope and an unpolluted sky to see these. A map of exoplanets shows where astronomers have found brand new worlds, linking with the exoplanet experiment mentioned earlier.

Astronomy is an accessible area of science for children of all ages and should perhaps have more attention in the classroom. It’s easy to go beyond the curriculum and let children actively participate in their learning. There may be ways of introducing night sky experiments – residentials are a great opportunity to do this or even set up a time at school on a clear winter evening near the shortest day. Maybe there’s someone in the community with a telescope too. Luckily, the books here will allow everyone to experience Astronomy in one way or another. Whether looking up at the sky or looking down into a book, the night sky is for everyone.