The Friendly Guide to the Universe by Nancy Hathaway

Read: 28 May, 2013

I was recommended this book as an astronomy primer for kids, and I found it absolutely fantastic! The writing style is conversational and accessible, and the information is presented in a way that builds on what’s come before, forming a sort of narrative (even if it can seem a little haphazard to an organization-prone mind like mine).

I loved that it didn’t stick just to the science itself. Most of my kids’ books about astronomy will have little side boxes about Galileo and Capernicus, obviously, but The Friendly Guide really gives a lot of ink over to astronomers and physicists through history, and to the stories of their discoveries. There were also, I was pleased to see, several women included.

The book also includes a lot of general “culture,” such as snippets of poetry and prose about the universe, and even some discussion of paintings that feature “heavenly bodies” in some way. I also enjoyed all the discussions of mythology, and why the names for the planets in our solar system were chosen.

As much as I loved the book, however, it did have some flaws. Right in the middle of Galileo’s chapter, there’s a section about trying to figure out when Jesus was born by looking at what astronomical event could have inspired the Star of Bethlehem story. And then, later, there’s a discussion of UFOs in which Hathaway asks “what about about those few instances for which there is no logical explanation?” and concludes by positing that maybe some people are delusional or maybe the government is covering up – who knows?

The Star of Bethlehem chapter could easily have been excluded entirely and no one reading would have noticed. As for the UFO chapter, the experienced phenomena were given far more credence that they were worth. In both cases, the information presented wasn’t false, but it was open to being misleading. It doesn’t diminish the quality of the book for me, since these are topics that I would want to discuss with my son and the chapters do work as jumping off points for further study, but I am glad that I read through the book myself first so that I could be prepared to address the sections.

The book is fine for any age, but I think it would work really well to introduce a 8-12 year old to astronomy.

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