A review of The Kids’ Guide to the Constellations by Christopher Forest, Capstone Press (2011) for ages 8 and up.
I’m sorry, Christopher–this book is okay for a children’s book, but I didn’t find it stellar. (Sorry again for the pun–I couldn’t help myself.)
This book is geared for children ages 8 and up. The text is appropriately short and simple for that age group (not overly simple, mind you, probably just right), but the constellation pictures, while visually striking in their full, starry fields, are not what I would call useful for a children’s guide to constellations. Additionally, the book covers only 11 constellations—rather skimpy for something that presumes to be a guide book to the constellations.
Each of the 11 constellations gets a two-page spread that contains one paragraph on its appearance; one paragraph on its mythology; a gazing guide with diagram and tips for seeing it; one photograph of the constellation without any lines or figures drawn in an abundant star field; the same star field photo with the constellation’s lines and figure drawn. Extras on some pages include definitions of astronomical terms that come up, Stellar Facts (e.g., a fact about Betelgeuse), and some extra information about pointing north, the Andromeda Galaxy, star color, and the zodiac.
The book does well with the Gazing Guides, the extra information, and condensing the constellation mythology into short, simple stories. (If you’re looking for in-depth mythology, you won’t find it here.) I am also happy to see that the extra information on the zodiac includes Ophiuchus—well done!
The star field photos of the constellations, while pretty, are too “full” for a children’s book. We aren’t going to see quite that many stars with the naked eye when looking for these constellations. Therefore, the photos are a bit overwhelming when that is all you get. You do get a simpler drawing of the constellation in the Gazing Guides, but then that is a little too simplistic. I’m looking for a happy medium, or a series of images that presents the simple diagram, an “urban sky” image of the constellation, and then the fuller star field. Additionally, it would be nice if the constellations were placed in context of others around them. The Gazing Guides do some of that—just a little bit—but the constellation pictures do not, nor do the full sky star maps in the book.
The book contains two full-sky star maps in the back—one for the northern hemisphere, one for the southern hemisphere—but they aren’t really usable maps. They are small and printed in an antique style. Maybe the idea was to inspire wonder at the full sky of 88 constellations and their figures. If that is the case, I suppose it works; however, if this book is being a guide to the constellations usable by children, then we should have some usable star maps to place these 11 into context, showing the circumpolar sky, and then looking south by seasons.
The 11 constellations (Big Dipper, Little Dipper, Cassiopeia, Cepheus, Andromeda, Orion, Canis Major, Leo, Taurus, Southern Cross, Pegasus) seem somewhat randomly chosen and not placed in context of part of sky or season. In the text it might mention that the Big Dipper is seen in the northern sky, but the mention of Orion as “can be seen in both the northern and southern skies” is then confusing: can I see it when I look north and when I look south? No. What is meant is that it is visible from both the northern and southern hemispheres. Furthermore, on the Big and Little Dippers pages (which he does identify as asterisms and not constellations, so good job there), he mentions that they are part of the Great and Little Bears, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, and tells the mythology of the bears. Yet nowhere do we see a depiction of the bear constellations!
So, if you are looking for a comprehensive guide to the constellations for kids with usable star maps, then this is not the book you’re looking for. If you are looking for a book that has just a few stories, a few tips for seeing constellations, a few constellation pictures, and a few star facts, then this book will do, and you can supplement with some of the sources he suggests in the back of the book, and with the star guides I publish here.