Bright Sky, Starry City: An Illustrated Love Letter to Our Communion with the Cosmos, Celebrating Women Astronomers
A warm and wonderful ode to the universe for the modern urban astronomer.
By Maria Popova
When trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell began teaching at Vassar in the 1860s, where she was the only woman on the faculty, the university’s official handbook forbade female students from going outside after dark — a dictum of obvious absurdity in the context of teaching astronomy. Although the rule was overturned and Mitchell went on to pave the way for women in science, a century and a half later a different civilizational absurdity obstructs aspiring astronomers of any gender — light pollution in cities is making it increasingly difficult to peer into the starry sky and take, to paraphrase Ptolemy, our fill of cosmic ambrosia.
In Bright Sky, Starry City (public library), author Uma Krishnaswami and illustrator Aimée Sicuro take on both of these issues — the expanding horizons for women in astronomy, the modern constrictions of light pollution — with great warmth and wonderment for the eternal allure of communing with the cosmos, of feeling our tininess and the enormity of life all at once, by the simple act of looking out into the glimmering grandeur of space.
This is the story of Phoebe, a little girl whose father owns a telescope shop in a bustling city. Enchanted by the planets, Phoebe likes to draw the Solar System on the sidewalk outside her dad’s store. One particularly exciting day, when Saturn and Mars are expected to appear in the sky that night, Phoebe worries that the city lights, which “always turned the night sky gray and dull,” would render her beloved planets invisible.
Just as she closes her eyes and wishes those dreadful urban lights away, another obstacle emerges — a mighty storm sets in, so Phoebe and her dad pack in their telescopes and retreat indoors.
But as they sit in the store and the wind rages outside, Phoebe’s wish is miraculously granted — the storm shuts down the city’s power grid and, if only for a little while, all the lights go out just as the sky clears of clouds.
Above the newly washed city,
with the power still out,
glowing, sparkling, gleaming lights
painted the night — some faint, some brilliant,
some clustered together
and some scattering fiercely
through the inky darkness.
And then, suddenly, they appear — Saturn and Mars, “right where they should be.”
People milled around,
talking, pointing, laughing, looking
all at once, all together
under the stars.
A nonfiction postscript offers a pithy primer on the Solar System, making the story a fine addition to these intelligent and imaginative children’s books celebrating science.
Bright Sky, Starry City comes from Canadian indie powerhouse Groundwood Books, who have previously celebrated the history of astronomy with the wonderful picture-book biography of Ibn Sina and have given us such thoughtful treasures as a Sidewalk Flowers and Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress.
Complement this particular astro-treat with You Are Stardust, which teaches kids about the universe in breathtaking dioramas, then revisit of story of how Galileo’s astronomy influenced Shakespeare.
Published May 12, 2015