Marianne J. Dyson

Review of Comets, Stars, the Moon, and Mars

Reviewed by: Marianne Dyson, June 2007 (Notes, June 2008, July 2009)

I saw Comets, Stars, the Moon, and Mars at the Texas Library Association conference in April 2007 and hoped to feature it as the children's space book selection on the National Space Society's website. Even though the poems are whimsical and entertaining, the text includes out-dated information and the illustrations are so confusing, misleading, and inaccurate that I could not recommend this book to my fellow NSS members.

[Deleted original sentence about empty space] The type on the illustrations is extremely difficult to read and also confusing. For example, on the "galaxy" page, two very different shapes are labeled "barred spiral" and a third labeled "barred" with no explanation. The glossary does not include these terms. Also, spiral and barred spirals and elliptical are actual categories of galaxies included in the Hubble classification system, but "egg shaped" which is one of the labeled objects, is not. The "egg shaped" (no hyphen in the original) and another labeled "ball shaped" look the same. If correct terminology were used, they would be labeled spherical or elliptical.

Another problem with the illustrations is that worlds are not shown in relative scale. This is important because children are supposed to know the relative sizes of the planets—in Texas, this is part of the state science test, and thus included in the curriculum. On the solar system page, the Sun, Saturn, Jupiter, and Neptune are all the same size. Saturn and Jupiter are indeed similar in size (Saturn is about 9 times Earth's diameter, and Jupiter is 10.5), but Neptune and Uranus are about 4 times the size of Earth. The book shows Earth and Uranus the same size. Venus, which is about the same size as Earth, is shown about half as big, and equal to Mars, which actually is about half as big as Earth. Mercury is shown correctly at about one third the size of Earth.

The spacing is also misleading. It may not be practical to show distances to scale (a log scale could be used), but the art should at least show the proper order out from the Sun. Mercury and Venus and Earth are shown appropriately closest with Mars next. Then Jupiter is shown at the same distance as Uranus with Saturn farther away. The actual distances in astronomical units (1 AU is the distance of Earth to the Sun) are Mercury 0.4, Venus 0.7, Mars 1.5, Jupiter 5.2, Saturn 9.5, Uranus 19.2, and Neptune 30.

The detail about the core of the Sun being eight times more dense than gold is correct.

The illustrations of the planets have labels on them that are not defined anywhere. I recognized most of these labels as names of craters or other geographic features on these worlds. However, the labels are not in the proper locations in terms of the usual globes and maps of these planets. For example, the illustration of the Moon has Mare Serenitatis (the right "eye" of the Moon) at the equator, and the crater Copernicus, which is south of Imbrium (the left "eye") and about 10 degrees north of the equator, in the southern hemisphere. In my opinion, it is better to not include any actual geographic names if they are shown inaccurately because this information will only confuse children who may have just learned the actual location of these features (perhaps using my animated Moon map!).

There are also random paper cutouts stuck on the illustrations that have nothing to do with geography such as an image of a Mercury car on Mercury and a statue of Venus on Venus. Children may not understand what the significance of these things are, and may even think that there are cars on Mercury and statues on Venus! I hope that the publisher does not plan to distribute the book in Australia—the continent is missing from the map of Earth! Also missing is Antarctica.

Most of the text is accurate, but a few things could be misinterpreted and some of the information is outdated. On the moon page, it says that the "half moon is half dark, half light. At sunset look due south to sight." This is half right! The moon has two half phases, one waxing and one waning. The waxing half moon is indeed visible at sunset, and due south in the northern spring, fall, and winter. If you live at latitudes below about 30 degrees, such as Houston and Los Angeles and Miami, during the summer the half moon is directly overhead, not south. If you live below 20 degrees latitude, the moon will actually be to your north in the summer! The waning half moon is visible from midnight to noon, and is highest in the sky (direction depending on your latitude) at sunrise, not sunset.

The Jupiter poem says "with some sixteen moons, it's plainly prolific." Jupiter has at least 60 moons as of 2003, and 48 of these are named to date. I suspect the number 16 derived from an outdated reference. I recommend the National Science Data Service for the latest accurate information on astronomical objects: http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/planetary/planetfact.html. The illustrations on the Jupiter page do not show the moons in their correct relative sizes. This is also the case on the Saturn page. Titan is actually three times bigger than any of the other moons of Saturn. Another piece of "old" data is the illustrated Great Dark Spot on Neptune. That storm was "spotted" (sorry, couldn't resist!) by Voyager in 1989, but had dissipated by 1994.

The comet and constellations pages are also inaccurately illustrated. Comet tails do not curve around—they go straight out in the direction opposite from the Sun. They don't have a ball on the end, either. The constellations were obviously chosen for the animals they depict, and also for their rhymes. The dots on the page are completely random and do not show the proper relative positions of the stars or the constellations. The signs of the zodiac all lie in the ecliptic plane (the path of the Sun through the sky), and their order is well-known to many children because of their names being associated with their month of birth and astrological sign. So it is totally incorrect to have Musca the fly, which is only visible in the southern hemisphere, next to Pisces; and Cancer the crab above Taurus the bull, with Leo at the bottom of the page. About the only thing that is right is that Leo Minor is above Leo Major!

The black hole poem is really cute ("Gravity pulls all things inside like a giant cosmic broom. (Wish I had one in my room.)") but again, the illustration is incorrect. A supernova does not send out gas that spirals into a black hole. A supernova occurs when a giant star collapses into either a neutron star or a black hole: i.e. the black hole is at the center of the supernova. Gas does spiral into a black hole, but not the kind of spiral shown. The spirals go from pole to pole of the magnetic field, so a cutaway view would look like a dot with giant ears.

[A paragraph commenting on the poetry was deleted in June 2008]

The glossary does not define any of the geographic names in the illustrations and instead contains notes for each poem. It too contains errors. It says Mercury is named after the messenger of the gods "because it travels so quickly across Earth's sky." Mercury does move quickly compared to other planets and the stars, but does not cross Earth's sky. It is always seen within a few degrees of the Sun, so is sometimes visible in the morning, and other times in the evening. Only planets farther than Earth from the Sun can cross the sky. In the minor planets definition, it says Ceres is a piece of rock. Ceres may be rocky, but it is not a piece of anything. It is a dwarf planet with enough gravity to have obtained a spherical shape. Neptune has 13, not 11, moons. Pluto does not have an irregular shape: it is round.

The suggested further reading includes Stephen Hawking's book, A Brief History of Time. This book is beyond the level of most adults (even difficult for those of us with a BS in physics!) and certainly not to be recommended for children.

I don't recommend this book because the illustrations and text are not accurate in scale or labeling, they include unexplained terms, out-of-date information, and factual errors. Some poems include forced rhymes and little useful information, but the Pluto poem made me laugh out loud. Total score: 2.0 points.

October 2008 UPDATE

I recently received an email from Mr. Florian in response to my review of his book. He said, "I found the review miserly, picky, and fairly inaccurate. ... It seems as if you set out to find flaws in my book and religiously ignored many aspects." I'm not sure what it means to be miserly in a review of science accuracy (except to note that I don't get paid for writing these reviews), but I will certainly own up to being picky and yes, I did set out to find flaws--scientific ones. I (mostly) leave the literary merit to others (and as he points out in his email, this book got a starred review in SLJ), but I think that my opinion on those other aspects is as valid as the next person's. But as for being "fairly inaccurate," he pointed out that "Your first criticism is inaccurate. ... I did not say "the universe is an empty space." I said: The universe is every place, including all the e  m  p  t  y space." He is right, and I apologize for this error and have corrected it. He also informs me that regarding the moons of Jupiter, "an unfortunate typo worked its way into the book and we failed to notice." He says this will be corrected in a future edition, something I am glad to hear.

Considering my error, I upped my rating from 0.5 to 1.0, but still do not recommend this book's science content. It is up to the readers to decide if my opinion matters to them.

JULY 2009 UPDATE

Previously, I ranked this book with a 1, but because this poet has developed such a huge following, this book is reaching thousands of young children--and even though the science may not be right, the book is bound to spark an interest in space--if only by the kids asking questions! I think that should count for something. So, though I still do not recommend this book, I have decided to up the rating to 2.

Title: Comets, Stars, the Moon, and Mars
Author & illustrator: Douglas Florian
Ages: 9-12
Number of Pages: 56
Format: hardback
Publisher: Harcourt
Date: 2007
Retail Price: $16.00
ISBN: 0152053727

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