Review of Stella Brite and the Dark Matter Mystery
Reviewed by: Marianne Dyson, May 22, 2006
Stella Bright is a girl detective who interrupts a hunt for a missing dog to go on the search for dark matter with her brother Max. Their first stop is an astronomy club meeting where they observe Jupiter and four of its moons. They then tail a "shadowy figure" into a building that turns out to be a laboratory with parrots and a goldfish. Here they find a book that explains that MACHOS (Massive Compact Halo Objects) bend light. The woman they followed turns out to be Professor Black. The kids overhear her say there is a dark matter hunt the next morning in a mine. The kids bike out to the mine in the morning. They overhear the professor explain that they are looking for WIMPS (Weakly Interactive Massive Particles). They join the professor down in the mine, but don't detect any WIMPS. On the way home, they find the missing dog.
Dark matter is indeed a mystery, and one that is sure to fascinate kids (and their parents, and me!). The definitions scattered throughout the book in sidebars are helpful as well as the analogies used to explain difficult concepts. For example, the observation of Jupiter and its moons shows how gravity holds worlds in orbits. (One nitpick here: it says Jupiter has "more than 30 moons" when it has at least 60.) The book explains that the reason astronomers know there is dark matter is that the visible matter is not enough to hold the stars in the outer part of galaxies in orbit. Fritz Zwicky discovered this in 1933, but as it says in the back of the book, no one believed him. It wasn't until Vera Rubin did her studies on galactic rotations in the 1970s that astronomers accepted that dark matter existed. It was a nice touch that the author named the Pizza parlor after Zwicky, and one of the parrots after Dr. Rubin.
The nonfiction is accurate and aptly explained, and that is my primary review criteria. But I was disappointed that the fictional characters were only "talking heads" who tell each other the nonfiction information. There is no real sense of mystery as the title implies, and the kids don't have any motivation for solving it (just a newspaper article that calls it a mystery). The stereotypical kid detective is a reasonable device to use to deliver facts, but the plot just didn't work. The astronomy club made sense as a place to start, but then the kids decided to trail a "shadowy figure" for no apparent reason. There were no clues to follow or suspicions to justify why this particular person should be followed. This might have been corrected by having one of the astronomy club members say that the expert on dark matter was that woman over there who had written papers on it, but who is mysterious in some way. Then the woman would hurry off before they had decided how to approach her, and the kids would follow. I did enjoy the interaction with the parrots and goldfish in Dr. Black's office. The order of information discovery felt awkward to me, though. The term WIMPS is introduced and left unexplained for quite a few pages. The next morning, the professor says that her parrots had called Stella and Max WIMPS, but neither kid ever calls the other by name during their time in the lab. Despite these minor details, the finding of the MACHO book and the parrots offering clues worked well enough and gave the artist a chance to really shine.
The illustrations are lovely and also instructive. I especially liked the illustration showing the girl looking through the fish bowl as an example of how light can be bent.
I give this book 1 point for consistency with facts, 1 point for clarity of illustrations and terms, 1 point for tackling a new concept, a point for readability (no typos!), a point for the use of science in the plot, but no points for the "talking head" characters. Total 5.0. Stella Bright is an accurate and readable introduction to dark matter that is sure to have kids asking lots of questions. Recommended.
Title: Stella Brite and the Dark Matter Mystery
Author: Sara Latta
Illustrator: Meredith Johnson
Number of Pages: 32
Retail Price: $6.95