Find the Constellations & The Stars: A New Way to See Them by H.A. Rey
It’s not surprising that two astronomy books written by H.A. Rey more than 50 years are still popular. After all, Rey is the same writer/illustrator who, along with his wife, Margret, invented Curious George. The adventures of that famous cartoon monkey have entertained kids by the millions.
In both his astronomy books, Rey used a new way to draw constellations (or star groups) that he believed made them easier to find in the sky. Instead of placing fancy pictures over the stars to help readers visualize the constellations, he connected the stars like giant dot-to-dots. It works much better in some cases, but not all.
Another thing Rey did in both books is use English names for constellations — for instance, saying “The Bull” rather than “Taurus.” This also works OK, but can be confusing if everyone else is using the old names. As a fan of language, I think part of the fun of new hobbies is learning new words.
Both books are about looking at the sky and learning to find your way around the constellations. Rey writes that the books are meant for people “who want to know just enough about the stars to find the major constellations.” As every backyard astronomer knows, that’s the right place to start.
Of the two books, Find the Constellations is intended for younger readers. At only 72 pages, it is thin and features funny cartoons that kids will enjoy. Don’t let the laughs fool you. There is a lot of good information in Find the Constellations and it includes my favorite feature introduced by Rey: star-finding practice exercises!
Looking at star maps with lines or images placed over the constellations is one thing, but it is easy to be bewildered by the actual sky when you look up and see hundred of points of light. So Rey lets you practice by placing identical maps of the sky side-by-side on the page. One version has lines and stars; the other only stars. You can start training your mind to recognize star patterns and to associate them with constellations. And you can do it from the comfort of your favorite chair!
The Stars: A New Way to See Them is also listed as a beginners guide to the stars, but contains more in-depth information about the star and constellations. It has more history and detailed star maps. While the presentation of the material is intended for older beginners, there are still cartoons and humor throughout the book.
What The Stars has that is completely beyond the scope of Find the Constellations, however, is a Part 4 section titled “Some Hows and Whys.”
This section provides an orderly explanation of how factors such as the tilt of the earth’s axis and the earth’s constant progression around the sun lead to an ever-changing sky. It touches on geometry and demonstrates — again in a straightforward, relaxed style — how everything from navigating the seas to the changing seasons relates to the same factors.
Some people worry that presenting information that is beyond students can be discouraging to them, but I don’t think that is an issue here. In fact, Rey includes a cartoon at the beginning of the section warning that the road is going to be getting a little rougher ahead and that readers “should proceed at their own risk.”
So even if some of the concepts are advanced, daring students will be exposed to the notion that events such as eclipses, seasonal changes, solstices aren’t things that just happen. They happen predictably, for a reason. And they can be understood.
And when you know that, you are already one step closer to grasping the big picture, a big picture that took humankind thousands of years to figure out.
You begin to see yourself standing on the surface of a huge body that is in motion through three dimensional space. You begin to see something amazing about yourself, simply by looking up.