Sue Unstead chooses ten of the best books for young would-be astronauts.
Tim Peake, our astronaut on board the International Space Station, is currently sending breath-taking photographs from space each night. His regular link-ups with schools have helped generate a huge interest in space travel among the young, so it is perhaps no surprise that BfK’s call to publishers for books on space should have elicited such a strong response – a rocket-high pile of books soon mounted up. And there were many old favourites here, from Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator to The Clangers (in a new picture-book format The Brilliant Surprise), from Tony Ross’s Dr Xargle’s Book of Earthlets to a new title in which Ross teams up with David Walliams in The First Hippo on the Moon.
Michelle Robinson illus Nick East, Puffin, 978-0-1413-6562-6, £6.99 pbk
For the youngest would-be astronauts Goodnight Spaceman provides the perfect introduction to space travel. Two small boys dream of joining their astronaut dad on his adventures in space. It could only be Tim Peake, who pens a letter of introduction hoping that it may inspire the next generation ‘of boys and girls to look up at the stars and not just ask questions but to go and seek answers of their own’. On the face of it a simple bedtime story in catchy rhyme, but in fact there is plenty of science here, from lifting off, going into orbit, docking on to the space station and returning to Earth.
My Best-Ever Pop-Up Space Book
Dorling Kindersley, 978-0-2412-0600-3, £12.99 hbk
My Best-Ever Pop-Up Space Book has a rocket sound-effect button to press as you journey through space from Planet Earth to Planet Mars. Sturdy pop-up flaps enable a spacesuited astronaut to loom above the page or the giant sphere of the Moon to emerge revealing the craters on its surface, while fold-out pages display the entire Solar System.
The Way Back Home
Oliver Jeffers, HarperCollins Children’s Books, 978-0-0071-8232-9, £6.99 pbk
Many of the titles that arrived were positively shouting – ZOOM, blast-off, kerwoosh, awash with space pirates, rocket dinosaurs, cosmic hot dogs and hordes of stinky aliens, many wearing underpants. For some quiet respite and bedtime dreaming you could do no better than Oliver Jeffers’ The Way Back Home, the gentle story of a boy who finds himself stuck on the Moon but discovers he is not alone.
Jason Chin, Andersen Press, 978-1-7834-4197-6, £6.99
Jason Chin uses picture-book format to combine science and illustration in an imaginative way in Gravity as he explores the concept of gravity and what stops things floating away into space. He manages to make a complex subject understandable to a young audience almost entirely pictorially. Additional information is included in a final spread for those who want to learn more.
The Great Moon Confusion
Richard Byrne, Oxford Children’s Books, 978-0-1927-3504-1, £6.99 pbk
Adults will enjoy The Great Moon Confusion as much as younger readers as know-it-all Aldrin the raccoon poo-poos his more knowledgeable friends, the two bears Hubble and Lovell. Aldrin comes to quite the wrong conclusion about the diminishing Moon in the sky and learns not only humility but a great deal of science along the way.
Satoshi Kitamura, Andersen Press, 978-1-8427-0591-9, £6.99 pbk
UFO Diary takes a different perspective as a lost alien craft zooms in for a closer look at a strange blue planet. There the UFO finds a curious creature watching it descend. The two become friends and explore the Earth and heavens together. The slow pace and dreamlike quality of the illustrations engenders a sense of wonder.
Chosen by Gaby Morgan, Macmillan, 978-0-3304-4057-8, £4.99 pbk
Poetry offers another approach to inspire space explorers. The selection of poems chosen by Gaby Morgan in Space Poems includes contributions from Wendy Cope, John Rice and Brian Moses amongst others. All five verses of Jane Taylor’s poem ‘The Star’, now universally known as the nursery rhyme ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’ are included here, as well as a 21st-century version ‘Constant, Constant Little Light’ dedicated to a satellite.
The Usborne Official Astronaut’s Handbook
Louie Stowell, ill. Roger Simo, Usborne, 978-1-4095-9074-3, £6.99 pbk
But for those who really want to know what life is like on the Space Station, The Usborne Official Astronaut’s Handbook includes everything from training tips and spacewalk hints to (yes, you guessed) how to go to the loo in space. We learn about the very gruelling process of astronaut selection and training from spells in a simulator to flights in the ‘Vomit Comet’ as part of zero-gravity training. There is lots of lovely detail such as information about the toy that hangs from the cockpit roof of the module on a launch (usually cuddly and fluffy and chosen by the Commander’s children) to show when they have reached zero gravity and are officially in space, as well as description of daily life on board the Space Station and the many different scientific experiments carried out in weightless conditions. Tim Peake is here again, writing a personal message to would-be astronauts. The book is published with support from the ESA (European Space Agency) and the UK Space Agency, one of whose stated aims is to inspire the next generation of UK scientists and engineers.
Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth
Frank Cottrell Boyce, ill. Steven Lenton, Macmillan, 978-0-2307-7137-6, £12.99 hbk
There is a rich seam to mine of fiction on the theme of space, with authors ranging from Philip Reeve to Malorie Blackman, but for laugh-out loud hilarity it is hard to better Frank Cottrell Boyce’s Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth. Inspired by the memory of Soviet Space Dog Laika, shot up into space in 1957, Boyce imagines what might have happened if she had survived and someone found her. That someone is Sputnik, the small loud alien in a kilt who befriends Prez, a boy in care, but who everyone else thinks is a dog. Together they must create a list of reasons why the Earth must be saved. Beyond the madcap wacky adventure the book explores themes of the infinite size of the universe, the unique quality of our planet, the importance of home and family.
Knowledge Encyclopedia Space!
Dorling Kindersley, 978-0-2411-9630-4, £16.99 hbk
So if all these titles have whetted the appetite, then you need a really solid reference volume on space and one which is up to date in this ever-changing field. In DK’s Knowledge Encyclopedia Space! large-scale artwork illustrations are combined with NASA and Hubble Telescope photographs and computer-generated imagery to provide an extraordinary visual guide to everything from the big bang to black holes, from nebulae to neutron stars. There are sections on understanding the universe as well as navigating the night sky with star maps and comprehensive information on the constellations. An impressive reference section reveals that a well-laid-out printed page can be so much more useful than scrolling endless screens online.
Sue Unstead has a background in children’s non-fiction publishing and was children’s publisher of DK before becoming a full-time author.