Sis, P. (1996). Starry messenger. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, Giroux.
Genre: Starry Messenger is a true recounting of Galileo Galilei’s life in a biographical picture book covering his life from birth to death that is beautifully illustrated for 6-10 year-olds in grades 1-6.
Book Summary: This story follows a classic chronological order hitting the highlights of Galileo’s life. The narrative is dotted with references to stars, from being in his eyes when he’s born, to people referring to him as their star when his “brilliant experiments and observations” impress people when he is older, to the stars leaving his eyes when he is persecuted by the Church toward the end of his life. It lightly touches on the most important points of Galileo’s life in a way that is accessible to young children and refrains from giving too much information in the main text.
Library uses: This would be a good book to set out with an astronomy or some sort of planet science maker space. I think it would be challenging to use for story time because, as beautiful as the images are, they have fine details that do not lend themselves to showing to a class all at once. This book needs to be looked at close up.
Impressions: I am constantly amazed that authors are able to take a person with so much going on in their life, like Galileo, and distill it into a text that provides valid information without sugar coating it or completely ignoring important details. That Galileo was able to explain what Copernicus and others before him had suspected is important, and then that he was put under house arrest until he died is the other side of that coin. Both are written about in a non-scary, non-depressing way. That he was also able to take credit for inventing the telescope (or at least significant improvements to it) is also included. Noting the publication date, it seems likely that Galileo’s pardon from the Catholic Church in 1992 was a motivation for writing this text. Whether the harshness of his punishment or the significance of his pardon comes across in this narrative is questionable, but the sense that he was an important scientist is evident.
Many details are omitted, such as his family life. That a clerical friend of his convinced the church leadership to put him under house arrest if he would recant his proof of how the solar system worked instead of killing him isn’t there. Also, he was not allowed to go home to his own house, but had to stay where he was isn’t there. Some of that is in the notes that are in a cursive font, but the font was challenging for me to read at times, and since most students don’t read or write cursive at the age for which this book is intended, I wonder about that font choice.
The illustrations are beautiful and amazingly detailed. Several mimic Galileo’s own drawings in the original Sidereus Nuncius in 1610. Younger children may be fascinated by the images, but adults will benefit from a more mature understanding of what is depicted. This is a book that would grow well with a child. Reading the main text to begin with, then being able to independently read (once they learn cursive, if they do) the marginal notes, and being able to look at the pictures over and over again, finding more to understand in them as they gain in knowledge and understanding as they grow up would provide years of enjoyment.
Professional Review: Spires, E. (1996, November 10). Stars were always on his mind. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1996/11/10/books/stars-were-always-on-his-mind.html
IN all ages, there are men and women who, to paraphrase the title of one of Peter Sis’ earlier picture books, ”follow their dreams,” explorers, artists and scientists whose vision leads them to new worlds never before imagined. In ”Follow the Dream” (1991), Mr. Sis told of Christopher Columbus, who believed ”the outside world was not to be feared but explored.” In ”A Small Tall Tale From the Far Far North” (1993), he recounted the adventures of the Czech folk hero Jan Welzl, who crossed Siberia and spent 30 years exploring the Arctic. And in ”The Three Golden Keys” (1994), he embarked on what was perhaps the most perilous journey of all, a dreamlike voyage back to his own origins in Prague, the city of his youth.
Now, in ”Starry Messenger,” a magnificent new book, he tells the glorious and troubling tale of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), tracing the astronomer’s life from his birth as ”a little boy . . . born with stars in his eyes,” to his childhood, when ”stars were always on his mind,” and finally to his years as a celebrated scientist whose experiments culminated in his construction of the first complete astronomical telescope. In the seeds of Galileo’s greatest discovery lay his eventual downfall. At first, all went well. Galileo procured royal patronage from the Medici court, was honored with extravaganzas by a wildly excited public and wrote a book about his discoveries, his own ”Starry Messenger,” which circulated throughout the courts of Europe. Soon, however, his radical heliocentric view threatened the church’s belief that the earth was the center of the universe.
The magic of ”Starry Messenger” is how Mr. Sis manages to tell the relatively complicated story of Galileo in such a simple, straightforward way, accompanied by some of the most gorgeous illustrations imaginable. Complementing the spare, almost minimal narration is smaller handwritten text in the picture margins — a device Mr. Sis has used effectively in previous books — which enlarges on the main narrative by supplying a meaty chronology of facts, dates and quotations from Galileo’s own writing. As a result of the interplay between the main and secondary text, and the artistry of the pictures, ”Starry Messenger” possesses a richness and density that are likely to enchant children and adults alike.
In charming and sophisticated ways, Mr. Sis’ illustrations allude to Bruegel, Bosch and an art-historical tradition that rarely finds its way into children’s books. You can imagine Mr. Sis as one of those visionary mapmakers of old, interested not so much in a precise topographical rendering of a country or continent as in the idea of a map as metaphor. His maps are poetic renderings of place as a state of mind, fraught with beauty and danger.
In many fine works of children’s literature, authors’ fears, anxieties and neuroses are worked out in stories that can be read on several levels, like a poem: literally, metaphorically, psychologically. In Lewis Carroll’s ”Alice in Wonderland” or James M. Barrie’s ”Peter Pan,” we can see how early childhood experience and deprivation filter into adult works of art. This is certainly true of Peter Sis, who pointed his readers toward a more explicit understanding of his themes and motifs in his introduction to ”Follow the Dream.” ”I . . . grew up,” he wrote, ”in a country surrounded by a ‘wall,’ known as the Iron Curtain.” Mr. Sis’ obsession with forced enclosure is reflected in the powerful recurring visual motifs of ”Starry Messenger”: circles, squares and walls that at first provide a sense of security, stability and defined space, and later enclose and imprison Galileo when his radical ideas shatter the Renaissance view of the heavens.
Mr. Sis brilliantly makes use of this pictorial motif with the line ”He had gone against the church.” At that point, the recurring circular motif is broken in half, and a huge devouring bird, emblem of papal authority, overshadows Galileo’s small human form. The next page finds Galileo’s stooped, disheartened figure in a hellish squared-off dungeon; and the next, at trial in the Pope’s court, standing in a small circle of light where ”everyone could see that the stars had left his eyes.”
Galileo spent the rest of his days under house arrest. His fate will surely trouble children who believe, or hope, that the world is just. It is to Mr. Sis’ credit that he doesn’t shy away from the bitter fact of Galileo’s final years. Instead, he suggests we take the long view. Galileo, after all, was pardoned by the church . . . 350 years later. Whether children will take Galileo’s ridiculously long overdue pardon as evidence that eventually justice prevails is hard to tell. At book’s end, Mr. Sis shows Galileo tracing a star in a cozy moonlit garden, his ivy-covered house in the background, all of it surrounded by a high stone wall, moat and guards — an improvement over the Pope’s grim dungeon, and certainly better than being burned at the stake. The story of Galileo is not about a larger-than-life hero, but of someone understandably human. He might have recanted, but ”no one could keep him from thinking about the wonders of the skies and the mysteries of the universe. . . . No one could keep him from passing his ideas along to others, until the day he died.”
Ultimately, ”Starry Messenger” celebrates the power and freedom of thought, the pleasures of acute observation and the beauty of a dream held fast by one of the greatest astronomers of all time. And Peter Sis, in creating this original and exquisite book, affirms the power of one individual to change our ideas about the universe we live in.
Sidereus Nuncius by Galileo Galilei – While this isn’t a story book, reading parts of it or showing some of the simple drawings Galileo made could hook students (especially older ones) into reading more about Galileo and could help them better understand how scientific “truths” of today were once considered very dangerous ideas.
Rosa by Nikki Giovanni – If you want to stick with biographies and people who held to their beliefs, this picture book about Rosa Parks tells her story in an easily understandable and moving way.
Phineas Gage: A Gruesome but True Story About Brain Science by John Fleischman – This biography about a man who sustained a brutal brain injury, yet survived it, informs about early knowledge, or lack thereof, about the human brain.