Module 12 – Biography & Autobiography: Starry Messenger by Peter Sis

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

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.


Module 11: Informational Books

A Black Hole Is Not a Hole

DeCristofano, C. (2012). A Black Hold Is Not a Hole. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge.

Genre: Informational books are tasked with defining and/or explaining  their subjects clearly and understandably for the intended audience. A Black Hole Is Not a Hole tackles one of the most complicated topics in astrophysics and does an admirable job of making it understandable for 9 – 12 year-olds in grades 4 – 7.

Book Summary: Beginning with an explanation of what gravity is and how that impacts our understanding of space, the author then explains how Einstein’s theory of relativity changed our understanding of gravity, and how that impacted our understanding of space. Of course, along the way, these explanations are interwoven with artist’s renderings and actual photos of space and how we can visually conceive of black holes. The narrative of how various scientists reacted to the changes in our understanding of what is now considered a basic concept in space, gravity, is recounted. One of the most interesting facts is that while it was Einstein’s theory that enabled scientists to explain the existence of black holes, Einstein did not believe black holes existed. There is a helpful timeline, glossary, and list of books and websites one could use to further understand/explain/teach about black holes at the end of the book.

Library uses: To engage students in reading about science, especially space, highlights and images from this book would be a good hook. It is also a good example of an informational book to introduce that genre to your students. It would work well paired with projected images from the book, or NASA’s website.

Impressions: As I read this book, I felt like I finally had a clearer understanding of black holes. This is not a subject I am unfamiliar with, but the concept of a black hole is such an odd thing, that it is difficult to truly grasp it. It is on the shelf in my elementary library, but I had to wonder whether even fifth-grade students would be able to understand it. Some of the details that are included, which were interesting to me, seemed like overkill for a young audience. Sometimes you know too much about a subject and it is difficult to figure out what to omit. Who invented the radio telescope (p. 40) is one example of a bit of information that seems unnecessary to understanding what black holes are. My impression is that it is a better fit for middle school students.

Nonetheless, the images and the explanations, minus the extraneous information, are as clear and as understandable as this complex concept can be boiled down to. The writing is simple and entertaining to read. The comparison of a ball of snow to a black hole (p. 15) is one of many great aides presented throughout this book. To further help understanding, a glossary of scientific terms used is included. Another nice aspect of this book for teaching is the note from the author on pages 70-71 entitled “How Do You Know I Know?” This is a great tool for teaching about trustworthy sources.

In the end, I don’t think many elementary students, and maybe only some middle school students would actually understand all the information presented in this book. I think it could be quite useful for high school students studying this concept because it does simplify it. In the hands of a teacher getting students hooked on space, introducing research, or teaching about informational books, this is a great option.

Professional Review: Dyson, M. (2012). National Space Society. National Space Society. Retrieved from

Is there anyone alive who isn’t at least a little bit curious about black holes? This excellent book about these mysterious objects explains that black holes are “not the kind you can dig in the ground or poke your finger through.” The book then answers the obvious question, “if a black hole is not a hole, then what in the universe is it?”

The introductory chapter lays the foundation for a detailed answer to this question. First, the issue of distance in space is discussed, so that young readers will be assured that black holes are not a threat to the Earth or solar system.

A black hole is then described by comparing it to something familiar, a whirlpool. The text clearly explains how a whirlpool is the same and also how it is different from a black hole. The illustration by well-known space artist Michael Carroll that accompanies this explanation is partially reproduced on the cover. The full art is stunningly beautiful.

The second chapter focuses on gravity because black holes are “a place in space with a powerful pull.” A creative and effective analogy of snowballs of different densities introduces the idea that as more matter is packed into a ball of a certain size, it weighs more, and that weight is a measure of gravity’s pull. For example, a snowball weighs about as much as a loaf of bread, whereas a black hole of the same size weighs as much as 10 Earths!

Chapter three covers the topic of how black holes form from the collapse of stars. This leads into chapter four’s explanation of how even light takes time to travel from place to place. The limit on the speed of light, and that this is why black holes are black, is a challenge to explain even to adults. The author did a good job without getting too technical, though younger readers may be confused about light being bent by gravity. The fact that gravity does not have to touch something to pull on it, and the concept that light travels in a straight line are not introduced until the upper elementary grades.

The way that scientists “see” black holes even though they are invisible is another tricky concept to explain. Chapter five compares x-rays to footprints that show the direction of black holes. A photo of a gravity lens is also offered as an example of how black holes can be found by their effects. This concept is definitely beyond most elementary and even middle-school readers, but may spark an interest in more advanced reading materials on the subject.

The history of discovery of black holes via their radio “noise” is covered in chapter six with the focus being on where black holes are actually located. Readers will be relieved to know that the closest one to Earth is a comfortable 1,600 light years away in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius.

Chapter seven is sure to be a favorite of young readers because it contains an imaginary close encounter with a black hole and introduces the irresistibly entertaining word “spaghettification.” The images provided for this chapter are simply outstanding, showing how gravity bends normally well-separated light from stars in all directions into a ring as the hapless “spaghettified” (sorry, just had to use that word!) traveler crosses the point of no return.

The final chapter touches on the basic concept of gravity as a shape, per Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. Although young readers should easily grasp the idea of mass making “dimples” and depressions in the “fabric” of space, elementary students may find this concept at odds with gravity as a directional force that always pulls things downward. Teachers and parents might try swirling marbles in a large funnel to show how the planets avoid falling into the sun as long as they move quickly in their orbits.

The back matter of the book includes an extensive historical timeline, a glossary, and an author’s note about how the reader can know that the information in the book is correct. The author lists numerous primary sources, books by experts, and trustworthy websites.

One additional method of knowing the information in a space-related book is correct is to read a book review by a physicist! I’m happy to report that I didn’t find any technical errors in this book.

However, as the author points out, new information about black holes is being discovered all the time. So they can be forgiven for not mentioning one recently confirmed new type of supernova of super-massive stars that doesn’t produce a black hole as expected. Students who have read this book will have the background to understand and appreciate the excitement of these new discoveries, and maybe go on to make some of their own.


Starry Messenger by Peter Sis – As long as you’re looking at the stars, you might as well mention Galileo, the scientist who convinced the world that the sun is at the center of our universe rather than the earth. It works as an introduction to the sky, stars, and space for primary grades.

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery – This magical, fictional story is not informational, yet includes travel among the stars and planets so would work well as a fictional aspect of a nonfiction topic.

 Star Wars Graphic Novels – Talking about a graphic novel is sure to get young students’ attention. Using this series by turning the focus from the action to the location – space – is a viable option for hooking readers.

Module 10: Historical Fiction

Pink and Say

Polacco, P. (1994). Pink and Say. New York, NY: Philomel Books.

Genre: Pink and Say, set during the Civil War, is an excellent example of good historical fiction by virtue of its compelling characters, believability, and clear indications of what life was like at that time.

Book Summary: A white boy and a black boy, each fighting for the North, form a friendship that inspires the white boy to pass the story down to his children, which is a tradition that brings the story into contemporary times. Seriously wounded, Sheldon (Say) is helped by Pinkus (Pink) to Pinkus’ mother’s house where she cares for both of them and is joyous at the return of her son. The time they all spend together is healing for the trio, but war is cruel so their happiness cannot last forever. Although the book is classified as historical fiction, how much of it is truth is debated by Sheldon’s descendants. Nonetheless, it is reasonable to think that many stories similar to this one unfolded during the course of the Civil War and the message that love and cruelty are colorblind is compelling.

Library uses: This is too long for a thirty-minute story time with primary grades, but could work well with upper elementary for a lesson about caring, racism or the Civil War.

Impressions: “Pink and Say” is an unusual title, but the tragic story of friendship and loss during the civil war is all too usual. Movies have made the general public aware of the multiple perspectives of the tragedies inflicted during this time period, but that a white survivor passes down the tale of his rescue by a black non-survivor and this book is dedicated to that memory is truly touching and somehow original.

Professional Review: Kirkus Review. (1994, September 15). Kirkus review. Kirkus Media LLC. Retrieved from

A white youth from Ohio, Sheldon Russell Curtis (Say), and a black youth from Georgia, Pinkus Aylee (Pink), meet as young soldiers with the Union army. Pink finds Say wounded in the leg after a battle and brings him home with him. Pink’s mother, Moe Moe Bay, cares for the boys while Say recuperates, feeding and comforting them and banishing the war for a time. Whereas Pink is eager to go back and fight against “the sickness” that is slavery, Say is afraid to return to his unit. But when he sees Moe Moe Bay die at the hands of marauders, he understands the need to return. Pink and Say are captured by Confederate soldiers and brought to the notorious Andersonville prison camp. Say is released months later, ill and undernourished, but Pink is never released, and Polacco reports that he was hanged that very first day because he was black. Polacco (Babushka Baba Yaga, 1993, etc; My Rotten Redheaded Older Brother, above) tells this story, which was passed down for generations in her family (Say was her great-great-grandfather), carefully and without melodrama so that it speaks for itself. The stunning illustrations — reminiscent of the German expressionist Egon Shiele in their use of color and form — are completely heartbreaking. A spectacular achievement. (Nonfiction/Picture book. 4- 8)


The Blue and the Gray by Eve Bunting – This is also a story of a black boy and white boy becoming friends, but the setting is more contemporary. Their neighborhood is on a site where the civil war was fought.

The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson – In this story of racism, a black girl and a white girl break the rule not to cross the friend and become friends anyway.

A Band of Angels by Deborah Hopkinson – This story line is different from the others, but still relates to the theme of the the struggle of African Americans shortly after the Civil War. This one follows a young black girl who has the dream of going to college and $6.00 in her pockets.

Module 9 — Gilda Joyce: The Dead Drop

Gilda Joyce

  • Genre: This mystery, like so many puts one foot in fantasy and one in realistic fiction. If you have a space for mysteries on your book shelf, this clearly goes there since the main objective is to figure out the puzzle of connections Gilda discovers.
  • Book Summary: In this fourth in a series, teenager Gilda Joyce, a 14-year-old who claims to be 15, lands a summer internship at the spy museum in Washington DC and living accommodations with a twenty-something roommate who takes on the role of surrogate mom to Gilda for the summer. Gilda’s confident and assertive personality is bolstered in times of weakness by conversations, through her diary, with her dead father and emails and phone conversations with her distracted mom and her best friend back home. Thanks to some fortuitous twists of fate, Gilda meets all the right people and manages to become involved in trying to solve a mystery involving “psychic viewing,” dead drops, and Russian spies.
  • APA Reference of Book: Allison, J. (2009). Gilda Joyce: The dead drop, a mystery. New York, NY: Penguin.
  • Library Uses: This could work for a book talk to engage students in the mystery genre. The Cold War and Russian spies are involved, so some connections could be made to that. You could also create your own mystery, give the students clues, and talk about inferencing.
  • Impressions: As an adult reader of this story, suspending disbelief was challenging on two main counts. First of all, Gilda is a 14-year-old and the poise and confidence she shows in the scenarios she is cast in seems like a stretch. Secondly, that a parent would let their 14-year-old undertake this summer in DC so independently is difficult to imagine. However, young readers dream of doing such things, so from their perspective, it is an ideal situation. Gilda is a character with depth who is not always as confident as she appears. Her quirkiness and strange sense of style and career choice all make her a bit of an outsider that many can relate to. But she is persistent in being true to herself, which is a good example. She is also persistent in pursuing her gut feelings to solve a mystery. The setting in Washington DC is perfect for an aspiring spy and the supporting characters are varied and believable. Like most mysteries, you keep reading because you want to know if your guess at how the mystery is solved matches the story.

Professional Review: School Library Journal. (June 1, 2009). School Library Journal. Accessed through Titlewave.

  • Gr 5-8-In her latest psychic investigation, Gilda Joyce, “fourteen years and 11 months,” has slightly fudged her age to land a summer internship at the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC. There she encounters a variety of characters, from spy museum summer campers to a former KGB agent, to her longtime psychic idol and mentor, Balthazar Frobenius. The humor, pacing, and story line are all top-notch, and Allison succeeds at breathing life into the entire cast. Gilda seems even more grown up and independent with as much, if not more, chutzpah than in her previous adventures. She retains and further develops her psychic powers that allow her to figure out and find the “dead drop,” an agreed-upon place where spies leave crucial information for one another (and for government officials). Yet Gilda also shows some investigative restraint when it comes to equally important matters such as the questionable relationship between her brother and her best friend. This is a well-told story with a tenacious, yet completely endearing heroine. Allison creates a summer anyone would envy-anyone interested in intrigue, adventure, fashion, and the truth, that is.-Tracy Weiskind, Chicago Public Library Copyright 2009 Reed Business Information.
  • Awards: This book has won no awards.
  • Readalikes:
    • From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg is another mystery with kids away from home. Although the main characters in this story are younger, they are fairly independent and solve a mystery.
    • The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick is a very different format, a graphic novel of a sort, but contains a mystery nonetheless, and has a young, orphaned boy living on his own as the main character.
    • The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner is another series. This classic series features four orphaned siblings who stick together and encounter many mysteries and adventures.