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Thursday, June 20, 2013

LOOK UP! Henrietta Leavitt, Pioneering Woman Astonomer. Written by Robert Burleigh and illustrated by Raul Colon. A Paula Wiseman Book, Simon & Schuster. 2013. $19.99 ages 6 and up

"She wanted to know everything about the wonderful bigness of all she saw. The more she looked up, the bigger the sky seemed to get. It seemed endless!  On cloudless evenings she found the Big Dipper, inching is slow glittering track across the night sky. She drew an imaginary line from the Dipper's pan. See, it leads to the North Star!"

It's funny how a childhood obsession often becomes a person's future. Robert Burleigh imagines that Henrietta always loved the stars. She watched them constantly, spending happy hours with her eyes pointed towards the heavens, and wondering about the vastness of the night sky.

As a young woman, she studied astronomy - the only woman in her class. Luckily, following graduation, she got a job in the Harvard Observatory. The giant telescope housed there was mostly off limits to her. She worked with other women:

"Their job was to record. And measure. And calculate. The women were expected to "work, not think.""

The menial job for which she was paid thirty cents an hour was not nearly enough to cloud her dreams. She could not stop herself from studying and thinking about the stars, even though it was not encouraged.  Her further education led to other great astronomers and the world they had discovered. Her careful observations led her to new discoveries, and fueled her need to know more and more.

In spare and elegant text Robert Burleigh brings Henrietta's story to light for young readers, and for many older readers. Once again, I had no prior knowledge of this brilliant woman scientist. It is easy to see through his telling how much he admired the work that she did, and to realize his own wonder at the field of astronomy:

"Henrietta's chart helped astronomers measure distances much farther away. First, the Milky Way itself was found to stretch out farther than anyone thought.
Next, astronomers discovered even more galaxies - many of them. The universe was far more vast than anyone had ever dreamed!
The stars had spoken to Henrietta."

The book ends with pages of additional information.I love the quotes about the stars that are attributed to everyone from Harriet Tubman to John Lennon. An afterword tells a bit about her life, a list of her discoveries help readers know the scope of her work, a list of other women who were also astronomers, and a glossary, a bibliography and internet resources add to the overall appeal.  

Raul Colon uses watercolors and colored pencil to imbue the book's pages with a glowing luminescence. Each is really quite beautiful. They are as calming and deep as the skies that held such fascination for Henrietta.

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