Nonfiction – Boy, Were We Wrong About the Solar System

Science education tends to present science as a series of inevitable facts that simply presented themselves to the scientists, with maybe a little bit of work. The idea that science is not fixed, that scientists constantly change their minds when presented with new information, or that there is still huge amounts of knowledge still waiting to be discovered or reinterpreted tends to get lost in the shuffle, leaving children with the general impression that the study of science is relatively static. This is where Kathleen Kudlinski comes into the picture. Her previous book, Boy, Were We Wrong About Dinosaurs looked at the ways in which our understanding of dinosaurs has changed over time. Now she has come out with a new book looking at the solar system. Anyone who’s paid any attention to astronomy knows that the last two years have been very exciting for the solar system, from the demotion of Pluto to the discovery of water ice on Mars.

This is a children’s book, and even more specifically what is often referred to as a “nonfiction picture book”. That means that the information contained within is meant for younger children. There is a broad overview of the issues at hand, but not a lot of in-depth information, as is appropriate for the reading level.

As much as I am thrilled with this book, I have to admit that I would have changed some aspects of the text. For instance, most of the book follows a chronological timeline, a sound decision, since the changes in understanding happen over time. However, the change in Pluto’s status is presented on the page facing the discovery of Pluto, well before the landing on the moon or other discoveries, rather than in the correct chronological space. Similarly, the Hubble telescope (which is not named in the book) is explained after the Mars rovers. And if I’m going to point out every little detail I didn’t like, I have to say that the Newton having an apple fall on his head is a myth and oversimplification that certainly didn’t need to be included. Oh, and I’d like to have seen some non-Western early astronomy, since I know that, for instance, the Islamic world and the Chinese had some fantastic understandings and discoveries in the pre-Renaissance era.

The illustrations are fun without being cartoony or losing a sense of history. For instance, in the picture of Newton’s orchard, the tree in the background has been carved with a heart containing “F=MxA”. Subtle, probably over most kids heads, but funny nonetheless. I liked that the illustration of Victorians with telescopes includes a well-dressed black family. You don’t typically see many illustrations of non-whites in a historical science context. I would have been even more excited to see some non-white representation in generic panel of scientists telling Pluto it’s not a planet, too. One of the four panel scientists is female, at least. (It’s hard to showcase significant discoveries by women and minorities in a historical context since they did not have the same access to education and opportunity.)

Notes on the cover: The cover is attractive, and sets a tone of historical overview with a picture Newton and other historical figures. The boy floating through space in an astronaut’s suit is appealing and dynamic, although a part of me wishes that it wasn’t a crew-cut white boy in the suit.

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