By a strange, almost cosmic, coincidence, this fall has seen the publication of three enchanting children’s books within a few weeks of each other, each of which explores the mysteries of the universe, and in each of which Maine plays a starring role (pun intended).

“Skywatcher,” by Jamie Hogan

“Skywatcher” written and illustrated by Jamie Hogan. Tilbury House, 32 pages, ages 6-8. $18.95

A young city dweller named Tamen longs to travel the galaxies, like the eponymous heroine of his favorite comic, Skywatcher. But you can’t make a star trek without stars to guide you, and all he can see in the night sky is the glow of the city.

“Where are the stars?” he asks his mother as they walk past a pizza emporium bathed in the glare of its “Open 24/7” sign. I love her simple, non-judgmental explanation: “The city outshines them.”

But she knows what he needs and the next weekend she spirits him far out of the city, through woods populated by pileated woodpeckers, Luna moths and screech owls, to an unspecified wilderness. They camp here — “in the middle of nowhere”— but the setting, with its rockbound, fir-pointed shoreline and the “wavering call” of the loon, could well be Maine. Here at last Tamen can see the stars, his favorite constellations, and most magnificent of all, the Milky Way.

In “Skywatcher,” by Peaks Island’s own Jamie Hogan, the writing is sweet and simple. Like Tamen’s mother, Hogan wastes no words but lets the illustrations illuminate the story. Using mostly yellows and blues, she plays with the different palettes of light and dark: the harsh yellow glare of the city’s street lamps and the dystopian glow of its skyline; the warm light of a campfire and the bottom-lit gleam of a flashlight on faces inside a tent. All of which contrast sharply with the cool white light of the moon, the starlight looking like “spilled glitter” and the faint eerie swirl of the Milky Way.

The awe that is inspired by finally seeing the universe that has always surrounded him is brought home by Tamen’s observation as he takes in the sky’s full splendor: “The black is SO big, but I feel like I’m part of it.”

“You are. People are made of stardust,” his mother responds. “The atoms in us were forged in stars long ago.”

And that’s really the point of the book: why it is important to be able to literally see our place in the universe, something that 80% of the world’s population is unable to do, as so many people live in places where light pollution blots out the stars. “Our ability to see the stars is our window on the universe,” Hogan writes in a postscript. Light pollution “threatens to close that window.” She adds information on the night sky, and how to become a “skywatcher,” visit a Dark Sky Preserve and “Defend the Dark” from threats of light pollution.

“Ada and the Galaxies” by Alan Lightman and Olga Pastuchiv, illustrated by Susanna Chapman.

“Ada and the Galaxies” by Alan Lightman and Olga Pastuchiv, illustrated by Susanna Chapman. MIT Kids Press, 40 pages, ages 4-8. $17.99

The first time I ever visited Monhegan, the night was so dark I literally walked smack into a photographer who’d set up a tripod in the middle of the street to photograph the Milky Way. “Ada and the Galaxies” is not set there but it might well have been. Like “Skywatcher,” the story involves a city child who escapes to the country to be able to see the stars at night. In this case, the refuge is an unnamed island in Maine.

Who better to have written this book than Alan Lightman – and not just because his surname conjures images of a superhero on a galaxy quest. Lightman is an MIT physics professor and the author of “Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine” — a meditation on religion and science that was inspired by a spiritual experience with the night sky at his summer island home in Harpswell. “I felt connected not only to the stars,” he wrote, “but to all of nature, and of the entire cosmos.”

Surely this picture book is Lightman’s attempt to translate that experience for children – in particular for his own granddaughter, also named Ada. To do this, he wisely enlisted the help of a kid-speak translator, children’s book author Olga Pastuchiv. The story opens with Ada arriving at her grandparents’ island house, determined to view the stars. Her professorial grandfather (delightfully nicknamed Poobah, as in “grand Poobah”) is just as eager to show her. However, a story about stargazing while Poohbah gives Ada a seminar on astrophysics would have been desperately dull. Pastuvich instead has helped create more of a storyline that, combined with Lightman’s insights and Susanna Chapman’s breathtaking illustrations of the night sky, make for a book which is anything but dull.

Ada whiles away the daylight hours doing what kids do on the Maine coast: building fairy houses, collecting seashells and moss, catching crabs. When night finally falls, the Maine fog nearly ruins everything. Poobah suggests they look at pictures of stars. A deeply disappointed Ada reluctantly agrees. But she is quickly charmed by the book, which features actual photos from the Hubble telescope (artfully incorporated here).

The conversation soon turns to life forms that might exist out there – anything like the seashells and moss Ada found today? Probably, Poobah answers, explaining (in virtually the same language as “Skywatcher”), “Because everything in the universe is made out of the same stuff. It’s all part of nature.” There might even be “some kind of people,” he tells her.

And when the fog clears (of course), they venture out to view the resplendent night sky. The notion — that we are not alone, that we are, as Lightman said in his adult book, “connected to all of nature” – inspires Ada to joyfully greet both the stars and the “other people” she imagines “looking at us right now.” As with “Skywatcher,” “Ada and the Galaxies” provides a deeply reassuring view of ourselves and our place in the universe.

“Down to Earth” by Betty Culley

“Down to Earth” by Betty Culley. Crown Books for Young Readers, 210 pages, ages 8-12. $16.99

The protagonist in “Down to Earth,” 10-year-old Henry, has two obsessions. First is teaching himself everything he can about rocks. But his overarching concern is the fear that he might never become a dowser like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, that this special gift might be denied to him, as it was to one of his uncles. He is desperate to carry on what is not just a family tradition, but the family business, which is drilling wells by finding the water trapped beneath granite.

One day he awakens in the middle of the night “as if a voice is calling to me” and goes outside just in time to see a meteor light up the sky. As in the two picture books on galaxies, Henry experiences an epiphany that night: despite having read about the vastness of the cosmos it wasn’t until “watching the light burst over me, it felt real, how big the universe is.”

The giant meteorite comes to earth in a field above his house, and becomes his new obsession, his special secret – until it unleashes an underground gusher. The torrent floods Henry’s house, dries up the town wells, and turns townspeople against his whole family.

This all seems rather Biblical for a book that initially seems strongly science-based. And it’s here that “Down to Earth” (by Mercer resident Betty Culley) falters, as it tries to merge hard science with the supernatural. It’s an uneasy marriage. True, there is a genuinely mysterious element to the art of dowsing – well captured by Culley here. But when the meteorite appears to cure Henry’s grandmother’s arthritis, and when a British scientist arrives and claims the meteorite caused the gusher by simply attracting the water, and that he knew of one that once unleashed a flood that left half the city of Nottingham, England, under water “like Atlantis,” while also apparently curing his chronic illness – the story veers into the unbelievable.

But the chief delights of this book are Culley’s tender depiction of three generations of a tight-knit family in a tight-knit rural Maine town and her gift for creating an environment that feels timeless. Though the story is set in 2002, it feels more like the 1950s. Henry’s house is heated by wood, and there are no cell phones, video games, or internet (the home-schooled Henry relies on the World Book Encyclopedia). Culley fills the story with authentic details: making maple syrup on the front porch, drinking from canning jars (long before hipsters did so), a house that “smelled like the pinecones Mom used to start fires, and the herbs she hung from the kitchen ceiling.” Despite its cosmic overtones, the book is best when it is truly and genuinely, down to earth.

Amy MacDonald is a freelance writer and children’s book author who lives in Portland. She may be reached at [email protected]


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