Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Module 12: Starry Messenger

Starry Messenger by Peter Sis

In Starry Messenger, an illustrated biographical book for children, Peter Sis writes: "In the city of Pisa, a little boy was born with stars in his eyes.  His parents named him Galileo".  Readers learn that Galileo "studied mathematics and physics and turned out to be a very bright young man who entertained and amused people with his brilliant experiments and observations" and the day when he "heard about a new instrument for seeing things far, far away.  He figured out how it worked and made one for himself.  Then he turned it to the sky."  The book is full of complex illustrations and historical asides written in calligraphy.  The tale is told simply, and the illustrations are quite pretty.


I have mixed feelings about Starry Messenger.  While the illustrations are enjoyable to a wide range of readers both young and old, the story is split between the plain printed text of the story and the cursive calligraphy that swirls and twirls around the margins, which contains more information and historical asides.  These would be more of a bonus if they were more readable.  I would recommend the book for casual reading.  I can see reading this with a young child and having them find the hidden spots fun, like Galileo hidden with some stars in a sea of children playing with other toys, for example -- you can just see his star in the top right corner of the photo below.  However, older readers looking for a more in-depth analysis for a book report might find the more complex calligraphy sections frustrating to read, as the text is much smaller than the standard font used, and is meant to mimic real calligraphy with its inconsistent widths and shapes.



"Central to this portrait of Galileo's life is the refinement of the telescope for mapping the heavens, leading him to challenge the Ptolemaic belief that the earth was the center of the universe. S°s tells in broad, graceful strokes this extraordinary scientist's story. Augmenting the text are notes and quotes from Galileo's own writings, scrawled in calligraphic style, along with timelines and other chronologic events for more inquisitive readers. Drawing on classic cartography, mapped charts, and 17th-century symbols and images, S°s creates starlit, fresco-like paintings and detailed drawings rich with humor and visual clues. The author's take on his exceptional subject avoids the usual, eye-glazing list of accomplishments and gives readers Galileo himself who always had stars on his mind. A small ink illustration on the copyright page, of an open book with heart and mind taking flight, deserves special attention" (Kirkus Reviews, 1996).

I have to admit that one of my favorite things about picture books is that the illustrators so often add in little hidden touches near the dedication.

"Less a picture-book biography than is Leonard Everett Fisher's Galileo, this book instead takes the essentials of Galileo's life and discoveries to frame a rich galaxy of paintings that recall both the scientist's times and the persistence of wonder. Captions ("Night after night, he gazed through his telescope and wrote down everything he observed") and quotes from Galileo's writing ("The moon is not robed in a smooth and polished surface but is in fact rough and uneven") border and embellish the large pages, while the paintings enliven a Renaissance tone with Sis's own peculiar style of iconography: inset portraits and vignettes, stamps and medallions, intricate borders. Much of the text is printed in script and, when the lines whimsically spiral and swoop, is not always easy to read. The best pictures are both sweet and surreal, like the one showing baby Galileo, "born with stars in his eyes," tucked in amidst a host of babies less blessed; or a phantasmagorical map of Europe. Endpapers take the story from the past to the present, the opening spread showing a cityscape of Galileo searching the Florentine skies, the closing one revealing a contemporary skygazer looking at the New York City night. Like Galileo, you should look and look carefully, for there is much to see" (Horn Book Magazine/R.S., 1997).


This book could be a perfect companion to any number of celestial occurrences.  This book could be combined with other books on the night sky (for example Find the Constellations by beloved H. A. Rey) for a very cool evening of sky-gazing (if someone can find a telescope somewhere, all the better).


Kirkus Reviews (1996).  Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei.  Retrieved November 29, 2011 from

R., S. S. (1997). Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei. Horn Book Magazine, 73(1), 79-80.

Sis, P. (1996). Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei.  Berryville Graphics.

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