Just Right: Searching for the Goldilocks planet

With the start of school, many children may be feeling stressed as they try to figure out how to deal with their new teachers, new classmates and new challenges.

So here’s a wonderful new book that might put things in helpful perspective: “Just Right: Searching for the Goldilocks Planet” is a book of science and wonder.

Written by Bellevue, Washington children’s author Curtis Manley and illustrated by artist Jessica Lanan, this book wastes no time. It begins on the inside of the front cover with an indigo, star-speckled backdrop and a timeline illustrating the history of human discoveries about Earth’s place in the universe.

We learn that in around 350 BCE, the Greek philosopher Aristotle asserted that Earth was spherical, not flat (he got that part right), and that everything in the sky revolved around Earth (he got that part wrong). Even though his idea received pushback a century later from another Greek philosopher, Aristarchus of Samos, Aristotle’s view prevailed for the next thousand years.

Thank goodness Copernicus came along in 1543 – using mathematical calculations, he figured that the Earth orbited the sun – a major step forward – but he made the mistaken assumption that the sun was the center of the universe.

The timeline displays how other scientists gradually brought other discoveries to bear on what we understand of the universe, from the invention of telescopes to the identification of galaxies beyond the Milky Way.

And we learn all of this before we’ve ever turned to the book’s title page!

“Just Right: Searching for the Goldilocks Planet” is more than an introductory picture book about astronomy. It focuses especially on the recent, exciting discoveries of planets outside of our own solar system, celestial bodies that are revolving around other stars. The existence of these extrasolar planets, called exoplanets for short, raises the thrilling question as to whether any of them might be able to support life.

Manley presents solid scientific information with storytelling finesse.

And Lanan’s imaginative illustrations, which feature a young girl pondering the sky and then visiting a planetarium with her family, are equally captivating.

We learn about what makes our own planet habitable – the conditions have to be not too hot nor too cold, not too big nor too small. There needs to be oxygen, water and gravity. In other words, the conditions need to be just right – like what Goldilocks was looking for when she barged in on the Three Bears’ house when they were away.

So sometime in the last few decades – there are different stories about this – astronomers adopted the term “Goldilocks planet” to describe their search for other planets in other solar systems that – like Earth – might be “just right” to sustain life.

The publisher targets this picture book for children ages 5-9, to which I say pshaw. Readers age 5 and way, way up will be enthralled by this contemplation of how precious our own planet is, and by this invitation to marvel at what else may be out there.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com

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