Kid Lit Review of “Starry Messenger” by Peter Sís

Peter Sís, children’s book author/illustrator, is known for his picture books that aren’t really just for children. In this tribute to Galileo Galilei, he celebrates the paradigm shift precipitated by Galileo, who was born in Pisa, Italy on February 15, 1564.

In a number of carefully reasoned treatises, Galileo provided evidence that the earth was not in fact the center of the universe. He overturned conventional thinking in epistemology, theology, history, and science, paving the way for modern astronomy.

Much of the evidence provided by Galileo came from his use of the telescope. Galileo did not invent this instrument himself; a Dutch eyeglass maker, Hans Libbershey, was at least the first person to apply for a patent in 1608. But Galileo saw its potential, and was quick to find new uses for the telescope and also to make critical improvements to it.

At the end of 1609, Galileo began turning his enhanced telescope to the sky. After he had made lunar observations, he shifted his attention to Jupiter. On January 7, 1610, he observed the planet and saw what he thought were three fixed stars near it, strung out in a line. The next night, he saw all three stars to the west of Jupiter. Over the next week he returned to the formation every night. He discovered that not only did the little stars never leave the planet, but they seemed to be carried along with it, and moreover, kept changing their position with respect to each other and to Jupiter. Also, a fourth companion entered the grouping that apparently had been around the other side of the planet during his initial observations.

By January 15th Galileo figured out that the moving bodies were not stars but four moons that were revolving around Jupiter. This proved that not everything in space circled the Earth. Therefore, to Galileo, our planet might not the absolute center of the universe, as the Catholic Church maintained (based on its understanding of the Bible).

Galileo's notes on the moons of Jupiter

Galileo’s notes on the moons of Jupiter

In March of 1610 he published a small book, Sidereus Nuncius (The Starry Messenger), revealing some discoveries that had not been dreamed of in the philosophy of the time: mountains on the Moon, lesser moons in orbit around Jupiter, and the resolution of what had been thought cloudy masses in the sky (nebulae) into collections of stars too faint to see individually. Other observations followed, including the phases of Venus and the existence of sunspots.

scie_galileo2

These revelations and Galileo’s theory that the earth went around the sun had a major impact on cosmology and Galileo became famous. But the Catholic Church “began to worry”:

“Galileo had become too popular. By upholding the idea that the earth was not the center of the universe, he had gone against the Bible and everything the ancient philosophers had taught. He had gone against the Church . . .”

Galileo was tried in the Pope’s court and ordered not to express his beliefs. He was also condemned to spend the rest of his life under house arrest.

Finally, the author reports:

“. . . more than three hundred years later, the leaders of the very Church that had punished Galileo Galilei pardoned him, and they admitted he was probably – in fact, surely and absolutely – right.”

[The phrasing of this statement by Sís is a little odd – the Church’s 1992 statement, as reported by “The New York Times,” was quite definitive: “We today know that Galileo was right in adopting the Copernican astronomical theory,” Paul Cardinal Poupard, the head of the current investigation, said in an interview . . .”]

The illustrations by Sís are the real “stars” of the story; they are detailed evocations of historical documents from Galileo’s time and and truly wonder-inspiring. He also incorporates excerpts of handwritten passages from The Starry Messenger.

Evaluation: This book with its mesmerizing pictures (the book was a 1997 Caldecott Honor Book) teaches some important lessons about truth, courage, and persistence even when those in power may act unjustly.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Farrar Straus Giroux, 1996

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2 Responses to Kid Lit Review of “Starry Messenger” by Peter Sís

  1. I think my whole family would love that book – it looks amazing.

  2. Beth F says:

    We knew all about Galileo in my house growing up (you know, lenses and stuff). Of course, my information is about ^&#% years old. I’m going to see if my library this.

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