Books Early Readers Features Lifespan of a Reader Memoirs, Biographies, and Constructed Narratives Non-fiction Wednesday Nonfiction Picture Books Reading Themes

[Nonfiction Wednesday] Young Ladies Who Watched the Stars and Hunted Comets

"Bright Star" by Gary Crew and Anne Spudvilas | "Caroline's Comets: A True Story" by Emily Arnold McCully.

Myra here.

We are delighted to join the Nonfiction Picture Book meme 2018 hosted by Alyson Beecher @ Kid Lit Frenzy. We would also be linking our nonfiction choices with our reading themes throughout the year, when we can.

Full disclosure: the first book is more historical fiction than a picturebook biography. However, it tells the story of a young girl who lived at approximately the same period as the female astronomer, Caroline Herschel, featured in the second book. I thought they would make a good pair, so here they are.

Bright Star

Written by: Gary Crew Illustrated by: Anne Spudvilas
Published by Kane/Miller (1997)
ISBN-10: 0916291758
ISBN-13: 9780916291754
Bought a copy of the book. Book photos taken by me.

The setting of this book is sometime in the late 1800s or early 1900s. From the very first page, the reader is introduced to a young girl, Alicia, who is depicted to be somewhat of a daydreamer. She is also quietly resentful of the many chores that she is expected to do at home (including milking the cow), by virtue of her being female.

While her brothers are able to come and go as they please, just like swallows, as she observed in the image above, she is expected to stay rooted at home, feeding chickens and preparing meals for the entire family. Yet, there was one thing that brought joy to Alicia’s existence: she loved learning. While she does not get any kind of affirmation at home, her teacher recognizes her brilliance and says it.

Then came one day that changed Alicia’s life forever. Mr. Tebbutt, an astronomer who lived in her home town of Windsor, New South Wales, was invited to speak in Alicia’s class. Mr. Tebbutt was known as the “Discoverer of the comet of the century” and is fairly distinguished, not just in Windsor but in the whole of Australia.

This chance encounter, along with the Star Man’s acknowledgment of Alicia, even outside of school, and in the presence of her parents who have only thought of her as someone who helps out in the chores at home – has led Alicia to dream once again.

This is a fascinating historical fiction that will provide young readers of today some level of perspective as to the many privileges and rights that women now enjoy, but were considered totally unacceptable and even unheard of during Alicia’s time. I also love inspirational chance encounters like this whereby a mentor is said to appear when the pupil is ready. How the story ends, I shall leave for you to discover.

Caroline’s Comets: A True Story

Written and Illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully
Published by Holiday House (2017)
ISBN-10: 0823436640
ISBN-13: 9780823436644
Borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.

Caroline Herschel was born in 1750, roughly the same time that Alicia was looking at the skies and dreaming of something more than milking cows. She was regarded as the family’s scullery maid while her father and brothers were royal musicians.

As her brothers learned how to play instruments, Caroline was taught to knit, clean – practical skills that would help her find a husband, eventually. However, she contracted typhus and had smallpox which scarred her face, making her father worry that no one would want to marry her. It was her brother, William, who loved her dearly that forever changed the course of her life.

What I found infinitely fascinating in this story was how Caroline has always considered what she was doing as a way of making a living, enough for her to survive – be it singing, serving as her brother’s housekeeper, or helping her brother map the stars. Yet, in every little thing that she did, she excelled and proved her mettle.

Both she and her brother built a telescope from scratch and proceeded to learn more about astronomy. Yet, while William could devote his energies to his studies full time, Caroline was also expected to keep house and even feed William whenever he would be too busy to feed himself.

And when King George III finally learned of their project, he appointed William as King’s Astronomer and even paid him an annual salary, effectively ending his career as a musician. Yet, once more there was no acknowledgment of Caroline’s efforts throughout all this.

This story ended happily, however, with Caroline’s very clear valuing of her own worth. She refused to be paid an assistant’s fee by her brother and insisted on a salary from the King himself, which she received. She eventually became known as the Hunter of Comets and was the first woman ever to be paid as a professional woman scientist. Truly, women know how to Resist and Persist.

What made this picturebook biography work for me even more, was how McCully inserted actual verbatim quotes written by Caroline Herschel herself, in italics, from her memoir and correspondences. These are two powerful narratives that speak about women’s strength, talent, endurance and capacity to overcome – books that you should definitely add to your bookshelves.

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Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

3 comments on “[Nonfiction Wednesday] Young Ladies Who Watched the Stars and Hunted Comets

  1. I thought I had read Caroline’s Comets, but I checked goodreads and apparently I haven’t! I’ll be sure to check them out 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I can’t believe I’ve never heard of Caroline Herschel, what an incredible woman and important role model!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. lindabaie

    I loved Caroline’s Comets, always wonder how many young girls gave up their dreams because of “womanly” expectations. Thanks for the older Bright Star, will look for it!

    Liked by 1 person

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