Our family traveled to see the complete solar eclipse. An adventure story for another day! But that has had me thinking about the heavens and the people who explore them. One of those people was unlikely indeed. Caroline Herschel was an aristocratic woman, a spinster, in the eighteenth century. She spent most of her life running her brother’s household, but on the side, she became one of the world’s great astronomers. Caroline’s Comets: A True Story tells her story.
When I first read this book, I was surprised at how very old-fashioned it felt. Of course, old-fashioned is not a bad thing for a book set in the 1700s. But I flipped to the copyright page to make sure it was really a new book. It is–published in 2017. I finally decided it was the combination of Emily Arnold McCully’s art and her direct, clear prose that made me wonder how old it was. I have spent years reading and loving McCully’s books–she is one of the standard bearers of nonfiction picture books–and it is wonderful to see her work her magic again here.
I loved the way she wove quotations from Herschel’s autobiography into the text. McCully has a keen eye for the telling detail. She explains that once Caroline learned to knit:
From that day forward, I was fully employed in providing my brothers with stockings.
Later, McCully writes about how she helped her brother when his hands were occupied grinding a lens:
I was constantly obliged to feed him by putting victuals by bits into his mouth.
And the quiet understatment:
Last night…I discovered a comet.
Indeed, Caroline Herschel became one of the most renowned astronomers of her day and was recognized by the King of England as a royal astronomer, the first woman to earn that honor.
This book, with its timeless art and prose, will appeal to any little girl who found herself fascinated by the solar eclipse.
Caroline’s Comets: A True Story by Emily Arnold McCully. Holiday House: 2017