Review: Just Right – Searching for the Goldilocks Planet

I have a bit of an infatuation with nonfiction picture books. Yes, I love them, but infatuation implies a sense of distance, of something out of reach. At this point, writing a nonfiction picture book feels out of my reach. In a good way–yes, someday I might write one–but for now I get to experience that feeling of awe on top of the admiration.

So I pick up nonfiction picture books here and there, let myself read and enjoy them, but I don’t buy a lot. I’m writing fiction, and I need mentor texts, so that’s usually where I spend my money.

Occasionally, though, I read a nonfiction picture book that is so incredibly well done, so gorgeous, that I need to own it. Just Right: Searching for the Goldilocks Planet, written by Curtis Manley and illustrated by Jessica Lanan, is one of these books. The writing and the art are amazing, conveying perfectly both the facts and the magic of space exploration.

Note: I apologize profusely to the author and artist for the way my phone wiggles the lines of texts and absolutely distorts the colors in the illustrations. Definitely go get your own copy so you can read and see this book for yourself. To get a much better understanding of how the story and art weave together and to see the actual physical beauty of the book, take a look at this trailer on Lanan’s website.

Manley’s writing is, like the book title, just right. He presents the information with clarity and the flow and pacing of a good story, bringing us on a journey from the discoveries of the past, to the understanding we have today, to the possibilities pf what we will learn in the future. He does a beautiful job of taking us far out into space–the definitions, the technology–then bringing us tightly back to how that all connects to Earth, to the work our scientists are doing, to how each one of us. His language ranges seamlessly from poetic to concrete and active.

hand-text-use.png

 

Manley chooses to write with the second person you, and it’s wonderfully effective. After reading this page (and seeing the art below) children will run outside to put their hand up to the sun, see what happens for themselves, and let their mind roam out to the “specks of light” they’ll see in the sky that night.

Lanan has picked up on that you in her art with a beauty that, frankly, stunned me.  Here’s the illustration that accompanies the words above.

hand art brighter

Lanan’s illustrations show the story of this girl and her family on a visit to an exhibition on exoplanets, and–while we basically follow the whole family–the parents and young sibling quickly become ancillary to the girl’s experience. She is the child reader; she is who Manley is writing for. The rest of the family is interested in the exhibition; the girl is completely immersed. She explores pieces of the exhibition her family passes by; she lingers behind in rooms from which her parents are already moving on. Her fascination simultaneously leaps off the page and pulls us deeper into a connection with what she is feeling.

fascination

And whoever worked on the layout of the book got it “just right.” (Despite the way my phone is showing it below!)

left spread one more time

right spread really use

The words that fill the left page of this spread, which pull us out to the stars visible through only the most powerful telescopes, are balanced with the smaller chunk of text on the right–Manley even uses the words tiny and small to emphasize the comparison.  The art on the left side shows the vastness of space; the right focuses our attention on our own smallness and the immediacy of the impact this view has on the girl.

No spoilers about where this book takes you at the end, but I can tell you that I was on the edge of tears when I finished reading it for the first time.  This book needs to be in every family and in every classroom, and I hope whoever is reading it has the sense to do so outside with a clear view into the sky.

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