Subscribe to The Horn Book

Buried Sunlight

bang_buriedFull disclosure: Molly Bang is one of those children’s-book people I’ve gotten to know a bit. Not so well that, as Robin puts it, she is likely to look me up on Facebook to see if I’m over the flu. But she’s visited my class a few times, we’ve corresponded by email, and I’ve visited her home and studio. Molly is one of the hardest-working illustrators I know. She never ever takes shortcuts (all those dots!) and she is passionate about creating books that will explain science to a new generation. (Of course none of this is relevant to the Caldecott committee. What should matter to them is the book itself, not how it was made.)

Before getting to a discussion of the illustrations, I just have to say how much I wish this series had been around when I was taking science in middle school and high school. As a visual learner, I only grasped the edges of things like photosynthesis and the periodic table of elements. If only there had been a set of beautiful, clearly written books that provided both historical context and scientific details for all those Hs and Os and Cs with their little subscript numbers. There are real plants and animals and houses and power plants and tractors to grasp hold of here. And they are all spewing out little dots that stand for elements: white dots are O (oxygen), black dots are C (carbon). Yellow represents energy in all its forms, sometimes as a halo around an animal, sometimes as waves of little yellow dots moving through space. Seeing clusters of CO2 (a black dot surrounded by two white dots), bubbles of pure oxygen (pairs of white dots), and carbon chains (black dots glued together with little yellow dots) makes sense AND connects to everything I was trying to learn in science class. Thank you, Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm!

So. On to the illustrations.

This book (and the others in this series) is so ambitious. It’s impressive that Molly Bang was able to create illustrations that are not just useful but truly beautiful. She uses lots of deep colors: cobalt blue for the ocean, azure for the sky, various shades of brown and yellow ochre for the ground, an array of greens for plants, and — my favorite — a really rich black for outer space above our atmosphere. On top of these deep colors are the yellow highlights denoting energy, then all the little dots that show elements. Sometimes she adds large workflow arrows with translucent shading, full of whatever compounds she is explaining. How does she accomplish this without making a big hot mess?

It helps that the text gives us a clear trajectory as the Sun, our narrator, takes us from space down through the atmosphere to our Earth home, explaining a different aspect of fossil fuels on each spread. When we turn to a new spread, we first see a bold design with large shapes and thick borders around panels. This gives us a focus and keeps the whole from seeming too daunting. Then, as we hear or read the text, we can examine the details. Perhaps there is a cutaway of the earth showing a town above and a coal mine below. Or we see Earth from space, millions of years ago during an ice age on the left; and today, teeming with animals, on the right.

Chisholm and Bang keep the text pretty simple, emphasizing the natural balance of our ecosystem before we started using so much energy, and contrasting it with the frighteningly rapid changes that have occurred over the past 100 years. Clearly, the authors have an agenda. But their narrator takes the long view and presents us with the facts, leaving us to make our own decisions about the future of our planet. The book ends where it started, zooming back out away from Earth with a close-up of the Sun.

For anyone who worries that this complicated system has been oversimplified, the final six pages provide additional information. (I wonder if this breaks the record for the number of pages of back matter relative to the overall page count of a picture book.)

Can this book win the Caldecott? I suspect it’s a long shot for the Medal. But an Honor Book? I’d like to think so. If it doesn’t get something (Sibert?) on February 2, I will be very unhappy!


Lolly Robinson About Lolly Robinson

Lolly Robinson is the creative director for The Horn Book, Inc. She has degrees in studio art and children's literature and teaches children's literature at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. She has served on the Caldecott and Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committees and blogs for Calling Caldecott and Lolly's Classroom on this site.



  1. I’d venture to predict that a Siebert is a distinct possibility. A Caldecott Honor would appear to be unlikely (though certainly not at all out of the question) as these illustrations to these eyes are every bit as sublime as you contend in this fabulously intricate and enlightening examination. I got my own copy of this book just recently, and have repeatedly marveled over the art and the concept. Much enjoyed your opening introduction about your friendship with Ms. Bang, whom I did picture as a wholly effervescent type, and am a big fan of her art and two Caldecott Honor book winners, especially the creative and exquisite THE GREY LADY AND THE STRAWBERRY SNATCHER.

    Great stuff here! 🙂

Comment Policy:
  1. Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  2. Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  3. Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through (though some comments with links to multiple URLs are held for spam-check moderation by the system). If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

We accept clean XHTML in comments, but don't overdo it and please limit the number of links submitted in your comment. For more info, see the full Terms of Use.

Speak Your Mind