Review of The Girl Who Named Pluto: The Story of Venetia Burney

The Girl Who Named Pluto: The Story of Venetia Burney
by Alice B. McGinty; illus. by Elizabeth Haidle
Primary    Schwartz & Wade/Random    40 pp.
5/19    978-1-5247-6831-7    $17.99
Library ed.  978-1-5247-6832-4    $20.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5247-6833-1    $10.99

Making smart use of the liberty that a picture-book biography can choose to take by covering just a slice of a subject’s life, McGinty focuses on Venetia Burney’s (1918–2009) childhood accomplishment of naming the planet Pluto. Readers meet an intellectually curious young girl as she creates, with her classmates, a scaled-down (and appealing) representation of the distance of the eight planets from the sun. This exercise — literally, as the pupils pace off the ratioed distance — segues to a scholarly discussion over dinner with her grandfather that ranges from science to mythology. When her grandfather announces that a new unnamed planet — Planet X — has been discovered, Venetia thinks of how cold and dark it is, much like the underworld ruled by Neptune’s brother, Pluto; her suggestion makes its way, through her grandfather, to the astronomers at Lowell Observatory in Arizona, who unanimously vote that the ninth planet should be named Pluto. With the book set in 1930s London, the illustrations are as gray and overcast as a British winter, except for flashes of maroon signifying inquisitiveness: the coat the girl wears as she grasps a book while marking off the planets’ positions, colored text in conversational balloons as Grandfather answers the child’s questions, and the suit the eighty-nine-year-old Burney wears as she first glimpses Pluto through a telescope. An author’s note clearly separates fact from conjecture and concludes with a modern connection; New Horizons, launched by NASA in 2006, carried an instrument called the Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter, and a crater-filled area on Pluto now bears her name — Burney Basin. A bibliography is appended.

From the July/August 2019 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Betty Carter
Betty Carter, an independent consultant, is professor emerita of children’s and young adult literature at Texas Woman’s University.

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