Your Place in the Universe

When my siblings and I were young, my mother ordered Time Life’s A Child’s First Encyclopedia of Learning, a series of books that explored a variety of topics about the natural world. I imagine that she ordered the set to address our seemingly insatiable curiosity about the world in which we lived. We pored over each volume, especially one called Sky and Earth, reading the facts and figures for hours on end, the content provoking many conversations and questions. So beloved were these books that my mother stored them away for us saying, “Someday these will be for your children.” When she died some twenty-odd years later, I found the books tucked away in her belongings. As she had hoped, I brought them home to enjoy with my own children.

It is those books — and those feelings — that I am reminded of when I read Your Place in the Universe by Caldecott and Sibert honoree Jason Chin. I am hit with a wave of nostalgia for the joy found in making sense of the world around me and my place in it — and can see that this will be the kind of book that I will want to share with my children.

A good sign.

I am immediately impressed with the cover art. The combination of watercolor, gouache, and digital techniques offers a timeless aesthetic. The inclusivity of the cover image — a diverse group of four children, including two children with dark brown skin and black hair, just like me — draws me in. I see myself in this book. The group stands in front of the backdrop of a clear night sky, stars visible. Depicted in casual dress, the group of children remind me of local students who visit my library when we are open.

Your Place in the Universe begins with one of the children looking through the lens of a telescope. I notice the details: fluffy clouds in the background, small yellow flowers, and a butterfly. The text says, “These kids are eight years old,” which I imagine exciting a class of second-graders to whom I might read this book. I hear their voices in my head as I read: “They are the same age as me!”

On the next page, the children look surprised; their mouths are agape, their eyes wide with wonder. Several children are pointing. “What is it? What do they see?” I hear myself asking. I, too, am intrigued and look across the gutter to the edge of the opposite page. There it is: some sort of appendage, peeking from what will come at the page-turn. The main text, above their heads, explains that the children are “about five times as tall as this book.” Pictured is a stack of five books, one on top of another. “Can you predict who is the owner of that foot?” I practice asking. “That’s a talon, Ms. Mahasin,” I can hear one advising me. When I turn the page, I learn that the talon belonged to an ostrich, “the tallest bird in the world.” There is now a narrow border of white space that surrounds each page, including where the gutter is. The effect of this border is that it allows each page its own place in time.

[Read the Horn Book Magazine review of Your Place in the Universe here]

At the bottom of several pages in black font are various relevant facts: “The average eight-year-old is about 50 inches (127 centimeters) tall” and “This ostrich is 100 inches (2.5 meters) tall." I appreciate that the facts include metric measurements.

Next, we learn about giraffes, “the tallest animals on land,” followed by “the tallest living things," which are trees. This fact hits me hard, as I reflect on the state of our climate. I’m grateful for the reminder that trees are living. Several different trees are illustrated, along with text below them explaining how tall each tree is in feet and meters. Just to the left of the first tree, I squint and see the children, ostrich, and giraffe from the previous pages. They are barely noticeable next to the oak tree.

When the giraffe appears, so does the moon, which is in view for the next few pages, hinting at what comes next: a detailed look at the heavens. After reading about the highest peaks on earth, the orientation of the book changes. I must turn the book vertically, shifting my perspective, to learn about the earth’s atmosphere and its reach into the edge of outer space. Through both the text and illustrations, the complexity of the atmosphere is elucidated; each layer illustrated in different shades and tones of blue, conveying the rising expanse of space and the distance between earth’s surface and space.

On the next page, we return to a horizontal orientation. Thrust into space for the first time, we see the earth rendered as it appears from outer space: a stunning ball of blue, green, and white. From Earth, we look to the heavens and other celestial beings: the relationship between earth and the moon, which spans two pages; then to the placement of the planets and sun in our solar system, our Milky Way galaxy, which appears as a burst of light in an otherwise sea of darkness; and, finally, to galaxies beyond our own.

Fittingly, the dominant colors on pages that describe distant galaxies are dark, while the text is displayed in lighter colors. There is enough text in the main passage on each page for the book to be read aloud as a story — and enough identifying detail about the objects in space for a lesson or a deep conversation.

One of my favorite images within the book comes toward the end: an illustration of the cosmic web, explained as “huge chains of galaxies, millions of light-years long,” which are “strung throughout space”. The image of the cosmic web is a full double-page spread, crossing the gutter to the edges of the page. It reminds me of a spider’s web, but spun with diamonds. The depiction of the observable universe, with an indication of where we are located within it, humbles me: “We are here. But this is not the center of the entire universe, just the center of the part we can see.”

And just like that, the book returns to the four children from earlier in the book, one with the book in their hand, open to the previous page, looking upward in awe at a sky illuminated by stars and auroras, which is what I’m also doing by the end of the read. On the next spread, the children’s details are no longer visible; the night envelops them. They are silhouettes, juxtaposed against the night sky and the dark ground. They could be any of us. I am, again, humbled. I sit for a bit and imagine my place in the universe before calling my daughter over to my lap to read the book again, this time with her.

At a moment in time when many are trying to figure out their place in the world, Your Place in the Universe is a reminder of where we really are.

 

Mahasin Abuwi Aleem

Mahasin Abuwi Aleem is the children’s collection management librarian for the Oakland Public Library in Oakland, CA. More of her writing can be found at hijabilibrarians.com/, where she writes about the representation of Islam and Muslims in youth literature.

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