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First Steps Into Space: 13 Books to Inform and Inspire Children

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'No dream is too high.' -- Buzz Aldrin.

In 1957, the Soviet Union made the first small step into space by launching a satellite named Sputnik. The sky was no longer the limit. Since then, space science has become an increasingly important part of everyday life. 

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Children are usually fascinated by the idea of space and eager to learn how to get there. With Nasa predicting affordable space tourism within the next decade and men on Mars in fewer than thirty years, the children of today are likely to experience wonders that we have never even imagined. Open their minds, now, to a universe shimmering with possibilities.

Here is a list of outstanding books for children written by scientists, teachers, astronauts and real-life heroes.

The Darkest Dark

Commander Chris Hadfield is a pretty cool guy (most astronauts are). He got special permission to bring his guitar into space and marked the end of his command of the International Space Station by broadcasting to Earth his rendition of David Bowie’s Space Oddity. Bowie was said to be tickled pink. Back on Planet Earth, Hadfield turned to writing. His first book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, is a fascinating mix of memoir and motivational guide for adults. In The Darkest Dark, Hadfield has again drawn from his own experience, this time to teach children how to overcome their fears and achieve their goals.

The Darkest Dark is a picture book, aimed at pre-schoolers, featuring a young boy called Chris who is afraid of the dark. When he watches the first steps on the moon made by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, he comes to realise that the darkest darkness, that of outer space, is truly wonderful and exciting, a place where dreams can come true.

Beautifully illustrated by the Fan brothers with evocative double-page spreads, this is a heart-warming book to reassure and inspire the astronauts of the future.

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Almost Astronauts

In the 1960s, 13 smart women undertook all the astronaut training tests to prove that they had the right stuff. Were it not for the unwritten requirement that astronauts also had to be men, the 'Mercury 13' could have been the first women in space.

These determined, and deserving, women may not have made it to lift-off but they smashed the aeronautical glass ceiling and paved the way for future generations of women to become jet pilots and space commanders. Recommended for anybody in search of heroes, aged 8 and over.

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How to Catch a Star

In his debut picture book, the multi-talented Oliver Jeffers told and illustrated the story of a boy who knows what he wants:

‘Once there was a boy and the boy loved stars very much. One day he decided he would catch one of his own, but first he’d need a plan.’

This is the simplest of books, aimed at the youngest of book-lovers. How To Catch a Star is the sort of book that your toddler will learn off by heart and ask to hear again and again, and again. It’s not really a book about space; it’s about persistence and dreaming big which are, of course, essential astronaut attributes.

The boy of this book went on to find even greater fame in the hugely popular Lost and Found and The Way Back Home.

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Ground Control to Major Tim

In 2016, Tim Peake, the first British astronaut to live and work on the International Space Station, became an inspiration to thousands of children. Not only did he find time to run a marathon in space, he even read a bedtime story from the ISS to the children listening on Earth.

Ground Control To Major Tim is aimed at school-age children but is presented in a manner that will also engage younger enthusiasts with an adult to read for them. This is a slim volume but it is jam-packed with factual information about Major Peake’s real-life experiences in space. There are lots of amazing photographs, easy to digest fact boxes, and succinct accounts of a contemporary spaceman’s tasks and adventures aboard the ISS.  

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Goodnight spaceman

This is the bedtime story Tim Peake read from space! The sixth book in Michelle Robinson’s Goodnight series includes a letter from the astronaut and was, in fact, inspired by him and his two sons. This, like the others in the series, is a lovely, gently rhyming picture book designed to help active pre-schoolers wind down at bedtime. Goodnight Spaceman tells the story of two small boys who must say goodnight to all their rockets and toys before going to sleep to dream of meeting their Dad in space. The absorbing illustrations provide plenty of talking points and make this a nice book to leave with a pre-reader to ponder until lights out.

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Welcome to Mars

Buzz Aldrin, rocket scientist and astronaut, the real Buzz LightYear, comes with the ultimate credentials. In July 1969, he and Neil Armstrong became the first of only twelve men who have ever stepped foot on the moon. In recent years, Aldrin has been a vocal cheerleader for Nasa’s Mars project. His can-do astronaut attitude is impossible to resist.

In Welcome to Mars, Aldrin’s infectious enthusiasm for reaching and colonizing Mars is supported by author Marianne Dyson, a physicist who excels at making the difficult scientific concepts of space exploration accessible to children. This book is recommended for children from 5 to 12 years but many adults will also find lots to learn here about how we could, and why we should, set our sights on a Mars landing by the mid 2030s.

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George's Secret Key to the Universe

The first in a series of four, this book was written by the most famous scientist in the world, Stephen Hawking, and his daughter, Lucy.

‘I wanted to tell you about it because science is really important. Without it, we don’t understand anything, so how can we get anything right or make any good decisions?’

George’s technology-averse parents give him a pig, when what he wanted more than anything else in the universe was a computer. George’s pig, however, rampages into the neighbour’s garden which leads George to befriend Eric, a scientist, his daughter Annie, and their super-computer named Cosmos. With help from Cosmos, George explores the universe.

Between them, the Hawkings tell a funny adventure story while simultaneously explaining some of the most difficult concepts of astrophysics. With humorous illustrations, scientific drawings and even some colour photographs, this truly is an exceptional book. This is one of my son's most treasured books and is my go-to gift for children of eight and over.

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Look Up

This is a charming biography of Henrietta Swan Leavitt who worked at the Harvard College Observatory in the 1890s. At just twenty-five years old, Henrietta made history-changing observations of the way star patterns change. Her discovery revolutionised the ability of astronomers to calculate distances in space and led to a greater understanding of the scale of our universe. This is a short but inspiring book for budding astronomers of 5 to 9 years old.

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Mr. Men: Trip to the Moon

‘One day Mr Nonsense was reading the Nonsenseland Times when he had the idea of going to the moon.’

Mr Greedy agrees to go too, as he is feeling peckish and hears the moon is made of cheese. Mr Clever, who knows a thing or two about rocket science, is recruited to build a rocket.

Completely nonsensical and far from scientifically accurate, this book is nothing more than a delightful bit of silliness. Trip to the Moon is part of the Mr. Men Celebration series and comes in the usual format and complete with Hargreaves’ hilarious illustrations. 

We have a vast collection of Mr. Men books. They fit easily into a handbag so they are great for travelling. Children from two upwards really appreciate the silly sense of humour but these books are also ideal or children who are just beginning to read alone.

Whether you are just beginning or extending your Mr. Men library, Trip To The Moon is a must-have. After all, even future astronauts occasionally need a giggle.

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First sticker book ; space

Usborne Sticker books provide an old-school interactive learning experience. Children aged between four and eight years are likely to be completely absorbed by this activity book, spelling hours of quiet time for parents. It's all copacetic. Double page scenes of the solar system, the International Space Station, a Mars base, and more, are completed by the child using over 200 colourful stickers. The additional information provided is up-to-date but minimal so I would consider this activity book best used as a companion to a more informative volume.

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Irish blogger and book reviewer. Official contributor to Bookwitty.com and author of Bookwitty's monthly 'Cooking the Books' feature. Erstwhile microbiologist with an MSc in Food Science, she ... Show More

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