Listening to the Stars: Jocelyn Bell Burnell Discovers Pulsars by Jodie Parachini, illustrated by Alexandra Badiu

    Listening to the Stars: Jocelyn Bell Burnell Discovers Pulsars by Jodie Parachini, illustrated by Alexandra Badiu, Albert Whitman & Company, 9780807545638, 2021 

Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 4

Format: ARC

Genre: Biography

What did you like about the book?  Jocelyn Bell, a British pioneer in astrophysics stars in this new STEM-focused picture book biography about grit. Growing up in rural Ireland, she challenged traditional gender expectations and excelled at math and science. Working with an early radio telescope, Bell discovered and identified the very first pulsar. Parachini documents many of the barriers that Bell faced, including the Nobel prize committee’s failure to include her in its recognition of pioneering work in the field (her two male professors were honored over Bell).  The author does a good job of explaining unfamiliar social and scientific concepts right in the text without too much break in the narrative, while endnotes include a glossary, further sources and an illuminating paragraph with more background information about Dame Bell. The (seemingly) digital illustrations provide good visual support for the content. We get to see the scientists actually stringing the wire for the radio telescope and Bell pouring over the daunting 3 miles of charts (!) that the telescope recorded. An inspiring story about escaping convention and living richly and authentically.

Anything you didn’t like about it? Bell’s childhood must have been unusual, but only after hearing about her idyllic “farm” upbringing do we learn that her father was an architect who actually designed an observatory. Similarly, her Quaker roots stay hidden until the afterword, but apparently greatly influenced her life and surely played a role in her parents’ willingness to allow her to pursue higher education. I didn’t love the illustrations, which were practical but underwhelming. I do appreciate the challenge of turning hours of close study and the life of a college lecturer into a visually dynamic story, but I didn’t think the art added much to the book.

To whom would you recommend this book?  Students in grades 3-5 looking for picture book biographies about scientists. This could be a good choice for a biography project or as an example of overcoming social convention. I had never heard of Dame Bell and certainly found her life story to be both intriguing and energizing. 

Who should buy this book? Elementary school and public libraries.

Where would you shelve it? Biography

Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? No

Reviewer: Susan Harari, Keefe Library, Boston Latin School, Boston, MA

Date of review: January 16, 2021

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