What do young kids learn from writing book reviews?

I spent much of spring break quarantined with a sick child, and although we're generally a creative duo, we were getting bored. I was just about to hand over the remote so I could get some writing done when I realized that maybe we could write a book review together. 

I kept the genre instructions simple: Book reviews should help people decide whether or not they want to read a book, so book reviewers should say what they like and don't like. Book reviews should never, EVER, give away the plot. I still haven't forgiven Michiko Kakutani for her Deathly Hallows review, but I didn't tell my son this because that would require Harry Potter spoilers, and we're just a few chapters into Book 1. 

Turns out my spoiler warnings weren't necessary, because he decided to review non-fiction books about space. We piled our books and notebooks onto the couch and snuggled in beside them.

"It's a library book."  PC: Dylan Loomis Pappas

"It's a library book."

PC: Dylan Loomis Pappas

I was expecting my son to say things like "I like the pictures" or "that part is funny," so I was surprised by his efficient review of his current favorite, Carole Stott's One Million Things Space: "it's a library book." Is there any better review of a book than you like it so much you're heartbroken after returning it? My son's reviews probably won't influence your purchase decisions. But they might help you probe into surprisingly deep philosophical territory. 

The only thing my son didn't like about Stephanie Sabol's Where is Our Solar System? "is that Pluto got nudged out."

At the time, this was a huge criticism, enough to damn Sabol's book to the return pile. That's because the start of my son's space obsession was the first episode of The Magic School Bus, during which Ms. Frizzle took her class on a journey to nine planets. For weeks, my son grappled with the fact that this TV show told him that Pluto was a planet, but some of the books he was reading were telling him Pluto was a "dwarf planet." Which source had the right answer? 

My answer to this question was the same one I use when I have a question I can't answer: read moreNow that we're dozens of books into the solar system, my son has noticed that Pluto isn't the only thing that has changed. He's discovered more dwarf planets, Kuiper Belt objects, and the Oort Cloud. He's followed the journeys of Voyager 1 and 2, which started years before his parents were born and are still out there, observing. He's learned that he can look to the book's description of Jupiter to see how up-to-date it is: more recent books feature more moons. Reading multiple books about the solar system is teaching my son that facts change. 

If only adults could be so flexible. After Pluto was demoted to a dwarf planet, Neil DeGrasse Tyson removed Pluto from a model of the solar system at the Hayden Planetarium, and received bags of angry letters from elementary school students demanding he reinstate the planet. Methinks there were a lot of Magic School Bus-watching, very educated, nine pizzas-serving parents pushing their kids to make the world as it once was.

Tyson's message: facts change. Get over it. 

Although One Million Things Space is my son's current favorite space book, David A. Aguilar's 13 Planets: The Latest View of the Solar System, is a close second. He's not thrilled with a few features of this text, however, including "that Ceres bumped Jupiter billions of years ago." He knows not to hit others, so isn't thrilled that planets are doing it. And man, can that kid hold a Jupiter-sized grudge. 

"I don't want the sun to go away."  PC: Dylan Loomis Pappas

"I don't want the sun to go away."

PC: Dylan Loomis Pappas

His main criticism is of two pages he refuses to re-read, which describe the end of our solar system billions of years from now. "I don't want the sun to go away and never come back." 

I wasn't expecting a book review to launch our first real conversation about mortality, but isn't that the way it always works? Mortality creeps up on us, whether we're reading about the inevitable heat death of the universe billions of years from now or when we're reading a much cozier bedtime story. It recently happened to me when reading Amy Krouse Rosenthal's That's Me Loving You, about a parent whose love is in every little motion in the day. Knowing that Rosenthal died only months after it was published makes reading this beautiful book almost unbearable. 

Knowing that the sun's death will happen billions of years from now is no comfort to a kid who regularly tells people he loves them "to one trillion!" I didn't want to be the one to tell him most of us don't live to even two zeroes. I also wasn't even sure if that's the conversation he wanted to have. 

I didn't reassure him that "billions of years from now" is really far away. I didn't reassure him that we'll live a really long time. I just gave him a huge hug, a tissue, and an honest response: "It's really sad, huh?"


It's a good thing everyone's favorite tweeting astrophysicist is here to help lighten the mood a bit: