What Miss Mitchell Saw
Reviewed by Paul Buckley
By Hayley Barrett, illustrated by Diana Sudyka. Beach Lane Books, 2019. 40 pages. $17.99/hardcover; $10.99/eBook. Recommended for ages 4–8.Buy from QuakerBooks
This book is a feast for the eye and ear. It illustrates the life of Maria Mitchell, who grew up to be a renowned astronomer, the discoverer of a comet that was named for her, and one of the first professors hired by the newly founded Vassar College. Unlike many children’s books about girls, this is not a “girl book.” Although Maria Mitchell achieved several “first woman to. . .” accomplishments, in this book she is simply a fully capable human child turned adult.
Immediately on picking it up, you will encounter a gracefully illustrated picture book. Fittingly, the luminous grays, blacks, and whites of the sky alternate with sunny views of Nantucket Island. Just paging through it, I felt drawn to visit the island, view its sights, and feel the sea air blowing across it. Between wandering daytime’s town and countryside, the reader is treated to an enchanted night of stars, and comets, and soaring across the sky, the flying personification of Maria’s curiosity and growing companionship with the heavens.
Hayley Barrett trusts her readers and their listeners. What other book tickles the ears of young readers with phrases like “gull-dappled dunes” or has confidence in them to cope with a reference to “celestial navigation”? Feeling the words skip off your tongue as you read to a listening child will be a delight in itself. For older children, it’s a book to sit with, sink into, and dream from.
Maria Mitchell was born a Quaker on Nantucket; there are passing references to her faith in the text. Her manner of dress is likewise obviously Quaker in the illustrations (to those who know what “the plain clothes” were). These are natural elements that do not impede the flow of the story. On the last two pages, the author includes a set of notes with additional information. One is a lovely, short description of what it meant to be a Quaker in the nineteenth century.
This is a beautiful book. Buy it for your children, your nieces, and your nephews; buy it for your grandchildren.