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Caroline's Comets: A True Story

Caroline's Comets: A True Story

by Emily Arnold McCully

Caroline Herschel (1750–1848) was not only one of the greatest astronomers who ever lived but also the first woman to be paid for her scientific work. Born the youngest daughter of a poor family in Hanover, Germany, she was scarred from smallpox, stunted from typhus and used by her parents as a scullery maid. But when her favorite brother, William, left for


Caroline Herschel (1750–1848) was not only one of the greatest astronomers who ever lived but also the first woman to be paid for her scientific work. Born the youngest daughter of a poor family in Hanover, Germany, she was scarred from smallpox, stunted from typhus and used by her parents as a scullery maid. But when her favorite brother, William, left for England, he took her with him. The siblings shared a passion for stars, and together they built the greatest telescope of their age, working tirelessly on star charts. Using their telescope, Caroline discovered fourteen nebulae and two galaxies, was the first woman to discover a comet, and became the first woman officially employed as a scientist—by no less than the King of England! The information from the Herschels’ star catalogs is still used by space agencies today.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
McCully (Queen of the Diamond; Dare the Wind) again sets her sights on groundbreaking women with this picture-book biography of Victorian-era scientist Caroline Herschel, the first woman to discover a comet. Dynamic pen, ink, and watercolor illustrations reveal a diminutive yet determined Caroline, her growth stunted and her face scarred by childhood disease. From inauspicious beginnings as a housekeeper and stocking knitter for her family, Caroline goes on to live with her astronomer brother in England and make valuable contributions to the field. Caroline’s own words, appearing as italicized excerpts from her autobiography, enhance McCully’s straightforward narrative: “William made a small telescope for Caroline. He taught her math so she could calculate the positions of stars. I found I was to be trained... I was ‘to sweep for comets.’ Caroline always did what her brother asked.” Despite the social constraints placed on unmarried women in the 18th century, Caroline thrives and achieves, becoming one of the first professional female scientists. A bibliography, glossary, and timeline wrap up a tale of resolve and perseverance that’s sure to encourage curious readers. Ages 6–10. Agent: Susan Cohen, Writers House. (Feb.)
Children's Literature - Tina Chan
In 1786, Caroline Herschel was the first woman to discover a comet. Born in 1750 in Hanover, Germany, she learned to knit and was the family housekeeper while her father and brothers were musicians. When Caroline was ten, she caught typhus, which stunted her growth, and smallpox, which scarred her face. She joined her brother William, a chorus conductor and piano teacher, in England when she was twenty-two. She learned English and became a singer, which allowed her to earn money. They built a telescope that helped them discover the Milky Way, and William discovered Uranus. Because of the latter discovery, William became King George III’s astronomer and was paid an annual salary. Caroline discovered fourteen unknown nebulae and star clusters, and two new galaxies. She discovered a comet, called “the Lady’s Comet,” that made her famous. In order to earn a salary, Caroline refused William’s offer to be his assistant, becoming the first professional female scientist. She became known as the “Hunter of Comets” after discovering seven more comets. Despite facing childhood illnesses, Caroline Herschel became a lover of astronomy and a courageous woman who believed in gender equality. Although a glossary is included, having words from the glossary in bold in the story would help signify to readers that the definition is provided in the backmatter. Nevertheless, readers will know that Caroline made valuable contributions to science. The story includes italicized passages from Caroline’s memoir and correspondence. The large, color illustrations are appropriate for the intended audience. Also includes a section about Caroline and William’s later years, a bibliography, a glossary, and a timeline of events from the story as well as other significant astronomical events. Reviewer: Tina Chan; Ages 6 to 10.
School Library Journal
PreS-Gr 3—This picture book biography tells the story of Caroline Herschel, who became the first female professional scientist employed by George III. Readers learn of her childhood love of stargazing, the illnesses of her youth, and the struggles she faced as an unmarried woman attempting to earn a living. Expansive, hand-drawn illustrations enhance the text. Rich, starry nighttime spreads alternate with vividly colored scenes on a white background. The text is wonderfully accessible to younger audiences, but 18th-century culture is not directly explained and may need to be discussed with children while reading. Herschel's family's singular dependence on her as their scullery maid, for example, may recall "Cinderella" to the minds of some youngsters or prompt questions about the way Herschel's family treated her. Also note that the focus here is on Herschel's life rather than on what a comet is or why it is a significant find. Pairing this title with materials on comets, stars, and astronomy would provide solid scientific context for the study of space. Herschel and her brother William's foray into telescope building is a highlight of the volume, as it demonstrates the process of learning through scientific experimentation. The use of italicized first-person excerpts from Herschel's recollections works well here. VERDICT Purchase where early elementary—level science biographies are needed.—Sara White, Seminole County Public Library, Casselberry, FL
Kirkus Reviews
Look up at the stars….The long and eventful life of Caroline Herschel (1750-1848), a musician, astronomer, discoverer of comets, and involuntary servant in the English principality of Hanover (in modern-day Germany), is described here in straightforward, factual narrative, studded with interesting detail and relevant autobiographical snippets. Relegated to the position of her family's maid because of her sex and thought to have poor marriage prospects because of smallpox scars, Caroline had already accepted her lot when her brother whisked her off to England to embark on a unique opportunity—a singing career. His interest in astronomy soon became hers, and she became his assistant at his request. The two went on to great work, both together and separately, and though Caroline did not necessarily choose her assignments (her brother did), she eventually discovered nebulae, star clusters, galaxies, and—famously—eight comets. While tracing Herschel's life and development as a scientist, the text takes care to make mention of the limitations imposed on Herschel by her family and society while realistically portraying the frustrations and accomplishments of the first woman to be paid as a scientific researcher. McCully's watercolor-and-ink illustrations are true to form; appealing and evocative, closely tied to the text, with just the right amount of relevant detail. Notes, bibliography, glossary, and timeline are included in the backmatter. An inspiring tale of scientific discovery despite obstacles, with a feminist point of view. (Picture book/biography. 6-10)

Product Details

Holiday House, Inc.
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
9.00(w) x 11.00(h) x (d)
AD800L (what's this?)
Age Range:
4 - 8 Years

Meet the Author

Emily Arnold McCully received the Caldecott Medal for Mirette on the High Wire. The illustrator of more than 40 books for young readers, she has a lifelong interest in history and feminist issues. She divides her time between Chatham, New York, and New York City.

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