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Written in the stars

Silicon Valley authors explore cosmic questions in new children's book

Scientific discoveries are often presented as a series of spontaneous brainstorms by famous thinkers. In reality, according to writer Emer Martin, progress in science evolves through cooperation, and relies on the observations and experiments of those who came before. Martin, along with co-author Suzana Tulac and illustrator Magdalena Zuljevic, offers a fresh look at astronomy in a new children's book, "Why is the Moon Following Me?," recently released by Martin's own Rawmeash publishing cooperative.

"When you live in Silicon Valley you tend to latch on to the idea of the Steve Jobs, of the lone genius, when really it's always collaboration, cooperation and building on previous ideas," Martin said. "It's much less intimidating for kids when they realize this."

The book, targeted at third to sixth graders, takes the reader from humanity's earliest days in Africa through the European Renaissance and the work of Galileo, Kepler and others, with the character of "the curious child" acting as guide throughout. Tulac is a Stanford-trained scientist who provided research for the book; Martin presents the information in brief, rhyming poems accompanied by Zuljevic's whimsical illustrations.

"Why is the Moon Following Me?" is itself a local and international collaboration. Martin is a professional novelist and a native of Ireland who now lives in Palo Alto and has two daughters in the public schools; Tulac and Zuljevic are both Croatian-born women who shared a vision of publishing an accurate and engaging history-of-science book for kids. The three became friends, and Martin joined the team to complete what she called "a trinity of art, science and words."

The book's title refers to an anecdote from Martin's own family history, in which her younger sister burst into tears during a car trip, terrified that the moon appeared to be following her. Inspired by the innate curiosity of children, Martin decided to focus her text on the age-old question: "What is our place in the universe?"

Martin and Tulac made sure to note that famous scientific thinkers -- including Aristotle and Ptolemy -- sometimes held theories about the solar system that were simply incorrect.

"Sometimes these clever men were wrong, and I can be pretty cheeky with that," Martin said.

In the innovative spirit of Silicon Valley, Martin has teamed up with fellow writers and artists to form Rawmeash: an independent cooperative publishing platform in which writers meet monthly at Philz Coffee on Middlefield Road to brainstorm, advise and assist each other's ventures. Rather than rely on traditional means of publicity, such as bookstore appearances, Rawmeash plans to hold salons for kids and parents at private homes, where each contributor will lead a lesson in her area of expertise. In the next year, Rawmeash plans to release four or five new books. Meanwhile, Martin is working on another children's book, this one delving into the traditional Celtic roots of Halloween.

Writing for children, especially in rhyming poetry form, has proved a refreshing challenge for the author, who's accustomed to writing lengthy literature for adults.

"It's easier to make simple things complicated than it is to make complicated things simple," Martin said, laughing. "Maybe that's the key to the universe."

Rhymes, she added, are proven to aid with memory.

Martin's neighbor Valerie Sabbag teaches fifth grade at Fairmeadow Elementary School and decided "Why is the Moon Following Me?" works well with the new Common Core standards with their emphasis on multidisciplinary learning. Sabbag's students will direct and perform the text in an assembly for the school in addition to filming and blogging about the experience.

"If you read it, that's one thing, but performing it, editing it, you're going to remember that better; it's much more effective for long-term memory," Martin said. She hopes Fairmeadow's project will become a pilot program that can be used in other schools. Plans to visit elementary school classes in Mountain View and San Carlos are also in the works, and there may be even more; Martin said she thinks the book lends itself to adaptations in other media including animation and music.

So far, Martin is delighted with the discussions the book has provoked among students. As a feminist, she said, she was very conscious of the fact that the book features only male Europeans as noteworthy scientists.

"I was tempted to be politically correct, asking, 'Can we dig up a woman?'" But ultimately, she and her co-authors wanted student readers to be aware that privileged, white males were historically the ones who had the opportunities to devote themselves to scientific study and promote their ideas. The book's "curious child" character, depicted as a young girl of color, serves to represent those ignored by history, as well as hope for the scientists of the future. Martin also hoped to get across some of the struggles between new ideas and established power structures, such as between Galileo and the Church, which she noted still echo today in the clash between scientists clamoring about climate change versus corporations and politicians invested in the status quo. Fairmeadow students have been quick to make such connections, Martin said.

The purpose of "Why is the Moon Following Me?" is not to provide answers, Martin explained, but to encourage ongoing questions. In the words of the book's final poem: "Never EVER stop asking."

"Why is the Moon Following Me?" by Emer Martin and Suzana Tulac; Rawmeash Books; 2014, 44 pp., $11.69

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