The Stars, a New Way to See Them

by H.A. Rey

revised 1976
paperback - 160 pages
from Houghton Mifflin


Find the Constellations

by H.A. Rey
revised 1976
paperback - 80 pages
from Houghton Mifflin

Many of us have fond childhood memories of the misadventures of a well meaning but mischievous little monkey and his long suffering friend, the Man in the Yellow Hat. After half a century, the stories of Curious George are classics that continue to enchant our children and grandchildren. Author H.A. Rey and his wife and collaborator Margaret Rey, both German, met in Brazil in 1935 and, after returning to Europe, fled the Nazi advance to arrive in New York in 1940 where Curious George was published. Eventually Hans and Margaret published over twenty books, most of them still in print a half century later. But for all the fame of Curious George, many are surprised to learn that the author, Hans Augusto Rey, was also an amateur astronomer and the author of two good beginner books on constellation identification and backyard astronomy.

Rey's The Stars, a New Way to See Them is a guide to naked eye astronomy -- stargazing. There is nothing about telescopes or their use, an advantage considering how unforeseen developments in that technology would have rendered the book severely out of date. Instead, the aim is quite simply getting to know the star patterns and how they can help you to locate directions and learn the sometimes arcane motions of the sky which beginners find difficult to understand. Thus, Part 1, "Shapes in the Sky," makes the point that the constellations are creations of the human imagination and supports Rey's proposal to "redraw" the constellations in a way intended to make more sense to the modern observer and so be easier to remember. Rey's redrawn constellation figures are easier for many people to "see," which is why some planetariums have chosen to use his patterns over the traditional. Part 2, "Meet the Constellations," introduces them in small groups of two to four and points out notable bright stars with usually just a sentence or two about their mythology or sky lore. Part 3, "The Stars Through the Year," tackles seasonal changes in the night sky and gives monthly all-sky charts, both with and without the constellation "lines" drawn in -- handy for testing yourself. In Part 4, "Some Whys and Hows." Rey tackles sky motions, providing the reader with admirably clear 3-D diagrams illustrating, for example, why observers at different latitudes will see different stars at the same time before taking on deeper subjects like the ecliptic and the zodiac and what precession means.

Many, but perhaps not all, will find Rey's writing and illustrating style charming and homey, but such decisions are very personal. Check out Rey's book in your local library or large bookstore before buying it sight unseen. Finding the Constellations is aimed at a younger audience, elementary to perhaps junior high school readers, but that should not put adults off. It's not "cutesy" but simply saves space (it's only half the length of The Stars) by leaving off the complex topics and extra charts and focusing on pattern identification -- which is what the majority of adult readers are interested in anyway.

So if you have children or grandchildren asking you "What star is that?" or "Do the people in Australia have a South Star?" or "Why can't we see Orion and the Scorpion at the same time?," The Stars, a New Way to See Them or Finding the Constellations may help you out. I'd also recommend a good planisphere chart like David Chandler's Night Sky. One caveat, however, Rey's "new" constellation patterns were out of his own imagination and are sometimes more than a little idiosyncratic. I fail to see that his re-shaping of Taurus the Bull has the slightest advantage over the traditional form and his anatomical reshuffling of constellations sometimes makes a hash of the Arabic names of stars, which tend to refer to their specific position within the traditional figure. That aside, both books are a treat for those who want to know "What star is that?" in the way our ancestors did long ago and spend a little more time with the charming personality who created that curious little monkey.