What Miss Mitchell Saw

Book review by
Mandie Caroll, Common Sense Media
What Miss Mitchell Saw Book Poster Image
Superb art adds to inspiring bio of 1800s female astronomer.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Astronomy terms and concepts like star and planet names and celestial phenomena are clearly illustrated and labeled. Seafaring terms (i.e. sextant, chronometer) are discussed but not well defined.

Positive Messages

Determination can help you overcome challenges. Explore the natural world with curiosity; it'll bring you wonder and joy. Ask questions and observe closely; you may notice remarkable things that others miss. Don't worry what the world thinks of you; do what you love and you'll find your place in the world.

Positive Role Models

Maria is a diligent, curious, and intelligent girl and woman who managed to accomplish great things in astronomy and other areas despite the limitations that women of her time faced. All people represented in this book are White, and all of the scientists except Miss Mitchell are men.

Violence & Scariness

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Hayley Barrett's What Miss Mitchell Saw, gorgeously illustrated by Diana Sudyka, is an impressive tale of one woman's astronomical achievement at a time when opportunities for women in the sciences were nonexistent. This biography, based on the life of Maria Mitchell, details her lifelong study of the night sky from her Nantucket Island home, and her sighting of a previously unknown comet in 1857. Young readers will learn names for stars, planets, and celestial phenomena from the illustrations and be inspired by Maria's determination, curiosity, and steadfastness. The author's endnotes about Maria Mitchell, "astronomer, educator, and activist," tell about Maria's interesting life and contributions after the comet discovery.

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What's the story?

WHAT MISS MITCHELL SAW begins with parents whispering the name "Ma-rye-ah" to a baby swaddled in a starry blanket. Maria's mother notes her "steady ways" as a child and tells her to assist her father in his work. From their rooftop walkway, Maria's father teaches her to "sweep the night sky" with a telescope. She learns everything she can about the night sky and its relationship to seafaring. As an adult, she becomes a librarian so she can study advanced mathematics and celestial navigation. At the end of each day, from her rooftop, she sweeps the sky, bit by bit, until one day, she sees a patch of light and realizes it's a comet. She sends a letter, by way of Harvard, to the King of Denmark, who's offered a gold medal to any astronomer who discovers a comet with a telescope. Others also saw the comet and sent word to Denmark, but Maria was the first! Will her diligence be recognized, or will a man be given that honor? 

Is it any good?

This beautiful book, with its lyrical text and stunning art, will enchant readers young and old. In What Miss Mitchell Saw, Barrett's tendency toward the poetic -- "She made fast friends with stars that shone as if punched into the black with a whalebone needle" -- means this book is a joy to read aloud. And it also achieves the important aim of including women in science history. The art, however, almost steals the show. Sudyka's saturated, starlit illustrations will dazzle readers. Star speckled, shades-of-blue night skies decorate dresses and fill dark oceans, whale silhouettes splash through the sky, and tumultuous, sparkling seas surround the island. Many of the pictures also instruct -- teaching young readers star, planet, and phenomenon names, as well as the tools used for navigation at sea.

A noteworthy quibble is that other than old-fashioned clothes and references to whaling, the limitations women faced during Maria's lifetime are not part of the story, so young readers aren't likely to grasp how exceptional her accomplishments really were. Parents will need to share the historical context with their kids for maximum impact. That caveat aside, this is a great addition to the family bookshelf or for the classroom as a jumping-off point for STEM activities and lessons.  

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Maria's interest in learning about the night sky in What Miss Mitchell Saw. How did she become an expert astronomer? What is something you are really interested in and why?

  • What are some clues in the story and pictures as to the time period Maria lived? What do you know about women's career opportunities in America in the 1800s? Where could you find out more?

  • Talk about the character strengths that are shown in this story? In what ways have you shown curiosity or humility?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love science and biographies

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