Quills & Queues: Stories in the sky

In summer, we don't do much star gazing because it doesn't get dark until long after the kids should be in bed. But this time of year, we can all enjoy the dazzling night sky before 7 p.m. You don't need a telescope or binoculars, just a little patience and the fertile imagination pre-loaded in all kids.

While just gazing together is a good experience, it's even greater fun to find constellations and share the stories behind the stars. The sky is full of rich, varied stories passed from generation to generation for centuries.

Enjoying the night sky doesn't require much beyond the ability to look up, but knowing a little about astronomy, myths, and the constellations will maximize your enjoyment, especially if you are gazing with the kids. My family and I are definitely neophyte stargazers, so we picked up some good books on the night sky from the library to get ourselves started.

One of our favorites books is "Find the Constellations," by H.A. Rey, famous creator of the cutest, funniest monkey ever, Curious George. While aimed at younger kids, this book is informative and entertaining for all ages. Rey covers the major constellations one by one, shares stories connected with the stars and planets, includes star maps for different seasons, and offers tips for comfortable stargazing. Also, his star charts have recognizable, clear pictures that can be easily found in the sky. Rey's crab looks like a crab, his lion looks like a lion.

Another good book is "Glow-In-The Dark-Constellations: A Field Guide for Young Stargazers," by C.E. Thompson and Randy Chewning. The fact that the star charts glow in the dark is actually enough for our 5-year old and 7-year old sons. I like it for both the simplified myths and the child-friendly explanations, such as why we see certain constellations at different times of the year. And, I must admit, charging up the glow-in-the dark pages with a flashlight was fun for me, too.

Older kids and adults will have fun with the travel-sized "National Audubon Society's First Field Guide: Night Sky," written by Gary Mechler, with sky maps by Wil Tirion. This book has everything: an overview of the science of astronomy, lessons on what to look for and how to look at the sky, mythology, dates of eclipses and meteor showers, and a handy glossary of terms.

Once you know what to look for, just grab a flashlight and a blanket and head outside. I've found that kids can pretty much take it from there. They point out the brightest stars, argue over which are really planets, and call out constellations like lucky bingo players. When they've exhausted that night's inventory of identifiable objects, don't be surprised if they create their own sky stories. My son Leo, for example, has discovered the Guinea Pig constellation and the Stinky Foot galaxy.

The best thing about the night sky is that it is always changing. You can check it out daily, monthly, or seasonally, and enjoy all the fabulous variation. If you find you are just wild for stargazing, the Ashland Park and Rec department offers the occasional Night Sky Star Party and Lecture. Also, visit the Southern Oregon Skywatchers Club, which welcomes new members and meets monthly, free of charge, at the Medford High School Planetarium. There you can join stargazing parties, talk to astronomy experts, and share the joy of looking upward.

For more information, visit the club's Web site, orskywatchers.org.

Tidings staff writer Vickie Aldous and Tidings correspondent Angela Howe-Decker alternate as author of the weekly column Quills & Queues.

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