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The invisible universe

Nick Holdsworth on the bane of star gazers too much light above our cities. Remote galaxies, the mysteries of the universe and the trouble today's star gazers have in finding dark enough skies above Britain's well-lit towns and cities, sound more like the stuff of science than English lessons, but a new book and teaching pack by writer and journalist Andrew Bibby bridges both worlds.

Me, Mick and M31 is the enigmatic title for an unusual environmental mystery adventure aimed at children aged between 8 and 12. Published by Pennine Pens, based in the small West Yorkshire town of Hebden Bridge, the 100-page paperback weaves the curious story of teenager Molly's new neighbour and her nocturnal excursions in a large pink pizza delivery van, into a little-known, but growing, issue: the problem amateur astronomers face today in finding places remote enough to escape the pervasive urban lighting of modern times.

Generations of children gained a sense of awe - and many were set off on a path to scientific discovery - through studying the heavenly constellations on clear, dark nights. The M31 of the book's title is shorthand for the Andromeda galaxy, our nearest galactic neighbour.

Andrew Bibby, who writes for national newspapers on finance and economics, has made a confident step into children's publishing with this book, illustrated with pen line drawings by Sean Creagh.

"In some ways the children's developing interest in astronomy in the book reflects my own. When I left school I knew virtually nothing about astronomy, but since moving from a large city to a small country town I've realised what most children in urban areas miss out on - dark skies and the richness of astronomy," Mr Bibby says.

A teaching pack, written by English teacher Elaine Connell, an examiner and marker for the national curriculum, has been published to aid the use of the book in the classroom.

Worksheets on vocabulary, comprehension, character work, imaginativecreative, special needs and extension work, have been designed for upper primary and lower secondary use.

The book's lively style and occasional astronomical terminology give scope for enquiry at various levels of competence. Skimming and scanning exercises are one of several methods recommended in the teaching pack.

Special consideration is given to pupils with special needs, with exercises inviting children to construct their own word searches or comprehension questions. "If appropriate, this work can be used on other pupils with credit being given to their author. This can be a good tool for increasing the special needs pupils' self-esteem, especially if their worksheets can be word-processed," the pack states.

Opportunities for cross-curricular work, in science and geography for example, can be found throughout the book and reference is made to the British Astronomical Association's recently-established Campaign for Dark Skies.

Me, Mick and M31 by Andrew Bibby. Pennine Pens. 1 873378 12 2. Pounds 5.95. Available from bookshops or Pennine Pens, 32 Windsor Road, Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire HX7 8LF. Telfax: 01422 843724. Teaching pack: special offer to schools one free pack with purchase of 15 copies

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