A few people wanting to buying a book as a present have asked me for suggestions. Here are some books I've reviewed in 2011 plus a few others.
Many who bought Stephen Hawking's book A Brief History of Time didn't understand it. But times change and I think children reading the books of Lucy and Stephen Hawking will do better, as will any adults who sneak a peek. In the first book, the hero George has gone from a quiet life to trying to rescue his next door neighbor from a black hole. It's a lively illustrated story, includes beautiful color images of the universe, and there's a great explanation of what a black hole is from a man who knows. Lucy and Stephen Hawking, George's Secret Key to the Universe, Doubleday, ISBN 978-0-385-61181-7
George's adventures continue in George's Cosmic Treasure Hunt, Simon & Schuster, ISBN 978-1-416-98671-3. The theme of this book is the search for planets around other stars and contains some short essays by other world-renowned experts in their fields.
Someone else who encounters a black hole is Brian Greene's futuristic Icarus. The wings of wood and wax of this Icarus are a little spacecraft in which he flies too close to a black hole and finds that he should have paid more attention to Einstein. Brian Greene, Icarus at the Edge of Time, Alfred A. Knopf: 2008, ISBN: 978-0-307-26888-4.
Russell Stannard, formerly a professor of physics, discovered that children's minds were open to some of the hard bits of modern physics. So he set out to write them into stories. The first book was The Space and Time of Uncle Albert, in which the adventures of Albert and his niece illuminate special relativity. It's great fun and I doubt that smart American kids would be stymied by the British spelling and expressions. Russell Stannard, The Space and Time of Uncle Albert, Faber Childrens, ISBN 978-0-571-22615-3. There are also two more books in the series.
James Lu Dunbar has two quirky volumes in The Universe Verse in rhyme and graphical form. The first is in black and white, telling the story of the Big Bang and the beginning of the universe. This is Bang! published by CreateSpace: 2009. ISBN: 978-1449587666. The second, which is in color, is about evolution. In its cheerful verse and lovely color drawings, it's also a love poem to our beautiful Earth. It's Alive!, CreateSpace: 2011. ISBN: 978-1460916100.
But if you are actually looking for a straightforward informative book on astronomy for readers 8-14, then look to the new edition of Ian Ridpath's Exploring Stars and Planets. Illustrated with up-to-date images, it's the story of the Solar System, but with glimpses into galaxies, exploding stars and the history of the universe. It's published by Philip's (2 May 2011), ISBN 978-1-84907-144-4. In addition, the Philip's Astronomy Starter Pack includes the book, a poster and a glow-in-the-dark planisphere the planisphere is suitable for the UK, Northern Europe and Canada.
A good Christmas stocking filler or a little anytime gift might be an entertaining overview of astronomy small enough to put in your pocket. Not only the Big Bang, black holes, exploding stars, visiting Mars and all the rest of the cosmos, but plenty of laughs along the way from Daniel Hudon's Bluffer's Guide to the Cosmos Little, Brown: 2005, ISBN: 978-1-903096-42-0
What was it like to be one-third of the Apollo 11 crew? Michael Collins, the the one who didn't walk on the Moon, tells a fascinating story of astronaut training and space travel in Carrying the Fire An Astronaut's Journeys, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York: 2009. ISBN: 978-0-374-53194-2
An unusual book is Dark Matter: Poems of Space, edited by Maurice Riordan and Jocelyn Bell Burnell. What do poets and astronomers see when they look at the heavens? Are their experiences completely different or different sides of the same sense of wonder? This collection of poems, edited by a poet and an astrophysicist, is a treasure trove. There's something here for everyone. It's published by Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, United Kingdom: 2008. ISBN: 978-1-903080-10-8.
My final selection is for anyone seriously interested in astronomy. When I was studying astronomy, a number of my fellow students said the Oxford Dictionary of Astronomy helped them through the course. There is a revised second edition due out in January 2012, so if you want a present for a keen student of astronomy, this is the one. The editor is Ian Ridpath, the publisher Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-960905-5.
Here are all the books reviewed on this site.