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Children's book illuminates photosynthesis

Illustration from 'Living Sunlight: How Plants Bring the Earth to Life.'
Illustration from 'Living Sunlight: How Plants Bring the Earth to Life.'
Illustration / Molly Bang

An MIT ocean microbiologist and a Caldecott Award-winning author and illustrator have teamed up to produce a lavishly illustrated children's book that explains how the sun creates life on Earth through photosynthesis.

Penny Chisholm, the Lee and Geraldine Martin Professor of Environmental Studies in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, provided the science background for "Living Sunlight: How Plants Bring the Earth to Life," which was co-authored and illustrated by Molly Bang. The book is designed to help children grow up with a better understanding of how plants use the sun's energy to photosynthesize, turning water and carbon dioxide in the air into carbohydrates and releasing the oxygen that makes it possible for humans -- and countless other creatures -- to exist.

"Photosynthesis is arguably the most important phenomenon on Earth," Chisholm says, "Yet few people understand it. I've been on a mission to educate the public about how life works for some time, and decided the best way to get the word out -- besides teaching ecology at MIT -- is through a set of children's books. Molly was eager to take on the challenge."

Chisholm is well known for the 1988 discovery, with colleagues from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, of a tiny ocean microbe called Prochlorococcus, which is responsible for a significant fraction of the photosynthesis in the oceans.

Narrated by a wise and kindly sun, "Living Sunlight" explains photosynthesis in pictures and words simple enough for young children and their parents to understand. Notes at the back of the book add details about the images and scientific concepts that a teacher or parent could use to make the book a good primer for older children, as well. Additional notes clarify that a few oversimplifications were necessary to help young readers grasp the concepts.

Bang is author and illustrator of 30 children's books, including award-winning "The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher," "Ten, Nine, Eight" and "When Sophie Gets Angry -- Really, Really Angry."

"Living Sunlight" is the second in a Scholastic series about the sun's energy. The co-authors plan at least two more books, which will focus on oceans and the Earth's carbon cycle.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 18, 2009 (download PDF).

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