Do all children have a fascination with lighthouses? Is it the Rapunzel-esque structure – that tall cylindrical height forging above the wild whipping waves? Or perhaps the power of the light beam, stretching for miles across a wide expansive sea? Or the image of the lighthouse keeper him or herself, spending long lonely hours tramping up and down the spiralling stairs, polishing the glass and ensuring safety for all who travel near? From the picturebook series The Lighthouse Keeper by Ronda and David Armitage, to Emma Carroll’s Letters from the Lighthouse, to more grown up fiction by Sarah Moss (Signs for Lost Children and its protagonist, the wonderfully contained Tom Cavendish) to The Light Between the Oceans by ME Stedman, the romanticism of the lighthouse has never been far from fiction.
But what about non-fiction? This book, which I predict to sweep awards, sits perfectly with its fine balance of teaching the science behind the lighthouse, and appealing to the romanticism at the core. Full-colour illustrations, (with a nod to William Grill in the small differentiated drawings of different kinds of lighthouses, lamps and sounds), lend a narrative arc to the information. The reader is part of a group of children on a school trip being taught about lighthouses. The illustrations, in coloured tones of lighthouse red, sea blue and oilskin yellow traverse the lighthouse scene, giving the reader different perspectives – at a distance, a cross-section, from the top deck (complete with girl steaming up the glass with her breath), and from out at sea.
Inspiring both emerging architects and budding scientists, the narrative aims to decipher the beating heart of the lighthouse, from the way it works on the most basic scientific level, to the question of why there are different types of lighthouses, to the role of the keeper.
Impressed and intrigued, I learnt as much about a lighthouse as if I had been on a tour to a real one (I’m still waiting to experience that). Each spread poses a question (as if from a child on tour), and it is answered astutely, clearly, succinctly. The text is easy to understand, accessible and fascinating. I learnt about the Fresnel lens, the distance light can travel, the strategic positioning of lighthouses, their history (even the Roman coin on which the lighthouse at ancient Alexandria is shown), structure, and what happens in fog. Impressively, Roman Belyaev seems to have covered every angle (no pun intended), from what people did before lighthouses to a lighthouse keeper’s log book, and the colours with which lighthouses are painted.
At the end, Roman Belyaev invites the reader to design their own, presumably based on everything they’ve learnt, but with terrific guidelines. Like a magazine quiz, the reader has to consider where they are building it, its height and shape, its design and pattern.
This is a book that profiles STEM and engineering with a real-world application. But not only that, it does it clearly and precisely with a particular kind of beauty and lustre to the illustrations. Far more accessible than most lighthouses, and brilliantly translated from the Russian with the help of Masha Kulikova, this book’s beam of knowledge should stretch across the widest seas.
You can buy it here.