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2009 News Releases



The greening of Earth: Children’s book illuminates photosynthesis

Written by:

By Denise Brehm
Civil & Environmental Engineering

Using green and blue and yellow, too, an MIT scientist and a Caldecott Award-winning author/illustrator have teamed up to produce a lavishly illustrated children’s book that explains how the sun kindles life on Earth through photosynthesis.

Most people crave sunlight, especially during the cold winter months, but too few understand that the sun does much more than keep us warm. After reading “Living Sunlight: How Plants Bring the Earth to Life” (Scholastic 2009), the next generation may grow up with a better understanding of how the sun’s energy sparks green plants’ ability to photosynthesize, which makes it possible for humans to exist on planet Earth.

“Photosynthesis is arguably the most important, and most poorly understood, phenomenon on Earth,” said Sallie (Penny) Chisholm, an MIT professor of civil and environmental engineering and biology, who co-authored the book with her friend, award-winning author Molly Bang. “I’ve been on a mission about education on ‘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 in scientific circles for the 1988 discovery, with colleagues from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, of a tiny ocean microbe called Prochlorococcus. Prochlorococcus and other photosynthetic ocean plants produce 50 percent of the oxygen on Earth through photosynthesis. Terrestrial plants are responsible for the other half. “Living Sunlight” focuses on earthly plants.

Narrated by a wise and kindly sun that uses the word “Kazap!” to mimic the sound of plants breaking apart water molecules, the book explains the process in pictures and words simple enough to be accessible to young children and their parents. 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. And, typical of an MIT scientist, the authors have included a small section of additional information that makes clear the authors’ awareness that a few oversimplifications were necessary to keep the concepts transparent.

The rich color in Bang’s illustrations creates a universe that will draw in readers of all ages. She is author/illustrator of 30 children’s books, including three Caldecott Honor Books: “The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher,” “Ten, Nine, Eight” and “When Sophie Gets Angry—Really, Really Angry.” Bang’s “Common Ground,” a picture book based on Garrett Hardin’s influential 1968 Science article, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” won the Giverny Award for Best Science Picture Book in 1998. “Picture This,” Bang’s book showing how picture structure affects our emotions, is used as a basic textbook for adults by art schools around the country.

“Living Sunlight” is the second in a series about the sun’s energy. The first is “My Light” (Scholastic 2004), which shows how most electricity comes from the sun. The co-authors plan at least two more books in the series, focusing on oceans and the Earth’s carbon cycle.

“Living Sunlight: How Plants Bring the Earth to Life”

Available at

Listen to an audio clip of Sallie (Penny) Chisholm talking about her book with CEE students Emily Moberg and Adam Bockelie on Terravoice, a WMBR radio show focusing on environmental issues. Terravoice originated in the freshman-year program, Terrascope.