Angels on a Pin
By Barbara Helen Berger

Angels on a Pin
Children's book review by P.J. Rooks

Philomel Books, 2000
Ages 4+

How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? It's age-old, question. Are you dying for an answer? Maybe you already know the answer. Or perhaps, like most of us, you'd just like to know what the heck that's supposed to mean in the first place?

What we have here, it seems, is a very early debate in science fiction. The original question, "how many angels can dance on the point of a needle," had to do with whether the basic rule of physics, that only one object can occupy one space at one time, applied to celestial beings. If not then, theoretically, innumerable angels could enjoy a needle-point hoe-down on any given Saturday night, should they be so inclined.

The question was explored and expanded, many years later, by Catholic theologian, Thomas Aquinas, who wondered, among other things, if angels could beam themselves, Star Trek-style, from one point to another. Aquinas' arguments and explorations became so convoluted and hair-splitting that the expression, "how many angels can dance on the head of a pin" eventually came to be best known as a derisive comment directed toward those who have become so far enmeshed in minutia that they've lost sight of their original quest.

But it is a handy thing to know. If you tend to be one of those fancy-pants rhetorical types who would prefer to answer a question with a question (and you know who you are - you with your bears in the woods), this would be one to add to your repertoire. The next time you're being driven to near-madness by some navel-gazer's obsessive trivia, you can simply reply, "Yeah, yeah, and how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Now shut up and drink your beer."

Uh - you might not want to say that to your child, though. And actually, for a kid, (and, okay, grown-ups too) a healthy dose of sci-fi pondering can be a very creative, imaginative and, yes, philosophical, thing.

So I'll put to you the question with which Barbara Helen Berger begins her book, Angels on a Pin.

"What if there was a city on a pin? What if it was no bigger than a speck of dust? But the people who lived there didn't know that."

Floating in the dappled, starry depths, readers see buttons, safety pins, spools of thread and, of course, a pin cushion. Originally, these are all on display in the storefront window of a clothing shop in Berger's city of angels, but as the book moves on and our focus moves inward, they come to occupy a space of their own.

One lonely skyline on a magnified pinhead reaches, almost longingly, into the vast oblivion. Then one day a kid on a skateboard makes an amazing discovery.

"Hey wow, look! Another city!" - and without reservation, they're off.

On foot and in cars, on bikes and on skateboards, in a plane and even a school bus, the angel residents of the first pin are off to visit those of the second and when they arrive, they celebrate with a great boogie-woogie. Once they've worn themselves out in celebration, the angels of both pins join forces to see what - or whom - else might be out there and soon discover… well, here's how the late astrophysicist, Carl Sagan, would have put it:

"Those worlds in space are as countless as all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the earth… an immensity of space and time." (from Cosmos)

Berger's Angels on a Pin is a definite invitation to creative speculation. You can read the book and then start a conversation that kids are sure to love by asking something like "what if all the germs on your pencil had homes, families and jobs?" To get the most out of this interesting book, read it with your kids when you've got some time to talk about it.

With vivid, magical illustrations drawn from imaginative perspectives and an unusual but innocuous story line, Berger has done a world class job of cracking open the vault of creativity and spreading its glittering jewels. The real spoils, though, she's left for her readers.

Read more of P.J.'s reviews.

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