In one room of his New York City apartment, author-journalist Ralph Blumenthal was working on a biography of a Harvard psychiatrist who risked his career to investigate the phenomenon of human encounters with aliens.
In a nearby room his wife, author-journalist Deborah Blumenthal, could hear her husband conducting interviews for his book “The Believer: Alien Encounters, Hard Science, and the Passion of John Mack.”
“It suddenly occurred to me that I should see if there were any books for kids (on unidentified flying objects),” she said in a phone interview.
Her search didn’t turn up any.
But it did lead the couple to a first-time collaboration. The result is the recently-published picture book “UFOhs! Mysteries in the Sky.” The target audience is ages 6 to 9. The authors consulted with a child psychologist who concluded that the book was appropriate for the target audience.
The book opens with a reported sighting. An 11-year-old boy named Wes was playing tennis in Jacksonville, Florida, with his friend Ken when something overhead grabbed Wes’ attention: “He held his breath./A thing as big as a car/was floating in the air/above the lights of the tennis court. It was oval-shaped,/with flashing lights,/red and blue./Wes stared./So did his friend Ken./So did the two grown-ups on the next court.”
Ralph Blumenthal said that he and his wife thought “it would be a nice touch to start the book with two real kids who had this experience.”
The adult Wes’ recollection of his 1974 UFO experience is cited in “The Believer.”
“UFOhs!” is full of mysterious objects of different shapes described with amazement and bafflement by kids and adults.
The text says people around the world – farmers, fishermen, pilots, police and schoolchildren – have told the same story about their encounters. And all have similar unanswered questions, as the book posits: “What are they? It’s a mystery./Where do they come from?/Another mystery.”
The book reminds readers what they usually see when looking skyward – planes, birds, the sun, clouds, the moon, stars and comets.
UFOs, the book says, are also known in government circles as Unidentified Aerial Phenomena. It breaks down those three words. Phenomena is ancient Greek for “things that appear.” Aerial means “in the air.” Unidentified means “we don’t know.”
A reputed UFO incident near Roswell in 1947 is in the picture book.
A Roswell area rancher didn’t have a camera to take a photograph of what he and his wife had witnessed, but he kept fallen debris from the object until he contacted the local sheriff. The sheriff gave the pieces to officials at the Roswell Army Air Field.
The book says the military higher-ups changed their mind about the nature of the object: Was it a UFO? Yes, then no. Well, maybe it was just a crashed weather balloon or a military spying device.
The illustrator of “UFOhs!” is Adam Gustavson of West Orange, New Jersey. He said in a phone interview that one special challenge in illustrating nonfiction books for kids is that “you don’t have a main character nor a single event to build things around. So the job of the picture is to create a narrative inside of it and create a rhythm that ties the facts and observations together.”
Deborah Blumenthal said Gustavson’s illustrations “evoke the mystery and the eeriness of the subject.”
She had recommended Gustavson to the book’s publisher, the University of New Mexico Press. He had illustrated her earlier picture book “The Blue House Dog.”
Deborah Blumenthal hopes “UFOhs!” will spark conversations between young readers and their parents and teachers on the subject of UFOs.
The book could also serve as an impetus for families to visit the International UFO Museum and Research Center in Roswell.
The Blumenthals plan to discuss their book at the Exeter UFO Festival in New Hampshire over Labor Day weekend.
Deborah Blumenthal is the author of 15 picture books for children, as well as novels for young adults and adults. Ralph Blumenthal was a staff reporter for the New York Times for 45 years and is currently a distinguished lecturer at the Baruch College Library.
“UFOhs: Mysteries in the Sky” is part of UNM Press’ Barbara Guth Worlds of Wonder Science Series for Young Readers.