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Buried Sunlight

Buried Sunlight: How Fossil Fuels Have Changed the Earth
Written by Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm
Illustrated by Molly Bang

Published by The Blue Press, Scholastic, 2014 

ISBN: 978-0-545-57785-4

Grades 3 and Up 

Book Review
As with their previous two books, Living Sunlight and Ocean Sunlight, Bang and Chisholm begin Buried Sunlight with the voice of the Sun speaking directly to the reader. What this anthropomorphism does so successfully is ground the reader in the simple and yet complex understanding that the sun is the source of all of our energy here on earth. As the opening pages suggest, humans need energy to live and grow. But so do our machines, appliances, and vehicles. Using a question and answer approach, the sun asks the reader where that energy comes from, and then provides the answer:  fossil fuels. “Like dinosaurs, they are ancient life that was buried deep underground. But fossil fuels are ancient PLANTS. They captured light I shined on Earth millions of years ago.” By framing the development of coal and oil within the context of photosynthesis and respiration, Bang and Chisholm provide readers with a basic formula for understanding how and why life on earth and fossil fuels developed, and the delicate imbalance upon which our 21st century energy demands rely. Throughout Buried Sunlight, the reader is reminded that fossil fuels were created over millions and millions of years by unused plant matter. Oil and coal are part of that “tiny bit more photosynthesis than respiration globally.” The authors provide a snapshot of the growth of life on earth that resulted from this “tiny bit” each year over billions of years. Through simple and clear language, and perfectly matched illustrations, this book manages to amaze and catalyze the reader all at once. Our oxygen supply comes from tiny leftovers! Oil and coal are ancient sunlight! How brilliant! But we are reminded again and again that oil and coal take millions of years to create, and we are burning their energy at a very rapid rate. Without resorting to preaching, the authors are honest with their readers about the scientific connection between fossil fuel consumption and climate change. The amount of carbon dioxide in the air is changing our climate faster than at any other period of time, which does not provide the necessary time for animals and humans to adapt. What happens to our planet next? None of us know. “But it will change.” Readers are given a choice. Do we continue on the path we are on? Or do we burn fossil fuels more slowly, “find other sources of energy, and invent ways to thin the blanket” of carbon dioxide? Six pages of additional back matter follow the narrative, providing readers, particularly older elementary school readers and their teachers, with additional information about the process of creating and burning fossil fuels, our “buried sunlight.” 

Teaching Ideas and Invitation

Grades 3 and Up 

What is Photosynthesis? Start off an exploration of sunlight by reading aloud Living Sunlight, the first in “The Sunlight Series.” After reading the book aloud, divide your class up into three different groups. Have one group create a visual drawing or painting that demonstrates photosynthesis. Have another group create a pantomime performance of photosynthesis. Finally, have the third group create a poem, using whatever form you or they prefer, to demonstrate their understanding. Have all three groups share with one another. 

Understanding Photosynthesis in Context. After reading aloud Living Sunlight to your entire class, break students up into small groups. Have half of the small groups read Ocean Sunlight and half of the small groups read Buried Sunlight. Create graphic organizers to help students absorb key information in each book as they read. Next, jigsaw the students into mixed groups, and have them teach one another about the specifics of ocean photosynthesis and fossil fuels. Have each group come up with a way to demonstrate what they have learned from reading all three books in a piece of artwork. Students may want to adopt Molly Bang’s signature use of yellow dots to represent photons. Or, they may want to come up with their own original way of illustrating sunlight. Display the murals temporarily somewhere in your community: the front hall of your school, your library, on an open wall at your town hall or local nature center. 

Botanist Visit. After reading “The Sunlight Series” of nonfiction books about photosynthesis, have someone come in who is a specialist on plants. It could be a botany professor from a local college or university, or someone from your state department of natural resources, or a local farmer. Have him/her bring in a range of plants and allow students to explore the physical differences between them. Then, have a presentation on the different ways that these plants capture sunlight. 

Timeline of Life and Fossil Fuels. After reading Buried Sunlight, read aloud Steve Jenkin’s Life on Earth: The Story of Evolution. How and when did different forms of life evolve on earth? Within that process, how long did it take for the current oil and coal we are using to get created? Have students construct timelines in small groups that pull the information together from both books, so that they have a chance to compare and contrast the development of life forms on earth with the creation of fossil fuels. 

Carbon Dioxide. Buried Sunlight provides students with an understanding of the role burning fossil fuels plays in increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. Have students conduct a range of experiments to better understand carbon dioxide, using resources from the NSTA on the carbon cycle and ocean acidification  In addition, have students explore the digital resources and books listed below devoted to carbon dioxide so that they have a deeper understanding of we need it in our atmosphere, but can’t have too much of it. 

Citizen Science. Any exploration of science requires student-centered inquiry and experiments. Explore the resources provided by the Kids Consortium and the Citizen Science Alliance to find an energy-related project that your school can participate in.

Molly Bang Author-Illustrator Study. How does Molly Bang approach her illustration work? Have students explore her webpage, and read a range of her books. Specifically, have students compare and contrast her illustration style for fictional picture books and nonfiction picture books. How are they similar? How are they different? What might be the different challenges of illustrating fiction versus nonfiction? Have students write and illustrate their own fiction or nonfiction picture books emulating her illustrative style. 

Grades 5 and Up 

Alternative Energy. After reading “The Sunlight Series” of nonfiction books about photosynthesis, have students research in small groups current sources of energy, both nonrenewable, such as coal, gas, and oil, and renewable, such as geothermal, wind, solar, and hydroelectric. Use the digital resources below, which contain news accounts, photographs, and videos as a starting point. You may want to allow students can self-select the source of energy they are most interested in learning about. Or, you might want to challenge them to consider a source of energy they are not interested in, to see how their understandings change. 

Critical Literacy 

Grades 7 and Up 

Eyes Wide Open: Writing About Fossil Fuels and Climate Change. Is any writing, even “straight” information, ever context-free or influence-free? How does the author and his or her relationship to content matter? How does the author of a text about coal, oil, or gas energy influence how the information is written and framed for readers? How can the same information be written in different ways to influence and perhaps persuade a reader? After reading Buried Sunlight, in either English Language Arts or as part of a focus on disciplinary literacy in science, have students explore the language of the book both in the narrative and the back matter. How do Bang and Chisholm present the facts? Next, have students read Paul Fleischman’s Eyes Wide Open. The book provides readers with a framework with which to approach learning about climate change and how environmental issues are written about, debated, and discussed nationally and internationally. Next, have students use Fleischman’s framework to explore, in small groups, the information produced by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Fossil Energy, and the two associations: the U.S. Oil and Gas Association and the American Coal Council. Or, explore any of the multitude of resources presented in the back matter of Eyes Wide Open and the companion website Eyes Wide Open UpdatesWhat differences do students note? Why? Finally, have students try to write about their own understanding of the relationship between fossil fuels and climate change. As students read one another’s work and provide feedback, have them identify when and where they see the student author’s beliefs and understandings influencing the writing.  

Further Explorations

Digital Resources

Molly Bang’s Website

Penny Chisholm

National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) Climate Change Resources

U.S. Department of Energy Office of Fossil Energy Teaching Resources

U.S. Energy Information Association: Renewable Energy

U.S. Energy Information Association: Nonrenewable Energy

New York Times Energy Topic: Coal

New York Times Energy Topic: Oil and Gasoline

New York Times Energy Topic: Biofuels

New York Times Energy Topic: Solar

New York Times Energy Topic: Nuclear

New York Times Energy Topic: Geothermal

New York Times Energy Topic: Tidal and Wave Power

New York Times Energy Topic: Natural Gas

New York Times Energy Topic: Wind

New York Times Energy Topic: Hydroelectric

US Oil and Gas Association

American Coal Council

Kids Consortium

Citizen Science Alliance

EPA on Carbon Emissions

EPA Student Guide to Carbon

New York Times Topic: Carbon Dioxide

Eyes Wide Open Updates Website


Bang, M., Chisholm, P. (2009). Living sunlight: How plants bring the Earth to life. Ill. by M. Bang. New York: The Blue Sky Press. 

Bang, M., Chisholm, P. (2012). Ocean sunlight: How tiny plants feed the seas. Ill. by M. Bang. New York: The Blue Sky Press. 

Cherry, L., Braasch, G. (2008). How do we know what we know about our changing climate: Scientists and kids explore global warming. Nevada City, CA: Dawn Publications. 

Drummond, A. (2011). Energy island: How one community harnessed the wind and changed their world. New York: Frances Foster Books.

Fleischman, P. (2014). Eyes wide open: Going beyond the environmental headlines. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press. 

Jefferis, D. (2006). Green power: Eco-energy without pollution. [Science frontiers series]. New York: Crabtree Publishers.

Kamzkwamba, W., Mealer, B. The boy who harnessed the wind. Ill. by E. Zunon. New York, Dial: 2012.

Mary Ann Cappiello About Mary Ann Cappiello

Mary Ann is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former public school language arts and humanities teacher, she is a passionate advocate for and commentator on children’s books. Mary Ann is the co-author of Teaching with Text Sets (2013) and Teaching to Complexity (2015) and Text Sets in Action: Pathways Through Content Area Literacy (Stenhouse, 2021). She has been a guest on public radio and a consultant to public television. From 2015-2018, Mary Ann was a member of the National Council of Teachers of English's Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction (K-8) Committee, serving two years as chair.