Only a Picture Book

It’s only a picture book, but years passed between getting the idea and finally knowing how I wanted to tackle it.  Once I’d figured out an approach, it took months to research. Not months of constant work, but on and off months of searching, digesting, searching again.  And though coming in at just over 400 words, the manuscript took weeks to write.

The Stuff of Stars is a creation myth based in science.  And next year it will be published by Candlewick with breath-taking illustrations by Ekua Holmes.

Credit: NASA

During the months of research and writing, my enchantment with my topic grew.  How could I not be awed by the vastness of space, by the power of the forces that brought our planet into being, by the serendipity that allows this piece of rock we call home to sustain life?  So awed that, though the manuscript has long been out of my hands, the topic has never quite left.

Once more I find myself searching, digesting, searching again.

Once more I sat down to write, concentrating this time on Earth, our Earth.  Not to write a sermon about how we aren’t taking care of it.  We have too many sermons masquerading as children’s books, sermons bent on making those who follow us responsible for the world they are inheriting.  Rather I wanted to write a hymn, something that would live in the veins of my young readers.  A hymn to honor a world that is precious beyond all singing of it.

The first step, return to my research.  I am not an astronomer or a geologist, which means I have to read and read and read before I can comprehend science well enough to make a few very basic statements.  When I’m describing the way the first land mass appeared, can I use the word rose?

And then, once more, I sat down to write.  Slowly, haltingly, turning science into poetry while remaining true to the science.

My concept began to take shape, but not quite the shape I wanted.  Something was wrong with the ending, something I couldn’t name. I showed my manuscript to three fellow writers.  They each had thoughtful comments.  Sometimes what one loved another hated, but that was fine.  I drew on their insights while the text remained mine.

I kept drawing closer to what I wanted the piece to be.  But still . . .   But still . . .  Something didn’t work.  Something none of us could name.

Finally, I showed the text to my daughter.  I don’t usually share my writing with her until it is finished.  She is not a writer.  In fact, having grown up watching her mother peck away constantly at a keyboard to little visible result, she long ago decided that being a writer must be the worst career in the world.  She is, however, a reader, and she is direct and honest.

She read my text once and said what the others had said before her.  “I love it!”  Then she said something more. “But it’s two separate books.”

Sometimes criticism that takes time to settle.  You have to carry it in a pocket—a pocket very close to your heart—for a long time before you know whether to make the insight yours.  Sometimes it strikes like a lightning bolt.

Beth-Alison’s comment was of the lightning bolt variety.

So today I’m back at the text again.  And slowly, slowly I am finding my way forward.  I believe I’ll find the shape this time.

It’s only a picture book.  When it’s done it will be around 400 words. But the process of capturing those 400 words . . . ah!  That’s both joy and despair.