How often I have been asked, especially when I used to speak in schools: “Which is your own favorite of all your books?”
“The one I’m working on right now,” I always said. “That has all my attention and all my heart. The rest I remember fondly, but by the time each book comes out, I have left it behind for the one I’m working on now.”
And through a forty-plus-year career, that has remained true. My commitment—and therefore my love—lies with the work in front of me.
But some books live closer to my heart than others, and the one that will officially come into the world on September 4, 2018, rises above all of its one-hundred-plus siblings.
It’s a picture book. The text is exactly 431 words long. (The ability to count words, instantly and accurately, is one of the many gifts offered by my computer.) It is illustrated by the incomparable Ekua Holmes. (Google her! Just see her work!) And the title is The Stuff of Stars.
The Stuff of Stars is the story of the Big Bang, of stars exploding into death, and of our Earth, this fragile blue ball, this lonely, lucky planet, that evolved out of all that dying. It is the story of the birth of a child, of the birth of every child. It is the celebration of the power of Creation and of the power of Love, one and the same.
The Stuff of Stars is my hymn against every terror of the twenty-first-century. And whatever happens to this small book out there in the publishing world, I suspect it will always be, for me, the capstone of my career.
How long did it take to conceive and to write this beloved piece? Years. Years and years. The seed was planted in a program by Michael Dowd I attended long ago at my Unitarian Universalist Church. Death through Deep-Time Eyes was its topic. I listened and thrilled, and I carried the resonance of those ideas away with me. I knew that someday I would write what I had heard, but I had no idea how I might do so.
I am not a scientist, either by training or by inclination. I did, however, grow up with a chemist father who taught me to be skeptical of all that cannot be weighed and measured. And his respect for solid logic has always undergirded my world.
Even when I was a child, though, I knew there was more to life than what my father saw and acknowledged. (When I took a degree in literature in college he was bewildered. “What is there to study in stories?” he asked.)
And so when I approached the writing of The Stuff of Stars, I began with my own awe but carried that awe into the reading of science. It’s amazing how much reading I have to do before the most basic understanding surfaces. And it’s equally amazing how much understanding must be gathered to come up with a 431-word poem celebrating science’s knowledge of creation.
All this has taken years and years, the sowing of the seed of an idea, the study that led to its harvest; setting words down and taking them away again; turning to other writers to weigh and reweigh what I created; working with my agent, Rubin Pfeffer, and my editor, Liz Bicknell at Candlewick, who love The Stuff of Stars, too; watching Ekua’s progress as she turned the ineffable into breathtaking images.
Then waiting for the book to appear.
There is always a bit of a let-down after all that waiting when I hold a new book in my hands. Even as the reviews come in—and they have been exceptional—I am overcome by a sense of loss, of letting go.
The Stuff of Stars is no longer mine, no longer Ekua’s, no longer Rubin’s or Liz’s either. It will make its way into the world as the children of my flesh once did. And it will be received well and it will be criticized and it will be ignored. (Watching it be ignored will be the hardest piece of all.)
And I will stay home and move on to other books. Indeed, I have already moved on. But The Stuff of Stars is out there, or it will be in a few days, and my heart has gone out into the world with it.
I always love my books. I couldn’t write them if I didn’t. But some loves sing more passionately than others.
What is my own favorite of all my books?
Right now and for a long time to come it’s going to be The Stuff of Stars!