On Understanding

The Stuff of Stars

“Will younger children understand the scale of this text?” the reviewer asked about my recent picture book, The Stuff of Stars.

For better and for worse, those of us who publish are expected to remain silent before such questions, and I have.  This one, however, begs an answer, so I’ll cheat a little and give my answer here.

“Of course not!”

I must add, though, “It depends on what you mean by understanding.”  Because the success of my text depends far less on “understanding,” either the understanding of those younger readers or adults, than it does on letting my readers feel.  My text is meant to open them to something just beyond their comprehension . . . beyond my comprehension, too.

To her credit, the reviewer also went on to say, “More likely they will just take it on faith and be mesmerized by the remarkable art.”

I couldn’t possibly agree more.  The art brings my text alive in a way I couldn’t have dreamed.  And having Ekua Holmes as the illustrator of my text is a bit like being the tail on a comet.

But I would argue that the words—if they are doing their job—mesmerize, too.  Through sound and association, through rhythm and shape, they open a door to something larger, something we all can feel with a depth and authority that surpasses any understanding.

I joined a poetry group once to read and discuss poetry.  I thought, This will be a nice way to spend an evening, talking about poetry.  And I showed up for my first meeting with a high heart.

I attended only once.

I discovered that while I love reading poetry, feeling it, carrying it in my heart, I don’t love talking about it.  I sat through the evening thinking, “I’ve read it.  I’ve taken it into my bones.  What is there to say?”

I didn’t mind listening to others, who had far more to say than I, but little of what was said enhanced my experience of the poem we had just read.

Let me be clear.  I’m not against all literary analysis.  A good piece, poetry or prose, is layered, and it’s too easy to read across the top layer.  But a lot of analysis reminds me of dissecting a frog.  There can be much to learn in such a process, but when you are done, the frog is usually dead.

When I wrote The Stuff of Stars, I didn’t ask myself whether young children would understand the origins of our universe, the birth of our planet, or even their own births.  I asked myself only whether this was an appropriate subject for reverence, for awe, for delight.

I knew it was.

And if my words combined with Ekua’s incredible art create reverence, awe, delight . . . well, we have all understood.

5 thoughts on “On Understanding

  1. Joanne Toft

    Oh thank you – so good to hear – I love your line – There can be much to learn in such a process, but when you are done, the frog is usually dead. So right on!!!

    I have not yet read this one from you – so now I am off to get a copy! Thanks!

    Reply
  2. Melanie

    I have read your book to many children. They are absolutely captivated–even the babies. The art with the rhythm and sound of the words makes a superb package–it’s about wonder and awe, and kids usually understand that much better than adults!

    Reply
  3. C.M. Surrisi

    I’m pleased you posted this response to the review, Marion. One of the things I love about The Stuff of Stars is its standing among texts that use poetry and abstraction to introduce a grand concept in the picture book form. And really, who can explain the scale of the universe? Does that mean we shouldn’t ponder it with children?

    Reply

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