Category Archives: The Stuff of Stars

A Small Word

Photo by Gabriel Lamza on Unsplash

It’s a small word, only three letters.  But it’s one of those words that can cause a lot of commotion.

I hesitated to use it, especially on the very opening spread of my picture book, but though I thought long and hard, I couldn’t find another that suited my purposes better.  Or at all.

Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug,” and that’s how I felt about this choice.

Still, I said to my agent, Rubin, before he hand carried my new manuscript to the one editor I wanted to receive it, “Tell Liz if she wants me to change that one word, I will.”

Liz accepted my manuscript while snacking on the not-really-a-bribe scones Rubin brought that day, and she said, “The word can stay.”

The small word we were talking about is God.

The Stuff of Stars

Here is the way it is used in the opening of The Stuff of Stars:

 

In the dark,

in the dark,

in the deep, deep dark

a speck floated,

invisible as thought,

weighty as God.

 

Now let me explain.  I am not a theist.  I haven’t been a theist since I was a very young woman, despite the fact that I had married a man who was preparing for seminary and a career as a priest in the Episcopal Church.  (Which is another long, in fact 28-year-long, story.)

And everyone knows the word God creates all kinds of problems in a children’s book.  Those who are theists are apt to want the God that is named to be only their own.  Those who are not don’t want God named at all.  And public schools and even private schools not related to churches back away from the word as they would a land mine capable of blasting them out of existence.

Still . . . I wanted to use the word God!  No other would do.

Why?

Because I couldn’t think of another in our lexicon that carries more . . . well, weight.

These days I belong to a Unitarian Universalist church, a church that is non-creedal.  A member of a UU church can believe in God passionately or be a convinced atheist.  UU’s subscribe to basic principles that are as far-reaching, in fact, I would say more far-reaching, than any creed, but, at least in my congregation, one of the most reliable ways to stir up dissent is to say “God” from the pulpit too many times in a row.

So I knew precisely what I was doing when I chose to use that word in my picture book.  I knew how much power the word has, both the power to communicate a deep truth and the power to offend.  I recognized, too, that I was writing about a topic, the Big Bang, that some see as anti-God, convinced that science’s explanation for the way our world came into being can’t coexist with the idea of God.

I certainly didn’t choose the word as appeasement to those who believe that God and science cannot be reconciled.  Such a conviction is so far from my own reality that the thought was never in my mind as I wrote.

What I was in my mind, what is in my mind every time I open The Stuff of Stars to see my words and Ekua’s astounding illustrations, is the awe, the reverence, the humble joy in which I stand before this universe . . . and before every miraculous child this universe brings to us.

What better way can there be to express that, all of that, than one small, three-letter word?  God.

Whoever we are, whatever we believe or don’t believe, it is a word with weight.

The Stuff of Opinion

I’ve never paid much attention to reviews of my books on Amazon.com or GoodReads, mostly because there is too much else flowing off the Internet that demands my attention.  I just keep trying, as most of us do, to keep the Internet’s largess from swallowing me whole.

I suppose I’ve chosen not to dip into those reviews also to avoid the frustration of reading what can sometimes seem ill-informed or badly written reflections on my books.  I try—don’t we all try?—not to be a snob, but I’ll admit that when a review is badly written or based on what I would judge to be a false premise, even if it’s a review in a professional publication, I can’t give it much weight, either for or against my book.

The Stuff of Stars

As of this writing, my new picture book, The Stuff of Stars, has received starred reviews in Kirkus, Booklist, Publisher’s Weekly and School Library Journal, all publications that set the standards in my literary world.  And every one of these starred reviews was itself well written, which warmed my ever-so-slightly snobbish heart.

And as of this writing, it has also had numerous reviews on Amazon.com and GoodReads.  And this time I did peek.  Most of those reviews have been positive, well written and satisfying to this author.  But weighing in, too, are those who say things like “I’m not typically interested in poetry but I could see the appeal if you’re into that sort of thing.”

I respect the “I’m-not-into-poetry” writer, though I would say that the text of The Stuff of Stars is lyrical prose rather than poetry.  But we all have a right to our preferences.  I’m not usually interested in romance or mystery or science fiction, though I don’t choose to review those genres, either.

Of far more interest to me, though, are the reviewers who object to the content of my book because it doesn’t represent the reader’s own beliefs.  I knew, of course, that writing about the Big Bang would offend some, though I find it difficult to imagine how anyone’s “beliefs” can stand against science.  Or why they must.

Ekua Holmes illustration from The Stuff of Stars

illustration from The Stuff of Stars, copyright Ekua Holmes (Candlewick Press)

One reader gave The Stuff of Stars a four-star ranking despite saying, “I can appreciate this book even if it’s not my belief.”  Which is generosity, indeed.

Another gave it one star and said, “If all we are is stardust what is the point of life?”

And oh, how I would l love to have that conversation!

It reminds me of a comment I received back when The Stuff of Stars was still growing and changing, a comment from someone who is one of my most important touchstones while a picture book is in its manuscript phase.  She said emphatically, “Get all that death out of there!”

And I thought, but didn’t say, “No!”  (There is seldom any point in saying “no” to a helpful critic.  I just listen, then do what I see needs to be done.)

Because death is the point.  Life comes out of death.  Out of the deaths of stars.  Out of the deaths of our ancestors.  If death—and the incredible riches that grow out of death—were not the foundation of our universe, we would not, could not exist.

It’s not a message that suits this American death-denying culture, but as my own time grows shorter, it’s one I hold close.  And such contrary views make me long for more open conversation.

Does the scientific view of the origins of the universe preclude anyone’s idea of a creating God?  If it does, then perhaps that God is too small.

Does our culture’s deep abhorrence of death keep death from nurturing us, making our lives possible?   We are fortunate, because it does not.

What is of great interest to me is that if an idea is dressed in lyrical language and set against a backdrop of exquisite art and presented to very young children, it can sometimes rise above our deepest prejudices.

What a blessing that is!

 

A Celebration That Lasts

The Stuff of StarsHaving a new book making its appearance in the world is always exciting, and The Stuff of Stars is creating more excitement than usual. Especially for me.

My most recent book had its birthday on September 5th and the days surrounding that have been thrilling. As of this writing, The Stuff of Stars, a picture book, has received starred reviews from Booklist, Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, and School Library Journal. (A starred review marks a book as one of the best of the season.) And, last I checked, it had a five-star rating at Amazon, and GoodReads had come in at 4.49.

One of the responses that satisfies me most, though, came in an email from an earth scientist who was thrilled with its accuracy.

I won’t say that I was surprised. I worked very hard, read very hard, thought very hard to achieve scientific accuracy, nonscientist that I am. When I take technical information and condense it to its absolute basics, the possibilities of skewing the information are nearly endless. Especially in so complex a field and one that is growing and changing every day.

I couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief … before returning to the celebration.

All this celebration, though, is temporary. In a few months even I will forget the rush of these early days. The best thing about seeing my words—and Ekua Holmes’ magnificent art—appear in book form is knowing they are here to stay.

Ekua Holmes illustration from The Stuff of Stars

illustration from The Stuff of Stars, copyright Ekua Holmes (Candlewick Press)

For a long while The Stuff of Stars will be touching lives.

All books touch for a moment. Some stay for a long time.

The good folks who manage my website, Winding Oak, have come up with a brilliant idea for a way this small book can go on making a difference. An idea I never would have thought of. And it’s perfect.

The Stuff of Stars is a celebration of birth, the birth of our universe, the birth of our planet, the birth of each child. Winding Oak has proposed that the book be used not just to welcome a new baby into the world but as a core part of that child’s yearly birthday celebration.

The book can be opened to its gorgeous swirling endpapers, part of Ekua’s design created from her own handmade paper, and the baby’s photo—perhaps even an ultrasound photo—or a photo of those who love the baby can be pasted inside the front cover to become a permanent part of the book.

The Stuff of Stars endpapers with photos

Considering affixing your photos to the endpapers for a lifetime of memories.

Then, when each birthday rolls around, someone can read the book to the child, a photo can be taken of the reading, and that can be pasted in, too!

Imagine the memories created by such repeated, quiet, exquisitely celebratory reading moments. Imagine the life-long memento the book will come to be!

When I think of my small effort becoming part of a child’s, a person’s life … well!

The warmth of that idea will stay with me for a long, long time.

To see more about using The Stuff of Stars as a part of a yearly celebration go to the resources on my website.

And start your own birthday tradition with a loved child.