Category Archives: The Stuff of Stars

Confusing and Troubling Times

Photo by Morgan Basham on UnsplashKaren

I find it profoundly difficult these days to be a writer.  My inspiration and enthusiasm have been buried so far below an onslaught of awful news headlines and downright hate, trauma, and tragedy that I struggle to reach them.  What’s a girl to do?  In a world so woeful and broken, how can I dig beneath the heartbreak and create?  Do you have the same thoughts?  If so, how do you free yourself to write during these confusing and troubling times?

This is a question Karen Cushman posed to her fellow writers in 2017.  I intended to respond to it then, but I find no evidence that I ever did.  The question seems even more appropriate, more urgent today, so I’m going to tackle it now.

How do I free myself to write during these confusing and troubling times?

I have one friend, an artist in a field different from mine, who keeps these confusing and troubling times in check by abstaining from news entirely.  And that works for her.  But while I honor her choice, it’s not mine.  I don’t see how I can be a responsible citizen that way.  I do, however, limit the amount of time I spend taking in the news.  In particular, I abstain from almost all news that comes by way of television.  Most of what is offered there is less news than it is high-impact entertainment, meant to sell the products that ride on its back more than to inform.

I do read my local newspaper.  I do get news from sources I trust on the internet.  (That last is problematic, of course, because the sources I trust are sure to support my own views of the world, and as more of us get our information from such radically different sources with such profoundly different truths to convey, we all grow less and less able to communicate with one another.)

But the issue here isn’t who has the truth.  It’s how we live—and write—with the truths we embrace.  With the lack of substantive hope those truths support.

My answer has been to attempt to reach, day after day, deeper, farther, beyond the news of the day.  My answer, for instance, to the ravages of our climate has been The Stuff of Stars.  I won’t say to our children, We adults have failed to keep out world intact, now it’s up to you to fix it!  Rather I say, Look!  See our universe!  See this incredible Earth!  See your own amazing self!  All magnificent!  All sacred!

And I dream that if my readers know in their hearts the sacredness of the Earth and of their own selves, they will in some small way live differently into whatever lies ahead.

I dream, too, of writing a picture book about Peace.  I capitalize the word, because I’m not talking about soft, squishy peace, the kind of feel-good stuff that all little old ladies believe in.  I’m talking about Peace as a vibrant force that has the power and authority to change history.  I have a dear friend who speaks of humans as both mammals, nurturers, and as predators, creatures who kill to survive.  I want to find the Peace that lies on the other side of that truth, and I want to write it in such a way that the very young—and the very old—can believe in it.

It’s not much of an answer, I know.  It certainly isn’t an answer that fixes anything.  But it is the best I have.

What is your answer, especially those of you out there who also write for children?  Where does your hope lie?  Surely we can’t speak to children without hope.  Surely we can’t live our own lives without it.

I would love to hear your answers, and I’ll post as many of them as I can.

Write to me.  How do you live your hope?  How do you communicate it?

A One-Word Controversy

hello, I have a question pertaining to, The Stuff of Stars.  I have not read it, but I just saw a posting about Ekua Holmes’ illustrator award & it brought me to some reviews. One quoted the book… “in the deep, deep dark a speck floated, invisible as thought, weighty as God,”

I thought the book was in support of the Big Bang theory, but I read the quote & wondered why God was mentioned.   I’m sure if I had the book, I’d have a better understanding.  Will you please shed some light?

Thanks!

 

Juliette

The Stuff of Stars

Dear Juliette,

Yes, I used the word God in The Stuff of Stars.  And yes, The Stuff of Stars supports scientific concepts about the way our universe came into being.  But the two are not incompatible.  Only those whose belief is so narrow that they are convinced God can’t exist unless the beautiful stories of the Bible are taken as statements of fact see science and the concept of God as incompatible.

I am not, in fact, a theist myself, but there is no word in the English language that carries more weight than the word God.  So that’s the one I chose.  “Weighty as God.”  I knew using that word would create controversy, and when my agent presented the manuscript to the editor, I had him ask her if she wanted that word to stand.  She said, “Yes.”  So the word “God” is out there, touching some readers deeply and upsetting others.  And when I go back to examine that opening line, I can’t imagine a better way to bring my readers to a feeling of awe before an unfolding universe, which is exactly what I want.

If you’d like to hear more of my thoughts on this topic, check out the blogs on my website, www.mariondanebauer.com.  Scroll down through the titles of past blogs to find one called “The Stuff of Opinion.”  That touches on this same subject.

I wish you well in all ways, Juliette, and I hope this helps to answer your question.  I appreciate your taking the time to ask it.

Best,  Marion

 

I was, indeed, glad to have the question asked.  I only wish I could have answered it for a larger audience, which is why I’m bringing the discussion here.

When a book comes into the world, it takes on its own life.  Little of what happens to it or is said about it even filters back to the book’s creators.  I have had occasional hints of the hum set off by my choosing that most controversial of all words, but I have little opportunity to defend my choice.

As I said to Juliette, I am not a theist.  Much of what gets attached to the concept of God—all knowing, all powerful, judging, controlling, even loving—makes me itch.  But having grown-up in a Christian church and having once lived the better-be-quiet-about-what-you-really-believe role of a pastor’s wife, I have thought long and hard about the meaning of the word.

And I’ve come to decide, as a word person, not a theologian, that I like it.  I like it precisely because nothing has more weight in our language than the word God.  I can’t think of another that carries the same force.  Universe, when it’s used instead, doesn’t touch it.  Life force conveys the concept, but without feeling attached.

I no longer identify as Christian, but I love the Christian concept of Incarnation.  Not as a one-time event, but as an every-time event.  And I love equally Quaker theology that speaks of God in us.  The two are the same.  They tell us that human life, that all life is sacred.

These days our public schools are trying rather belatedly to maintain our constitution’s standard of the separation of church and state.  As they struggle with that task, though, I wish separation weren’t automatically equated with exclusion, with no-discussion-possible, with slam the door on all potentially “religious” words and concepts and keep it locked.  I wish The Stuff of Stars could be presented along with the question, “What do you suppose the author meant by ‘weighty as God’?  Can you think of some other comparison that would work as well?”

I can’t, but certainly others will.

And so I used the God-word in a picture book.  I used it, not being a believer myself in any traditional sense, in order to present a vision of our Universe as vital, alive, holy.

A vision that might even save our fragile existence on this planet if we only take it seriously enough.

 

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.

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!