Tag Archives: Ekua Holmes

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 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.

An interview with Ekua Holmes

Ekua Holmes – Photo Credit Charles Walker Jr.

An interview with Ekua Holmes, the amazing artist who illustrated my new picture book, The Stuff of Stars.

The Stuff of Stars

Ekua, my first question is a rather strange one and one I wouldn’t have asked any other artist who illustrated one of my picture books.  What gave you the courage to take this project on?  There is so much of the nothingness of space in the early spreads, so much no this, no that, no anything else.  And even after that, the scope is so large.  When I wrote the text I couldn’t even begin to imagine what an illustrator might do, especially with those early pages, but I couldn’t be more thrilled with what you have created.

That is a really good question Marion. When Liz Bicknell of Candlewick Press first suggested this manuscript, I was puzzled. Why did she think this was the right manuscript for me? I am primarily a figurative artist working in the urban and southern landscapes, reflecting my upbringing and experiences. Here was the atmospheric, nebulous unfolding story, taking place in an unformed universe of nothingness. Huh!?

It was so early in my career that I thought, better say yes for now and think about it and that’s what I did for several months. Think about it. I’ve always enjoyed a challenge but if not for Liz’ confidence, I’m not sure I would have signed on.

In the end, I am really happy with the book and glad to know that you are too.

Will you explain your process for creating this art?  I know a bit about it from our editor, Liz Bicknell, and from our mutual agent, Rubin Pfeffer, but I would love to hear more about your process directly from you.

The first part of my process was not fruitful. I sketched this and that but nothing was even remotely satisfying. It wasn’t until cleaning up my studio one day that I picked up a small rectangle of marbleized paper from the floor.  Most mixed media artists will understand the impulse to keep interesting bits and pieces of paper left over from other projects, as well as the reluctance to throw anything away. There’s a sense of possibility we see in—well, everything. I saw this piece of paper and I thought that looks like the universe! In that moment I could see how the project could unfold and It was great that Candlewick agreed with me. Eureka!

Where do you start to gather ideas from a picture book text?  A picture book begins for me first with the concept then with the opening words singing in my head.  How do you make the enormous leap from someone else’s words to your images?

In reading the text, I look for words that resonate with me. Sometimes I make a list. Then I look for myself—some relationship to my own story. In Stuff of Stars I related to the divinity of the story, the infinite, unfathomable feelings that I felt as child looking up at the sky in Arkansas. I had never seen so many stars in the sky. I spun myself around and around and around. The wonder of it all! The sky so dark and the stars were bright bits of light. But how do you illustrate that?

I understand that you have been a fine artist for many years.  What brought you into the world of children’s books?

Serendipity and an exhibition at an ice cream store in Jamaica Plain, a neighborhood of Boston.

Your success has been amazing.  The first book you illustrated, Voice of Freedom, Fannie Lou Hamer, was a Caldecott Honor book in 2016 and you also won the 2016 John Steptoe New Talent Illustrator Award.  But have you ever felt that you had to compromise your own artistic vision in order to illustrate another’s work?

Never. I strive to choose projects I feel deeply about so that I can feel confident enough to speak up for my ideas and be a true contributor. It’s not just your skill as an artist that is being engaged. It’s your heart, soul, and mind. But I also like a good challenge.

What do you like best about creating art for children’s picture books?

A children’s book project gives back in so many ways. First, I think you learn so much as you research and dig deep into a story. Especially with the historical biographies I’ve done (Fannie Lou Hamer and Barbara Jordan). I knew so very little about them. Now I am able to share, not only with the book illustrations but in conversations I have. They were remarkable women and deserve to be remembered that way. I am so happy to be a part of that. Secondly, each book is its own universe and the restrictions of the page, accommodating text, and other things help me to stretch as an artist, and try new things on and off the page.

What is the hardest part?

Time management. Being realistic about deadlines, which are necessary but not allowing deadlines to compromise my commitment to doing the best work I am capable of.

Finally, Ekua, I am always thrilled with the gift illustrators bring to my books, but I have never been more grateful than I am for your work in The Stuff of Stars.  Thank you!  Thank you!  Thank you!

Thank you Marion. 🙂

Check out the Roxbury Sunflower Project Story in The Boston Globe.

The Stuff of Stars

My Favorite Book

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 StarsThe 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!