Tag Archives: The Stuff of Stars

On Finding a New Vision

Photo by Melchior Damu on Unsplash

When I’m teaching, I often talk about revision as re-vision, finding a new vision.  It sounds good, talking about it that way.

But the reality is that a new vision can be hard to come by.  And letting go of the old vision to make room for the new can be even harder.

In fact, letting go can sometimes be the most difficult part of writing . . . and the most creative part of it.

I have been working since shortly after I completed the text of my most recent picture book, The Stuff of Stars, on coming up with a companion book.  Mostly because the territory I researched in order to write it still compelled me.  Also, because reaching for the stars seems the most credible way of reaching for the hope so needed to write any kind of children’s book in this disheartening world.

First I came up with a text the editor said was “lovely.”  But she also said it was too much like The Stuff of Stars.  Even if I had wanted to take it to another editor for another opinion, I couldn’t, given the inevitable non-compete clause I had signed.  If it was too much like it was too much like to be out there from another publisher.

So with a great deal of sighing, I let that one go.

I thought and rethought and, in the meantime, I went on probing the stars, the origins of our universe, the fundamental nature of reality as scientists today can define it.  Through a friend, I came across a fascinating book by an Italian physicist, Carlo Rovelli, called Seven Brief Lessons and Physics.  I read and reread it.  And reread it again.  I can’t say still that I understand it, but it fascinates me.

And from that I began to reenter my idea of a companion book to The Stuff of Stars.

I worked and worked and worked on it.  Worked, first, to discover my core concept, to understand for myself what I wanted to say.

Worked, next, to frame what I had discovered into lyrical language, language that could carry my ideas through their musicality so that a child could listen and enjoy, even if understanding come later.

Worked, finally, to draw the whole into a pleasing shape and to balance that shape against the needs of the larger world.

And then, at last, I presented it to the one editor I wanted to have it.

The manuscript engages her.  It interests her.  Enough, even, for her to begin to think about illustrators.

But not in the form it exists.  Too much crammed into my text.  She suggests instead I use a long Afterword to explain what I want to explain.  The text itself she wants to be simpler, cleaner.

And she is probably right.  She’s an editor who is usually right.  Which doesn’t keep my heart from being attached, still, to the text precisely as I submitted it to her.

Attached and working at letting go.

Another sigh here.  A long one.

So this is where I remember giving that lecture on revision.  I remember the demonstration I used to give on letting go, my arm stretched out before me, my hand firmly closed, holding.  My hand opening slowly, releasing . . . releasing . . .  As though I were giving a baby bird the opportunity of flight.

My heart releasing, too.  Just a bit.

The most creative act of all.

Letting go.

But not an easy one.

Revising.  Re-visioning.

Does it get easier for having done it so many times before?  It doesn’t feel easy in the moment, but perhaps it is.

It feels a bit like setting out to swim across a wide, cold lake.  If I’ve done it a dozen times before, two dozen, a hundred, then I know, at least, that my strokes have accomplished the task in the past, that they will probably accomplish it again if I don’t lose heart.

So that’s what I’m working on first . . . my heart.

Once my heart has settled into the new approach to a story I truly want to tell, all the rest will follow.

A new vision.

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!

 

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.