Tag Archives: The Stuff of Stars

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.

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.