Today I get to share an incredibly well written nonfiction picture book biography with you.
Candy Wellins visited my blog last summer for her picture book debut. She is both is a lifelong writer and a former elementary school teacher. You can learn more about her at her website or follow her on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook.
“The Stars Beckoned” is a picture book biography of Edward White, one of the first men to ever walk in space. This isn’t your typical biography though. This one is written in rhyme with a repeating refrain AND has a surprise ending. Actually, I might argue that it has two surprise endings. One at the end of the story, and one in the back matter. This is a book I have read multiple times already. It even inspired me to revisit one of my own nonfiction picture book biography manuscripts as soon as I finished reading it the first time. This story is a beautiful and inspirational portrait of a man who loved the stars.
Welcome back Candy!
Me: What was it about Edward White’s amazing story that first grabbed you and drew you to write about it?
Candy: I was teaching a unit on the US/Soviet Space Race to a group of middle school students. A student asked who the first American to walk in space was. I knew a lot of America’s “first” astronauts, but this one I did not know. I looked it up right then and there and read out loud Edward’s words upon completion of his spacewalk. “This is the saddest moment of my life.”
Immediately, I recognized the kid appeal of Edward’s story. What kid can’t relate to the strong emotions felt upon having to end a really fun activity?
Plus I felt that Edward needed more recognition as the space pioneer that he was. We know so much about many other astronauts, but Edward’s life and story have largely been overlooked.
Me: Once again, your story is so wonderfully written. I love the repeated refrain throughout! What inspired you to write this true story in rhyme?
Candy: I had done some research on Edward’s life, but had yet to put any words of my own onto paper. One of my critique partners sent over a story for review. It was a biographical piece written in rhyme. I loved the cadence of it and was inspired to write something of my own in verse. Edward’s story was a natural choice—White is a very rhyme-able name after all!
A few times, I tried backing out and writing the story without the rhyme, but it just didn’t feel right so I stuck with it.
Originally the story ended with the completion of Edward’s spacewalk. When we sold the story to Philomel, the first thing my editor Talia Benamy asked for was a few more stanzas that surmised Edward’s life and impact on the world. Having to do that—while maintaining the rhyme scheme—was a big challenge! But of course, she was right. I think the final page of the story really does show the magnitude of Edward’s life.
Me: Your writing is so beautiful, it inspired me to work on one of my own nonfiction stories again. How many revisions did it take to make this manuscript this finely honed?
Candy: There were probably about a thousand mental revisions, but the version we sold was only the fourth written one, which still kind of blows my mind. Usually I don’t even send something to my agent until I’m at least on my twentieth revision. Because I was working under the tight parameters of the rhyme scheme, I had to be very thoughtful about each word that went onto the paper.
Me: Wow! That’s incredible. What is one thing that surprised you in writing this story?
Candy: If you had told me that I was going to write a picture book biography and had me guess who the subject was going to be, I would have never in a million years said Edward White. He just wasn’t someone who was on my radar at all.
Once I read that brief passage to my middle school students, I was intrigued, but I still felt like it was probably a story meant for a different writer. I’m not a space expert and after all, I had just learned who he was. Still the idea clung to me.
A few months after first encountering his name, my husband had a business trip in Florida and the family tagged along (this was Pre-COVID). A planned beach day was rainy so we decided to hit the road much earlier than we expected. I was driving and my husband was looking at the map. He noticed we were driving right past NASA and suggested maybe we should stop there for the day instead. It was a total spur-of-the-moment decision. We bought our tickets and walked into the first building we came across (we didn’t even have a map). My eyes adjusted to the dim indoor lighting and I looked up to see—of all astronauts—a huge photo of Edward White looking down on me. That was the nudge I needed from the universe. This story needed to be shared and I could be the one to share it. From that point on, I dug deep into research and fully committed to sharing Edward’s experience with as many people as I could.
Me: That was definitely destiny calling you. The illustrations by Courtney Dawson are wonderful. I especially loved the use of light all throughout (and the reference to possibly Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan). Were there any illustration surprises for you?
Candy: I love how committed Courtney was to getting the illustrations accurate. People always think about fact-checking the words, but in a nonfiction piece, it is important that the art is factually correct too. We were lucky in that we were able to work with Edward’s children to get input on everything from their grandparents’ hair color, to the specific type of planes their dad flew and the outfits they wore when they were reunited with their dad after his spacewalk. Courtney did a fantastic job of bringing real events to life on the page.
Me: Any advice for other new picture book writers interested in writing non-fiction?
Candy: Always have your picture book radar on; you never know when you’ll find the inspiration for a story. Notice things that make you pause, smile, think, or wonder why, then write about them.
Also, don’t be afraid to tackle subjects that seem beyond your expertise. Edward was an astronaut who did amazing things most of us will never do, but his experience and feelings are so universal that everyone will be able to relate to him.
Me: What stars have beckoned to you in your own life? Have you reached them?
Candy: Writing picture books are my beckoning stars. Like Edward, I had to build up a resume to getting there—reading tons of books, taking classes, attending conferences and writing draft after draft after draft—but yes, I did finally reach the stars. And just like Edward, I’m not ready to be done yet either.
I love that. Thank you for stopping by my blog again Candy.
Dear readers, if you haven’t read this picture book yet, I cannot recommend it enough. This is a biography that will stay in your mind like Edward White’s dream of the stars. It will not let you go. The writing sings, the illustrations capture the star light beautifully, and the stars will beckon you too.