Today’s picture book is an exceptional nonfiction biography with a brilliant structure that you won’t want to miss.
Kirsten Larson has visited my blog before. She used to work with rocket scientists at NASA. Now she writes books for curious kids. Kirsten is the author of WOOD, WIRE, WINGS: EMMA LILIAN TODD INVENTS AN AIRPLANE, illustrated by Tracy Subisak (Calkins Creek, 2020), A TRUE WONDER: The Comic Book Hero Who Changed Everything (Clarion, Fall 2021), illustrated by Katy Wu, and THE FIRE OF STARS: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars Are Made Of, illustrated by Katherine Roy (Chronicle, Spring 2023) THE LIGHT OF RESISTANCE, illus. Barbara McClintock (Roaring Brook, 2023), and THIS IS HOW YOU KNOW, illus. Cornelia Li (Little, Brown, 2024) as well as 20+ nonfiction books for the school and library market. You can learn more about her at her website.
THE FIRE OF STARS is an incredible picture book biography of the astronomer Cecilia Payne. It uses poetry and a parallel structure that is mind blowing. We see Cecilia’s curiosity and knowledge bloom and blossom, just as we watch the birth of a star in the heavens. Both stories reach a glorious crescendo in the illustrations by Katherine Roy that are breath taking. Trust me when I say that this is not a book you will want to miss.
Welcome back Kirsten!
Me: This story is fascinating. How did you first hear about Cecilia Payne? What gave you the idea to write about her?
Kirsten: I first heard of Cecilia Payne while watching Neil deGrasse Tyson’s COSMOS. There was an episode called “Sisters of the Sun” about many of the women working at the Harvard College Observatory, including Cecilia Payne, and their discoveries. So many people have said Cecilia’s thesis, STELLAR ATMOSPHERES, was the most brilliant theses ever written. In it she said that hydrogen and helium are abundant in the stars and are the most abundant elements in our whole universe. The most influential male astronomer of the day told her she was wrong, but they came around later.
I was drawn to this story because Cecilia’s a bit of an underdog, and I love a good underdog story. But also, I saw so much similarity in how authors and scientists like Cecilia work. We labor for years in the dark, trying to find our way and make sense of things, until something finally clicks and we have a breakthrough. This book was like that for me.
Me: I love that. There’s a lot of science included in this book (especially in the back matter). How much research did you have to do to be able to write about the stars like this? Did you have to consult experts in the field for your story?
Kirsten: I do consult experts in the field to make sure I am as accurate as I can be. For this manuscript, I spoke with Dr. Renee James, physics professor at Sam Houston State University, who has written about Cecilia in SCIENCE UNSHACKLED. Dr. Catharine Garmany of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory reviewed the manuscript for me to check my astronomy.
Fortunately, Cecilia wrote an autobiography and Harvard had an oral history interview with her. I could also find her thesis and other papers online. And even as I wrote this book, new secondary sources were being published, like Dava Sobel’s THE GLASS UNIVERSE, which is fantastic. I believe there is also a new biography of Cecilia, though I haven’t read it.
Me: I love Katherine Roy’s work! Her illustrations in this book are simply stunning! The way she painted light, rainbows, and the stars! SO gorgeous! Were there any illustration surprises for you? Any favorite illustrations?
Kirsten: Can I say every single one? Katherine has been a dream to work with. This was a really tough manuscript to illustrate (and write!), because we’re telling two stories at the same time on the same page. Katherine has said she had to abandon her traditional ways or working to find a more representational approach to making stars, including paint splatters and using toothbrushes.
I love the title page spread, with Cecilia staring into the night sky. But really that’s just my favorite until I turn the page and the next one is my new favorite.
Me: Was it your idea, your editor’s idea, or Katherine’s idea to show the stars on every page in some way?
Kirsten: The original vision for the manuscript was to show the star story and Cecilia’s story on each page split horizontally. The star story would be on the top and Cecilia’s below. That proved to be unworkable, so in the end, the stories are told side by side with a linking line of text that applies to both stories. This collaborative approach is the magic of picture books.
Me: Weaving two parallel stories together (the stars and Cecilia) like this is a fantastic structure. I am amazed at your writing! How many revisions did it take to make the text of this story this tight?
Kirsten: I can’t even tell you! I wrote a first draft of this in August 2014 and even after I shared it with my agent in 2016, it was a straightforward picture book biography. It wasn’t until after I saw a deal announcement about Hannah Holt’s THE DIAMOND AND THE BOY that the idea of a parallel structure came to me. The idea of having a single line of text that applied to both Cecilia’s and the star’s story seemed like a great idea but was so hard to pull off. I really wanted to give up, but my agent, Lara Perkins at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, wouldn’t let me! I’m glad she pushed me. And then Chronicle editor Melissa Manlove pushed the manuscript even farther, ensuring the book could be read three different ways.
Me: I noticed some tidbits in the back matter that weren’t included in the story. I didn’t see any reference in the story to Albert Einstein and I didn’t see any reference to her work getting purloined (without credit) by another scientist. Were those facts not included because they didn’t fit within your story frame? Was there a favorite fact that you learned that you couldn’t include in the story itself?
Kirsten: This is always the challenge of picture book biographies. We have to choose our focus, think about what we want young readers to take away from the book, and pick and choose what fits. Ultimately, I wanted to share the idea of “what makes a scientist” to encourage kids to think of themselves as scientists. Being a scientist it not about brilliance, though Cecilia was brilliant. Being a scientist comes down to being observant, being in love with curiosity and learning, accepting failure and frustration. These are the ideas I thought kids would connect with.
One of my favorite stories from an earlier draft was about when Cecilia won a prize at school. She was told she pick any book she wanted. Whereas most people would have picked a collection of Shakespeare or a book by Milton, Cecilia selected a book about fungi. No one could talk her out of it. And she did get exactly what she wanted — a beautiful leather-bound copy.
Me: I love hearing stories of women in history who played a significant role and yet I never cease to be amazed when I haven’t heard of them! I’m shocked I haven’t heard of Cecilia before. She made a very profound and game changing discovery! Why do you want young readers to know about her? Why is telling her story important to you?
Kirsten: I want young readers to know that they already have what it takes to become a scientist or whatever else they can dream of. And I also want them to stick with their passions even when things get tough (and people tell them they’re wrong!)
That is an excellent take away. Thank you for stopping by my blog again Kirsten.
Dear readers, this book is released today. The way this book combines a lyrical text about a forgotten woman in science whose impact was profound as well as glorious illustrations. These two are woven together all throughout to show the parallel storylines of the birth of two very different types of stars. This is a book you will want to study, as I guarantee it’s a game changer.