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Elisa Boxer Interviews Author Kirsten W. Larson

 

AN INTERVIEW

WITH

KIRSTEN W. LARSON

AUTHOR OF

THE FIRE OF STARS

(Chronicle Books; $18.99, Ages 5-8)

 

 

The Fire of Stars cover Cecilia Payne

 

 

Starred Reviews – Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, Shelf Awareness

INTERVIEW:

Elisa Boxer: I’m so happy to be here interviewing my Soaring 20s colleague and friend Kirsten W. Larson about her newest picture book, The Fire of Stars: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars are Made Of. It’s an absolutely stellar book! Kirsten weaves together two stories in one: The creation of a star, and the evolution of astronomer Cecilia Payne, who discovered what stars are made of …

Kirsten, you make the dual narrative structure look easy. But I know it is anything but! Did you set out with the intention to write a dual narrative? If not, at what point in the process did you decide on this format?

Kirsten W. Larson: This was a last-minute decision, believe it or not. In May 2017, my agent Lara Perkins (of Andrea Brown Literary Agency) and I were preparing to sub this book as a run-of-the-mill picture book biography. Meanwhile,  I was working on a blog post featuring Hannah Holt’s query letter for THE DIAMOND AND THE BOY (Balzar + Bray, 2018). The book itself was still over a year away from release, but the query stuck with me. Hannah pitched her biography of Tracy Hall, who invented lab-produced diamonds, asa two-tale picture book—a turn and flip. … The two stories meet in the middle with a shared phrase.”

That was a total lightning bolt moment. I finally saw a way to add more hooks to my story and appeal to readers of both biography and informational books – by telling two stories at the same time. I went back and added the story of star formation alongside Cecilia’s formation as a star scientist.


EB:
That’s fascinating! The story is so seamlessly woven, I never would have guessed that it was a last-minute decision. What was the most challenging part about writing a book with this structure?

KWL: I think what sets this book apart from other parallel biographies (and made it very challenging to write) was the idea of having a shared line of text on every spread that applied to both stories – the star and Cecilia. It seemed like a good idea when I came up with it, but then it proved to be much harder to pull off. At one point I told Lara I couldn’t do it, and we should forget about it. But she kept encouraging me. She knew I could do it. But it was so, so hard.

Then, once I was working with editor Melissa Manlove of Chronicle Books, she had the additional idea of wanting to be able to read those shared lines only, without the additional text about Cecilia, and have it make sense for the youngest readers. The whole thing was a real puzzle, but I’m so happy we were able to get everything to work. It makes this book truly special.

 

EB: I’m so glad that Lara kept encouraging you, and that you stuck with it. You’ve created the perfect mentor text for aspiring authors of dual narratives. What advice would you give them?

KWL: I think this is a case where you have to be careful about the form not overtaking the writing, much like when you are writing poetry or even lyrically. For me, it helped to plot out both stories independently, step by step. I nailed down Cecilia’s major plot points, asking myself questions like “What’s the inciting incident?” “What’s the all is lost moment?” etc. Then I wrote down step-by-step how stars formed before trying to line the two stories up and brainstorming what language might connect them. I am a very visual writer, and I actually thumbnailed the stories in my journal trying to match things up and experimenting with language. You can see some of my journal pages here.

 

EB: I love the scene at the beginning, where Cecilia’s mother sets her down in the snow, and she expects a warm blanket, but instead finds her toes freezing! “It’s the first time Cecilia learns things aren’t always as they seem,” is such a powerful statement that foreshadows her discoveries to come. At what point in your research did you come across that particular anecdote, and how instrumental was it in building your scenes and threading that theme?

 

The Fire of Stars int1 young Cecilia Payne with mother in snow
Interior art from The Fire of Stars written by Kirsten W. Larson a nd illustrated by Katherine Roy, Chronicle Books ©2023.

 

KWL: The theme of this book was always the “ingredients” of a successful scientist, characteristics like being a good observer, curiosity, passion, and persistence. The book always showed how Cecilia exhibited those characteristics even as a child. For example, the scene where she watches slimy slugs in the garden was there from the start as was the scene about the bee and the bee orchid, which really set her on her quest for discovery.

But, to your question, I came across that story of Cecilia and the snow very early on in my research. Yet even though I knew about that story from the beginning, I didn’t include it until I started working on the parallel structure! I needed something that came before Cecilia in the dust and dirt of the garden, something that nodded to the star she would become.

That’s when I added this moment in the snow. I just tracked down a document on my computer when I “unwrote” Cecilia’s story, summarizing what needed to happen spread-by-spread in a line or two. That’s the last thing I wrote before I pieced the two stories together.

 

EB: Those same ingredients of curiosity, passion, and persistence clearly apply to you and your research as well! Can you tell us a bit more about your research process?

KWL: This book was a bit of a departure from my usual research process. Typically, I like to start with secondary sources for context before digging into primary sources to hear my characters’ voices in letters, diaries, and autobiographies.

At the time I started my research, there weren’t many book-length secondary sources about Cecilia at all. Dava Sobel’s GLASS UNIVERSE wasn’t out yet, nor was Donovan Moore’s biography. So I moved pretty quickly to primary sources like Cecilia’s published autobiography, her oral history from Harvard, and her research papers including her dissertation.

I did a lot of research around the edges, including the women who worked at Harvard Observatory and the field of astronomy and astrophysics to understand what was known in the field of astronomy at the time Cecilia was working. I talked to physicists and astronomers to discern the magnitude of her contributions.

EB: How much of yourself do you see in Cecilia?

KWL: What I’ve learned through this book and WOOD, WIRE, WINGS is that “STEM people” and “creative people” have so much in common. We’re all creative. We’re all problem solvers. We all take feedback. We all fail. So, yes, I feel a great affinity for Cecilia, especially that feeling of being lost and feeling hopeless, as well as that thrill of the shiny bright moment when an idea comes together and a new piece of knowledge or art comes into the world.

 

The Fire of Stars int2 astronomer Cecilia Payne studying stars
Interior art from The Fire of Stars written by Kirsten W. Larson and illustrated by Katherine Roy, Chronicle Books ©2023.

 

EB: Speaking of shiny and bright and everything coming together, Katherine Roy’s illustrations are breathtaking. What was it like seeing her preliminary sketches and watching them evolve?

KWL: Katherine’s work on this book is incredible, and it’s such a thrill to see her splattering paint and using toothbrushes to give the impression of star formation. 

The original visual idea for this book, which I put in art notes for our editor, was to split the story horizontally, with the star’s story on the top and Cecilia’s below. I saw some early sketches, and it wasn’t working the way we hoped. The star story seemed very disconnected from Cecilia’s. When Katherine shifted the two stories to a side-by-side the whole thing really started coming together. This just goes to show you the tremendous power of illustrators who know far more about visual storytelling than authors do. This book was such an adventure!

EB: I couldn’t agree more, from a reader’s perspective, that this book is an incredible adventure! One of my new all-time favorite picture books. Thank you so much for giving all of us a peek into your process.

Click here to purchase a copy of the book.

Click here for the publisher page for a good way to access activities, discussion topics, etc.

Social Media Links: @kirstenwlarson @kroystudio (Twitter) @chroniclekids

 

AUTHOR BIO:

Kirsten used to work with rocket scientists at NASA. Now she writes books for curious kids. Kirsten is the author of the picture books: 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, illustrated by Katy Wu (Clarion, 2021), THE FIRE OF STARS: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars Are Made Of, illustrated by Katherine Roy (Chronicle, February 2023), and THIS IS HOW YOU KNOW, illustrated by Cornelia Li (Little, Brown 2024). She also is the author of the middle-grade, graphic nonfiction, THE LIGHT OF RESISTANCE, illustrated by Barbara McClintock, (Roaring Brook, 2023), along with 25 nonfiction books for the school and library market. Kirsten lives near Los Angeles with her husband, lhasa-poo, and two curious kids. Visit her website at https://kirsten-w-larson.com

 

INTERVIEWER BIO:

Elisa Boxer is an Emmy and Murrow award-winning journalist whose work has been featured in publications including The New York Times and Fast Company. She has reported for newspapers, magazines, and TV stations, and has a passion for telling stories about people finding the courage to create change. She is the author of several nonfiction picture books including The Voice That Won the VoteA Seat at the TableOne Turtle’s Last Straw, SPLASH! (a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection), Covered in Color (called “compelling from cover to cover” in a Kirkus starred review) and Hidden Hope (called “an important true account to add to all collections” in a School Library Journal starred review). Elisa lives in Maine, and has more children’s books on the way. Visit her at https://www.elisaboxer.com

 

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Picture Book Review – Keeper of the Light

 

KEEPER OF THE LIGHT:
JULIET FISH NICHOLS FIGHTS THE SAN FRANCISCO FOG

Written by Caroline Arnold

Illustrated by Rachell Sumpter

(Cameron Kids; $18.99, Ages 4-8)

 

 

Keeper of the Light cover with bell machine

 

 

 

Keeper of the Light written by Caroline Arnold and illustrated by Rachell Sumpter is a fascinating, “fictionalized account based on true events and historical documents about Juliet Fish Nichols …” I love learning about historical figures, especially women who had non-traditional careers, whose stories might never be told were it not for an inquisitive picture book author.

 

Keeper of the Light int1 climbing 151 steps
Interior spread from Keeper of the Light written by Caroline Arnold and illustrated by Rachell Sumpter, Cameron Kids ©2022.

 

A widow at 42 and in need of a steady income, Juliet Fish Nichols worked for over a decade as Keeper of Angel Island Light Station in San Francisco Bay. Author Arnold presents an engaging interpretation of several years of Nichols’ life there—Point Knox to be precise—in log format so that readers can gain insight into the important responsibilities she was tasked with. This not only involved making sure the lamp (visible for up to 13 miles) was filled with oil, clean, and in working order but when needed, operating the fog bell machine.

Life may have been simple and calm most of the time but it could suddenly change when the weather grew foggy as it was wont to do. When that happened, Nichols had one thing in mind: Keep the boats safe. Then, on April 18, 1906, a horrendous earthquake rocked San Francisco. Buildings tumbled to the ground and deadly fires broke out all over the city. Nichols helped by hanging her lamp to guide the way for ferries transporting people to safety.

 

Keeper of the Light int2 San Fran earthquake
Interior spread from Keeper of the Light written by Caroline Arnold and illustrated by Rachell Sumpter, Cameron Kids ©2022.

 

On July 2 of that same year, as early as midday, fog began rolling in …

 

Keeper of the Light int3 thick fog
Interior spread from Keeper of the Light written by Caroline Arnold and illustrated by Rachell Sumpter, Cameron Kids ©2022.

 

When the fog’s vast thickness rendered the fog light useless to keep boats from crashing into the rocks the clang, clang of the bell could be heard. But it soon stopped. Nichols realized the bell machine was broken but there was no time to get help or repairs. The keeper had no choice but to grab a mallet and strike the bell herself … every fifteen seconds, throughout the night … for over 20 long hours … until the fog lifted. Nichols’ selfless efforts likely saved hundreds of lives that day when people were still recovering from April’s tragedy.

 

 

Keeper of the Light int4 ringing bell
Interior spread from Keeper of the Light written by Caroline Arnold and illustrated by Rachell Sumpter, Cameron Kids ©2022.

 

Sumpter’s warm-toned illustrations with a watercolor style perhaps mixed with pastels took me back in time to the turn of the twentieth-century San Francisco Bay area. They add atmosphere and tension in all the right places and, together with Arnold’s text, make this such an interesting read. We learn from the Author’s Note in the back matter that Nichols’ logs do exist but this fictionalized version makes them accessible to children by focusing on a few significant events during her 12-year tenure as keeper. I now want to visit Angel Island like Arnold did to see where this amazing woman lived and worked and to see firsthand the giant bell that, with Nichols’ help, saved so many from perishing.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
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Picture Book Review for Women’s History Month – Born Hungry

 

 

BORN HUNGRY:
Julia Child Becomes “the French Chef”

Written by  Alex Prud’homme

Illustrated by Sarah Green 

(Calkins Creek; $18.99 Ages 5-9)

 

 

BornHungryJuliaChildbyAlexPrud'hommeCover

 

 

Starred Review – The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

 

Julia Child’s grandnephew and the coauthor of her best-selling autobiography, My Life in France, has written an irresistibly delicious read if a picture book can be described that way. And, when coupled with Sarah Green’s gorgeous, mouth-watering illustrations, you might just have to run out and grab yourself a pain au chocolat to satisfy your craving after finishing Born Hungry.

This picture book memoir chronicles the travels, tastes, and meals that Julia Child experienced throughout her life, ultimately influencing her foray into cooking and broadcasting career as TV’s first-ever celebrity chef.  One apt and popular quote, “I was born hungry, not a cook” really sums up the essence of what this engaging bio is all about.

 

Born Hungry int1
Interior spread from Born Hungry: Julia Child Becomes “the French Chef” written by Alex Prud’homme and illustrated by Sarah Green, Calkins Creek ©2022.

 

Readers meet the young Julia McWilliams who wore “size twelve sneakers, stood six feet, two inches tall, played basketball, laughed loudly, and was curious about everything.” The author goes on to explain that Julia’s activity led to her having a rather large appetite. But because she grew up with a cook, she wasn’t encouraged to learn how to do so herself. Clearly, that did not stop her interest in food.

Early in her career during WWII, she worked in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), as a clerk typist for the US spy agency called the OSS. That posting introduced her to a wealth of new foods and it also introduced Julia to her future husband, Paul Child, who worked in the office next to hers. They shared the love of food, books, and travel. And while her love of cooking had yet to emerge, she did invent a recipe for shark repellant!

Back in the states after the war had ended, Julia made it her mission to learn how to cook. Now married, she thought cooking a meal would impress her husband. She even took a class but her attempts left something to be desired.

During a trip to Rouen in France, however, Julia had the best meal of her life, one that stayed with her and prompted a renewed interest to learn how to “make such a feast.” With Paul stationed in Paris for work, Julia enrolled in the renowned Le Cordon Bleu cooking school. She was the only female student and worked hard to hone her skills. She even read cookbooks in her free time! “I came to the conclusion I really must be French, only no one had ever informed me.” With her newly acquired expertise and love of French cuisine, Child eventually opened a cooking school with two friends.  She was committed to sharing what she’d learned with an emphasis on how “time and care” along with using fresh ingredients and reading the recipe before attempting to cook were key to creating “a thoroughly satisfying meal.”

 

Born Hungry int2
Interior spread from Born Hungry: Julia Child Becomes “the French Chef” written by Alex Prud’homme and illustrated by Sarah Green, Calkins Creek ©2022.

 

In the back matter, a comprehensive five-page Author’s Note details Julia’s life after 1961 when the couple retired from diplomatic service and relocated to Massachusetts. It’s in these pages readers learn about the cookbook that “changed Julia’s life.” Mastering the Art of French Cooking, written by Child along with two friends (and still in print), introduced an exciting new cooking approach to the American consumers who were hungry themselves to move on from canned goods to fresh ingredients in recipes that were fun to make. From there it was a public TV cooking show, followed by a long and illustrious career in the public eye. The rest, as they say, is history. If your appetite’s been whet, take advantage of Julia’s scrambled eggs recipe that is also included.

In Born Hungry, Prud’homme has perfectly captured Child’s zest for life (and the food in it) as well as her infectious personality that contributed to her enduring success. Green’s retro-looking art pops off the page and colorfully conveys both emotion and a keen sense of Child’s passion. For any parent or youngster who is curious about food and cooking, or looking for a positive example of a strong, influential woman who followed her dream, this picture book is a joy to read.

Click here for a Discussion Guide.

Read more about Alex Prud’homme here.

Read more about Sarah Green here.

For more information about Julia Child, please visit: juliachildfoundation.org

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Kids Picture Book Review – Just Ask! by Sonia Sotomayor

JUST ASK!

BE DIFFERENT, BE BRAVE, BE YOU

Written by Sonia Sotomayor

Illustrated by Rafael López

(Philomel Books; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

 

 

Just Ask Book Cover

 

STARRED REVIEW – Booklist

Feeling different, especially as a kid, can be tough. United States Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who was diagnosed with diabetes as a child, knows just how that feels. In Just Ask!, written by Sotomayor, along with art by award winning illustrator Rafael López, a group of children work together to build a community garden, asking questions of each other along the way.

The book opens with a letter from Sotomayor, the first Latina and third woman appointed to the Supreme Court. In it she explains to the reader how she felt different when kids watched as she injected insulin into her arm. But, she says, they never asked why! “If you ever wonder why someone is doing something different from other kids, Just Ask.

 

Just Ask int 4P10
Interior spread from Just Ask! Be Different, Be Brave, Be You written by Sonia Sotomayor and illustrated by Rafael López, Philomel Books ©2019.

 

A beautiful assortment of colors adorn the pages as children of various ethnicities, shapes and sizes are seen holding flower pots, pulling wagons and walking through nature. The first character we are introduced to is based on the author, Sonia. She compares the differences in a garden to the differences of people. “Thousands of plants bloom together, but every flower, every berry, and every leaf is different. Each has a different smell, different color, different shape, and different purpose.” She explains to the reader that, like plants, kids are different too. “Each of us grows in our own way, so if you are curious about other kids, Just Ask!”

In one illustration Sonia is sitting inside a large red rose petal injecting the insulin into her arm. The question that is asked is “Do you ever need to take medicine to be healthy?” As the reader turns the page, Rafael, just like the book illustrator’s name says, “I have asthma, which means I sometimes have trouble breathing and use an inhaler to make breathing easier.”

 

Just Ask int 4P12
Interior spread from Just Ask! Be Different, Be Brave, Be You written by Sonia Sotomayor and illustrated by Rafael López, Philomel Books ©2019.

 

While working together with smiles on their faces surrounded by rabbits, butterflies and birds each character poses a question to the readers. These in turn are answered by another child who may be feeling “different.” Sotomayor introduces us to characters with dyslexia, ADHD and autism. Anthony is seated in a wheelchair; Madison and Arturo are both blind and use canes; and a boy named Vijay demonstrates sign language because he is unable to hear.

Lopez’s art of rainbows and smiling trees welcomes the child who may also be feeling different into this imaginary place. Just Ask is a great for parents to read to a child who may be going through his or her own personal struggle. Questions such as “Do you ever feel frustrated?” give the child a chance to express emotions.

The story ends with Sonia gathered around all her new friends amidst the beautiful garden they have all created. She tells them, “when something seems different or new I just ask my parents or my teachers and they help me to understand.”

Sotomayor shares a heartwarming story, also available in Spanish, that asks the questions some children may not know how to ask. This is a great and most needed read for the child who may be dealing with something challenging, and the child who has a friend who seems different but they just aren’t quite sure how to ask. López, whose own son has high functioning autism, says “I am energized to give visual voice to Justice Sotomayor’s compelling story about seeing the world through a unique perspective and being you.” This book shows kids that differences can make us stronger and how maybe kids can use that strength and uniqueness to someday be a part of the highest United States court. I hope this book finds its way to library story times and into classrooms because it positively models respectful interaction between kids of all abilities.

 

  • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

Read another book illustrated by Rafael López here.

 

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Kids Book Review: National Dinosaur Day – When Sue Found Sue by Toni Buzzeo

WHEN SUE FOUND SUE:
SUE HENDRICKSON DISCOVERS HER T. REX
Written by Toni Buzzeo
Illustrated by Diana Sudyka
(Abrams BYR; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

 

When Sue Found Sue book cover illustration

 

Starred Review – Booklist

We may not be able to find which date is the real National Dinosaur Day (dates online vary), but what we have found is a really great new picture book reviewed today by Christine Van Zandt!

 

Toni Buzzeo’s nonfiction picture book, When Sue Found Sue: Sue Hendrickson Discovers Her T. Rex, centers around how childhood curiosity can launch a life of discovery. As a girl, Hendrickson was good at finding things; in 1990, searching for dinosaur fossils in South Dakota, she unearthed the world’s largest Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, distinguished for being exceptionally well-preserved and more than 90 percent complete. Aspiring paleontologists will appreciate the facts of the dig—both the excitement and the toiling excavation itself.

int artwork by Diana Sudyka from When Sue Found Sue
Interior spread from When Sue Found Sue: Sue Hendrickson Discovers Her T. Rex written by Toni Buzzeo and illustrated by Diana Sudyka, Abrams Books for Young Readers, ©2019.

 

Diana Sudyka’s colorfully engaging water-colored art offers a glimpse of Hendrickson’s life, often with a pet at her side (a detail sure to appeal to kids). Peek under the cover for a bonus illustration.

 

int illustr by Diana Sudyka from When Sue Found Sue
Interior spread from When Sue Found Sue: Sue Hendrickson Discovers Her T. Rex written by Toni Buzzeo and illustrated by Diana Sudyka, Abrams Books for Young Readers, ©2019.

 

In the back matter, we learn about the dispute over ownership of these magnificent bones—a fight between several parties but not involving Hendrickson herself. Hendrickson’s amazing life included working as a professional diver, specialist in paleontology fieldwork, specialist in fossil inclusions in amber, and long-standing member of the Franck Goddio marine archaeology team.

 

int art by Diana Sudyka from When Sue Found Sue by Toni Buzzeo
Interior spread from When Sue Found Sue: Sue Hendrickson Discovers Her T. Rex written by Toni Buzzeo and illustrated by Diana Sudyka, Abrams Books for Young Readers, ©2019.

 

 

Self-educated and adventurous, Hendrickson shows where life will lead if you’re open to following your interests. The story reinforces that our innate talents and fascinations stay with us and can develop into rewarding lives. Hendrickson’s T. rex fossil resides in The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, a place where she spent much time as a child.

 

CLICK HERE FOR A REVIEW OF ANOTHER BOOK BY TONI BUZZEO.

 

 

 

 

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