Book Review: The Stuff of Stars

I AM SO SO SORRY ABOUT THE ADS! WORKING ON A BUDGET FOR THAT…

Author: Marion Dane Bauer
Illustrator: Ekua Holmes

Candlewick Press, 2018
Ages 6-12

The Stuff of Stars describes is a “big history” book that the describes the origins of the universe and through colorful semi-abstract art, and soaring verse that is scientifically accurate and poetic in equal measure. It begins at the beginning, with the Big Bang, moving through the expansion of the universe and the creation of the stars and planets, then proceeding towards the emergence of Earth, life, and us. The science is woven in so poetically that the untrained eye wouldn’t know it’s all describing real scientific concepts. It’s very cosmic in scope, cleverly connecting the child to these BIG processes along the way. It won the 2019 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, and it’s author has won the Kerlan Award for her body of work.

BIG science in a little story

My scientific background is not in the space sciences or physics, but I did need to learn the basics of deep time and geology as part of my education in evolutionary anthropology, and am a longtime voracious consumer of astronomy and cosmology. So I feel pretty confident in saying that this book appears very well researched. Every page introduces at least one scientific concept that I recognized.

The language is absolutely wonderful–and accurate, which is a really difficult to do when describing such non-intuitive concepts such as the incredible sizes and timescales that are the hallmarks of cosmology. And it does so in a way that helps connect the reader to it personally. It accomplishes this by cleverly anchoring the story in something it calls “a speck.”

The book begins by saying that in the beginning of the cosmos there was nothing at all, and then immediately zeroing in on this “Speck,” which I understand as being a reference to the belief that, at the earliest point we can detect, all matter in the universe was condensed into an impossibly small point infinite density and extreme heat. It describes the speck as being “invisible as thought/weighty as God.”

Using a series of perfectly descriptive verbs, the Big Bang and the events of it’s aftermath are described as having “unfolded” and “stretched” and “collided” and “fused.”

Getting more descriptive, the stars are described as having “caught fire,” which is pretty much perfect–I mean combustion is combustion, right? The stars, it says, “burned and burned and burned so long and so hot that they EXPLODED, flinging stardust everywhere.” This is a really neat page!

The book then describes the formation of star systems and planets, accurately stating, “The ash of the dying stars gathered into planets and circled other stars.”

As we proceed through the narrative, the narrator occasionally stops and addresses the child directly. It talks about how for a long time there were it was no life in the universe.

But still no bluebirds, no butterflies/no snails no giraffes/No you, no me.”

Periodically return to a new version of this wonderfully rhythmic refrain. It has the effect of connecting the reader to these grand events, but also helps to convey the idea that we are talking about some really huge timescales, here, and drive home the point that, for most of the time that the universe has existed, it existed without life. But what this refrain also does is lend a sense of building up to something–the emergence of life. The reader is spurred on.

Finally, we zoom in on Earth, which the author describes as, “lucky” (an allusion to the Goldilocks Zone) and “fragile.” So poignant.

The axial tilt of the Earth is described as being just right so that it is sometimes warm and sometimes cool. The importance of the tilt of the Earth in creating the seasons, and the importance of seasons to the sustaining of life–as well as the rituals and cultural practices of so many human cultures in times past.

Evolution is described much as other books like Grandmother Fish have done, representing generational change by referencing “great great grandparents,” and “more and more children.” It emphasizes the important roles that having children and death have in the evolutionary process.

After we have arrived on Earth, the Speck returns. Here, the Speck represents the child before they existed–as a thought, or as atoms, or both. It sets it up by saying “And then, YOU burst into the world!”

Then we turn the page to an absolutely beautiful spread, which reads, “You took a breath of the same air that was breathed by the wooly mammoths/You cried tears that were once salty seas/Your hair once the carbon in a leaf.” …All of which is known to be scientifically, amazingly, true.

“You took a breath of the same air that was breathed by the wooly mammoths/You cried tears that were once salty seas/Your hair once the carbon in a leaf”


Then it contextualizes this within the rest of “all the animals,” building to the final page, which reads:

“You
and me, loving you.
All of us are the stuff of stars.”


What of the author’s use of the word “God”?

Although this book does contain the word “God,” I would still read it to my child, as a secular parent. In the beginning of the book, the Speck is described as being “invisible as thought, weighty as God.” I don’t think that the author’s intention, here, is to imply that “God” with a capital “G” was present in this scene. I think what she’s trying to accomplish here is to use relatable constructs to describe abstract concepts. A child understands God as a very big and weighty thing–and so was the early universe inconceivably dense–but also impossibly massive. So what is the biggest, heaviest thing you can possibly imagine, that defies many of the physical laws we live with today? For a lot of children, that would thing would be God. The implication I took from it is that nature itself is just as big and just as profound as the idea of God.

Later on the narrator refers to “Love” in a similar way, when setting up the appearance of the child arriving onto the scene.

“Then one day in the dark in the dark, in the deep, deep dark, another speck floated invisible as dreams, special as love.”

Again, they’re trying to convey the feeling that, just as with God, the story is on the verge of revealing something profound and important: Life, and you.

I did not get the impression that the author is trying to “slip” religion in or appease religious audiences. It struck me more as a cultural reference. The narrative in this book isn’t even the idea of a New Age universal consciousness or anything like that, it’s purely focused in the science itself as a source of joy and spirituality unto itself. Every single page describes a scientific concept that I recognized. The goal is obviously to help children begin to understand the concept of deep timescales, evolutionary theory, to start to examine the “big” questions of their own origins, and all of the questions that leads to, and how they are personally connected. To begin to connect their own existence with the broader cosmos, and with the nature they see around them. This is an important and wonderful thing for a child to do as soon as they are able.

I would nevertheless be interested to know how the author made the decision to include the word “God,” because it really is a fraught subject, particularly when it comes to teaching children the origins of the universe and evolution. I would be curious to know here reasoning, and her own intention behind this passage.

Illustrations

Abstract art is perfect for depicting cosmic concepts, many of which introduced in The Stuff of Stars are pretty difficult to intuitively grasp–even to the adult human mind. Holmes’ illustrations are semi-abstract cut-outs made from hand-marbled paper, then assembled digitally into very colorful spreads. The illustrations won an award, but my experience of it was mixed.

Such beautiful words. Pity you can hardly see them.

Some spreads I absolutely loved. The spread that depicts the Big Bang, for example, or the moment where “YOU” (meaning the reader/child) burst onto the scene are wonderfully depicted and the feeling of those moments is crystal clear.

However, almost every spread had an element that kind of bothered me. They’re just…busy. There are lots of colorful swirls, but no clear color scheme. Some of the figures almost completely blend into the background. And I’m not sure if that is intentional, or not. At times I just felt like my eye didn’t quite know where to go. It felt rather like one of those Magic Eye books–even down to the grainy, TV-snow feel they had to them when viewing at close range.

I love the sparkly, futuristic title. But I daresay I rather liked the inside cover better! It is a deep midnight blue, with the faintest sheen that shimmered in the evening sun in the park where I read it.

The copy font, Caudex, is very “cosmic” at it’s standard boldness, but for this book the designer chose a heavy boldness, which I felt looked clunky and out of step with the theme. I can’t help but wonder if the choice to bolden it was a product of how busy the illustrations are.

Critiques

I have but few critiques of the content of this book.

After the introduction of Earth, the narrative kind of skips right to the emergence of animals and other life, and I think that’s a missed opportunity, because for quite a long time there was no life on Earth, and for quite a while after that there was only microbial life. It completely skips over the age of dinosaurs–which, I mean, HELLO! It’s a children’s book! Kids love dinosaurs! Moreover, they were around for a pretty good deal of time.

In introducing the birth of the child, It makes reference to “the carbon in a leaf.” I hesitate with the use of the word carbon in a children’s picture book, because most children in the target demo for this book will not have studied the elements yet. I feel like there had to have been a way to convey the same idea with different phrasing for this while still maintaining the poetry of it. Even just replacing the word with “stardust” would have been great. This really was the only area where I felt the learning level was out of step with the rest of the book.

Overall impression

I recommend this book for around ages 6 to 12, although I think any adult would enjoy flipping through it. Since newborns are still mostly just interested in shapes, being held, and hearing your voice, content doesn’t matter very much. So normally I encourage parents of newborns and small babies to read books to their babies that they (the adults) find interesting. Visually, though, I don’t think there is enough contrast in this book to appeal to newborns.

The Stuff of Stars is ambitious in its scope, and it delivers through rhythmic prose that will delight children of a wide range of ages. Although the art doesn’t quite knock it out of the park on every page, the science is robust enough to make it a lovely addition to any classroom, playroom shelf, or humanist children’s curriculum. This simultaneously sciencey and sentimental book leaves the reader feeling in awe of the impossible bigness of the universe, and aglow with the warmth of how lucky we are to have found each other in it.

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