Welcome to the blog! Returning to the blog today is the awesome Sandra Nickel, who is here to talk about her latest picture book biography, The Stuff Between the Stars: How Vera Rubin Discovered Most of the Universe. It was published by Abrams in March of this year and was illustrated by the amazing Aimée Sicuro.
Check out the fab book trailer.
If you’ve been around the blog over the years, you know the drill. Once I talk to Sandra, I’ll tell you how you can get this book for free in a drawing that I am hosting.
El Space: Since your picture book is all about astronomy: If you could name a star, what would you name it?
Sandra: Does it have to be one star? Or can it be a star cluster like the Pleiades? I always loved the idea of the Seven Sisters, up in the sky, named after their mother. My mother gave birth to three of us. Maybe we could be the Eleanores.
El Space: How did you come to this project? Sadly, I didn’t know anything about Vera Rubin until I read your book. I certainly didn’t know her connection to the study of dark matter.
Sandra: I also didn’t know about Vera Rubin, not until Kate Hosford (below), a wonderful picture book author, texted me and told me about a tribute to her in The New York Times. I read the article and was captivated. I started researching that very day.
El Space: Tell us about the research. How did your findings help you decide on the story angle? At what point did you decide you’d done enough research to make a start or to conclude the writing?
Sandra: When I read The New York Times article, Vera had died two days before and papers were flooded with homages to her. After reading these, I found articles and a book Vera had written. The greatest discoveries, however, were interviews with Vera. They gave such a clear vision of her personality, childhood, home life, and struggles.
For the most part, editors no longer require picture book biographies to tell a person’s story from cradle to grave. They are looking for a story that fits into the classic story structure. Introduction. Rising Action. Climax. Resolution. I had the introduction early on, because Vera said she fell in love with stars when she was eleven. The climax had to be her discovery. That left me searching for rising action. Vera had so many challenges thrown in her path—far more than made it into the book. Once I was confident that I had found the most important ones, I knew I had enough to start putting the rising action together. The trick was to select experiences that resonate with children. I chose the experience illustrated below because everyone can understand how awful it is to be the only one against a crowd.
El Space: Your book is so beautifully written. How challenging was it to explain scientific concepts in picture book form?
Sandra: From the beginning, I knew I needed to come up with imagery that would help children understand. I searched and searched for different ways to describe gravity, galaxies, and dark matter. Once I had all of these in my head, it became very clear that these same descriptions could be used to portray Vera Rubin’s life itself. It was challenging from the point of view of filling my mind with new ideas. Minds don’t always want to accept new things. But once that was done, it wasn’t challenging at all. The metaphors appeared as if they had always been there.
El Space: How long was the process from writing to publication? Did you have much contact with the illustrator, Aimée Sicuro? Why or why not?
Sandra: It took over four years from the afternoon I read The New York Times article to the day The Stuff Between the Stars came out. With some nonfiction picture books, the writer and illustrator need to exchange information because the writer discovers photographs and descriptions through private sources not available to the general public. My book Nacho’s Nachos was that way. The Stuff Between the Stars was completely different. There are a number of photographs of Vera Rubin online, and Aimée Sicuro discovered each one of them. She asked for only one thing from me: one of Vera’s equations. She incorporated it into the gorgeous illustration below where Vera stays up working at night as her family sleeps.
El Space: What did you learn about Vera’s life that inspired you in your own life?
Sandra: The greatest Vera Rubin lesson is: Choose your own way. I know that seems cliché. But it’s harder than it sounds. It’s easy to fall into thinking that life is just hard, that suffering is part of the journey. I love that Vera said, I don’t like being treated harshly, I don’t like all the negativity. I love that she found a way far from all that and then discovered something bigger than everyone else. I’ll never discover something as immense as dark matter, but by doing things my way, my writing will hopefully be infused with joy. Because it makes me happy. And that is marvelous already.
El Space: What will you work on next?
Sandra: There’s a book I’m working on right now with an editor that I hope will bring readers the kind of joy I’m talking about. It involves a very big bear and a very little fish who see the world in very different ways.
Thank you, Sandra for being my guest!
If you want to learn more about The Stuff Between the Stars, check out this video produced by the Smithsonian. In it, Sandra reads the book and interviews Aimée Sicuro. You’ll also see a fun demonstration by Aimée on painting a galaxy.
But one of you will look in your mailbox or tablet and go, “Oh my goodness! A free book!” Comment below to be entered in a drawing to receive a copy of The Stuff Between the Stars. Winner to be announced sometime next week.
Author photo, book spreads, and book cover courtesy of the author. Illustrations by Aimée Sicuro. Author photo credit: Emo-Photo.