Check This Out—The Stuff Between the Stars: How Vera Rubin Discovered Most of the Universe

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.

SandraNickel   TheStuffBetweenTheStars

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.

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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.

Vera Facing the Senior Astronomers

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.

Vera 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.

Looking for Sandra? Check out her website, Twitter, and Instagram.

Looking for The Stuff Between the Stars? Look for it at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Indiebound, Bookshop, or your favorite local bookstore.

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. 

Check This Out: The Book Passage Children’s Writer’s Conference

I don’t think I have ever talked about conferences for writers on the blog, let alone had someone on who coordinates one. But with me on the blog is the fabulous Pamela Livingston, who roomed with me during grad school. She’s here to talk about the Book Passage Children’s Writer’s Conference in Corte Madera, California.

  

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Pamela: 1. I was the Macy’s Easter Bunny.
2. I am the proud owner of both a VCFA MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults degree plus a Picture Book Certificate which I may have illustrated before finally finding space on a wall.
3. My newest aka is “Mama Goose” of Goosebottom Books since purchasing this award-winning publishing house from its founder, Shirin Bridges.
4. I’ve been a circus star stage mom.

El Space: Tell us about Book Passage. What is it? What is your role in this conference?
Pamela: Book Passage is one of the greatest indie bookstores in the world, having survived and thrived for forty-one years and counting under the eagle eye of Elaine Petrocelli, the voice of indies for NPR and other media outlets. I’ve been the conference director since 2016, although it feels more like a curatorial position, developing a potent experience for our participants. Over fifty percent of our attendees return year after year—this was the first writing conference I attended over ten years ago. Since I also head Book Passage’s Path to Publishing program, this conference provides me with an opportunity to mix in all of the components for children’s writers and illustrators.

El Space: How long is the conference? How many years has the conference been held?
Pamela: This conference is a three-day, Friday morning through Sunday afternoon, festival which includes meals with our faculty under a northern California sky. For almost twenty years we’ve held it at our Corte Madera store, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. It was the first children’s writers and illustrators conference in the San Francisco Bay Area.

El Space: What challenges do you face setting up a conference like this? What do you find most enjoyable?
Pamela: Embracing all of our children’s literary community is my highest priority while providing educational excellence. To that end, our faculty represents members of SCBWI, VCFA’s Writing for Children and Young Adults program, award winners from a wide range of genres, diversity in all sectors, experts in the business of books, plus dedicated editors and agents who can move our participants’ work to the next level.

I thoroughly enjoy every aspect of this process, from coordinating with the authors, editors, and agents whom I’ve long admired, to hanging out with the conference’s attendees. It’s as if a wand was waived by the Fairy Queen of Books to create a dream weekend for my favorite people in the world. When I take into account faculty such as Elizabeth Partridge, Ellen Klages, Gennifer Choldenko, Tim McCanna, and Ying Compestine; plus Creston Books’ legendary founder Marissa Moss; Jennifer de Chiara’s venerable agent Stephen Fraser and representatives from West Coast agencies; editors from Bloomsbury and Cameron Kids—all in one place—I know I’m in for three days nestled in the Land of Enchantment.

El Space: I’m especially stoked that Betsy Patridge (photo at the right) will be there, since she was one of my lovely advisors. Why is a conference like this important for a writer? What makes this conference unique?
Pamela: Conferences are the best way for a new writer to learn if this is a world they want to be in, what it will take, plus pick up the tools and network they need to get them there. As this conference is held at the most lauded independent bookstore in America, we are able to pull back the curtain on the business of books. My journey began as a storyteller, but I knew nothing about the mechanisms behind the business of bringing those stories from the page to the patron. Even my two graduate degrees in writing were light on the business end of this process. It wasn’t until I managed a bookstore and bought a micro-publishing house that I developed a clear picture of this process. This conference not only focuses on the craft of writing, it provides the creators of children’s stories with an understanding of the business of books.

El Space: What can a writer expect at a conference like this?
Pamela: Our conference is both intimate and active, with options for participants to choose their educational opportunities along with a comfortable bookstore setting and café to meet, chat and get to know the faculty and each other. At last year’s conference, I was as impressed with the participants as I was with the faculty, since our attendees included a multi-Grammy award winner, adult genre-published authors changing to the children’s market, author networking leaders, teachers, librarians, etc. And did I mention the food? Let’s just say that one of the best restaurants in the county caters dinner!

El Space: Who should people contact for more information?
Pamela: For more information, folks will want to check-out our website where updates are posted, along with our Book Passage Conferences Facebook page.

El Space: What are you working on?
Pamela: Besides the conference, finding the perfect illustrator for a Goosebottom Book on Marco Polo, learning Quark, and praying that a particularly wonderful editor flips over one of my circus picture books.

El Space: Thanks for being my guest, Pamela!

Photos of the conference crowd scenes by Ying Chang Compestine. Conference logo designed by Mary Osborn. Pamela Livingston photo by Valerie Kippen. Elizabeth Partridge photo from her website.

Writing for Children: “Real” Writing

Before I announce the winner of Andra Watkins’s photo book, Natchez Trace: Tracts in Time (see interview post here), you have to put up with a soapbox rant.

With this being Children’s Book Week, I’m reminded of conversations I’ve had over the years with people about writing for kids. Some conversations have been fruitful; others frustrating.

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When one questioner asked what I worked on, and I responded, “A novel for kids,” the follow-up question was, “When are you going to do some real writing?” Translation: “When are you going to write for adults?” Because adult writing is “real” writing.

I doubt anyone asked J. K. Rowling, “When are you going to do some real writing?” while she wrote her Harry Potter series. I can’t imagine anyone asking John Green that either.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against writing for adults. I’ve written books for adults. I simply prefer to write middle grade and young adult novels. It is a conscious choice. That is why my grad school program was Writing for Children and Young Adults. Catchy, huh?

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Still, I’m always amazed at some who have expressed the view that writing for children is somehow inferior to that for adults. After all, they’re kids, right? What do they know about quality? Those who expressed that view to me, cited books and movies with fart jokes and such to make their case, then blithely state, “This isn’t Shakespeare.” As if there weren’t adult books and movies with fart jokes (Dumb and Dumber; many Adam Sandler movies; click here if you doubt that)—creations many adults would label “as far from Shakespeare as East is from West.” Again, I am not putting these down. I have seen many Adam Sandler movies. But I sense a double standard here.

I’ve also heard people talk about how “easy” writing a book or curriculum for children is. In regard to curriculum writing, someone once asked me, “You get paid to do that?” I wish I was kidding. But that remarks harks back to the view that writing for children is somehow inferior, especially if my getting paid for it is a question in someone’s mind.

When in the midst of writing anything for a child, I think of a car seat. Why, you ask, would I do that? Consider how picky many parents are about car seats. They want the best car seat money can buy to keep their child safe. They wouldn’t dare buy something they assume is inferior. So why not have that same view about what a child reads.

Trust me: a child will think about the stories he or she has read a lot longer than he or she thinks about that car seat. Who among us is unable to recall a story that enthralled us when we were kids? More than likely, we can instantly name wonderful stories we read decades ago.

That’s why kids deserve my best efforts. The people I know who produce books for kids have the same viewpoint.

And lest anyone think that writing a book for kids is easy, perhaps you should take a look below at the Goodreads question-and-answer session with Jacqueline Woodson, who won the 2014 National Book Award, the 2015 Newbery Honor, and the 2015 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work—Youth/Teens for this book:

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Congratulations on winning the NBA award! What comes next for you?
Jacqueline Woodson I’m not working on anything right now. Brown Girl Dreaming took over three years and more than 31 revisions (I stopped counting!)

Woodson’s response shows an admirable dedication to quality. This is not to say that every book has to have that number of revisions. I’ve never revised a book that many times!

I’m also reminded of Markus Zusak’s most celebrated book: The Book Thief. In his TEDTalk (click here), he discusses his revision process for it. He has the same dedication to quality. His book, by the way, was a Printz Honor award winner in 2007 and was on the bestseller list for years.

19063 Zusak Markus

Okay. The soapbox rant is over. Time to give away Andra’s book.

alw-headshot-blognttit_cover-reduced

It is my pleasure to announce that the winner of Natchez Trace: Tracts in Time is none other than . . .

Than . . .

Than . . .

Than . . .

Naomi of Bmoreenergy!

Congratulations, Naomi! Please confirm by commenting below. Also, please email!

Journal and pen from cauldronsandcupcakes.files.wordpress.com. Children clip art from vinesspeechtx.wordpress.com. Jacqueline Woodson from autostraddle.com. studio360.org. Book covers from Goodreads. Markus Zusak from thehouseofbooks.com.