How do you capture astrophysicist Carl Sagan in 32 pages? That was the challenge author-illustrator Stephanie Roth Sisson gave herself when deciding to both write and illustrate Star Stuff, her picture book biography of the famed author and astronomer. And the results are good, Kirkus even giving it a starred review and describing the book as both “friendly and inspiring—just like its subject.”
I chatted with Stephanie via email to ask her about the joys and challenges of this project, as well as what’s next on her plate.
This is not only the first book you both wrote and illustrated, but it's also a biography. What were the surprises and/or challenges, if any, in writing and illustrating a picture book biography for children?
It’s funny—at first I was so unsure of myself in this process that I resorted back to what I had known as an illustrator, which is that first I receive a manuscript and then I illustrate. I had been playing around with the idea of writing for quite a few years and had made a few attempts at it and always the same process—write first, then illustrate. It wasn’t until I just about put my critique group to sleep with one of my wordy first drafts of Star Stuff that someone in my group reminded me that I had both tools at my disposal—writing and illustrating. I was trying to describe everything about the story in words. Such an obvious thing, right? A picture book!
After that, with every revision I had fewer and fewer people nodding off with each subsequent draft. With every revision, the word count went lower as words and “show, don’t tell” became my guide. Even though Carl Sagan was a pretty complex guy, by being able to use both images and words together, I feel that I was able to communicate quite a bit about him.
Can you talk about your research for this book? I love the detailed notes in the back matter.
Carl Sagan was prolific. He used to walk around with one of those tape recorders that had a strap and a microphone on a cord and record ideas when they came to him. Ideas just poured out of the guy. I love that image of him wandering around with this, recording his thoughts about this and that.
I had many of Carl Sagan’s books to draw on as well as television, radio, and print interviews. Mostly, I was looking for material that would capture the feeling that he left his audience with—that feeling of wonder and wanting to explore and find out more. On the Internet, I was able to find some real gems, like an interview between Sidney Poitier and Carl Sagan about the Voyager missions. Mr. Poitier is so excited to be talking about the images the Voyagers were sending back.
And I found footage from the 1939 World’s Fair that rocked Carl’s world when he was five. That clip features Elektro the Westinghouse Motor Man, who could smoke cigarettes. There was news footage from the Viking 1 Lander touching down, which gave that feeling of being there as the event unfolded. The page where Dr. Sagan is sitting at JPL touching the screen came from that clip. I have so many bookmarks in my folder with some amazing NASA sites, such as the Voyager website that lets you explore almost everything about the missions, past and present.
One amazing thing that happened just before the book was finalized was that Voyager 1 was confirmed to have left our solar system and was now in interstellar space. So perfect, because Star Stuff starts Carl’s story when his world consisted of his neighborhood and, as the story unfolds, his landscape gets bigger and bigger. Voyager 1 leaving entering interstellar space gave the end of the story a new beginning and a lovely open ended-ness.
The research was superfun. I think that, if I wasn’t in this field, I would also love doing research alone. At one point my editor had to say “stop!” You can dig deeper and deeper and always find more and it can go on forever.
Did you see the Neil deGrasse Tyson Cosmos re-boot this year and what'd you think? (My family and I pretty much never drop anything just to watch TV, but we’d pop popcorn and do just that for this show. I thought Tyson did such a great job of giving credit to Sagan for all he did. And his story about meeting him for the first time made me cry.)
Yes! My family and I eagerly awaited its release and were riveted by the TV every week, as my parents and my sister and I were back in 1980 when the original series aired. We are living in Mauritius right now, but we streamed it online every week when a new episode was available.
So great to think of all of the families watching this together all over the globe. Neil deGrasse Tyson did a brilliant job. I think that the show’s creators made a wise choice in bringing him in and in bringing Carl Sagan in to the new Cosmos. I was tearing up, too. The whole production was beautifully done. When I looked over at our son, he was completely fascinated, a rare thing for a nonfiction show. He has been asking to watch it again. There was so much information in there, plus the visuals were gorgeous.
Still, with all of that, I love the original series. Dr. Sagan didn’t have all of the fancy special effects, but he had that voice and that way of explaining things that were charismatic and warm.
What's next for you?
The next books I’m writing are about things that I feel are important for kids/adults to know about right now. The Carl Sagan book came from the same place. I felt that seeing the world through the lens of science was beautiful and real and important. Speaking broadly, while Carl’s world dealt with scales that are almost beyond human comprehension, my next subject focuses on a much smaller scale—but no less complex or awe-inspiring.
I don’t know if every generation feels like this, but I feel like we are at a bit of a tipping point right now and that people in general are so easily distracted by a lot of not-very-important stuff.
STAR STUFF. Copyright © 2014 by Stephanie Roth Sisson. Published by Roaring Brook Press, New York. Illustration reproduced by permission of the author.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.