To really earn her stripes as a picture book author, Sarvinder Naberhaus submitted several manuscripts, including Blue Sky White Stars, a book inspired by the American flag. She never imagined a superstar would agree to illustrate it.
“I didn’t have any idea that Kadir Nelson would illustrate my book!” says Naberhaus, a former elementary schoolteacher and media librarian whose previous books are Boom Boom,illustrated by Margaret Chodos-Irvine, and Lines,illustrated by Melinda Beck. She describes the experience of seeing the mock-up for Blue Sky White Stars (ages 3-7) as “totally surreal.
“It felt wonderful,” she told Kirkus in a conference call with Nelson. (It was the first time the two had spoken.) “It’s a beautiful book, and I feel like Kadir brought my words to life in a beautiful, meaningful, and deep way.”
Kadir Nelson is an acclaimed American artist whose paintings hang in numerous private and permanent collections; they’ve graced the cover of the New Yorker,as well as albums by Michael Jackson and Drake. He’s the illustrator of several New York Times bestselling children’s books, including his authorial debut, We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball,the winner of multiple Coretta Scott King Awards and Honors, two Caldecott Honors, and two NAACP Image Awards for Outstanding Literary Work.
In Naberhaus’ minimalistic paean to the American flag, Nelson found ample inspiration.
“Even though the words are sparing, they’re very visual,” Nelson says. “I could see the book as I read it and an opportunity to do something very big in scope—to do paintings that promote diversity, the power of and beauty of the landscape, American values, and the symbolism of the American flag. I liked how Sarvinder tied it all together and created a chance to celebrate America in a new way.”
Naberhaus was raised in Iowa, where her family emigrated from Punjab when she was 4 years old. Writing Blue Sky White Stars, she pictured her family and the generations of immigrants who came through Ellis Island—arriving at twilight as blue sky deepens and meets white stars.
In the book’s poetic text, opposing pages often modify meanings:
“Sea waves,” she writes—the image a rippling sea.
“See waves,” she writes—the image a rippling flag.
“Old glory,” reads a painting of daybreak over the Grand Canyon.
“Old glory,” reads a painting of fireworks over the Manhattan skyline.
“Sew together won nation” adorns a portrait of a young woman sewing a 13-star flag, à la Betsy Ross.
“So together one nation” captions American faces of all ages, colors, ethnicities, genders.
Nelson’s gift for capturing soulfulness in his portraiture makes Blue Sky White Stars unforgettably striking.
“Something that I’ve always tried to do with my work is to show the integrity of people—their strength, their soul—so that the light within emanates from the eyes and postures of whomever I’m portraying,” he says. “When people see that on the page, it reminds them of that part of themselves.
“That’s what’s great about [these images] being for children,” he says, “because children have that opportunity as well. No matter how old they are, they understand what is essentially human about themselves as they relate to others and learn to become who they’re going to be.”
Naberhaus and Nelson hope Blue Sky White Stars will be read by children of every stripe—and, in showcasing diversity, that it inspires inclusivity.
“This book speaks to both sides of the political spectrum,” Naberhaus says. “We all deserve to have our own opinions, but we all really want the same thing—healing [for] our nation. I hope this will be a unifying book.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews and is the co-host of the Kirkus podcast, Fully Booked. Photo above left is of Sarvinder Naberhaus and the photo above right is of Kadir Nelson.