Elin Kelsey is an award-winning author and an international leader in the field of environmental science and education. Her new book, You Are Stardust, offers readers engaging scientific insights that Kirkus said will spark “adult and child conversations about our place in the universe.”
We recently had a chance to catch up with Kelsey, and she shared her thoughts on the pleasures and inspiration of writing for children.
See all the picture books that made our list of the Best Children's Books of 2012.
I confess that I never saw my sneezing, breathing family as pollinators before! How did you choose what science to include? Did you have to cut interesting facts for space purposes?
We had to take out a lot. As a science writer, I was really taken by the science behind the ideas. In earlier drafts, there was a big chunk of science content behind the poetic terms that introduced ideas. But… the editor I worked with for most of the book had a strong sense that it was the power of the poetry that would best convey the ideas, and that we had other places (like the associated website) where we could explain the nitty-gritty of how the science worked. The more I tested the book with young readers—every Thursday, I have a gang of kids come over to my house… and I run the ideas past them—the more I thought she was right. The details of the science, though compelling to kids, were in some places working against the flow of the book.
The illustrations—three-dimensional shadowboxes—look handmade rather than computer generated. What was your reaction to the illustrations and how do they help convey your message?
I hope that the… illustration style and the poetic language subtly reinforce the idea that if we’re interested in sustainability on Earth, it will not come just through technological knowledge but from our ability to release our creative beings to becoming open to the breadth and magnificence of the imagination. I really love the illustrations, their handmade quality—and [Soyeon Kim’s] use of natural materials, like the flowers dried from her own garden, that she strung for the scene of “Your breath is alive with the promise of flowers.” It’s really important to bring the intimacy of these grand ideas home. I also loved the way she used materials we’d find in our everyday lives, like the wool and the yarn she spun, in order to get across the idea “You started life as a single cell. So did all other creatures on planet Earth.” There’s simple pieces of yarn moving from the illustrated paper pieces of stardust and threading through the paper of a tiny developing cell and then wrapping around a young whale and then unfurling into a beautiful illustration of the whale. The scientific underpinning is there but the hand-crafted aspect of the illustrations makes the leaps in ways that are far easier for a young child to understand.
It’s clear how your scientific background informs your writing for children. How does the work you do with children affect your environmental consulting?
It does in lots of ways! The way we relate to the environment is dominated by a gloom-and-doom narrative: that things used to be fantastic on Earth and now they’re really wrecked. That’s far too limiting a view. Whenever you have one narrative, it’s dangerous. And we see this same one reinforced over and over in environmental films and curriculum… We need to move beyond this single story of doom and gloom to much more diverse narratives around hope and resiliency and creativity. [For example], scientists now are finding in certain areas of coral reefs, if the pressure of overfishing is removed for five to seven years, you see an amazing recovery in just that short a time. Resilience science is a big area that I’m really interested in.
My work with children keeps me very committed to this idea: How do I keep the creativity, the resiliency of children, the idea of hope and multiple narratives in the work I do with scientists and policy makers? That’s really something that comes more easily to me because I am so engaged with these same ideas with the children I’m working with.
With Not Your Typical Book About the Environment, you said wanted to write a “hopeful” book about the environment. How would you characterize your mission with this new book?I wanted You Are Stardust to build on that hopeful theme. There’s been a real movement worldwide concerned with the increasing disconnect between children and the natural world. I wanted to get across the idea that, no matter how we intellectualize it, we simply are nature. The poetic, ephemeral tone of the book encourages not only a knowledge of that idea, but really a feeling of that intimate connection. That’s what I hope the book does.