If there is any children’s author today capable of taking the gravity of a cosmic situation in stride, it’s Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano.
A STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) education consultant who develops science curricula by day, DeCristofano possesses the rare gift to make complex scientific concepts accessible to young audiences. She and illustrator Michael Carroll first joined forces in 2005 in Big Bang! The Tongue-Tickling Tale of a Speck that Became Spectacular, tackling the abstract wonders of the universe’s creation.
With A Black Hole Is NOT a Hole, they unite again both to pique readers’ curiosity and debunk the nebulous secrets surrounding black holes. DeCristofano’s clear prose, playful tone and engaging analogies marry well with Carroll’s dazzling acrylics and lush space photos courtesy of NASA, combining to present a superb resource on some of the most alluring astronomic phenomena around. With the author’s ready understanding of the universe as her oyster, we were curious to learn what moves her to distill such heady concepts for kids.
Find more great astronomy books for elementary-age children.
What made you decide to write for children?
I love writing for and with kids because it’s a very special time in our lives to experience wonder. I think from my science-education perspective, I see that formal education does a lot of very important things, but the books that [relate] to those themes and can take kids farther and more broadly and help them really connect with the questions they have are also a very important part of developing that science literacy as well as an English literacy. So that has been a strong piece of my motivation.
Another thing that I’ve really come to appreciate through my work with the books is the power of the visual image. I think everybody has a sense of how visual images impact us, but just really thinking seriously about visual thinking and visual understanding, I actually ended up writing a grant with a school district on developing science and visual literacy through joined science and art experiences, and it’s just fascinating to me. The word and image have this conversation that goes back and forth throughout the books but also throughout the broader world that we’re in. It’s added such a depth and dimension to my own experience to be able to participate in these creative works.
So what do you think of Michael’s illustrations?
They’re amazing! It’s Mike’s process as well as the vibrancy of his work that I find really exciting. It wouldn’t be right to say we collaborated closely on this, but once he had the images, they did a mock-up for me, and that kind of commentary helped me form what I wanted to get across. We wanted this to have a fun rather than dangerous aspect to it.
The whole motivation for writing about black holes for me was that this was the chance to set the record straight that black holes are not these scary, awful, anthropomorphized beasts going around and grabbing kids from their backyards. So it was really important that the images remain upbeat and depict what you want in your imagination and not what you fear.
Why do you think we as a society are so—pardon the pun—drawn to black holes?
I think it’s because they are, in part, named really well. If they were called gravitationally intense fields, I’m not sure people would be as captivated by them. And I think there’s that sense of immense power and maybe a little the fear of disappearing—you know, I wouldn’t say this to kids, but a little bit of that fear of mortality. I mean I’ve seen it happen to kids in a classroom when they understand some of the types of things that can happen over broad scales of time, like the sun will eventually grow and envelop the Earth. I’ve seen them understand what that means and get that there’s something very powerful, and we’re so small as humans and connected to it.
There’s also a fascination and wanting to lean over the edge and peer in, and that thrill of excitement that you kind of want to stay on safe ground, too. Black holes are definitely not something that we have to worry about, so I think it’s that whatever-draws-people-to-horror-movies kind of feeling.
Also, the idea that no matter how hard we try we cannot see into black holes or get any information out of them may be at the heart of the fascination. Perhaps they represent the ultimate mystery—the wrapped birthday present that can never be opened.
If readers were to take just one thing from this book, what should it be?
Just one, huh? You know, I can’t make choices about my favorite ice cream…I think I would want them to leave with that emotional sense I’m having trouble describing. It’s that capturing of the imagination and fascination and awe, not just at this phenomenon, but at the human enterprise of finding out about it. It’s that intellectual refreshment and excitement. Is that more than one thing?
A close second is I want child readers to feel connected to all of that—not that it’s happening because somebody else is very smart because they may not see themselves as very smart. I really want to be empowering to kids in a way that they’re connected to this enterprise; it’s not beyond them, and they can participate right now.
My husband and I used to go out to community centers with a series of astronomy activities called Make the Night Sky Your Own, and I really loved that piece of it. It’s not about having a telescope. It’s not about getting Sky & Telescope magazine and knowing everything that everybody else knows. It’s about going out there and having it make sense to you in new ways.
Erika Rohrbach spends her days helping international students at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and her nights and weekends in northern New Jersey.