The new picture book from author Uma Krishnaswami, born and raised in India and now living in New Mexico, is a tribute to the starry skies of night-time. Well, stars you can see, that is, if the light pollution where you live isn’t too prevalent. That’s the case for Phoebe, the young girl in Bright Sky, Starry City, illustrated by debut picture book artist Aimée Sicuro. Phoebe longs “for the city lights to go OUT! Just for a while. Just to give the night sky a chance.” One night, “Crash! Boom!” There is a thunderstorm and, consequently, a power shortage. Phoebe gets her chance. She stands on the roof with her father, soaking in the wonder of the “bright night sky, with the stars in their constellations and the planets wheeling in their orbits.”
Krishnaswami, who also teaches writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts, is the author of many picture books and middle-grade novels for children. I talked to her via email about this new story, as well as her teaching and what projects on her plate right now are lighting her up like one very starry night sky.
Have you always loved to see the night-time sky and does that have anything to do with how this story came about?
In India where I grew up, it was so hot during the summer that we’d drag cots up to the rooftop and sleep under the sky. That was a magical experience, falling asleep as the stars came out. I was also married for many years to an astronomer. He taught me to make sense of what I was seeing in the night sky. I'll carry that gift with me always.
Many other strands of experience contributed to this book, such as urban blackout stories. The big one in 2003 brought great distress, true, but it also brought the unexpected delight of a sudden, brilliant canopy of stars. Living in New Mexico for many years taught me to see the night sky as a resource to be treasured and protected. All these things became part of the process of developing this book.
Your story captures the steady sense of wonder in children. Is it easy for you to remember that from your own childhood?
Very easy. I can summon it up in an instant. I was a restless child, easily distracted and easily excited. But if something grabbed my attention, I could focus on that for hours on end, becoming completely absorbed, consumed with wonder. Books evoked that kind of reaction in me. I spent quite a lot of time up in a tree with a book or two at a time, reading in blissful seclusion. I was also an only child. I had plenty of time on my own and I spent a lot of dreaming of imaginary worlds.
What was it like for you to see Aimée's illustrations? It must have been especially exciting, since this is her debut picture book.
I love the fluidity and sweep of Aimée’s illustrations. I was lucky to be able to see roughs all throughout the process. I also sent along a few references to make sure that the art would end up occupying that perfect space between imagination and accuracy that is necessary to a book like this. I’m so delighted by the results.
You've written for many ages—not just picture books, but also novels. What do you see as some of the rewards of writing picture books? What are the challenges (if any), especially compared to writing middle-grade novels?
The picture book is such a fabulous form! The great joy of writing picture book text is that I can hold the whole idea in my mind at once, all the way through the process of writing and rewriting. It’s like working with a small jewel.
That, of course, is also the big challenge. Not every idea I might get for a picture book has the heft and the substance to last through that process. Sometimes I can chip away for a long time and suddenly find that there was not enough there to begin with. That can be humbling. When a picture book does begin to take shape, when I begin to see it visually in my own mind, long before an illustrator has ever brought his or her magic to it—that’s when it becomes a purely joyful task.
With a novel, it takes a long time before I can visualize the whole story in my mind. I’m working piecemeal with scenes and sequences, characters and roles, threads of story that may not even be connected at first. Often I don’t know what the story is until I’m more than halfway through. The delight of writing a novel for me lies in discovering what that big idea is that’s struggling to get through.
So they’re very different, which is why I try to keep one longer work and one picture book in process at all times. When I get stuck with one (and that’s a given), I can free myself up by working on the other.
How does your teaching inform your writing, if at all?
When I talk to students about their work, I clear my desk of my own. That gives me permission to keep the conversation of story going, while taking my attention directly off my own work-in-progress. When I do get back to my writing, I find that something really strange has happened. I can see my work as if I were looking at someone else’s. Oddly, I find that the very problems I’ve so cleverly spotted in my students’ manuscripts are now staring me in the face, but now I can see them, where I couldn’t before. If I do this often enough, it gets me through a surprising number of drafts and revisions. Truly, in that sense, teaching blesses rather than informs my writing.
What's next for you? Working on anything now you're allowed to talk about?
I’m delighted to say that I’m starting revisions on a middle-grade historical novel for Tu Books, the wonderful Lee & Low imprint that has published Joseph Bruchac and Guadalupe Garcia McCall. No title as yet, but the story is set in 1940s’ California.
There is another draft that I can’t talk about, other than to say it’s nonfiction and has been an obsession for a long time. Both are projects that make me feel lucky that I’m able to do this work that is so close to my heart.
BRIGHT SKY, STARRY CITY. Copyright © 2015 by Uma Krishnaswami. Illustrations © 2015 by Aimée Sicuro. Published by Groundwood Books, Toronto. Spread here reproduced by permission of the publisher.
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.