The Fire of Stars – Perfect Picture Book Friday

Turns out that a parallel story structure—tracing the birth of a star along with the life of the woman who discovered the heart of their fire—is a perfect narrative metaphor.

Wrapped in a blanket of sparkling space,
an unformed star waits for its bright future to begin.
Text ©Kirsten Larson Illustration ©Katherine Roy

So begins the story of the star, and then the girl.

Cecilia kicks and cries. 
Until her mother 
sets her down 
so Cecilia can feel with her own tiny toes
the cold and crackly snow, 
which isn't soft and warm like she expected.
It's the first time Cecilia learns 
things aren't always as they seem.

And then the narrative brings them even closer.

In a cloud of dust and dirt,      
Text ©Kirsten Larson Illustration ©Katherine Roy

The sentence begins, at first describing the star’s experience, and then we discover it also prefaces Cecilia’s:

Cecilia spends hours watching slimy slugs
glide through her garden
and making friends with trees and flowers. 
There in the grass,
Text ©Kirsten Larson Illustration ©Katherine Roy
there comes a sudden jolt!

This ending phrase that begins the new spread refers to the star’s experience…but also to Cecilia’s discovery.

Cecilia realizes all by herself why an orchid has a petal 
like a bee's belly. 
To trick the bees of course!.....

The seamless interplay between the two threads continues throughout.

Cecilia faces a series of impediments (the largest being the nearly unscalable wall of sexism in science) to her desire for pursuing a career in astronomy and astrophysics, ones that she overcomes through determination and encouragement from a key mentor, a woman science teacher who sees Cecilia’s potential.

The interplay between text and illustration in this book is inspired. The way the spreads are split between the parallel stories, the use of light to depict moments of insight that lead to the birth of stars and ideas, and the open-ended question that leads the reader to wonder, perhaps see themselves as someone who may make a new discovery, too, works so beautifully that I’m sure this book is already on the short list for the Sibert. It might only be February, and we’ll see many new nonfiction titles coming up in 2023, but this one, folks, is nothing short of stellar.

The back matter includes more details about Cecilia’s life, including a timeline that shows how long she had to wait to be awarded a professorship, 30 years longer than her male colleagues. It also includes information about how one of the most prominent astronomers of the day first called her conclusion about stars “impossible,” and then published a paper arriving at her conclusion four years later but giving her little credit. This example is too painfully familiar as we learn more about the brilliant women of science who were ignored or whose work was appropriated by men.

The back matter also includes three pages that reprise the images and poetic text of the star’s birth and add a deeper explanation of the science behind it. This treatment allows the narrative arc of the main text to flow naturally without interruption, leaving the details for the reader to pore over at the end.

Oh, and the book has fabulous undies, too! My apologies for the poor photos.

Like I said, the shortlist for the Sibert!


Download The Fire of Stars Teacher’s Tips

Pair this book with The Diamond and the Boy by Hannah Holt. How are the author and illustrator’s storytelling methods the same? How are they different?

Build your own spectroscope by following this 20-minute Cambridge University Astronomy video.

Title: The Fire of Stars: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars Are Made Of

Author: Kirsten Larson

Illustrator: Katherine Roy

Publisher: Chronicle Books, 2023

Ages: Elementary school

Themes: Astronomy, biography of Cecilia Payne, perseverance

For more perfect picture book recommendations, please visit Susanna Hill’s website.

8 thoughts on “The Fire of Stars – Perfect Picture Book Friday

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