Hello, Star. A Talk With Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic
It isn’t enough that today’s my book birthday. I want to talk about other books as well! Books like the newest picture book to come via Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic. She’s a longtime fan of my podcast Fuse 8 n’ Kate and I’m a longtime fan of her books, like The End of Something Wonderful, which is possibly my favorite dead pet book out there. Her latest, Hello, Star, is best described by the publisher this way:
Stunningly illustrated by #1 New York Times bestselling artist Vashti Harrison, Hello, Star (written by Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic) is an inspiring story about a love of science and the importance of empathy.
When a young girl learns that a bright light in the sky is coming from a dying star, she promises to keep it company until the light goes out. Every night the girl reassures her friend that she is still there.
As the years pass, the girl learns everything she can about planets, space, and the universe, inspired by her dimming friend&;until she realizes she needs to do something more.
This touching tribute to stars, space, and science celebrates how a small act of compassion can flourish into a life full of meaning and wonder.
And since Stephanie’s one of my favorite people to talk with, this interview was pure gravy:
Betsy Bird: Stephanie, hello hello! It’s so good to talk to you again! I’ve so many questions for you, I don’t quite know when to start. Let’s try it this way: How did HELLO, STAR come about? And was it created before the pandemic or during it?
Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic: Hi Betsy! It’s so nice to be back on your lovely blog!
While I do have some books I wrote and sold during the pandemic coming out in a few years, HELLO, STAR is not one of them. I wrote the first draft of HELLO, STAR back in 2015 before I even had an agent. I sent it around to the few publishers that accepted slush pile submissions and I got some interest, but nothing solid, so I put it away and kept querying agents with other manuscripts.
By the time I was offered representation by New Leaf Literary in 2017, I no longer really considered HELLO, STAR a viable manuscript. However, I decided to show it to my agent in a, “I don’t know if there’s anything here” sort of way. To my surprise, my agent immediately loved it and wanted to send it out on submission. She sold it to Little, Brown in early 2018.
BB: Ah, the long lead time of publishing. I know it well. Now when an adult hands a child a fact about the universe that’s as big as the one in this book (the girl discovers that the star she sees in the sky is dying) that grown-up has probably long since forgotten how immediate these facts feel to young people. But a child reading this book will instantly understand why the girl in the story feels as though she needs to comfort a dying star. The million dollar question here is, how do you tap into the immediacy of that kid’s feelings? How do you remember how raw childhood emotions can feel?
SVWL: My answer to this actually ties into your first question above: “How did HELLO, STAR come about?” This book truly came about because my sensitive older son, who was in first grade at the time, was obsessed with all things space. One night, he asked me, “Did you know that stars die? Isn’t that sad?”
Being sad over a star going supernova was something that had never occurred to me. However, being sad or feeling great love for inanimate objects is deeply tied to my own childhood. I still sleep with the teddy bear that was given to me as a baby. (And I would be distraught to lose him.)
So I tied the two together and I asked myself: “What would a child do with that sadness, that empathy for a dying star?” And the answer was, “They’d want to take care of it.” So next I asked, “How would they take care of it?” and I started writing.
Having kids or being kid-adjacent can really help you connect to and remember exactly how certain moments felt in your own childhood. I think it’s really important to our lasting humanity that no adult ever loses that connection. Reading children’s literature — even if they don’t have children — can keep adults connected to their childhood in a way that fosters empathy and understanding.
For me, in addition to constantly reading children’s literature, I’m also lucky to have two amazing kids, and I listen very intently to them. I listen to what they find hilarious and what upsets them deeply.
Sitting next to my youngest during his endless months of distance learning and seeing all his pain and frustration caused me to write a young middle grade novel-in-verse about the distance learning experience. I poured all his anger over masks and glitchy technology into poems that also captured his quarantine interest in hummingbirds. I also captured his experience of feeling alone and unseen even when in the middle of your own family.
Specifically listening to how kids talk and writing it down, word-for-word, is another really excellent way into a child’s mind. There’s a funny little brother character in my upcoming middle grade and pretty much everything he says is in the book is verbatim what one of my kids has said at some point.
BB: School Library Journal recently featured an article called “The Truth is In There” about “blended nonfiction”. Which is to say, fiction that blends nonfiction elements into the storyline. Would you typify HELLO STAR in this way? Or would you call it purely fictional?
SVWL: Yes, I would call it “blended nonfiction.” I specifically wanted this to be a book that contained fascinating facts about space wrapped up in a touchstone story about love and death, about being a parent and being a child, about inspiration and dedication. And if I could show how gorgeous and wonderful science could be, I would be able to honor my inspiration: my son. See, I was never interested in space until Henry came along with his sweet heart and his burning-with-questions brain and showed me how gorgeous and wonderful space truly is.
In that sense, he is my star.
BB: One of the most interesting things about your book is that it follows a girl from childhood to adulthood. A lot of picture books stay squarely in childhood. Why was it important to allow the girl to grow up?
SVWL: I know there are “rules” about picture books not featuring adults. But I also know there are plenty of well-known books that break that rule. As an unknown, unpublished author, I was well aware that, in having the girl grow up, I could be damning the story to never see the light of day. But I didn’t want this to be a purely fantastical story where we see the child build herself a rocket out of pillows and blankets and go to her star. That was too easy and too predictable — both for the girl in the story and for a picture book. I wanted this story to show that achieving your dreams isn’t always so easy and that working toward something — even if it takes years or a lifetime — has rewards grounded in just how difficult it can be to get there.
BB: If given the chance, would you travel to space like the girl? Would you take her journey?
SVWL: No way. While both my husband and my older son have wanted to be astronauts at some point in their lives, I have never wanted that for me. In the first place, I get severely motion sick and it’s only gotten worse as I’ve gotten older for some reason. I just can’t imagine functioning through that level of nausea. And in the second place, the vast darkness of space terrifies me on an existential level. I find it hard to get my head around its never-endingness. The vastness freaks me out.
However, while I would never make the journey myself, I’m more than happy to stand here on Earth and help others get there if I can.
BB: Yeah, I’m with you at that one. I think reading Ray Bradbury as a kid sort of ruined me for space travel forever. So was there anything you wish you could have included? Did anything end up on the cutting room floor, so to speak?
SVWL: I did have an alternate ending that differed only because of the type of neutron star I decided to portray. To explain: after a star goes supernova, it leaves behind a lot of material, like stardust and even newborn stars. (There are areas in space that are known as “stellar nurseries” and I really wish I could have worked that in because I find the idea of baby stars wriggling around in some sparkling nursery beautiful and adorable.) Something else that is also left behind post-supernova is a neutron star. There are different types of neutron stars and one is called a pulsar star. A pulsar star produces beams of light that swoop around like a searchlight as the star itself spins around. The sweeping of the radiation beam makes it look like the star is blinking on and off, or pulsing and beating, like a heart.
So, if I had gone with the idea of the supernova resulting in a pulsar star, the ending would have been:
“Far far far away in the quietest depths of space, the tired supernova sighed and cracked into a pulsing star, its heart beating young and new and bright and strong.”
I also had a bunch of backmatter that I carefully researched and wrote up to provide more information about the space-y things mentioned in the book. I talk about gravity, the distance to the moon, how no woman has walked on the moon (yet), how many stars we can see and how many more are out there, etc.
One particular bit that I was very sorry to lose was about the space probe Juno, which was launched in 2011 on a mission to Jupiter. Juno arrived at Jupiter in 2016 and was due to end her mission in 2018. Writing about the end of Juno’s mission had me in tears (empathy for an inanimate object again!):
“At the end of its fact-gathering mission, Juno will not journey back to the scientists who launched it from Earth. Instead, on February 20, 2018, Juno will slow itself down and tumble deep into Jupiter’s high-density atmosphere where the space probe will burn up and be destroyed. However, while Juno’s mission must end, the knowledge gained from that mission never will, as we continue to ask questions and seek answers.”
Fun fact: Juno’s mission has been extended to 2025, so she’s still out there gathering information for us.
But we didn’t have room to include all of that, so I created a downloadable teaching resource and put it on my website.
BB: Well I don’t know about you, but I know that some authors make little lists of the illustrators they wish they could have and others just block out everything and take whatever illustrators the publishers pair them with passively. You seem to consistently luck out in the whole illustrator department. What was your reaction when you found out that your book would be illustrated by Vashti Harrison?
SVWL: Yes, I have long had it hammered into my author brain that we should expect to have precious little say over the choice of illustrators. However, I have also been really lucky to work with editors who have asked for my input, and the illustrator search is one of my favorite parts of publishing picture books.
When my editor at Little Brown asked me if I had illustrator ideas, I gave her a list of women whose work I adored. Number one on that list was Vashti Harrison. I had been following her on Twitter for a few years and I was gobsmacked by the way she portrayed reflecting light, stars, and dark skies. Her work was just so gorgeous that I couldn’t help but think of her when I was subbing HELLO, STAR all those years ago. And when Deirdre called me from Little Brown to tell me Vashti was on board, I was shaking and in tears.
BB: I love it when a plan comes together. Finally, what do you have coming out next?
SVWL: “Next” is so relative in these supply chain-challenged days! A month ago, I would have said that my debut middle grade with Clarion — THE LEAGUE OF PICKY EATERS — was next but it’s going to turn out that HELLO, STAR will pub the week *after* that book instead of the month before!
However, beyond the novel, I have a picture book with Nancy Paulsen and illustrator Kelsey Buzzell coming out in 2023. I also have another picture book coming in 2024 that hasn’t been announced yet and what I can say is that it’s about a playground rite of passage that all of us — big and small — will instantly connect to. It’s an achievement you never, ever forget.
Many thanks to Stephanie for answering my questions in such lovely detail and to Sydney Tillman and the folks at Little, Brown
Hello, Star is on bookshelves everywhere October 19th!
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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