Review of the Day – Star Child: A Biographical Constellation of Octavia Estelle Butler by Ibi Zoboi
The term “ignorance is bliss” isn’t a completely accurate recounting of the original line. In Thomas Gray’s 1742 poem “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College” (and gee whiz, can’t we all relate to that one?) he wrote, “Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.” This is, generally speaking, a whole lotta horse hockey, but as with all things it does sometimes hit home. In the case of my own complete and utter ignorance of the life of science fiction luminary Octavia Butler, the bliss did not come from the ignorance but from the sheer delight of sloughing that ignorance off. Here’s a true statement for you: If you live a good life and are true to yourself and persevere, you might, you MIGHT, be lucky enough to get someone like Ibi Zoboi to write your biography for kids. Maybe. Honestly, it’s like a one in a million chance, but even with those odds I’d say it was worth it. With care, grace, and not a little cleverness, Zoboi doesn’t just introduce Butler to kids in the book Star Child. She makes it very clear from the get go that young Octavia was one of us. A supremely relatable person with a drive and output that far outstripped her times.
Out of five pregnancies, Octavia Estelle Butler was the only child to survive. Born to Octavia Margaret Butler and Laurice Butler, her father died when she was four. After that she and her family migrated, like so many other African Americans, away from Louisiana to Southern California. It was there that she daydreamed and got lost in her own mind. That kind of stuff could get a kid labeled “slow” or “backwards”, but she read the Bible every day as a child and, when older, horse stories and fairy tales. It was science fiction where things took off, though. She saw the, frankly terrible, film “Devil Girl from Mars” and figured she could write something better than that. Then she’d buy pulp magazines in the grocery store. After that, it only made sense for her to start submitting her own stories to them. She submitted and submitted and sold her first story at twenty-four. Her first novel was published five years later. Through poems that highlight not simply the times in which Octavia lived but her own life as well, young readers are immersed in a life of a woman who called herself, “an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty, and drive.”
A biographer for children makes many of the same choices that a biographer of a work for adults might. In both cases you have to decide what aspects of your subject’s life are worth telling and what aspects might be better suited to the dustbin of history. But a children’s book biographer has other considerations to take into account as well. Let’s start with the basics – why are you even writing this bio? On the surface, Octavia Butler might seem like an odd choice. She never specifically wrote for kids or for teens. While someone like Andre Norton would write middle grades like Lavender-Green Magic, that wasn’t of interest to Butler. So why bring her story to children? Because who cares if she wrote for kids or not? There are biographies of all sorts of writers out there that never gave a dollop of concern for children. What’s important, aside from giving kids information that they’ll be able to carry with them their entire lives, is that Butler was, in Zoboi’s telling, such a relatable person.
A confession: I may have related a little too much to Octavia. See, I was the kid that didn’t have a lot of friends in school. Who spent each recess walking the perimeter of the playground so that I’d have some way of killing time until the bell finally rang. There’s a moment in this story when Octavia has to choose a sport. She chooses archery because it’s one of the few where you don’t have to interact with other people. Something about the honesty of that statement felt familiar to me. And if, as a kid, I’d read this book, I would have realized that I wasn’t alone. That there were other dreamy kids that loved to write out there. And that they conquered worlds through sheer cussed determination, ignoring naysayers left and right.
In a library, all books are strictly cataloged and slotted into distinct categories. It’s a useful system but it’s awful for books like Star Child. Here we have a book unafraid to meld biography with history with, of all things, poetry! I did not expect to read quite as much free verse as I did in the course of finishing this story. The very book itself begins with this quote from Octavia: “I’m the kind of person who looks for a complex way to say something… Poetry simplifies it. When I started to write poetry, I was forced to pay attention word by word, line by line.” Zoboi cleverly opens her book with this statement so that you’re not shocked when you get to page three and encounter the poem “Stardust” front and center. What’s so smart about the choice of incorporating poetry, of course, is that it allows Zoboi to indulge in her own artistic sensibilities while also keeping true to the facts of Octavia’s life. There are just so many elements to her story that seem made for this biographical form. Consider, for example, the fact that not only was her name Estelle (like the stars above) but she ended up writing science fiction. Zoboi has so much fun linking stars to stardust to the dust that filtered into Octavia’s life right from the start. It’s a pleasure to watch an author tie weave elements together into a seamless whole.
The placement of the poetry can occasionally strike the reader as a tad wonky, though. For example, at the beginning of the book you have a poem, biographical information, another poem, and then a poem after that called “Zeitgeist” that contains a lot of interesting but complicated information. After a flip of the page you’ll get the explanations for what the poem was talking about, but that’s little help when you’re reading the poem for the first time. This happens from time to time throughout the book. You read a passage and then later an explanation. But after this happens the first few times, you get into the rhythm of the book. You might even notice the different types of poetry on its pages. Concrete poems in the shapes of stars and moons. Poems that rhyme. Poems that don’t. I would have liked a little note at the end of what the styles some of the poems were, but I think that’s the librarian in me talking. Kids won’t care. They’ll just enjoy the poems for what they are, and what they do, and what they provide.
I think it’s significant that the book is as visually enticing and short as it is. The kids, they’ll come into the library with reading assignments. “I have to read a biography and it has to be over 100 pages,” they’ll say. You just have to feel bad for them. Biographies, done right, aren’t a chore, but tell that to the kids. So what I like to do is find them books that obey the letter of the law, but subversively are filled with other things too. This book has loads of fun images within its pages, whether it’s poems or old book covers or copies of Octavia’s own written works when she was a kid. There’s one particular image of a page of a story she was writing when she was ten that I really really enjoyed. I imagine kids reading it (if they can decipher the cursive, of course) and trying to measure it against their own writings. Was Octavia better than them at ten? Are they better? What does that mean for a career? Later we find a page she wrote later (not in cursive) that feels like a personal affirmation. Zoboi writes of it, “One of the many notes Octavia E. Butler wrote to herself as an aspiring novelist.” The page is basically just a list. A list of all the awards and booklists that Octavia hoped to be on one day. It ends with just two sentences: “So be it. See to it.”
In her author’s note at the end, Ibi Zoboi talks about her own journey, finding Ms. Butler’s books and then, in time, Ms. Butler herself. The section isn’t merely a way of explaining why Ms. Zoboi was a perfect person to write this book, but also goes on to place Octavia Butler’s books within the larger scope of American literature. “While Butler’s award-winning novel Kindred is assigned in high schools across the country, and her Parable series is more relevant now than ever before, readers of all ages should know that Octavia Estelle Butler was once a little Black girl growing up during both the Civil Rights Movement and the Space Race.” There’s a moment during the documentary Oscar Award-wining film Summer of Soul when attendees at the Harlem Cultural Festival are asked about the moonwalk happening at that time. I think of that when I think of how Butler perfectly links a historical moment with speculative fiction. And I think what this book does so well is make it possible for kids to make that link themselves, without the author having to spell anything out for them. With deft writing, careful editing, and a clear sense of purpose Star Child is the biography I’ll be handing to kids for years and years to come. Octavia Estelle Butler deserves no less.
On shelves now.
Source: Copy checked out from library for review.
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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