As those of us sharing our lives with canine companions often say, one of the many benefits is being outdoors to witness some extraordinary phenomenon. Very early on a November morning this past year, my furry friend and I were coming to a point in our walk where there is a break in a hedge along the shore of a large lake. This break allows you to see the lake, the north and east shore and the horizon. There was a front clouding and hanging in the northeastern sky.
Suddenly, a large fiery ball, with a hint of green color, with an equally fiery tail broke from under that front and dropped into the lake. It had to have been a falling star, but that close to the horizon it looked huge. To say I was stunned is an understatement. Not for the first and certainly not for the last time, I wish we could take pictures with our eyes.
In those moments when we remember to look up, especially at night, the sky holds infinite wonders. In 1900 a girl guided by her curiosity was born. We learn of her accomplishments in The Fire of Stars: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars Are Made Of (Chronicle Books, February 07, 2023) written by Kirsten W. Larson with illustrations by Katherine Roy. When you read the words in this narrative and gaze at the artwork, it is as if the magic of a star-studded sky has come to earth and you are holding it in your hands.
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.
As she grows up, Cecilia is often found outdoors exploring nearby gardens and their inhabitants. One day, she discovers how orchards lure bees into carrying pollen from place to place. This fascination with finding the truth makes her feel truly alive.
Unfortunately, the family leaves the country for the city of London so Cecilia's brother can attend a more appropriate school. The school Cecilia has to attend is more like a prison than what she desires. She finds solace in a chemistry lab at the school (not meant for her) and science books at home. She has found her niche.
A Miss Dalglish, a teacher of science, comes to her school and the two become friends. Before she becomes too sick to teach, she gives Cecilia a book about astronomy. Still encouraged through correspondence by her teacher's support, Cecilia receives a scholarship to study at the University of Cambridge. After hearing a renowned astronomer speak, she changes her field of studies.
Science degree in hand, Cecilia leaves for the United States. At Harvard her heart's and mind's desire is to discover the composition of stars. Her observations and calculations are still not giving her answers and she is required to submit her research results to the Observatory director. Then, like the day she discovered snow was not soft and warm, Cecilia has an explanation. She is twenty-five years old!
Readers will immediately connect with Cecilia through the descriptive writing of Kirsten W. Larson. Her inclusion of specific events gives us a very personal perspective of Cecilia. Her word choices in the chronological portrayals are such that we feel layer by layer a tension growing. We find ourselves wanting this girl to succeed despite obstacles. When she does triumph, we can share in her
lightning bolt of discovery.
At the same time Cecilia's life is unfolding, a parallel story in space begins, the formation of a star. This is told to the left of the main narrative in a column fashioned by text and artwork about Cecilia. This is sheer genius. Here is a passage about the star and a companion one about Cecilia.
But it doesn't disappear. Heat builds up deep inside.
Pressure growing. Never slowing until---
Cecilia hears a talk by astronomer Arthur Eddington. His work is an incandescent
combination of astronomy and physics, a brand-new field to study---astrophysics!
Cecilia feels the jolt, that lighting bolt again.
And her brain buzzes with the possibility of new things just waiting to be discovered.
From memory, she scribbles down every word Eddington said.
Then she switches her studies to physics.
Rendered in pencil and walnut ink with added digital color by artist Katherine Roy, the illustrations in this book are in a word---radiant. On the open dust jacket we see a younger, curious Cecilia enjoying an evening under the stars. She is already dreaming of discovering the secrets they hold inside. On the other side of the spine, to the left, the tree's leafy boughs stretch to the center of the back of the jacket. Surrounding them is a continuation of the bountiful display of stars in the night sky. The main text title is embossed in copper foil.
Across the book case, we shift to the formation of a star. It is a glorious portrait of the sudden jolt necessary for a star to begin. It is as if we are in space witnessing this.
The opening and closing endpapers are covered in two different views of space filled with stars. It is like being within the Milky Way. This presentation of stars is spread across the next two pages, the verso and title pages. On the left, an older Cecilia stands on an observation deck staring into the sky.
The placement of Cecilia's life in images of various sizes and sometimes two to a double-page are usually framed by the story of the star's formation. This gives the very real impression of the two growths happening at the same time. Once her conclusions are happily reached, there is a series of double-page pictures of Cecilia, Harvard's observatory, an immense bird's eye view of the city, and then of the United States from space.
Each of the settings in Cecilia's life are realistically shown. Colors and fine details mirror her status and emotions. Wherever she is, regardless of the perspective, our eyes are drawn to Cecilia. We are usually very close to her.
One of my many favorite illustrations is when Cecilia has her first
lightning bolt of discovery.
This image fills the right side of two pages and crosses the gutter. It looks as though it has been placed on the starry expanse of space which has had
a sudden jolt.
Cecilia is kneeling in the garden observing an orchid attracting a bee. Her eyes are open in excited wonder. Much smaller and in the lower, right-hand corner large boxes and crates are being loaded into a horse-drawn moving van. The colors in this area are in sharp contrast to the beauty in the garden.
Author Kirsten W. Larson and illustrator Katherine Roy have created a truly impressive nonfiction picture book biography in The Fire of Stars: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars Are Made Of. The words and images will have you pausing at every page turn. At the close of the book is a page dedicated to more information about Cecilia Payne. Following this are three pages explaining how a star is born. There are two pages for a timeline and two more for a bibliography. You will want to add a copy of this outstanding title to your personal and professional bookshelves.
To learn more about Kirsten W. Larson and Katherine Roy and their other work, please access their websites by following the link attached to their names. There are some extras for you to enjoy regarding this title on Katherine Roy's website. Kirsten W. Larson has accounts on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, and YouTube. Katherine Roy has accounts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. This book is showcased with interviews at School Library Journal, A Fuse #8 Production, Jena Benton Writer & Illustrator Simply 7 and at Good Reads With Ronna.
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