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The Stuff of Stars

While on a recent drive across the state, I was listening to National Public Radio’s Here and Now as correspondent Robin Young consulted with her high school choir director, Ron Cohen, about the composition of Handel’s Messiah. During the conversation, Mr. Cohen described the technique that Handel employed to illuminate the word exalted in the section “Every Valley Shall Be Exalted” by having it raised up through an elevation of the music. As the word is sung, the music continues to rise up. It is literally exalted.

This technique, which Cohen referred to as text painting (or word painting), immediately called to my mind what I’d been experiencing in The Stuff of Stars, written by Marion Dane Bauer and illustrated Ekua Holmes. In the book, Holmes employs Cohen’s “text painting” by using visual elements to display the written text. She does this not only through the swirling, motion-filled colors of the universe that she imagines, but also with text placement, the use of blank space, and the placement of the stuff of stars throughout the book. You can see examples of this toward the end of the book where there is order from the chaos and the printed words are arranged on a separate, blank space. There actually isn’t “blank space” in the book, because the “blank” spaces are filled with a texture similar to the  patterning of the text in the title as seen on the cover. In this regard, the empty spaces are filled with the stuff of stars. Isn’t that the way it is in real life? The glass we think is half-empty is actually filled with what surrounds us.

Holmes’s images have:

“no up,

no down,

no edge,

no center.”

While they appear to replicate the chaos of the universe, they also contain its texture, rhythm, possibilities, and specks. And she brings forth color, jellyfish, and ferns. There is an observable intelligence.

I am lost in the concept of that first something from … what? Is it from nothing? For me, it’s that first thought, that first motion that stymies me every time. Yet, Bauer and Holmes are able to collectively bring meaning to the most complicated of thoughts for young people.

Knowing how difficult it is for me to imagine the beginnings of creation, I cannot imagine what it would be like as an artist, even with Bauer’s text as a guide, to illustrate such a concept in a picture book — to illustrate a concept in a way that suggests meaning but doesn’t impose a definition. Looking through the pages again, I see how the marbled paper designs establish an order in the chaos, and I’m going to refer to a few (but you’ll have to work to find them, since the pages are unnumbered).

After the Big Bang, Holmes’s artwork becomes more defined by providing a narrower sample of her marbled paper design. Inside an atomic tangerine-shaded space, she places the text (“A cloud of gas unfolded, unfurled, zigged, zagged …”). Alongside the curve of a repetitive and elongated black drop-shape pattern, the text continues: “stretched, collided, expanded … expanded … expanded … Bits bumped, gathered, and fused.” The art mirrors the text. Regardless of one’s beliefs, there has to be a sense of comfort in being reminded of the basic, purposeful design both of the universe and of each of us.

From the moment readers engage with The Stuff of Stars, they blend into the oneness that the cover creates. The reds and blues and the lights and the darks exist in the same swirling chaos that we can barely distinguish from the rest of the universe. After all, it is all made from the star’s stuff. I appreciate how this cover encapsulates the book’s story. The silver dots that shape the lettering for the title are magical. When the book lies flat, the title disappears into the swirls of the universe — as if the reader will be left to name their own story.

Ekua Holmes put aside her usual collage method here, using a paper marbling technique. Her text painting provides readers a way to engage with an extremely abstract concept and conceive their own meaning. There’s brilliance here.

Edith Campbell About Edith Campbell

Edith Campbell is an Education Librarian at Indiana State University in Terre Haute Indiana. She blogs at CrazyQuiltEdi.

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Comments

  1. I really like it, but I think it’d be a bit of a lackluster choice for Caldecott.

  2. I am not in accord with the previous comment at all (by Kevin) but I still respect it. The defining event of existence is given spectacular treatment in words and illustrations in this epic picture book.
    A bevy of unforgettable pages and some of my favorites include the tapestry of horses which is strikingly etched in pictorial antiquity and is followed by the cave man era following that of the dinosaurs which Holmes ensconces in fossilized form. Bauer asserts that the dinosaurs ruled the Earth (during the late Triassic period) but when they died off the path was cleared for humans to first appear and for the ancestral life cycle to continue over thousands of time to the present day. Again Bauer evokes the “deep, deep dark” and another floating speck as Holmes envisions the human womb where the guiding light of love is consummated. The illustrator depicts the nine-month development of a new person in linked vignettes, culminated by a pictorial confirmation of Bauer’s “Until at last, YOU burst into the world.” In a fabulous delineation of the concept that we are made from the common elements of mammals and the water in the oceans, a human is shown as the heir apparent of land once traversed by woolly mammoths and foliage, the latter possessing the carbons that partially compose human hair. The hand-marbled paper and collage art, perfected digitally is stunning transcribed in the depiction of mammoths under a changing yellow sky but then Holmes offers two ravishing spreads that surely rank among the most resplendent in any 2018 picture book.
    The first, in response to Bauer’s “You and the velvet moss, the caterpillars, the lions. You and the singing whales, the larks, the frogs” is washed in turquoise-green-yellow in a phantasmagorical showcase of elemental kinship with all the creatures, big and small who share our world. The encore, partially replicated on the book’s dust jacket cover depicts love and companionship as an outgrowth of what was once just unrefined materials that made up the stars. The deep red and purple bonanza is propulsive and swirling, a powerful evocation of Bauer’s concept of love, the greatest creation in the formation and evolution of the universe. Dark purple end papers are superbly coordinated to the eternal mystery of life and the inside cover denotes the the nothingness before the big cosmic event. The Stuff of Stars is one of those rare picture book achievement where an author and artist bring a common vision to soulful fruition. Though Holmes should rightfully be one of the top contenders for this year’s Caldecott Medal with some of the most spectacular tapestries of the year, Bauer sets the cue, allowing for the seamless coordination of words and art. The Big Bang has never been so life-affirming and The Stuff of Stars is a staggering poetic masterpiece. And this review by Edith is utterly brilliant.

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