James Gladstone’s love of the natural world, and by extension the night sky, began at a young age. “I have very clear memories of seeing the Milky Way when I was a boy,” recalls Gladstone. “That image of the blanket of stars always stuck with me.”
With four titles under his belt, readers may be surprised to learn that Gladstone, who worked as an editor on science resources for school students for more than a decade, didn’t consider writing children’s books, at least not initially. “It never occurred to me. When I reached early midlife, I somehow became interested in developing my own books on natural science–themed ideas,” he says. “But I wanted to work in a narrative-driven format rather than simply fact based, which is what school books focus on. I’ve always liked children’s books, and I quite enjoy [working on them].”
A Star Explodes: The Story of Supernova 1054 (Owlkids Books, out now) exemplifies that vision. The picture book follows a young Chinese girl, an astronomer in the making, as she wonders about a “guest star,” its origins, and its reach.
Her wonder echoes Gladstone’s. “Inspiration does tend to come from that place of awe,” he says. “These books are for children, and I want to instill a sense of playfulness wherever I can.”
It’s made all the more captivating with the watercolour and ink artwork by Yaara Eshet, who also illustrated Gladstone’s Journey Around the Sun: The Story of Halley’s Comet (Owlkids Books, 2021). “I’m reading this story, and it’s invoking such amazement in me,” recalls Eshet. “It just transfers to the illustration.”
Like Gladstone, Eshet pulls inspiration from her interests. Her decision to echo Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night in the book’s final spread “was very intentional,” she says. “I want[ed] to pull something from my world, which is the art world. Of being there, looking at it, and becoming immersed.”
For Gladstone, the immersive quality of the illustrations is remarkable. “These nonfiction books create a kind of enchantment than the more traditional picture books aim to do,” he says.
Gladstone ensures the backbones of his stories are based in research and fact – this is arguably what allows them to truly shine. “I recognize that I’m not a science specialist, I’m not an astronomer,” says Gladstone. “So I look for agreement among a variety of different sources on the basic understandings of the ideas to feel confident that what I’m presenting is accurate.”
For A Star Explodes, he researched Chinese astronomy and society, the phenomenon of supernovas, and consulted Paul A. Delaney, a professor emeritus at York University’s Department of Physics and Astronomy.
Visualizing history accurately was also top of mind for Eshet, who began working with Owlkids Books after Karen Li, former editorial director, found her portfolio online. For a spread that features people from all over the world, Eshet had to research what people wore in different places in the 11th century, as well as the astronomical instruments available in China at the time.
She also wanted to make A Star Explodes similar yet different from its predecessor, Journey Around the Sun. “[The books] are not like twins, but like brothers,” Eshet says. “They’re in the same family, but each has its own unique colour. [I wanted to] keep it original but respectful to the cultures I may be referring to.”
For Gladstone, writing children’s books is one of the best ways to nurture his interest in the night sky and the natural world. “As with most things, you have to go out of your way to keep interest alive,” he says. “When it comes to astronomical things, it helps simply to remember to look up at the sky.”