Illustrated by the acclaimed Kadir Nelson, and filled with a dazzling array of beautifully diverse people claiming a complicated national identity, here is a picture book that does an enormous amount with very few words.
I was intrigued by Blue Sky, White Stars by Sarvinder Naberhaus, so I invited her to chat with me here at Writing With a Broken Tusk:
[Uma] Some of the text in your book depends upon very specific illustrations. In other spreads, the illustrations add to the meaning of the text. Meaning is created in the spaces between words and images. Here’s what every picture book writer who is not also an illustrator will want to know—did you send in art notes? How did your spare words lead to to Kadir Nelson’s glorious (and very specific) illustrations?
[Sarvinder] It seems I am always defending my position of condoning illustrator notes. I know it is a big no-no in the unwritten book of rules for children’s publishing. However, I think editors do want notes if they are necessary. Since I use such sparse words, the illustrator notes are necessary to understand the story. I usually put them in, and make a note that they are just ideas and suggestions. I do find it frustrating though, because oftentimes I build entire worlds in my mind, and I feel I should be allowed to convey my world to the editor. I think it is necessary in seeing my vision for the character and the book. So often it gets cut between the journey from agent to editor.
Sometimes, I purposely add more words, because I am afraid they will not use my illustrator notes. So to ensure they keep true to my meaning and visuals as the author, I have to add unnecessary words to the text, to ensure it stays true to me.
Kadir Nelson, who paid wonderful homage to my words, used several of the illustration suggestions I gave. The illustration notes had a way bigger word count than the original text. Boom Boom also had a sparse amount of text, but I did not give illustration notes for that, as I got to talk to the editor in person.
My college students just finished their project — making book trailers for Blue Sky White Stars. You can see their wonderful work here: https://sarvinder.wixsite.com/blue-sky-white-stars/about (under Reviews)
[Uma] I came across your book while teaching the Picture Book Intensive semester at VCFA. I sent my students your text and asked them to imagine what the pictures might be. Then I invited them to create their own texts around subjects of their own choosing, in two-word sequences. It was a rich, rewarding exercise. But clearly, the spare text also came from your own journey, your life that has flowed into this book somehow. So tell me how, as a writer, you came to frame so many layers of meaning into such a distilled form.
[Sarvinder] How astute of you to recognize that my whole life has been leading me to this point (thus far anyway). I feel like it has been an accumulation of my heritage from my family.
How did I distill it? I wish I knew the answer to that. The closest thing I have to an answer, is that I write songs. And one thing I love to do with my songwriting, is to have a double meaning, or a twist or surprise. I do think it is in my DNA, and I love your image of my whole life flowing into this, because I think it goes back even further, to my dad’s life, and his mom’s life, and his grandfather’s life. As you will see in my author’s note, my dad’s other grandfather boarded a ship to come to America. His other grandfather helped build a school for girls in 1911 in Dosanjh. That was very advanced thinking for the year 1911, especially in India. How great that he recognized that the way out of poverty is education. This school just celebrated its 100 year anniversary. My grandmother (his daughter), as a girl, traveled and sang and played the harmonium to help raise money for this school. My grandmother was also a singer, so I think it is in my genes.
Often times, melodies and words pop into my head. I don’t really know where they (or ideas) come from. Sometimes they rain down out of heaven, and I catch them. That is the feeling I had when writing Blue Sky White Stars. It came to me. It picked me. I feel like God’s fingerprints are all over this book. I do believe He brought about the manifestation of this book, as a means of uniting and healing this nation. I feel this book is for All Americans, child and adult, and for the entire range of the political spectrum.
As for distilling these words into a condensed form, all I can say is that Kartar Singh was also a writer. I too am a songwriter, and singer, and my “gift” for minimal words comes from that heritage. Songs tell stories in brief simplified form, and that is what I do. I think it is genetic, as I can’t explain how.
[Uma] And the back matter? It evolved too, I gather.
[Sarvinder] The backmatter is a story on its own. My lovely editor asked me to write backmatter, with a few weeks time limit. If you have ever done research for nonfiction material, you know that it takes a LOT of time! There are always contradictory facts and you have to dig to get to the truth. Panic set in for me, as I was not researching ONE singular topic but the entire history of the United States! How was I going to research all of these topics and write about them accurately? My friend Ann Green helped me with that and you can see a version of that on my website (click on menu: Blue Sky White Stars/Student & Teachers).
The funny thing is, after I spent all this time on the backmatter, reworded by my editor (you’ll see those 2 pages on the website home page), it was cut without my knowledge. In the end, I think the final replaced backmatter was in my original voice and matched the story better. I think this was the right decision. So it all worked out in the end and made for a good story (as I told my lovely editor it would).