When I learned that Astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell, discoverer of pulsars, was getting her own picture book biography, LISTENING TO THE STARS, and it was written by Jodie Parachini who lives part-time in Maine (where I taught) I was thrilled to invite Jodie to visit the blog! And the book is amazing—an excellent presentation of Dr. Bell Burnell’s story, with beautiful illustrations by Alexandra Badiu. It’s available this month from Albert Whitman & Company, and received starred reviews from both Kirkus Reviews and School Library Journal.
Marianne Knowles: Thanks for visiting Writers’ Rumpus, Jodie!
Jodie Parachini: Thanks for inviting me, Marianne! Can I mention how super-intimidated I am by being interviewed by someone who works at one of the greatest science museums in the world?! Gah! Please be gentle, I’m just a humanities major!
MK: But I’m interviewing someone who’s gotten TWO STARRED REVIEWS with a picture book biography of one of my HEROES! That’s pretty intimidating, too. 🙂
You’ve published several fun fiction picture books featuring talking animals. What inspired you to write a biography of a real-life human for your latest book?
JP: Even though I’ve been writing for more than 15 years, I still think I’m finding my way. One of the things I enjoy about being a nonfiction book editor for my day-job is that every book is different—today it could be about the life cycle of frogs and tomorrow a history of Italian art. I feel the same about writing. I follow where my interest leads me—today I may want to find a rhyme for hippopotamus and tomorrow I might have a desperate need to tell the world that kelp (the seaweed) is actually not a plant, or an animal, but something in between! How cool is that? But I digress.
Writing, for me, is about expression. And creativity can be expressed in many ways. So, when I heard about a young girl who made an incredible astronomical discovery only to be rebuffed by the scientific community, I knew I wanted to explore it further.
MK: How did you decide to write a picture book about Jocelyn Bell Burnell?
JP: Like many people, I hadn’t heard of Dame Jocelyn until relatively recently. I was reading an article about the similarities between science and poetry—how attempts to describe the indescribable, such as the vastness of the universe, link these two seemingly disparate fields—and Bell Burnell’s name was mentioned. It turns out, she’s interested in this connection too, and has edited an anthology called Dark Matter: Poems of Space .
But when I heard of her discovery of pulsars and being snubbed for the Nobel Prize I got upset that her name wasn’t more well known. So, being a writer, I started jotting ideas down….
MK: I didn’t know she’d written poetry! Science and poetry blend beautifully in the opening lines of LISTENING TO THE STARS:
Does the galaxy have a sound?
Is it loud and full of thunderous booms?
Soft murmurings, whooshing whispers?
Blips and bloops, like laughter and hiccups?
Poetic phrasing closes out the story too, while the storytelling in the middle takes a more narrative approach. How did you decide to structure the book this way?
JP: My first drafts weren’t written this way at all. Initially, I was totally focused on the indignation I felt for my subject when the other scientists laughed at her and suggested she had found Little Green Men (rather than proof of what Einstein had only ever theorized but never proven.) But the more I researched, the more I read about how Bell Burnell was so gracious and forgiving about not winning the Nobel, so that I changed tack.
The lyrical elements of the book are simply my way of coming full circle to what interested me in the first place, the fact that there is a vast cosmic expanse beyond our world that seems so unknowable and yet it draws scientists, philosophers, and poets together to examine it.
MK: The book has great details like Jocelyn deciding, as a teenager, to find a way to study the stars without having to stay up all night! Tell our readers a bit about your research process. How did you find these wonderful nuggets?
JP: I wish I had been able to interview Dame Jocelyn herself, but I did have the next-best thing, an interview she did at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and an oral history interview with the American Institute of Physics, among others.
At first, I got bogged down in trying to stay true to scientific fact (for instance, a neutron star isn’t actually a star, it’s the remnants of a star; and a light year isn’t a year, it’s the equivalent of 5.88×1012 miles). But I had to try to find the right balance between what was astronomically correct, and what a kid would understand and enjoy. The fact that I’m not a scientist actually made writing the book easier, because I just picked out the information that I found fascinating and then tried to use analogies or simpler language to describe it.
MK: The illustrations are wonderful, showing both the era and the mind of a scientist at work. How many notes did you share with the illustrator?
JP: Alexandra Badiu did a fantastic job of translating what could be a difficult subject into mesmerizing images, didn’t she?!
I love writing picture books because although I’m not an artist, I think visually. But rather than give tons of art notes at the start, for nonfiction books I usually give a page of suggested websites to the art team so that the illustrator will have the basic details (sites that show what Ms. Bell Burnell looks like in real life, or to answer the “what the heck is a radio telescope and what does it look like?” questions). Then I stand back and let the illustrator impart her own vision on the book.
MK: Who do you imagine is the kind of reader you’d most like to reach with Jocelyn’s biography?
JP: This is such a tricky question, because although this is a children’s picture book, it also has an element of serious subject matter. I’d like for it to appeal to readers on multiple levels. For some, it is about the history of an interesting person. For others, it can encourage discussions of feminism, sexism, perseverance, and resilience. For still others, it may spark an interest in astronomy or physics.
It’s such a thrill to think that for whatever reason it’s picked up off the library shelf (even if it’s just to look at the pretty pictures) the reader will come away with a new, potentially inspiring, experience. That’s the beauty of reading a wide and diverse variety of stories. And, essentially, my reason for writing them.
MK: I think you’ve succeeded in appealing to readers on multiple levels with LISTENING TO THE STARS. Thanks again for visiting Writers’ Rumpus, Jodie!
JP: You’re very welcome! And thank YOU for allowing me to introduce this book to your readers!
By Jodie Parachini
Illustrated by Alexandra Badiu
Albert Whitman & Company