Stephanie Lucianovic and Vashti Harrison, HELLO, STAR

Stephanie Lucianovic and Vashti Harrison, HELLO, STAR

Zibby is joined by author and illustrator duo Stephanie Lucianovic and Vashti Harrison to talk about their new picture book, Hello, Star. Stephanie tells Zibby about how its premise was inspired by the questions her young son asked her former astronaut husband about space— and why she decided to feature a mother-daughter pair in the story instead. Vashti shares how Stephanie’s lyrical writing encouraged her to try more creative illustration techniques. The two also reveal how they serendipitously found their way to each other.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Stephanie and Vashti. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your collaboration, Hello, Star, a beautiful, beautiful children’s book.

Vashti Harrison: Thanks so much for having us. This is Vashti. How’s it going?

Stephanie Lucianovic: I’m Stephanie Lucianovic. This is my first interview for this book, for our Hello, Star.

Zibby: Yay! I feel like publicists put me first because I’m so not traditional an interview. I really just do this for fun. I love it. I’m pretty laid back about everything, nice and gentle. Tell listeners a little bit about your children’s book. Stephanie, I was wondering as I read it, have you been interested in this field of research and science and astronomy and all of that for a long time, or is it just that’s what piqued your interest? Explain what the book is about and then how you two teamed up and how you came to this topic yourself.

Stephanie: The book is about a girl who has empathy for a dying star that she sees way out in space. It’s going to supernova. Her mother explained that that means it’s dying. She’s worried about it. She thinks the star’s going to be lonely, as a child. Her interest in the star puts her on a path of discovery and dedication with the dimming light acting as her guide the entire way, her entire journey. I won’t spoil the ending. This is not something that I would’ve come to naturally. My husband is the space person. He’s a math professor. He used to want to be an astronaut. He was a physicist at some point. Our oldest boy, Henry, came to me with all of his interest that he was developing in space at the time. He was very space-obsessed. He could name all the planets. He could name planets’ moons and what they were made of and everything. One night, he came to me. He said, “Did you know that stars die? Isn’t that sad?” I knew that stars died. I knew what supernovas were. I had never thought of it as being a sad thing because I’m an adult and I don’t tend to think in those terms. After he said that, I started thinking, what would a child do with that kind of emotion, that sadness? Would they take care of it like a pet? How would they act on it? Literally that night, I sat down and I wrote the first draft. It was one of those nights where I was at the kitchen table. Dinner had just ended. I had my laptop out. My husband was like, “Okay, Mommy’s writing.” He took Henry away. They left me alone for a while, which was nice.

That was 2015, is when I wrote that. I had it rejected at least ten times by various editors I submitted to including my agent who later became my agent. She rejected it at the time. At least, she wasn’t my agent then. Then I had a new agent in 2016 who loved Hello, Star right away, just loved it. By 2017, she submitted it. Around this time in 2017, I became aware of Vashti’s art. I was seeing it on Twitter. I had started following her. I was totally just really taken in by how she created and portrayed reflecting light in her art. Anytime I ever said something on Twitter, it was like, the light, it’s the way she captured it. I remember there was these princess dresses that had that light-filtering-through tool. You could see the tool over the actual dress. I was just like, oh, my god. Then I was following Matthew Cherry. I backed my first and only Kickstarter for Hair Love in 2017. I got an offer for Hello, Star in 2018 from Little Brown. My editor came to me with, “Let’s talk about illustrators.” She had ideas. I had ideas. I’m like, “I don’t know if this would ever happen because she’s probably in demand.” I said, “Do you think Vashti Harrison would be interested?” She’s like, “Well, she’s a Little Brown author. That’s an interesting idea. We’ll see.” Then it was a couple months later that she called me. She’s like, “You need to sit down. Vashti’s going to be the illustrator.” I screamed and all that kind of stuff. That’s how that happened.

Zibby: That’s amazing. I’m actually really surprised that it was rejected because the writing of this children’s book, it’s so beautiful. It’s like a literary children’s book, the way you write about the velvety sky and the pillows of clouds. The words that you choose, it’s unique in its voice, in its beauty of the language. I think that sort of ethereal way of writing and the sky and then the illustrations to boot, I’m surprised. If I had read this as a manuscript, I would’ve been like, yes!

Stephanie: Thank you. That’s really kind. It definitely was a book that, when I wrote it, I knew I was using lyrical voice, but I also worried I was breaking a lot of rules. One of the rules is, you’re not supposed to have adult characters. She grows up. Another rule was that it was over nine hundred words when I submitted it. They try to preach to picture book writers that your text needs to be five hundred words. Both of my books that have come out have been over nine hundred when they were given offers on. I do break rules. It always had my heart in a way that I was not going to give up on it. I’d given up on other rejected manuscripts. That one, I did stop submitting it to people. I did stop showing it to people after a while. When I had a new agent, I was like, “I wonder what you would think of this.” She instantly was like, “I love it. Let’s do some finetuning and stuff like that.” That was amazing. Then the editor, Deirdre, said she couldn’t stop crying over it. She loved it. It was obviously validating after the rejections.

Zibby: It’s a goosebump-giver. I feel like that should be an indicator. Instead of those tomatoes, I feel like it should be the amount of goosebumps that a book produces. Vashti, tell me about getting involved in this project. Why did you pick it?

Vashti: I’m surprised by that backstory as well because I was not aware that you had written it so long ago. Gosh, time flies. Your son was really little then when you came up with the idea. The idea that it was rejected so many times, that’s a great backstory. It’s a beautiful book. I was really excited to receive the manuscript when my agent brought it to me from Deirdre. It’s interesting. You’re right, I have been super busy working on so many high-profile books. What’s really great about that is working with big-name people and having those books out in the world and getting a lot of attention behind it. Also, they were on such incredible deadlines and very narrow, strict opportunities for creativity. When you’re trying to create a property or build a brand, you want to stay within that brand. Something like Hair Love, I needed to make sure the characters were very clear and specific enough to go along with the film that was also being produced. Then the other book that I was working on right before that was Sulwe. That one obviously had a celebrity attached to it, so there was a lot of narrow boundaries that I had. One of the first things that I asked when I received the manuscript was, “Can I do whatever I want?” They said yes. I said, “That’s a great selling point.”

If anyone is familiar with my artwork, you know that I love drawing stars and people looking up at the stars and journeying into the stars, so that was an easy sell for me. It was the opportunity to take my time and slow down and really get to experiment with the art and the art style that sold me on taking on this project. In the past, I had ideas for a middle-grade book that I would write about the stars, about really feeling empathy for the Earth and taking care of our planet. I’m really grateful that lots and lots of people are writing those books because I don’t know if I would’ve had the time to do it. I’m appreciative of the opportunity to get to collaborate with people who have perspective and the words that I don’t necessarily have. I was thinking about how I could focus some of that creative energy towards this book while saving some for the future while making sure not to overlap with projects that I’ve already done. Because I love drawing girls in space and girls looking up into the sky, that well is never going to be empty in terms of creativity for me. Again, that selling point, the exciting opportunity for me was to just slow down.

There was a few months, probably around last year, where I just did sample upon sample. I chose a couple of different spreads to try to figure out what kind of art style I would use. Every book that I’ve done up until this point has been fully digital, so done completely on the computer in Photoshop. That is, I don’t know if I should say — yeah, it’s my typical way of working. It’s not necessarily my preferred way of working, but it is the fastest way I’ve worked. I’ve had ten books in the last four years, so I’ve had to go really, really fast. Everything has been digital. It’s just such an interesting feeling to be tethered to your computer, to this cumbersome drawing tablet. You have to stay here. You have to wait until the sun goes away and put the sun-blocking curtains up and just sit in the dark. For this book, I could open up my windows and work wherever I want and do my sketches. In some of the videos that I shared, you guys might be able to see maybe in other places — maybe we can send. You can put it in your blog, Zibby. I have lots and lots of pictures of all the different samples I did. I did one in colored pencils and pastels and oil pastels and chalk pastels and gauche and digital and colored pencil with digital on top of it. It was really fun to be able to really think about how the medium can help extend and expand on the story and provide a different type of texture and feeling for how to enter into this story.

I think it’s really difficult — no, difficult’s not the word. It takes a lot of time and care to try to manipulate digital illustration to feel different ways. It can often feel the same unless you’re paying special attention towards the textures that you’re putting on there. It is work to do that. It’s just a really amazing opportunity to see how the different media can make the story feel different. When you flip through these images — I think I did probably six or seven of the same drawing of an early spread of a moment where the mother tells the child about the star. They’re reading a book. You can see how that story, the tone shifts and feels different through the different media. Eventually after all of these different tests, I landed on using colored pencil with digital color on top. I actually did all of the sketches digitally. I printed them out. Then on just really simple printer paper, I put chalk pastel on the back and then made a transfer onto my smooth Bristol paper and then did colored pencils to do all of the value. I actually ended up doing them all in red. If you ever see images of those originals, they’re all red because I wanted something that was a medium value that wasn’t — if I used black, I would go too black. If I used something too light, it wouldn’t get dark enough, so I used a medium. I could’ve used a medium gray. I had red, so I did red. Once that’s all done, I scanned that and put it into the computer and manipulated the color and added all the other colors on top of it. If you’re looking at the cover of the book behind Stephanie, that original sketch was just red.

Zibby: Here, I’m going to share my screen so we can look at the cover real quick. Wait, say it again. This looks like LA, by the way. Is that what this is based on?

Vashti: You know, I was going for a mix of LA, Houston. There are not too many hills in Houston, but I was trying to give that sprawl of a city.

Stephanie: Both my kids think it’s LA. We live in the Bay Area. It’s not like they’ve been to LA. For them, it’s very cinematic LA. I always correct them. I’m like, “No, she lives next to the ocean. We have that picture of her in the house.” There’s an ocean there, right? I was convinced that that was actually the sparkling sea. Maybe I’m wrong that she lives next to the ocean. Maybe that’s actually the city.

Zibby: I don’t remember the ocean. Oh, there.

Vashti: For me, that’s the city. In my head, sometimes I build up a whole backstory. I was like, there are some hints of space culture. Maybe mom is working at the base. Maybe they live in Houston. Maybe they live near the Johnson Space Center. In my fabricated world, it’s some cross between a sprawling Los Angeles with hills and near a space center and the ocean.

Stephanie: Deirdre came to me. Our editor came to me at some point and was like, “Vashti has some questions.” It was all about, where do you see this character living? What’s her background? Where do her parents work? Where does her mother work? When you’re a picture book writer, you’re told you don’t have any of that in your head. You’re not supposed to because that’s all what the illustrator brings to it. You can have a backstory, but the true backstory of this, to be completely honest, besides my son’s interest, who was in first grade at the time — he’s now going into seventh. My husband, because he’s the space fanatic, I asked, “Has there ever been a supernova that we could see?” He’s like, “Yes. It’s called Supernova 1987 or SN 1987.” He said it was seen in 1987. People wrote about it in the paper. You could only see it in the southern hemisphere. You couldn’t see it where he lived in the DC area. That’s how I took the core of the truth and then obviously made it completely fictional. Supernova 1987, they’re still seeing remnants. They still see life, stars, continuing to happen post the supernova, but only with telescopes. For me, I was like, the true backstory is this, but I kind of felt like that she could be anywhere and had a parent who had an interest in looking up questions for her, a parent who’s like, “You know, I don’t know that answer. Let’s look that up.” Now we do it on the internet. Back in the day, it was newspapers or books or something like that.

Zibby: Encyclopedia, just to date myself here a little bit, but yes.

Stephanie: Yes, us too.

Zibby: In my parents’ office place pulling out the matching… This is just gorgeous. I love that you can’t tell if it’s a city or the water here. It’s so cool. I’m actually in LA as I’m doing this interview. I have a view sort of similar to this of the city because we’re up on this hill, so I’m going to vote for city.

Vashti: One thing that I do in all of my work and my books is kind of build the house that I won’t live in, build the space that doesn’t exist, the view, the house with the view that I won’t have. It’s a little bit of an, oh, it would be so cool to be the little kid being able to climb a tree and seeing this incredible view in front of you. It’s that aspirational quality to just make up the world that doesn’t quite exist in the way I have it.

Zibby: Next time you are in LA, you are coming over here if I happen to be in town. We can have a little city-viewing party or something. That’s awesome. What an amazing collaboration. How exciting. How does this, Stephanie, dovetail with your previous work?

Stephanie: I’ve only had one picture book come out. It was very different in the sense that, at some point, I got the character sketches from my editor, and pretty much immediately the illustrator, George, sent me a direct message. He was like, “Have you seen them yet? I can change anything you want.” I was like, we’re not supposed to talk. There’s this whole unwritten rule of keeping — I know it doesn’t happen all the time. I know plenty of illustrators and authors do talk. For me, there were the rules. The rules were, you’re not supposed to really communicate in case you influence or say something wrong. I remember just responding to him saying, “I haven’t seen them yet.” I had. I loved them, but I wanted to be very careful. I was like, “But thank you.” I did love them. I think there was a few things that got changed, but it was something the editor had already noted to be changed that had to do with having adults in the story at all. It’s about having backyard funerals with pets. A couple of the spreads had, kind of, adults solving the problem. That wasn’t going to work. George came up, then, with that end spread being something completely shocking to me, but in an amazing way. I started laughing and crying at the same time because the way he ended the book was just perfect. That was great. For this collaboration, it was definitely me on Twitter being like, ooh, Vashti put something up about stars and space. I wonder if it’s going to be part of the book. There was kind of me looking in the window. Sometimes Vashti would do process stuff. More recently, you showed, Vashti, a painted glass table. I never heard of that technique before. I’m so completely fascinated by what illustrators do. It seems like an amazing mystery. There’s all these different medium and things that you guys use. The glass table with the cat underneath, it was like, wow. That’s another way that you can try to evoke something or try to .

Vashti: I don’t know if that’s a technique .

Stephanie: You could market it, then.

Vashti: That was definitely part of the experiment. Zibby, really early on, I thought that maybe I could make some of the backgrounds of outer space, of deep space with photographs. I have this highly pigmented and sparkly watercolor. It looks best when it’s wet. I didn’t want to just put it right on the paper. It would stay flat. I thought, okay, I can work on glass. I tried plexi. I painted the back with really matte black paint. I was like, I could just work on glass and put black fabric or velvet in the background. I was thinking about — I went to film school. I remember long before film school, actually in undergrad, me and my film cohorts, little nerdy kids, I’m like, “Did you see that new movie?” I can’t even remember the name of the film. There is a cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, who made the stars for this movie. I think it’s called The Fountain, maybe. He made all of the stars and the supernovas for this movie under a macro lens in a petri dish with chemical reactions. I was like, I could do something like that for the stars. I could film it with my camera. I want to be able to capture it while it’s still moving, so maybe I’ll do photographs. I could do high-res video and pull high-res frames from it. Maybe I’ll rent an Alexa camera or a Red camera, one that does really super high-res stuff. I was just trying a test out at my parents’ house in Virginia. I used a clear glass table. My cats kept coming underneath the table. I was getting these shots that looked like cool, deep space, and then my cats in the background.

Stephanie: I think I’ve heard you say in interviews before that you try to put cats in your books because you’re yourself a cat person. I know there’s not a cat in this. I’m a cat person too. I kind of think of that. That’s how your cats got in this book.

Vashti: That would be so nice. Actually, I don’t have a cat thing, but I might start adding that. I’m not the best person at drawing animals, but I’ve been trying to force myself to do that more recently. The thing that I do often incorporate is the hot dad. There’s secretly a hot dad somewhere. I did do a sketch of a potential dad for this book. I really liked the relationship of just mom and child. If dad’s somewhere around, if mom’s somewhere around, it certainly didn’t need it to move the story forward. One day, I’ll release the sketch of hot dad.

Stephanie: I’d love to see that.

Zibby: I’m sure Stephanie’s husband will love that.

Stephanie: I very specifically wanted this to not be — when I started out, it was about a boy because it was about my son. Getting the information from my husband, I was like, there’s too many male-specific space books, at the time. We’ve gotten much better. This was 2015. I very specifically wanted to change that up to have it be the mom who was knowledgeable and it was a girl who was interested and all that.

Zibby: There is a beautiful memoir that came out last year. Her name is Sara. I’m blanking on her last name at this exact second. She’s an astrophysicist.

Stephanie: Sara Mack.

Zibby: Sara Mack?

Stephanie: Yeah.

Zibby: It was a memoir?

Stephanie: Is it a memoir where she talks about the end of the world, essentially? Maybe not. Maybe I’m thinking of something else.

Zibby: It’s about losing her husband and her relationship with her young son. She might be someone interesting for you guys to do an event with or talk to or something. She’s so knowledge in this area and has been one of the leaders in the whole field. Her book was super beautiful as well. I think you guys would have a lot to talk about.

Stephanie: She’ll definitely point out the scientific inaccuracies at the end of the book, the things that are not actually possible to happen, a metaphor. That would be cool.

Zibby: I’m so excited for your book to come out. Thank you so much for chatting with me today. Hello, Star, September 21st pub date. So exciting. I’m so happy for the two of you that you got to work together and that, Vashti, you got to work your brilliant design brain and run through the eight million alternatives to arrive at the perfect medium to capture this beautiful story. It’s just so neat to hear your train of thought as you went through that. For someone who has absolutely no artistic ability, to hear how you process that information and try and experiment, it’s just the coolest. Amazing. Thank you to your son, Stephanie, for asking that question and giving me a great half an hour here.

Stephanie: Thanks for having us, Zibby.

Zibby: My pleasure. Best of luck with the launch.

Stephanie: Thank you.

Vashti: Thank you.

Zibby: Bye.

Vashti: Bye.

Stephanie Lucianovic and Vashti Harrison, HELLO, STAR

HELLO, STAR by Stephanie Lucianovic, illus. by Vashti Harrison

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