Stars by Mary Lyn Ray
Cover illustration
See permission.
The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

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by Mary Lyn Ray; illustrated by Marla Frazee

Childish wonder is an amazing thing, an approach to the world unfettered by convention and yet grounded in the specific, an easy bridge between “this is” and “what if?” that scientists try to recapture. Too often, though, books for children miss the mark in attempts to convey it, instead depicting adorable childish ignorance about adult-understandable facts. Mary Lyn Ray’s Stars, however, splendidly treats its subject with the matter-of-fact openness of childhood reminiscent of classics such as A Hole Is to Dig, applying it to a large and surprisingly intricate subject.

It’s not the astronomical science of stars that Ray focuses on; it’s what they mean to us on the ground both in their literal and symbolic incarnations, whether twinkling overhead, decorating our lives with shiny shapes, or metaphorically lighting our way, that this sweetly thoughtful picture book celebrates. That’s a big and abstract topic for a subject, but the text handles it with stylish aplomb by keeping the focus squarely on the recognizable reality. On the manifest level, the text wanders amiably from sky-watching (“As soon as you see one, there’s another, and another”) to garden observations (”Yellow stars on pumpkin vines become October pumpkins”) to household details (“There might be a star on the calendar to mark a special day”), with stops along the way for the fanciful (“Moss where you might see fairies is made of green stars”). The intimate direct address, plain language, and gentle rhythm (“If you hold a wand the right way, you might see a wish come true. Not always. Only sometimes”) turn what could be a twee indulgence into a charming kid-level inquiry. Underneath the delicate catalogue of starry implications, however, is a quiet, often subtextual reassurance about feeling secure in a sometimes trying world, with the stars ensuring that “the dark that comes doesn’t feel so dark” and the stars at the end offering a benediction that doesn’t depend on visibility (“If sometimes you can’t see them,” the text notes accurately, “they’re still there”).

Physically, the book is a thing of understated beauty: it’s got a tall reaching-for-the-sky portrait-style orientation and an unobtrusive artistry in the backgrounds and endpapers that start the book with cerulean open air and head through smoky blue twilight to finish with glimmering nighttime inky black. The pencil-soft text has variety that suggests genuine neat hand printing in a style that perfectly captures the homey, confiding tone of the narrative voice. As she did in Scanlon’s All the World (BCCB 10/09), Frazee makes effective and appropriate use of the horizon line throughout her many landscape scenes, placing her young characters in relief against the wide skies; there’s a nice longitudinal shape to the compositions as they move between personable spot-art sequences and double-page-spread full-bleed embraces of the world, with a few intermediate steps in between. The artist peoples the starry pages with a small multicultural group of children, so viewers can follow their favorites throughout. Her Shirley Hughes–like talent for depicting kids who are cute but realistic and individual is on full display here: her subjects have all the variety and energy of good candid photography, and she’s particularly gifted in capturing the nuance of pose, the details of a kid’s belly pooching out, or cowlick springing up, or tongue sticking out in concentration.

This is the kind of bigger-than-it-seems book that exemplifies picture books at their finest. Young dreamers in particular will appreciate the imaginative approach, and they’ll especially enjoy experiencing this fanciful rhapsody as a bedtime book—especially if shared by flashlight in the warmth of a summer night under the stars.

--Debora Stevenson, Editor

Stars by Mary Lyn ray

Cover image from Stars ©2011 by Marla Frazee and used by permission of Beach Lane Books.

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This page was last updated on December 1, 2011.