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The Fire of Stars by Kirsten W. Larson

Kirsten W. Larson shares The Fire of Stars: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars Are Made of (Chronicle Books), a poetic picture book celebrating the life and scientific discoveries of the groundbreaking astronomer Cecilia Payne.

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About the book: The Fire of Stars: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars Are Made of by Kirsten W. Larson; illustrated by Katherine Roy

A poetic picture book celebrating the life and scientific discoveries of the groundbreaking astronomer Cecilia Payne!

Astronomer and astrophysicist Cecilia Payne was the first person to discover what burns at the heart of stars. But she didn't start out as the groundbreaking scientist she would eventually become. She started out as a girl full of curiosity, hoping one day to unlock the mysteries of the universe.

With lyrical, evocative text by Kirsten W. Larson and extraordinary illustrations by award-winning illustrator Katherine Roy, this moving biography powerfully parallels the kindling of Cecilia Payne's own curiosity and her scientific career with the process of a star's birth, from mere possibility in an expanse of space to an eventual, breathtaking explosion of light.

Episode Transcript:


Matthew: Welcome to the Children’s Book Podcast. I’m Matthew.

I am a teacher, a librarian, a writer, and a fan of kids. 

Do you ever find yourself getting lost thinking about the universe? I love thinking about the dust that makes up everything and everyone we know. I love thinking about my place in the universe and how very, very small it makes me feel. There’s something oddly comforting about it. 

Today I’m excited to bring to you an interview with Kirsten W. Larson, author of The Fire of Stars: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars Are Made of, illustrated by Katherine Roy and published by Chronicle Books.

But first, I need to tell you about The 12 x 12 Picture Book Writing Challenge! 

Everyone has a story to tell, but finding the voice for that story takes a storyteller. What better way to explore your voice and strengthen your writing skills than in community. And the 12 x 12 community, I think, is one of the best around.

Picture book authors need to be prolific to get published. That's why members of 12 x 12 aim to write one picture book draft a month. With a private Forum, monthly webinars, a thriving Facebook group and more, members enjoy the support of a welcoming community of authors and illustrators while working toward their publishing goals. Registration is only open in January and February. Visit for more information.

Today’s book, The Fire of Stars, is a poetic picture book celebrating the life and scientific discoveries of the groundbreaking astronomer Cecilia Payne!

Let’s step into my conversation with Kirsten W. Larson. Ready? Here we go.


Kirsten: Hello, I'm Kirsten W. Larson. I am the author of The Fire of Stars: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars Are Made of, illustrated by the amazing Katherine Roy. 

Matthew: Kirsten, what's the W stand for? Williams. Nice. I, I sign everything Matthew C Winner. I'm, I'm a Christopher. Uh, and I, I put the C in there for, for balance as well.

For some reason, my name looks balanced in my, in my eyes when I put it in there. 

Kirsten: Well, there was a very, um, famous American girl doll. In fact, the very first American girl doll was Kirsten Larson. So mine is there so that I will not be confused with an American girl doll. 

Matthew: I'm so glad I asked you. I love that.

Have you done a recording for teaching books yet? Because that is like, yes, yes, that's a key thing to put. I was doing the recordings for them for a time. Anyway, anyway, love that. Um, so who is, or who was Cecilia Payne? Uh, and of course, I left a note there for you that I'm asking both, how or why do we remember this individual, but also, who was she?

What was she like? You do, you do such a great job of, I think, portraying her in her wholeness throughout her life, so however you want to answer that, who was Cecilia Payne? 

Kirsten: So Cecilia Payne, um, who became Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin when she got married several years later, was one of the earliest astrophysicists.

So she discovered what stars are made of. So for, um, most of the 19th century, people thought stars were probably made of exactly the same stuff as Earth in the same quantity. So they expected things like iron and a lot of oxygen. Um, and so everybody thought stars are probably just the same, but she, um, through her research discovered that stars are mostly hydrogen and helium, which are these gases, you know, kind of like stuff in the air that we can't really see.

And so it was a really revolutionary finding that sort of laid the groundwork for everything we know now and are still discovering about how stars are born, where they get their energy, how they die. Um, so everything from black holes to supernovas, um, all of these things are really, um, grounded in some of her discoveries.

Matthew: I especially love, I, I just want to tell you that In your book, the way you formatted it, when Cecilia makes that discovery, you send the reader off with more questions. I love that the discovery ends by a world getting bigger and us asking more questions. I just, I thought that was a really, uh, beautiful thing to model for the reader.

Kirsten: Well, and actually that brings me to the second part of your question. Um, so the, the thing that really intrigued me, I think, about, um, Cecilia Payne is she was, from the time she was a little girl, in love with curiosity and that thrill of discovery. In fact, there's a really great quote from her, which is in the back matter, and she says, the reward of the young scientist is the emotional thrill of being the first person in the history of the world to see something or to understand something.

And so, um, you know, as an author, when I see a quote like that, and, and that is That emotional thrill is something that she first experienced as a young girl, and that was really what she was chasing her entire life. And for me, um, that's what really connected me with her and convinced me that she is really, you know, aside from the sheer genius of her discoveries, this whole idea of being in love with discovery is something I had to write about.

I love too that 

Matthew: as you were saying that quote, you looked up and looked right at me that quote, that quote really put itself on your heart. It really looks like it's stuck with you. 

Kirsten: Well, um, so I always think of myself as a very slow writer, and it takes me a long time for me to feel like my stories are just right, and they're really the story that I wanted to tell.

And so. For me, it's a really emotional journey. And there's that same emotional thrill when I feel like I've finally gotten the story just right. And it's exactly the story I wanted to tell in exactly the right way. So I think in a lot of ways, um, I felt very connected to Cecilia Payne in that. And it's sort of like, I'm chasing that, that thrill of telling just the right story in the same way that she's chasing that thrill of discovery.

Matthew: That, it's just, it's so cool. I love that for you. Um, so you mentioned a word earlier, uh, astrophysicist. And I wonder for our listeners that, that maybe have not come across that word. I wonder what is an astrophysicist or what is astrophysics and what Are we studying in astrophysics? And maybe even more importantly, is that something that people still study today?

Maybe it's a profession that we've already discovered all the things. What am I saying? Stop me before I say any more. 

Kirsten: So, um, Astrophysics is sort of, um, new astronomy. You can kind of think of it as new astronomy. So, since the beginning of time, humans have stared up at the stars and the night sky and, um, the moon and the sun and, um, not that you should stare at the sun, but, um, they have, you know, they've, they've kind of tracked the motions of planets and stars and, um, tried to predict their motions and figure out their positions.

So astrophysics started developing, um, you know, kind of the late 19th century, early 20th century, and it's basically using chemistry and physics to study the stars. So we're using new, new tools, um, and we're applying sort of new dis those new discoveries to science. So Cecilia was basically, Cecilia Payne was basically, um, using new tools that worked with telescopes to figure out the chemistry of the stars.

And that's, um, not something that you could even do in the early 1800s. 

Matthew: So I, I know that, I know we follow each other on Instagram, so you're very aware that the format for the Fire of Stars. It kind of blew my mind a little bit in, in a really beautiful way that you, you blended a lot of things, but you blended this beautiful poem about a star being born with the story, the poem of, of Cecilia, uh, being, being born, being, having her life existing in that way.

Um. It just was a really wonderful and powerful format. And so I was just wondering for you, if, if that is how you always conceived the story, if there was at some point, I know you said you were a slow writer, if there was just an aha, an unlock moment that that worked, um. Because it, it works. It works really, really well.

It's beautiful. 

Kirsten: Um, well, yes, I'm a very slow writer. So for, um, the first couple of years I was playing with the story. I was writing it very much as, um, a traditional narrative format with Cecilia Payne as a little girl and growing up and, um, becoming a scientist. And there, there was not this additional element of star formation, um, as a sort of additional layer. And, um, you know, I always remind myself to sort of stay open and curious and, um, just open to new things. And so I was talking with another writer, writer friend, we were working on something. And she had a book coming out. It wasn't out yet, but she told me that she had described it as, this is, um, Hannah Holt, who wrote The Diamond and the Boy, okay?

So her book was not out yet, but she had pitched it as the story of her grandfather, who learned how to make diamonds in the lab. And it was also the story of how diamonds form. And the way that she had originally conceived it, she had conceived it as her grandfather's story going forward, then you could turn the book over and flip it, and you could read the diamond story, backwards towards the middle, and there was going to be this shared line of text in the middle that applied to both stories.

Now, if you've read The Diamond and the Boy, that's actually not how the book is. They, for whatever reason, they made other choices and didn't decide to tell the story that way in the end. But I think what really stuck with me when I was talking about it with Hannah, was this idea of a human and an object they're connected to and that shared line of text.

So I sort of set out a challenge for myself and I said, Oh, wouldn't it be neat if I could tell the story of star formation and Cecilia's formation as a scientist on every single page with a single linking line of text that would apply to both stories at the same time. Um, so it was really just in conversation with, you know, other, other writers and keeping myself open to a better way of telling the story, um, that I kind of came across that aha moment.

And then when I sort of set that goal for myself, and I tried it, um, It was very difficult. And I thought, what have I gotten myself into? You know, I really just, you know, there are points where I'm like, I can't do this. This isn't gonna work. Like, there's no way I can come up with a shared line of text that unites these two stories on each and every spread.

Um, and I really did want to give up. And it was only through encouragement of you know, people in my writing community that I was able to finally, finally do it because it was, it was really difficult. And I, um, tried to get out of it after I said I was going to do it that way. 

Matthew: Well, it really is for me, what makes the book.

I'm glad that. you pushed yourself, that you challenged, that you persevered. Um, and also that you and I guess your editor and whomever, the team on this book that you so thoughtfully preserved everything in the back matter that not only do we read this story that blends these two poems, because certainly your text about Cecilia's life is very poetic, but then you also have.

Both a timeline of Cecilia's life and a, and a, uh, sort of a timeline of the poem, um, with that accompanying text. There's, there's so much there in that back matter that I don't know that, that just, it, it, it gives weight to the existence of both stories together and intertwined in a way that, that just, it just really works.

I wonder, um, about even when you were starting out, when you were selecting. Cecilia's life as your muse, as it were, if you had a kid in mind or a reader in mind, or maybe, maybe you were just looking inward and this was sort of speaking to, to child Kirsten and I don't know, but I wonder about, um, sort of who or what kind of kid was on your mind as you were making this book?

Kirsten: So, um, just for a little bit of, um, background, I used to work at NASA and I, um, I'm not an engineer. I'm not a scientist. Um, I worked in public relations. So one of my jobs was to communicate with the news media and with the general public about NASA and all the really cool science, um, and discoveries that NASA makes.

Um, so I've kind of always been, um, a STEM You know, a STEM advocate, a STEM enthusiast, um, my entire life. And so I think, you know, part of it for me is. I want young readers to realize and to see themselves as potential future scientists and engineers. And so I want them to realize, um, that it is about being curious.

It's about persevering. That it's expected that you're going to make mistakes and you're going to fail. And that that's Okay. And that, you know, you, that there is a place for everybody, um, in science and technology and engineering. So, you know, I think, you know, that's who I'm writing to is that I, I want kids to realize like, Oh, you know, I don't have to be brilliant on the level of Einstein that there, there is a place for all of us.

Right. And, and it's okay. If this stuff is hard, um, And so, you know, and I think also, you know, I'm also writing to myself. I mean, I, I was fascinated by physics, um, in early, uh, early high school. Um, you know, I, I let myself, uh, decide that math was hard, uh, when I hit calculus. And, you know, I think, um, maybe I would have gone down a different path as well if I had realized that it's okay that it's hard, you know, and that we just, you know, you just persevere and that, that you can do it.

Matthew: I love the, the, the thought around something being hard as also just being a point of, well, you're just wrestling with an unknown. It's unknown for you perhaps, but that's, that's what science is. It's all wrestling with unknowns. Um, the thought that as you're, as you're up against those, those challenge points, that that's right where you're supposed to be.

What is this? Someone had told me one time that it's like process over progress. that we, we, we grow in the process or you don't just go through it, grow through it. I think it was a coach that I had worked with, but the same type of person that, that really had that growth mindset of, of all of it is important.

Um, there's so much I could, I could, I won't, I could ask you just to sit here and read the entire book for us. I won't, but is there an excerpt from the fire of stars, maybe that you're already sharing with kids, or just one that. speaks to you that you wouldn't mind sharing with all of us. I'll put some nice music underneath it, but you probably want to describe some, um, some of the beautiful art that, uh, Catherine has made too, because the people listening won't see it.

I could, I could look for the art. Um, but, um, we're not recording video, so I'll, uh, write to Chronicle or something and see if I can grab some, uh, stills from whatever you share. 

Kirsten: Sure, sure. Um, so I love the, I love the opening. So we'll, you know, we can, I can read a little bit and then we can talk about the spreads and then, you know, we'll just keep going, see how it goes.

Um, wrapped in a blanket of sparkling space. An unformed star waits for its bright future to begin. Cecilia kicks and cries until her mother sets her down, so Cecilia can feel with her own tiny toes the cold and crackly snow, which isn't soft and warm like she expected. It's the first time Cecilia learns things aren't always as they seem.

And so, um, the cool thing about this particular book is, um, on every single two page spread, there are two different stories going on. So there's the star story. So in this particular spread, we kind of see what looks like maybe the, the empty vacuum of space or what we probably think is the empty vacuum of space.

And then we see, um, Cecilia and her mom in the snow. She's probably about three or four and she's got her bare feet and she's, she's sticking her feet. um, in the snow. And she has a, a great story in her autobiography about this. But essentially, you know, she thought it was going to be really warm and soft and cozy, the snow, you know, just looking at it, it seemed like it was going to be like cotton balls or something.

And then when she, you know, touched it, she realized Oh, no, it's not. My hypothesis was wrong. Um, and so the next spread, In a cloud of dust and dirt, Cecilia spends hours watching slimy slugs glide through the garden and making friends with trees and flowers. So again, we're starting to sort of get this picture that maybe there's more to space than, um, than we first imagined.

And so, um, Catherine's kind of included this sort of cloudy, um, cloudy look to everything. So we kind of are getting the sense that maybe there's more there than we first thought. And then we see, um, Cecilia as a young girl, you know, down on the ground with her magnifying glass. Um, and then she's up in the tree and you can tell like she's really delighting, um, in the natural world around her in the English countryside where she was born.

Matthew: I, um, I, I love just the, and it, I guess it just sort of must, it must be your voice, but I love just sort of the, um, I don't know, the like gentle, it feels like you've captured Cecilia's personality in the voice of the book. I'm having a hard time articulating. Maybe I am articulating it the correct way. Um, there's just.

There's just a movement forward to the growth, to the persistence of Celia, to, um, for every individual that, that perhaps stood in her way. I'm thinking about the teachers in her life, how there's this one teacher that is so wonderful. She stays in contact with this one teacher, despite these other ones going, no, no, no, let's, let's stay in this box.

And then she meets another individual that says, wait, astrophysics is a thing. And anyway, your, your text just propels and it's, it's really lovely. Um, I also love, just for you and I to have an aside, that Catherine's art differentiating between the stars and, and the biography as it were in that way is just so different.

She's got such wonderful loose lines, uh, in, in her depiction of Cecilia where the, the sky lacks all of that. It's all blended. It's all dots and color blends and it's, yeah, anyway, it's just a really It's a really well executed book cover to cover. Y'all did a really nice job. I was to say, it's a good book.

I really like it. I, I, part of my brain even earlier was like, well, I know Kirsten said this was hard to do, but I wonder if we cheer her on enough, if she'll just do like three more exactly like this.  

Kirsten: Talk to Melissa Manlove. 

Matthew: Talk to Melissa. Okay. I don't know that Melissa and I have had direct contact before, but I'll let her know that. 

Kirsten: I'm  teasing you.

You convince her to sign me up, 

Matthew: Sign me up. No, it's just, um, picture books are magic when, when they work in that just right way, sort of not unlike the topic of your book. It's just magic when things happen in just the right way. And I feel that with the fire of stars, it just feels. It just feels like magic.

And so I'm glad that, I'm glad that Darshna was like, “Well, here's some other people that got some books coming out.” And I'm glad that just because that random email that she sent, um, it set us on the path to talk because, um, this, this was one that really, uh, felt like one that, uh, I was really grateful to read and really grateful to share with my students.

So. Just wanted to share that with you. That's just for us. Just wanted to share that with you though. You're so sweet. 

Kirsten: Um, well, I was going to say, so real, real quick, so, you know, talking about the, the lyrical voice, I mean, I think When you step back and you think about the wonder of nature or the mysteries of the universe, I mean, these are really big, big ideas that really make us as humans, you know, feel almost infinitesimal.

And I mean, it's really, for me, like, it really had to have, um, a poetic voice because it's just To think about space and how everything has been formed. It's really just such an awesome idea that to me, um, it really required a lyrical, a lyrical voice. 

Matthew: Well, good on you. Great execution. It's beautiful. Was there anything else that we didn't talk about that we should?

I feel like you, you really walked me through some great stuff, but what else? Go ahead. 

Kirsten: Oh, oh, um. So, in terms of, um, you know, what type of reader I, I would, um, wanted to see with this book, um, I think one thing I really like is that it's sort of blended nonfiction, so it, um, Melissa Stewart writes a lot about this, but it's kind of cool because it can appeal to kids who are interested in information and facts, um, which is the type of kids that my kids were, you know, they love to go to the nonfiction shelves at the library and just read, um, about weather and space and, and all of that.

Um, so it can, because it can be read on two levels, it appeals to kids who are reading just for factual information about stars, but also, um, Kids who like life stories and can, and it can kind of be a gateway for kids who may not be sure if they like life stories and narratives, but you know, it can, um, appeal to them.

So I, I like that it can, it can appeal to different types of kids with different interests when it comes to nonfiction. 

Matthew: Yeah. I think that that is maybe part of what I was really, what's really resonating with me too, is that it just feels accessible in that way that, that it's story. Uh, telling nonfiction that we all, we all connect with story and, um, whether that's the story of the birth of a star or the story of an individual, um, there's a connection there.

And all readers are welcome, obviously, to connect with whatever books they, they'd like, but this is, this is doing so there'll be Melissa, um, not Melissa, Heather Montgomery has a picture book on our state book award, uh, this year called, uh, what's in your pocket. And that's very similar sort of feels in that voice.

Like she is just kind of leaning over talking to kids. What's in your pocket. What's that thing. And then it sort of just feels like the, Oh yeah, by the way, here's. Here's this person that discovered this thing that also I find that, that I guess big picture you and I were talking about voice, the thinking about what does this voice sound like when read to a classroom of 25 kids?

How do we find a way to pull every kid in? Uh, I think is a special challenge. It's a very teachery thing to do. Uh, you do it very well. Um, speaking of those kids, uh, Kirsten, I will see a library full of children tomorrow morning, every day. Uh, is there a message that I can bring to them from you? I mean, bring to all children.

But also to my children. 

Kirsten: Um, I think achieving, um, any new idea is, um, challenging. Whether you're talking about discovering what makes the stars, or you're talking about trying a new piece of art or, you know, crafting a new piece of writing. Achieving something new is always difficult. And so I always like to remain curious and just tap into my creativity. And so I think just remembering to, to harness your creativity, to delight in it, and to stay curious whenever you're trying something new is really important.


Matthew: Thank you to Kirsten for joining me on The Children’s Book Podcast. 

You can pick up your own copy of The Fire of Stars: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars Are Made of wherever books are found. Consider supporting independent bookstores by shopping through You can also use my affiliate link by clicking on the book’s name in our show notes.

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Don’t forget to check out the Reading Culture Podcast with Jordan Bookey, from Beanstack, if you are a fellow teacher or librarian. It’s the perfect podcast to explore building a stronger culture of reading in our communities. It’s available wherever podcasts are found.

And on that note…

Be well. And read on.

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