Reviews /

The Fire of Stars

Authored by Kirsten W. Larson
Illustrated by Katherine Roy
Published by Chronicle Books

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The Fire of Stars: Warning! This review includes an admission of (possibly profound) ignorance.

Many years ago. I read a picture book that astonished me with a fact of which I was completely unaware: all of the eels in the world are born in the Sargasso Sea. Not some eels, but ALL eels! This fact left me reeling on two counts:

1) Embarrassingly, I never knew this; in fact, it had never occurred to me to even consider where eels came from. But to learn that every eel in the world is born in one place was, quite simply, mind boggling.

2) It was a children’s book that was the source of this enlightenment.

The Fire of Stars has had a similarly profound effect. Through reading this book, brilliantly structured as a dual narrative, I have learned not only how stars are formed, but also of the existence of an extraordinary woman: astronomer Cecilia Payne. A scientist whose work focused on the exploration of star formation.

Juxta-positioned alongside the birth and development of a star, Cecilia’s life unfolds through the pages. We learn of her early curiosity in the natural world; the sense of isolation she felt when her family moved from the country to London; her seeking refuge in the school lab; her growing love of science; the teacher who encouraged her development; her scholarship to Cambridge, and her move to America.

Underlying the story, is more than a hint of gender related prejudice: the family move to London so that Cecilia’s brother can attend a better school; in her physics class, she is the only woman ‘in a galaxy of men’; the professor and other students tease her; but she won’t be stopped.  And finally, she moves to America because ‘Cambridge has no place for a woman astronomer’. The fact that her quiet determination allowed her to overcome these societal obstacles, makes her story even more extraordinary.

Larson’s parallel plot lines, alongside Roy’s starscapes of dust and dirt merging and mingling into clouds that finally erupt into a star, ensure that even young readers will appreciate the links being made between the birth of a star and Cecilia Payne.

The Fire of Stars is a beautifully structured book that could be shared as a read aloud, or explored as a class text, with KS1 and lower KS2, especially if studying women’s achievements.