With expressions of wonder and satisfaction on their faces, a father and his son stretch out in the back of a truck under a bed of stars in the desert sky. This is the cover photo for A bed of starsthe new picture book from author and illustrator Jessica Love, will be released on April 4, 2023 in a simultaneous global release by Candlewick and the Walker Book Group.
The book follows Love’s award-winning 2018 debut Julian is a mermaid (2019 Stonewall Book Award recipient) and Book 2020 Julian at the wedding, both by Candlewick. Earlier this year she illustrated i love you because i love you by Mượn Thị Văn, published by HarperCollins. With A bed of starsLove applies her big-hearted style of illustration and storytelling to a deceptively simple story about profound ideas.
The story begins like this: One morning, a father announces to his son that they are going camping in the desert to “shake hands with the universe”. That line, Love said, sets the tone for a sprawling story that “indicates a kind of willingness to offer your open hand to the world and trust that it will be warmly embraced in return.” This invitation also contains an unspoken message. If the universe can hold someone’s hand, it means it’s “animated, oculating, responsive, and alive,” Love said.
Putting such big ideas into a children’s book is always a challenge. “I’m usually trying to guide a huge, mythical idea through a very simple storyline,” Love said. But young readers already have big questions on their minds, she continued. “They take it upon themselves and we’re doing them a disservice by pushing aside their bigger, scarier questions. I wanted to create a story that honored the magnitude of the thoughts that overwhelm us as children.” These questions “keep us pressed to our beds as adults, too,” she noted. “We just got better at looking at them through a keyhole.”
In this book, a father “leads a child to a grand idea, but indirectly, through a metaphor, to the understanding that what the child is grappling with is grand enough to require the weight of symbolic language.” The development process A bed of stars started with a few pictures that served as an introduction to the story. “The first thing I saw was a kid sitting on a huge pile of tires, an adult nearby but not too close, and a big sky overhead. I also saw a child and a father lying in the back of their truck looking up at a sky completely encrusted with stars.” A bed of stars is Love’s third book with the same Candlewick team: editor Katie Cunningham and art director Ann Stott. She relied on them for brainstorming and “idea tennis,” she said. “The three of us titrate the idea among ourselves, and the story unfolds gradually. They are absolute alchemical collaborators.”
Love uses her background as an actress to “play” the characters while drawing. “My face makes the face that I draw, and I often get up and move through the moment the character is alive to see what my body is doing.” The father figure is inspired by her partner Daniel. “We’ve been friends for 20 years and partners for five, and I knew I was about to be there to see my beloved friend and partner transform into a father. My heart was overflowing with tenderness for him. This character was a way of expressing that love.” The curious, questioning child is “some kind of combination of me as a child and the child growing inside me,” and the mother is “my energy, but with a Liv Ullman kind lights”.
Love worked on the book throughout her pregnancy, with her son Valentine completing the illustrations about a week before he arrived. “I think I was trying to create a tool for my son,” she said, “to combat the anxiety that arises when our little human brains get pushed to the edge of what they can imagine.” Because when they reach that edge, panic sets in – your whole limbic system goes haywire and your heart becomes a galloping horse.”
From personal experience, Love said the panic was alleviated by a heightened awareness “that I was safe because I was a part of everything in the whole universe, not separate from it.” The awareness that “whoever you are, you are a part of this world forever” provided a sense of relief and release that she wanted to channel into this story.
In addition to the father-son story A bed of stars offers an exploration of the flora and fauna of the desert. Kids are “hungry for information,” Love said, and she was intrigued by the idea of the kid in the story taking a notebook with them and drawing in it. “I just wanted to thread that a notebook is actually a friend — you can work through things in a notebook, you can draw pictures of what you see, you can write down your ideas. A notebook is a wonderful tool for exploring the natural world.” Also embedded in the drawing is slowing down to really see it. Drawing, too, Love said, “is a deep form of introduction.”
Love credits Stott with helping her “disconnect” throughout the book-making process. “Every time she helps me edit an image, it feels like her hands are gently removing twigs and cobwebs from my view.” This talent also helped shape the cover. Similar to the two on their previous books, Love said she had some ideas and worked with Stott to achieve the final draft. “I’ll keep drawing until she says, ‘Ah! There it is.’ She is always right.”
A bed of stars features the delicate illustration style that Love became known for with the Julián books, but takes it in new directions with its desert-inspired palette and emphasis on the natural world. Fans of Love’s previous books will find the same tender humanity, connection and resonance they appreciated A bed of stars. “I think art – and what are picture books if not art for children? — can be a keyhole that filters ideas so big they can cripple your mind through an opening humanely fitted to a tiny human eye,” she said.