This Bedtime Book Helps Kids Find Their Place In The 'Universe'

May 31, 2020
Originally published on May 31, 2020 8:28 am

Imagining your place in the universe can make you feel pretty small and insignificant, and in the midst of a global pandemic? Well, even more so.

"I think this moment that we are living through reminds us how fragile our species is, living on this small rock in the vastness of the cosmos," says astrophysicist Ray Jayawardhana. But he doesn't think that the universe should necessarily make you feel alone. It's inspiring, he says, to remember the "intimate and enduring connections that we have with the rest of the cosmos."

Jayawardhana, a professor at Cornell University, has written a bedtime story called Child of the Universe which helps parents talk with their children about some of those connections.

"The universe conspired to make you ..." a dad tells his daughter as they look up at a full moon. "The iron in your blood, the calcium in your bones, are made up of stars that lived long ago."

Jayawardhana drew from memories of looking up at the night sky with his father, when he was a child growing up in Sri Lanka. "I remember being awed by constellations of twinkling stars and bright planets like Venus and Jupiter in particular" Jayawardhana says. "One night, my father told me that people had been to the moon. I was just amazed. Suddenly, that bright light up above became a place that one could visit. At that moment, my sense of what's possible expanded dramatically."

Child of the Universe is illustrated by Raúl Colón, who draws the little girl swimming through the swirling colors of space.

"I didn't just want illustrations that showed planets, or stars ... I wanted to make it a dynamic thing," he explains. "So you'll see the little girl floating in space. You'll see her almost traveling amongst the planets."

Colón says the images came to him quickly – and growing up in the '60s didn't hurt either.

"I was a big fan of Stanley Kubrick," he says. "I saw 2001 A Space Odyssey, which influenced me a lot, and the way I visualized things. That's the kind of look I wanted for the book."

"The iron in your blood, the calcium in your bones, are made up of stars that lived long ago."
Raul Colón / Random House Children's Books

Jayawardhana was pleased with the way Colón captured the experience of the child in the story — feeling at home in the universe, and at the same time, embodying it. "It's really capturing both strands of what I was trying to convey," Jayawardhana says. "That we are intimately connected to the universe — and the other aspect of feeling a sense of grand possibility for oneself as a kid."

This is a particularly powerful message to hear in the midst of stay-at-home orders and quarantine.

"We're locked in here, but there's still beauty out there," Colón says. "People forget how poetic and beautiful the universe is just on its own. I think in this time when we're sitting around, we should be able to do that: Think about the universe and the beauty of it. ... Right now is a time to reflect."

"Of starbursts brighter than fireworks, you are a child of the universe."
Raul Colón / Random House Children's Books

Melissa Gray edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

"Child Of The Universe" is a bedtime story. A father puts his daughter to bed. The universe conspired to make you, he says as they look up at the full moon. The iron in your blood, the calcium in your bones are made up of stars that lived long ago.

RAY JAYAWARDHANA: "Child Of The Universe" draws upon some fond memories that I have of looking up at the night sky with my father as a kid in Sri Lanka where I grew up.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's author Ray Jayawardhana.

JAYAWARDHANA: I remember being awed by constellations of twinkling stars and bright planets, like Venus and Jupiter. In particular, one night, my father told me that people had been to the moon. I was just amazed. Suddenly, that bright light up above became a place that one could visit. At that moment, my sense of what's possible expanded dramatically.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ray Jayawardhana grew up to be an astrophysicist. He's now a professor at Cornell University, where he uses powerful telescopes to investigate worlds beyond our own solar system, planets that circle other stars. "Child Of The Universe" is his first picture book, and it's illustrated by Raul Colon, who draws the little girl swimming through all the swirling colors of space.

RAUL COLON: It's a poem, basically. I think I read maybe two verses, and I knew I was going to take this job. And boy, there were some beautiful lines in it. For instance, there are galaxies in your smile so wide. The cosmos is reflected in the depths of your eyes.

JAYAWARDHANA: That's the poetic part.

COLON: OK, how do I illustrate that (laughter)? And the images came in so quickly into my head. And I know exactly what I was going to do with it. I grew up in the '60s. I was a big fan of Stanley Kubrick. I saw "2001: A Space Odyssey," which influenced me a lot in the way I visualize things. And that's the kind of look I wanted for the book. I didn't just want illustrations that showed planets or stars. I wanted to make it a dynamic thing. So you'll see the little girl floating in space. You'll see her almost traveling amongst the planets.

JAYAWARDHANA: I was struck by how incredibly well Raul captured both the physical and the poetic. He was able to show the little girl at home in the universe. And then in turn - that also she embodies the universe. It's really capturing both strands of what I was trying to convey - that we are intimately connected to the universe and the other aspect of feeling a sense of grand possibility for oneself as a kid.

COLON: I usually use watercolors as my under painting, and I give it a nice little yellow tint, golden yellow - very light. So the paper is never quite white. And on top of that, I start adding other layers of color, watercolor. One on top of the other, they're translucent colors. And then on top of that, I use - I've finished it off with a lot of colored pencil. That's what it gives it that nice feeling of vibration with the colors. I think I used all the colors that exist on this one and just let go.

JAYAWARDHANA: It was 30 years ago that Carl Sagan arranged for a spacecraft to look back at the Earth from a distance and take what's called the Pale Blue Dot picture. And I think this moment that we're living through reminds us how fragile our species is living on this small rock in the vastness of the cosmos. And I think on the one hand, it might make you feel small. But on the other hand, it also should be inspiring to read about the intimate and enduring connections that we have with the rest of the cosmos.

COLON: We're locked in here, but there's still beauty out there. People forget how poetic and beautiful the universe is just on its own. I think in this time when we're sitting around we should be able to do that - think about the universe and the beauty of it and hey, what's out there. That's how I see it. Right now is a time to reflect, and I think this story helps convey that beauty.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was illustrator Raul Colon with author Ray Jayawardhana talking about their book "Child Of The Universe."

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