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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview w/Matt Forest Esenwine + The Thing to Remember About Stargazing

Matt Forrest Esenwine is a poet, author, voice actor, a professional radio broadcaster, and commercial producer.

Auhtor photo of Matt Forrest Esenwine

While numerous adult-oriented poems have been published in various journals and books, it's Matt’s love of children's poetry - writing it and teaching it - that truly motivates him.

Collage of Matt's seven picture book covers and four poetry  anthology covers.

He’s the author of Everybody Counts illustrated by Emma Graham (2023), A Beginner's Guide to Being Human illustrated by André Ceolin (2022), I Am Today illustrated by Patricia Pessoa (POW! Kids, 2022), Once Upon Another Time (Beaming Books 3/2021), Elliot the Heart-Shaped Frog (Rainstorm, 1/2021), Don't Ask a Dinosaur (POW! Kids, 2018), Flashlight Night (Boyds Mills & Kane, 2017), and has children’s poems in the following anthologies - Lee Bennett Hopkins’ Construction People (Wordsong 2020), School People (Wordsong 2018), J. Patrick Lewis’ The Poetry of US and The National Geographic Book of Nature Poetry (National Geographic Children's Books, 2018/2015) and 'Highlights for Children' magazine.

Photo of illustrator Sonia Maria Luce Possentini.

Sonia Maria Luce Possentini is an award-winning illustrator in Modena, Italy. A painter and illustrator, Possentini has taken part in several exhibitions, both as part of a collective and individually, and seen her work published in illustrated volumes, on book covers and in publicity material for publishing houses Fatatrac, La Margherita Edizioni, Kite Edizioni, Mine-Edition, Grimm Press, Giunti, Mondadori and Sonzogno. She's a professor of illustration at the International School of Comics in Reggio Emilia and the Masters course in illustration for children and aesthetic education at the University in Padua.. (https://www.soniamarialucepossentini.com/)

Collage of the covers of three of her picture books.

She has illustrated thirteen award-winning children’s books, including Night Creatures, by Rebecca E. Hirsch (Millbrook Press 2021), Hold On to Your Music, by Mona Golabek & Lee Cohen (Little Brown Books 2021), and Lion Lights, by Richard Turere & Shelly Pollock (Tilbury House, 2022), winner of the 2023

Children’s Africana Book Award


Their newest picture book, The Thing To Remember About Stargazing, released on October 3rd.


Welcome back Matt!


Hi, Maria! Thanks for inviting me.


You have an eclectic mix (lyrical, playful, and informational) of picture books and poems. Is there a special place or activity that you find helps you come up with your ideas?


I don’t think I have any particular “special” place; I just have lots of interests and love learning – so new things are constantly presenting themselves! I’ve got a funny meta manuscript I’m in the process of pitching, a traditional narrative manuscript about a super-powered girl, and a lyrical picture book biography I’m co-authoring with another writer – so I’ll write about pretty much anything that catches my attention!


Those all sound like so much fun! What was the inspiration or spark of interest for The Thing To Remember About Stargazing?

Cover of book  - a girl, boy, and dog sitting on a dock staring up at the stars.

Four of my nieces and nephews, who live about 45 minutes outside of Boston, were visiting us here in New Hampshire one summer. They walked out the door to go home around 9pm and were stunned to see all the stars! It was a clear, moonless night and you could see every star above, including the Milky Way. It never occurred to me that they rarely ever saw stars due to their close proximity of all the city lights! So that was my initial inspiration to write a poem about stargazing (the book was not on my radar), and the reason I dedicated the book to them. Seeing a star-filled night without light pollution for the first time is impressive and humbling. How long (and/or how many revisions) did it take from the first draft to publication for The Thing To Remember About Stargazing? Was this similar to your other books?


A LOT. As I mentioned, this started off as a poem, which I had originally written for Paul Janeczko’s “The Proper Way to Meet a Hedgehog and Other How-to Poems” (Candlewick, 2019). But Paul passed away and I was never able to find out from him why the poem, titled “The Beginner’s Guide to Stargazing,” didn’t make it into the anthology. A mutual friend of ours, author/poet Rebecca Kai Dotlich, really liked the poem and suggested I either hold onto it and submit it elsewhere, or perhaps flesh it out a bit into picture book format. I opted for the latter, adding, revising, and tweaking and then began sending it out to potential publishers.


One place I sent the manuscript was to my Once Upon Another Time (Beaming Books, 2021) editor, Naomi Krueger, who liked the manuscript but didn’t feel it was quite right for the company. She did, however, ask if I would be interested in writing a creative nonfiction book introducing kids to concepts like compassion, empathy, and forgiveness in a somewhat similar style. It would be titled "A Beginner’s Guide to Being Human," so I would of course need to change the title of my stargazing manuscript, to which I agreed!


So I set about writing A Beginner’s Guide to Being Human (which came out Oct. 2022 from Beaming Books) and continued submitting the newly re-titled “The Thing to Remember about Stargazing.” Shortly thereafter, Jon Eaton at Tilbury House asked if it was still available, we signed a contract, and now here we are, 25 rejections later!


25! Wow, talk about persistence. I'm glad you didn't give up on it. What do you find to be the most challenging thing about being a children’s author and poet?


Oh, there are several challenging things – like trying to find publishing houses that accept poetry (there’s not a lot of ‘em), keeping track of manuscript submissions when you have multiple manuscripts to send out, and getting manuscripts in front of houses that don’t accept unsolicited submissions. Working without an agent is nice because I get to have direct contact with editors, many of whom I’ve developed wonderful relationships with, but I still would love to be able to submit to a wider variety of houses.


It's impressive what you've accomplished without an agent. But I wish you success in finding the right one. What's something you want your readers to know about The Thing To Remember About Stargazing?


That sometimes the simplest of things can have the biggest impact. You don’t always need to spend thousands of dollars on a Disney cruise or a vacation to the Bahamas to create lasting memories. The memory of the experience of seeing the stars that night will likely remain with my nieces and nephews for a lifetime.


I totally agree with you. Did anything surprise or amaze you when you first got to see Sonia Maria Luce Possentini’s illustrations? What is your favorite spread?

Internal spread - starry night with a few thin clouds and a girl, head in hands, gazing up at the stars.of

Text © Matt Forrest Esenwine, 2023. Image © Sonia Maria Luce Possentini, 2023.


I was amazed at her talent, to be honest! She’s Italian, so I’d not been familiar with her work. But as soon as I saw what she was doing, I was blown away. I think my favorite spread is of the little girl on the right-hand page, looking up at the stars. So simple, but so full of wonder.


I'd seen her book Night Creatures and Hold Onto Your Music and was amazed at how her illustrations looked like photographs. She definitely did a gorgeous job on this book, too. What was the hardest, or most challenging, part of writing The Thing To Remember About Stargazing? Why?


Honestly, the hardest part was finding a publisher, ha! I wrote the poem, then re-wrote it as a picture book manuscript, then continued tweaking it and polishing it as I’d submit it – but having suffered through 25 rejections, it’s a joy to know that a publisher as respected as Tilbury House had the same vision. Ten years – from poem to published picture book – is a long time to wait!


It is, but it's worth it and Happy Book Birthday! Are there any new projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?


I always have projects I’m working on. I hope to see my very first poetry anthology coming out next year, if we can get the illustrations done in time. I actually have 5 more books on the way, under contract! I’m also working on a picture book biography with author/publisher Helen Wu, and have several manuscripts out on submission, of course.


Wow! I'm excited to see your upcoming books. Last question, if you could spend time with anyone real or imaginary who would it be and why?


Well, the obvious answer is Jesus – I think whether you’re a Christian, Buddhist, atheist, or anyone else you could learn a lot from Him about life and humanity. I’d also love to talk to the myriad creators who have influenced me, from Shakespeare and Shelley to Frost and Poe, from Isaac Asimov and Dorothy Aldis to Billy Joel and the Finn Brothers (Neil and Tim). Wow, that was way more than one person, sorry!


No worries! But it sure would be a great party! Thank you Matt for stopping back by to share with us your newest picture book.


To find out more about Matt Forrest Esenwine, or to contact him:



Review of The Thing to Remember About Stargazing


Having just spent a couple of stunningly clear nights camping at the north rim of the Grand Canyon, it was so fun to review this book. We enjoyed reclining in our camp chairs, marveling at the Milky Way, and watching for shooting stars. The sheer volume of stars was so impressive and humbling. This is such a great book for encouraging everyone to take a few peaceful moments and look at the night sky.

Cover of book  - a girl, boy, and dog sitting on a dock staring up at the stars.

The Thing to Remember About Stargazing


Author: Matt Forrest Esenwine


Illustrator: Sonia Maria Luce Possentini


Publisher: Tilbury House Publishers (2023)


Ages: 7-10


Fiction


Themes:

Stargazing, constellations, and the night sky.


Synopsis:

A picture-book ode to stargazing with an underlying message of awe for the wonders of nature.


What is the most important thing to remember about stargazing? When to do it, who to do it with, what to look for? It’s none of those! This picture book’s spare, lyrical text offers many possible ways to do stargazing: with a friend, with family, or alone; on a moonless night, or with a full moon, or even with some clouds; on the beach, lying in the grass, or standing on a snowy hill. There is only one rule of stargazing, which is saved for the end, and that is just to do it! Magical illustrations show polar bears, whales, and other animals stargazing too, and in the final illustration, diverse kids and animals gaze at the night sky together. Back matter about the constellations completes this bedtime story with its underlying message of love and respect for nature.


Opening Lines:

When you want to go stargazing,

conditions have to be just right.


Remember to wait for a clear, moonless night

when every one of the countless stars is craving your attention.


What I LOVED about this book:

I mentioned in the interview how Sonia Maria Luce Possentini's illustrations feel like photographs, this opening image certainly proves this point. I love the moonlight reflection off the child's face and legs and the look of wonder as he gazes through the tree branches at the stars. It just feels like the most perfect place to sit and watch the marvels of the night sky. What a gorgeous and intriguing opening.

Internal spread - boy in a tree gazing through tree branches at the stars.

Text © Matt Forrest Esenwine, 2023. Image © Sonia Maria Luce Possentini, 2023.


With a soft, succinct, lyrical text, Matt Forrest Esenwine suggests that the reader needs a "moonless night" or one with "the slightest silvery smirk of a moon." Isn't that such fun language? Though, the playfully poetic text continues to assert that even . . .

Internal spread - two polar bears on a sheet of ice look up at a full moon,  starry sky, and northern lights.

Text © Matt Forrest Esenwine, 2023. Image © Sonia Maria Luce Possentini, 2023.

or a waxing moon, its smile growing . . .

or full moon—round and glowing—

a cratered face of barren seas

waiting to be explored.


a full moon or a couple of clouds "aren't a problem." I adore this image. I am captivated by the expressions of the polar bears and the northern lights playing above them! So, since it seems most any night is a good night for star gazing, as long as there is at least a star or two, what do we need to remember?


Maybe it's who to go with - your best friend or family. Or the proper position for viewing - sitting or lying on your back? Could it be remembering to count the stars or learning to connect them into constellations?

Internal spread - a diverse group of tweleve kids  gaze into a star-studded night sky, with some of the constellations outlined.

Text © Matt Forrest Esenwine, 2023. Image © Sonia Maria Luce Possentini, 2023.


The stunning deep-toned illustrations feature a wonderfully diverse group of kids (and animals) and pair perfectly with Matt's playful exploration of ways to stargaze. In a book set in the dark of night, Sonia's done a spectacular job of creating texture and highlights using shades of blues, moonlight, and even fireflies. Each spread is a work of art.


Ultimately, the most important thing about stargazing is . . . to read this book and find out. You won't be disappointed. A note at the back offers a quick discussion on the distances of stars from Earth and from each other. And it encourages readers to make their own "asterisms," or images, (like the "Leaping Platypus") by connecting stars. It is a wonderful celebration of the night sky and an invitation for everyone to pause, look up, and wonder.


Resources:

Collage of string contallations, making stars with flashlight, and constellation cards.
star chart

- experiment and have fun making some star and constellation crafts.


- try some using a star chart or star wheel. Or check out an interactive star chart.


- if you created your own "asterisms" what would they be? How would you remember where to find them? Make your own sky chart of your connected stars.


- draw a picture or write a description of your favorite place to stargaze.

Comments


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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