With expressions of wonder and satisfaction on their faces, a father and child stretch out in the bed of a truck beneath a bed of stars in the desert sky. That’s the cover image for A Bed of Stars, the new picture book from author-illustrator Jessica Love, due out in a simultaneous global release from Candlewick and the Walker Book Group on April 4, 2023.
The book follows Love’s award-winning 2018 debut Julián Is a Mermaid (recipient of the 2019 Stonewall Book Award) and 2020 book Julián at the Wedding, both from Candlewick. Earlier this year, she illustrated I Love You Because I Love You by Mượn Thị Văn, published by HarperCollins. With A Bed of Stars, Love applies her big-hearted illustration and storytelling style to a deceptively simple tale about profound ideas.
The story starts like this: one morning, a father announces to his child that the two are going camping in the desert so that they might “shake hands with the universe.” That line, Love said, sets the tone for an expansive story indicating “a kind of willingness to offer your open hand to the world, trusting it will be warmly clasped in return.” There’s an unspoken message in that invitation, too. If the universe can clasp one’s hand, that means it’s “animate, oculate, responsive, and alive,” Love said.
Condensing such big ideas into a kids’ book is always a challenge. “I’m usually trying to funnel a huge, mythic idea through a very simple plot,” Love said. But young readers already have big questions on their minds, she continued. “They take it all on, and we do them a disservice to brush aside their huger, more frightening questions. I wanted to make a story that honored the scale of the thoughts that overwhelm us as children.” These questions continue to “flatten us against our beds as adults as well,” she remarked. “We’ve just gotten better at peering at them through a keyhole.”
In this book, a father is “leading a child towards a big idea, but indirectly, through a metaphor, understanding that what the child is grappling with is big enough to require the heft of symbolic language.” The process of developing A Bed of Stars started with a few images that served as entrée into the story. “The first things I saw were a child sitting on an enormous pile of tires, an adult close by, but not too close, and a big sky overhead. I also saw a child and a dad lying in the bed of their truck, looking up at a sky absolutely crusted 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 us, and the story gradually emerges. They are absolutely alchemical collaborators.”
Love uses her background as an actor to “play” the characters as she draws. “My face is making the face I am drawing, and I’ll often get up and kind of move through the moment the character is living to see what my body does.” The father character is inspired by her partner Daniel. “We’ve been friends for 20 years, and partners for five, and I knew I was about to watch my beloved friend and partner transform into a father. My heart was overfull with tenderness for him. This character was a way of expressing that love.” The curious, questioning kid is “a sort of combination of me as a kid and the child who was growing inside me” and the mother is “my energy but with a Liv Ullman-esque glow-up.”
Love worked on the book during her entire pregnancy with her son Valentine finishing the illustrations about a week before he arrived. “I think I was trying to make a tool for my son,” she said, “for combatting the fear that comes when our little human brains reach the edge of what they are able to imagine. Because when they do reach that edge, there is panic—your whole limbic system freaks out and your heart becomes a galloping horse.”
From her own experience, Love said the panic was eased by an increased 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” offered a sense of relief and release that she wanted to channel into this story.
In addition to the father-child story, A Bed of Stars features an exploration of the flora and fauna of the desert. Kids are “ravenous for information” Love said, and she was intrigued by the idea of the child in the story bringing along a notebook on the journey and drawing in it. “I wanted to just thread the needle that a notebook is a friend indeed—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 such a wonderful tool for exploring the natural world.” Embedded in drawing, too, is the act of slowing down in order to really see it. Drawing, too, Love said, “is a deep form of introduction.”
Love credits Stott with helping her to “unstick” throughout the process of creating the book. “Every time she helps me revise an image it feels like her hands are gently removing twigs and spiderwebs from my field of vision.” That talent helped inform the cover as well. Similar to the process the two followed for her previous books, Love said she came up with a few ideas and she collaborated with Stott to reach the final draft. “I’ll keep drafting until she says, ‘Ah! There it is.’ She is always right.”
A Bed of Stars showcases the delicate illustration style Love came to be known for with the Julián books, but reaches into 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 resonant messages they appreciated in A Bed of Stars. “I think art—and what are picture books if not art for kids?—can be a keyhole, filtering ideas that are so big they can paralyze your mind, through an aperture humanely fitted to a little human eye,” she said.