Cut-paper artist Nikki McClure emphasizes the natural world in her picture books, including Old Wood Boat and You Are Not Too Late, which she often stages near her Puget Sound home of Olympia, Wash. McClure’s latest, Something About the Sky (Candlewick), pairs her with another coastal explorer and one of the foremothers of the environmental movement, Rachel Carson (1907–1964). The nonfiction book—an informational account of clouds—represents several years of the artist’s visual experimentation, plus archival sleuthing and permissions wrangling by Candlewick’s creative team.

Between general-audience titles including The Sea Around Us (1955) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Silent Spring (1962), Carson encouraged caregivers to nurture children’s love of nature. Something About the Sky started with a script that Carson wrote about clouds for the educational television program Omnibus. (The episode aired on March 11, 1956, just a few months before she published her essay “Help Your Child to Wonder,” which became her posthumous book The Sense of Wonder.) More than 60 years later, editors at Orion magazine found publicly available quotations from Carson’s seldom-seen script and invited McClure to illustrate them for Orion’s spring 2021 issue.

Pandemic lockdowns were in place when McClure began creating the Orion illustrations, so the artist used natural materials that she had on hand. She departed from her customary black-paper cutouts in favor of hand-tinted paper more suggestive of clouds, and she used rice paste to hold the layers in place. Orion “let me totally push myself, experiment, and take off the rail that I’ve been on” with the black paper cutouts, McClure said. “That’s where the painted paper technique came from.”

Although a uniform approach has served her well—her customary approach is to sketch, transfer her drawing to black paper, then carve it out—she wondered “how do you make a cloud if you only have a piece of black paper. If you cut it out to make the white cloud, you can poke your finger right through—there’s nothing there.” A cloud, which is an accumulation of water vapor and other particles, “has solidity and weight.” For images of a stormy seashore, a blue sky full of the clouds known as mare’s tails, or a sunset, she needed more variation.

Using sumi ink and indigo, McClure created grainy gray or blue tints to spread across Japanese washi paper with a wide brush. The charcoal-gray ink “is plant-based, with soot from camphor, so it has this amazing smell,” she said. She inspected each finished sheet of tinted paper—“it was like a conversation” with the materials—to see which areas resembled the stratus, cirrus, and cumulus clouds Carson described. Each spread developed from improvisation: “It was free jazz,” McClure said.

After Copyright Clouds Pass, Clear Skies Forecast

McClure wanted to develop her Orion project into a picture book, and she learned that a fuller draft of Carson’s TV script was in the collection of Yale University’s Beinecke Library. She proposed the project to her editor, Susan Van Metre, executive editorial director of Candlewick Press’s Walker Books US imprint. “When Nikki began talking about this project, about all kinds of clouds, I could see that it would be a good one for children or anyone with a sense of wonder,” Van Metre said. “Nikki’s rich knowledge and appreciation for the natural world always stirs a childhood excitement in me for being outdoors, rain or shine—with rain often being the more thrilling option for its messiness.”

While McClure worked in solitude in the Pacific Northwest, Van Metre did the same on the East Coast. The book “was very much a pandemic project,” Van Metre said. “My memories of working on it are inextricably bound to ones of lonely days in a Midtown office with no one but the builders of a hotel going up next door for company.” Although restrictions meant she couldn’t travel, Van Metre got in touch with Beinecke Library service assistant Dolores Colon, who located a draft of Carson’s script in the archive.

“It was not the final draft, however,” Van Metre said. An edited version had been prepared for Omnibus back in 1956, so Van Metre had to contact Broad Reach Media, which holds the rights to Omnibus transcripts. “This was actually the trickiest part of the endeavor, as both Broad Reach and Rachel Carson’s estate believed they held the copyright,” she said. “For Broad Reach to provide the final wording, I had to ask Frances Collins, who managed the estate [she has since died] to dig out paperwork from the 1950s establishing their rights and then get Broad Reach to acknowledge the validity of their claim.”

Van Metre called the discovery process “a lesson in changing copyright law and rights reversion, and the differences in ownership expectation between works intended for television vs. books. Luckily, Rachel’s original agent, Marie Rodell, had protected Rachel’s rights to the script and after some rather fraught conversations—Nikki was already well into creating the art—we were finally able to clear up the rights tangle and secure Rachel’s final draft.”

With the script in place, Van Metre spoke with McClure and art director Nancy Brennan about “how to make images that moved from the local to the global and back again. It’s very much about the journey of water—its travels around the world abetted by air—and we wanted to show what that looked like from both a human, kid’s-eye view and a bird’s-eye view.” (Brennan even has a cameo in Something About the Sky: she’s the woman holding a rescued cat on a page about storms and “the wild fury of floods.”)

McClure was thrilled with the more complete script. “It was so much richer than what I had read” in the public excerpts, she said. “I still did abridge, so it’s not completely raw,” but it better represents Carson’s scientific yet accessible nature writing. And because she couldn’t speak to Carson, “I put pictures of her up” in the studio, McClure said. As she played with layouts and completed each new phase, she’d turn to the photos and ask, “What do you think of this?” Sixty-eight years after Omnibus’s program, and with an assist from McClure and Candlewick, Carson is sharing Something About the Sky.

Something About the Sky by Rachel Carson, illus. by Nikki McClure. Candlewick Studio, $19.99 Mar. ISBN 978-1-5362-2870-0