Most viewers wouldn’t associate A24, the indie entertainment company behind zeitgeisty films such as Midsommar and Moonlight, with children’s books. But today, A24’s publishing division is bringing Claire A. Nivola’s 2014 picture book Star Child back into print in a redesigned and expanded edition. The book was prominently featured in the 2021 film C’mon C’mon, written and directed by Academy Award nominee Mike Mills (Beginners; 20th Century Women).
Nivola’s fable follows the voyage of a star who longs to experience life on Earth. His elders explain that, to do so, he must enter the body of a human boy—describing all the things he will learn and all the emotions he will feel as he comes of age. When the time comes to die, they warn, he will have to let go of everything and return to his celestial form. Is he prepared to make this journey?
Speaking with PW about the origins and decades-long evolution of Star Child, Nivola said that the story was inspired by two very personal events: the birth of her son in 1983 and the death of her father five years later. Around that time, she created a little book for her son, held together by a single staple. “I was thinking about death and where does all that plenitude go? And for a child, where does all that abundance, that personality, come from? These are big questions, and I don’t have the answers,” she said.
The story didn’t venture beyond Nivola’s home until 2008, when she shared it with renowned editor Frances Foster at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Over the course of the next few years, Foster and Nivola worked together to refine the book’s narrative, shifting the emphasis to the child’s point of view. When pitching the book in-house, Foster compared it to The Little Prince, calling it “a celebratory embrace of life on Earth,” though Nivola views her book’s ending as ambiguous and bittersweet. In the book’s final lines, the Star Child affirms that, on balance, and in spite of the pain, life is worth living.
In 2014, as the book was nearing completion, Foster suffered a stroke. Nivola recalled the heartbreak of visiting her editor in rehab to show her the final artwork. “She was a woman of words, and she could no longer use them.” Following Foster’s death, FSG editorial director Joy Peskin took over the project with enthusiasm, helping to steer it across the finish line. But, in spite of the positive reviews, the book had disappointing sales and did not have a second printing. Nivola bought back the rights to Star Child and three of her other books, hoping for the opportunity to give them another chance.
Fast forward to 2019, when Nivola received a call from A24 requesting rights to use Star Child in Mills’s C’mon C’mon. The film centers on Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix), a radio journalist who is traveling across the country interviewing children about their hopes for the future. Johnny’s life is upended and infinitely enriched when he takes in his nine-year-old nephew Jesse (Woody Norman), while Johnny’s sister Viv (Gaby Hoffman) deals with a family crisis. In a poignant scene at the film’s apex, Johnny reads Star Child aloud to the boy at bedtime and is brought to tears—a fact that Jesse teases him about.
Nivola read the script and, seeing writer-director Mills’s deep appreciation for her work, heartily gave permission for her book to be featured. Nivola said that, in his correspondence with her, Mills revealed how “he had read the book to his son when he was five and cried every time.” In an interview with Consequence, Mills said, “The themes of Star Child are near and dear to me; they’re really the themes of all my films. What do you remember, the way life whizzes by you, etc. I think all my films are about trying to understand your life as it’s happening.”
Upon seeing the final cut, Nivola knew it was “the perfect match. I definitely felt that the book and the movie were completely in tune; I felt a synergy,” she said. “I love how [in the movie] nobody really knows what they’re doing, but they’re always trying. And the child almost knows more, because he’s so instinctual. Everything is happening at once, the confusing and painful and tender moments. It’s so true to life in that way.” This storytelling synergy between book and script is evident in the official trailer for the film, which shows Phoenix’s character reading the book to his nephew, intercut with key moments highlighting the ups-and-downs of their growing bond.
Star Child’s comeback didn’t end with C’mon C’mon. Hearing from the film’s team about how much the picture book had resonated with them—and after receiving many emails from adult fans who were eager to track down the book—Perrin Drumm, A24's head of publishing, set out to bring it back into print. Working closely with Nivola, A24 commissioned Brooklyn-based designers Charlotte Strick and Claire Williams, aka Strick&Williams, whose previous credits include the Paris Review. The new edition features a die-cut slipcase and gatefolds that amplify Nivola’s original artwork.
Nivola expressed her gratitude toward Mills for spotlighting her work on screen, and to A24 for the opportunity to reimagine her book as a physical object. As for future children’s publishing endeavors, two more kids’ titles are forthcoming this summer, from Everything Everywhere All at Once co-director and writer Daniel Kwan. Other projects are also in the works with Nivola. “It’s been an amazingly wonderful experience,” the author said of their collaboration.
C’mon C’mon: A Reading List
In addition to Star Child, several books and essays, for both children and adults, are featured in the film (and labeled through captions). In order of appearance:
- The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (1900)
- The Bipolar Bear Family: When a Parent Has Bipolar Disorder by Angela Ann Holloway (2006)
- Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty by Jacqueline Rose (2018)
- An Incomplete List of What the Cameraperson Enables by Kirsten Johnson (2016)