Sandra Nickel says that story ideas are everywhere; you just have to reach out and grab them. She holds an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her first book, Nacho’s Nachos: The Story Behind the World’s Favorite Snack, was a Golden Kite Award finalist. Sandra lives in Chexbres, Switzerland, where she blogs about children’s book writers and illustrators at whatwason.com.
Hi Sandra, thanks so much for stopping by to talk about your latest picture book The Stuff Between the Stars, the beauty of summer nights, and your favorite childhood memory!
My favorite summer memory from my childhood is lying on a blanket at night and watching the shooting stars. Everything about it screams “childhood summer” to me. Warm nights. Fireflies. Grass pricking through the blanket. Late-night snacks. Pillows outside. The whole family together. Getting to stay up until midnight. And the incredible magic and wonder of shooting stars lighting up the sky. Each individual aspect is imbued with summer. But when you put them all together and add to the mix that it only happened once each August, it holds an incredibly vibrant and loved spot in my childhood memory box.
This year’s Perseid meteor shower—because in fact those shooting stars are shooting meteors—will be from July 17th to August 24th, with peak meteors expected to be around August 12th. For childhood memory-building, the must-haves are blankets, insect spray, a light-free yard, and late-night snacks. That said, a little preparation on your part will add richness and new discoveries to the experience.
The meteor shower is a great time to learn constellations. Why not brush up on those mythological pictures in the sky to prepare for the big night? There are many children’s books about constellations. One of my favorites is National Geographic’s classic Zoo in the Sky: A Book of Animal Constellations.
Gazing at the night sky is also a great time to open up your young stargazer’s mind. During school visits while talking about The Stuff Between the Stars and Vera Rubin, I show students this picture and ask what they see. If you’re not in a rush, take a moment and look.
What do we see?
That bright spot is Venus
We see the stars because they burn. They are making their own light, like a summer campfire does. We see the moon because it reflects light from the biggest star around, the Sun. The same goes for the planets, like Venus. They reflect the Sun’s light.
So, we see the Moon, stars, and planets. And that’s pretty much all we see in the sky, right? But what’s there that we are not even thinking about? What are we looking right past?
Everything that doesn’t shine.
Before Vera Rubin, we thought, if it doesn’t shine, there’s nothing there. It’s empty space. And that’s the idea that Vera proved wrong. All that dark in the night sky makes up most of the universe. It’s filled with stuff. And that stuff is called dark matter. Not because it’s something scary, like turning to the Dark Side in Star Wars. It’s dark matter only because it doesn’t make its own light like stars or reflect light like planets.
Now, we still don’t know what dark matter is made of because we can’t see it or smell it or hear it. However, we know what it does. It has gravity. It has pull. And it holds the stars in galaxies together so that we can enjoy them on summer nights with family and friends.
With the end of July approaching, why not gather blankets, insect spray and your favorite late-night snacks to enjoy the meteor shower? It’s a wonderful way to fill a childhood memory box—and maybe even your adult one too.
What a wonderful, unforgettable way to spend a summer night! Thanks so much for sharing your memories as well as your love for the mysteries of our universe.
About the Perseid Meteor Showers
Active between July 17 and August 24 in the northern hemisphere, the Perseid meteor shower lights up the sky, thrilling astronomers and casual observers alike. The Perseids are particles released from comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle when it interacts with our atmosphere. They get their name from the fact that the radiant (its point of origin) is located near the constellation of Perseus. The best time to view the showers is after midnight around 2:00 a.m., but they may be seen as early as 10:00 p.m. The best place to observe them is in an area with low light pollution. This year the Perseids reach their peak on the night of August 11 – 12.
NASA describes the Perseids as “very fast and bright meteors [that] frequently leave long “wakes” of light and color behind them as they streak through Earth’s atmosphere. They’re also known for their fireballs, which are larger explosions of light and color that can persist longer than an average meteor streak. The Perseids are one of the most plentiful showers, with 50-100 meteors seen per hour.
The Stuff Between the Stars: How Vera Rubin Discovered Most of the Universe
Written by Sandra Nickel | Illustrated by Aimée Sicuro
From the time she was a little girl, Vera Rubin had been fascinated with the night sky. As she gazed through her bedroom window, she saw when “the stars were stirring, and something bright stirred in Vera too.” She began studying everything she could about the stars, planets, and how they interacted in the night sky. She even made her own telescope from a cardboard tube and a lens.
At seventeen Vera began attending Vassar College as the only astronomy major in her class. Here, she could use the school’s telescope whenever she wanted. As a young astronomer she presented her idea that “galaxies rotated around a center in the universe like the Big Dipper circled the North Star.” But when she presented her conclusions at a meeting of America’s top astronomers, they told her her ideas were “outlandish” and “ridiculous.”
As a young mother, Vera worked on another question that interested her. She wondered if galaxies were scattered haphazardly or whether there was “a pattern to where they spun.” After many late nights doing calculations, Vera determined that galaxies were “clumped together like dew drops on a spider’s web.” This was a major discovery; one that earned her a doctorate in astronomy, but America’s top astronomers continued to ignore her.
While her children were growing up, Vera began teaching astronomy at colleges in Washington D.C. Other astronomers began hearing about her and wanting to know more about her ideas that had been dismissed in the past. More than anything, Vera wanted to view the sky from the observatory at the Carnegie Institution in the California mountains. She wanted this so much that she went to the Carnegie Institution and asked for a job. After she explained her work and theories to the other scientists, they gave her a job. Here she studied the “slow-moving stars at the edges of the galaxies.”
Vera next studied the Andromeda Galaxy and was astounded to discover that the stars at the edge of the galaxy didn’t move slower for being far away from its center of gravity; they moved at the same speed. She determined from this as well as from studying 200 other galaxies that there was something unseen at work between the stars. Vera believed this was “dark matter” and presented her findings to other astronomers. This time they listened, making her a prominent light in her beloved field.
Sandra Nickel’s straightforward and comprehensive storytelling gives kids a well-rounded view of Vera Rubin’s life as she doggedly pursued a career in astronomy despite all the naysayers and snubs along the way and made an astounding discovery that still baffles scientists today. Nickel does an excellent job of explaining the complex ideas Rubin studied, theorized on, and wrote about, allowing readers to fully understand her impact on the field of astronomy and our understanding of the universe.
Through Aimée Sicuro’s mixed-media illustrations, readers follow Vera Rubin as she matures from a curious child who loves watching the night sky to a college student to a mother to an astronomer making discoveries that changed the way scientists understood the universe. Her detailed images give kids visual representations of Rubin’s work and ideas. The final image of a group of children gazing up at the night sky as a shooting star flashes by offers an inspirational quote from Vera Rubin.
Ages 6 – 9
Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2021 | ISBN 978-1419736261
Discover more about Sandra Nickel and her books on her website.
To learn more about Aimée Sicuro, her books, and her art, visit her website.
You can find Curriculum Guides and Activity Sheets for kids on Sandra Nickel’s website.
Kids will love Sandra’s other book, Nacho’s Nachos: The Story Behind the World’s Favorite Snack, illustrated by Oliver Dominguez!
Ages 6 – 11
Lee & Low Books, 2020 | ISBN 978-1620143698
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