First published in 2004
About the Story
Many years ago, Penny Chisholm and I decided to write a book about how life on earth works and how it is essentially all dependent on the sun. Penny, a close friend, is a professor of biology at MIT and she had found that very few of even her highly ‘educated’ students - for example, recent graduates from Harvard and MIT - knew that plants are built from carbon dioxide in the air. Neither did I. Plants built from air? It just seems impossible, against common sense. But it’s true.
We talked and talked. Penny, being an ecologist, described various ways different forms of life interact with each other, how everything alive depends on photosynthesis, how all ocean life depends on a thin, thin layer of microscopic plants living on the surface of the sea, and how the oxygen in our air depends on the burial of plants over millions and million of years. Our problem was the story: how would we tell the story and who would be telling it? We tried having Mother Nature talk to a few animals; we tried having a different animal describe its environment; we tried having a Wise Person tell the story; we tried just telling the story straight out. Nothing worked for us. After many discussions and many variations, we gave up, always keeping the possibility in the back of our minds.
Then one day, I don’t remember how, I came up with the idea of telling how all our electricity comes from the sun. My problem was the same as before: who would be telling the story? I tried a variety of new speakers, and I knew I wanted it to be somehow mythological. So I tried having the sun be a woman god and the earth be a male, as it is Japanese origin myths, and I tried the opposite. One day I tried making the sun the narrator. This was a real, natural sun, not a mythological one (except that it talked to us!) and bingo! everything fell into place. In the illustrations, I painted the sunlight as waves of tiny yellow dots, representing metaphorically both the wave nature of sunlight and its particle nature as individual photons. Even the youngest child could follow the yellow dots and see how energy moves from one place to the next. I wrote and illustrated the book, totally forgetting that the idea had all originated in my discussions with Penny.
Luckily for me, we are still friends. My Light led to our collaboration on the four books of the Sunlight Series, which are what Penny had envisioned from the start: books about how life works. Again, luckily for me, she understands the science. At first, Penny would give the basic scientific principles we needed to include and I would translate her science into more lay language, and we’d go back and forth until we felt it worked as a whole. Now Penny has become good at ‘lay-speak’ as well, but we still make many many versions before we feel it ‘works’. Our most recent book, Rivers of Sunlight: How Sunlight Moves Earth’s Waters, which will be published in the fall of 2016, took 206 versions, and we still made changes right up until publication.
copyright 2016 by Molly Bang