A meteor shower transforms into a universal message

A local author and artist give a behind-the-scenes look at the making of "August Skies"
Jun 19, 2015

A child and parent lie in a hammock, gazing up at a vast night sky. They talk about making life changes, and how those decisions often require self-confidence. Meanwhile, two stars overhead contemplate similar concerns.

This is the setting established in Kathleen Souza-Pontes’ new picture book, “August Skies,” which is intended as much for a younger audience as it is for adults. The book follows two central characters, Big Star and Little Star, as the younger of the two plans to launch out into the galaxy, away from the safety of Big Star — and the familiar.

Big Star advises and encourages Little Star to venture off without fearing the unknown or being hindered by uncertainty.

The idea was originally conceived three years ago while Souza-Pontes watched a late-summer meteor shower. She starting thinking of analogies for the celestial event, and thought about her son and niece who were heading off to college. Then she thought of all the other students who were about to change schools, classrooms and teachers. Those ideas became notes.

“That’s as far as it got for quite awhile,” said Souza-Pontes.

A year later, she returned to her idea and considered how she could fashion those thoughts into a narrative. She tried to think of the book visually.

“Fortunately, both of my children are avid readers, and they were when they were little, so I had seen my share of picture books. I knew pictures were important, especially for a children’s book,” she said.

Near the end of 2013, she starting searching for someone who could bring her vision to life. While she’s had “artistic occasions” in the past, her “main concern was finding someone who could do it justice.” She found that someone in a former student, Hannah Robidoux.

Souza-Pontes, an English teacher at Dartmouth Middle School, said she connects with students through social media after they have finished her eighth-grade class.

“I chose Hannah because whenever her pieces would pop up on Facebook, it would give me pause,” said Souza-Pontes.

Robidoux, who was 22 at the time of the books production, was finishing up her bachelors degree in fine art from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. She agreed to contribute to the project.

With only one drawing and her manuscript, Souza-Pontes pitched her story. Early last September, Texas-based publisher Black Rose Writing returned her inquiry with a contract and a deadline for March 2015.

The manuscript for the book included basic instructions for Robidoux. The drafts would contain parenthetical asides describing the art for each page. Robidoux would use those instructions to make basic thumbnail sketches, and she referred to other children’s books to help her select a color palette. From there, the artwork continued to evolve.

“The cover is a good example of the changes that were made,” said Robidoux. “Originally, we had a separate image for the cover. Kathy pictured it as a night sky with planets. We decided that image didn't describe what the story was about, so we settled on using one of the illustrations inside the book as the cover.”

The biggest difficulty throughout the process was making all four of the book’s characters appear gender neutral. It was important to Souza-Pontes that her characters look that way so that the story would become “more applicable to any child with any kind of family.” The stars even take on the pronoun “it.”

The human characters are only ever seen from behind and are partially obscured by the hammock. The two are dressed in long-sleeve shirts and have shaggy, brown hair.

“The star characters also had to look gender neutral, so there was a lot of trial and error,” said Robidoux. “Originally, the stars just had eyes and a mouth, but Kathy really helped bring the characters to life with her suggestions. She suggested eyebrows to help show their emotions.”

Features that made Big Star appear feminine, like eyelashes, blush and red lips, were removed or altered.

“It's always challenging to make art from someone else's vision, but it is important to stay true to your own vision as well. Kathy has a good eye and knew what she wanted, which was really helpful. I kept my own style and vision in the illustrations, and Kathy made them better with her input,” said Robidoux.

Since its release on April 16, the book has reached more than 5 states and has sold around 500 copies. Souza-Pontes said she’s learned a lot from the process and can now relate to her own students. While writing the manuscript, she said it was difficult at times for her to envision her audience — something she often instructs her classes to do while writing.

She started interpreting her story differently, too. During her first-ever author presentation, held recently for Joseph DeMello Elementary’s third and fourth grade classes, she explained how her relationship with her work had evolved.

“I had always heard my voice in Big Star, giving advice to kids, my students, my family. But I realized I was more like Little Star,” Souza-Pontes explained to DeMello’s third graders.

Before pitching her story to publishers, she feared rejection and the possibility that the entire process would dissuade her from attempting to try again. But when the physical copies of the book arrived at her door, she knew the risk was worth it.

“I took a leap. I began a journey with an idea. I didn’t know how, but I knew that if I went step by step, I could turn that idea into something bigger,” she said.

She concluded her author presentation by reiterating her work’s central thesis, a message intended for readers of all ages.

“Always try to find the courage to shoot forward — even when you’re not sure how to do it or what it will be like,” said Souza-Pontes. Have confidence in yourself and in your abilities, just like Little Star."