The Story Behind Up Where the Stars Are: A Collaborative Effort

Up Where the Stars Are, by Ryan Jacobson and illustrated by Michelle Hazelwood Hyde, has recently been included on ALA’s 2024 Golden Duck Notable Picture Books List for children’s science fiction. The ALA Core Committee Recognizing Excellence in Children’s and Young Adult Science Fiction is charged annually with selecting, annotating, and presenting for publication a list of notable children’s and young adult science fiction from the preceding calendar year.

There’s something magical about picture books. Perhaps it’s because I married a kindergarten teacher—or perhaps it’s because I have such fond memories of reading to our children—but I am particularly drawn to the format. I could sit inside a bookstore all day and page through picture books. I may be a writer, but I’m completely enamored by the illustrations. I marvel at the talent, the vision, and the delicacy that every illustration must take.

Up Where the Stars Are
Author Ryan Jacobson

With that said, recent years led me away from writing picture books. Instead, I found my focus turned toward middle-grade sports biographies and Choose Your Path adventures. I was also writing less in general and spending more time on the publishing side of the business.

Returning to Picture Books

It must have been late 2020 or early 2021 when the itch to write another picture book struck me. Fortunately, as an employee at AdventureKEEN, I had a pretty solid “in” with a publisher! My timing turned out to be perfect because a picture book called Sophie’s Night Sky Adventure was going out of print. (Fun fact: The title made a comeback and is still in print.) So AdventureKEEN was looking for a new children’s book about stargazing.

My best-selling title is the Constellations Activity Book, so writing a complementary picture book seemed like a great fit. AdventureKEEN and I decided to move forward—and that’s when the fun truly began. I don’t normally work with a publishing team on the front end of a project, but we were able to build a concept together.

Up Where the Stars Are

Developing the Story

We knew the picture book would be astronomy-related, but my first obstacle was creating something markedly different from Sophie’s Night Sky Adventure, which is a touching and educational tale about family members stargazing together. 

To contrast that book’s real-world, scientific approach, I thought it made sense to write a fantastical make-believe adventure. I wanted to use my (everyone’s?) all-time favorite picture book, Where the Wild Things Are, as inspiration—and tell a whimsical story that takes place almost entirely in the main character’s imagination.

I thought it would be a hard sell for our publishing team; this type of story line is rather far afield from a typical AdventureKEEN book. But when I pitched the idea of a main character interacting with constellations in his imagination, everyone “got it” right away and really embraced it. So I was almost ready to begin writing the manuscript, but about that main character…

Up Where the Stars Are

Introducing Andrew

The team began discussing the idea of a nontraditional protagonist, and I believe that’s when this project jumped to a new level of “awesome.” I immediately thought of my nephew A.J. and—wow—he was just a perfect fit. It brought another layer of beauty to the story. A.J. lives with a genetic disorder known as Angelman syndrome, which affects his ability to walk, move, and balance. He isn’t able to speak either, but people with Angelman syndrome often smile and laugh and have joyful dispositions. So, really, could there be a better person to go on a grand adventure?

I made sure to get my sister-in-law’s blessing, which she eagerly gave, and then I went to work, creating the first of Andrew’s Adventures in Nature. Along the way, I was able to add the Angelman Syndrome Foundation to our team. I worked with them to ensure that the portrayals in the story were accurate and appropriate, remaining sensitive to the Angelman syndrome community.

Putting Together the Book

My manuscript was paired with the illustrations of Michelle Hazelwood Hyde (thanks to a mutual friend), and she did, well, an out-of-this-world job! I told her at the start that I wanted the constellations to come to life yet to always have their star patterns visible inside them. I wasn’t certain whether that was doable; in fact, I suspected it would look weird—in a bad way. Michelle proved me wrong, and I feel incredibly lucky to have worked with her.

One last hurdle came when we tried to finalize the title. I had one that I really liked: The Sea Monster in the Sky. It sure sounded like a winning picture book to me! The team felt that it was too far off-brand, which as an employee I agreed with but as the author I didn’t. So I spent a few hours brainstorming a new title. I was stuck—until I turned once more to everyone’s favorite picture book for inspiration. I asked myself, “If this story were Where the Wild Things Are, what would it be called?” The answer became instantly apparent, and we had ourselves a title that everyone endorsed.

To be honest, I did feel the weight of this project while I was writing. It was a challenge to me because the manuscript was so personal. I wanted to honor my family, the foundation, and everyone else who has been touched by Angelman syndrome. The first story of Andrew’s Adventures in Nature didn’t come easily, but I do believe we got it right.

About the Author and the Illustrator

Ryan Jacobson is an award-winning author. He has written more than 60 books, from silly titles to spooky ones. He prides himself on writing high-interest books for children and adults alike, so he can talk picture books in kindergarten, ghost stories in high school, and other fun stuff in between. Ryan is also the co-owner and publisher of Lake 7 Creative, LLC. His company creates activity books and sports books, and it specializes in developing interactive Choose Your Path books for young readers. He lives in eastern Minnesota with his wife and two sons.

About the illustrator: Michelle Hazelwood Hyde is an award-winning freelance children’s book illustrator from Philadelphia. She graduated from Ringling College of Art & Design and began her career working for The New York Times Company in Florence, Alabama.

Michelle has illustrated nine books for the National Center for Youth Issues, four books with It’s a Southern Thing, and two with Schiffer Kids—including A Poem Is a Firefly, which received a Purple Dragonfly Picture Book Award.

About the series: Andrew’s Adventures in Nature is a picture book series for children ages 4–8. Each full-color book, written by Ryan Jacobson and illustrated by Michelle Hazelwood Hyde, tells an outdoors-themed story about Andrew and includes educational pages relevant to the subject matter. The books are created with the assistance and support of the Angelman Syndrome Foundation. Order your copy of Up Where the Stars Are now. To find out more about Up Where the Stars Are, read here.

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Liliane Opsomer

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