LIGHTS OUT–a chat with Marsha Diane Arnold

This is one of those books that I read and immediately couldn’t wait to share with my grandkiddos, because 1) it’s beautiful, and 2) it’s the first time I’d seen this subject–light pollution–in a book for kids, and they need to know about it. The combination of Marsha Diane Arnold’s lyrical prose and Susan Reagan’s luminous illustrations blew me away. Simply stunning.

The book begins with an author’s note that explains light pollution … what it is and why it’s a problem for nocturnal animals — and humans.

In the first spread, a little fox peeks out of her den, above. She meets Beetle (later revealed to be a firefly) and they lament the fact that they are so many lights, lights, lights. Together, they set out to find a truly dark place.

“Where is Darkness? Where is Night, where coyotes sing, owls hunt, and birds fly across continents, where foxes move through the dark and beetles are more than beetles?” –from LIGHTS OUT

They pass through a variety of other habitats on their journey, where they’re joined by Frog, Songbird, and Bear. What a clever way to SHOW that light pollution isn’t a city problem; it’s everywhere.

They eventually get to an ocean, where something’s happening: Sea turtles are hatching! Except … they’re confused by onshore lights and aren’t sure which way to go. [Note: This really got to me, because I recently finished a book about sea turtles for National Geographic, and this is a SERIOUS problem.]

Here’s where Beetle gets his chance to shine, literally. He becomes Firefly and leads the hatchlings toward the sea. Then the rest of the animals swim together to a distant island, where, at last, they find the darkness they need. Susan Reagan depicts that with stars strewn across the heavens in a spread that made me want to hug the book.

Kirkus calls this one “Illuminating.” That’s true in so many ways.

I contacted Marsha, who agreed to chat with me about LIGHT OUT.

JE: Could you tell us what sparked this idea, Marsha?

MDA: Sometimes the inspiration – the spark – for a story goes back decades, sometimes all the way back to one’s childhood. I suspect growing up on the Kansas plains, with no city lights for miles, may have been the start of Lights Out. Looking up at the panorama of sparkling stars, it was certainly the beginning of my love affair with the night sky.

The push to start writing a story about true darkness probably happened when I was invited to be part of Artists in the Back Country by the Sequoia Parks Foundation. We camped for a week at ten thousand feet. I remember opening my tent flap and breaking into laughter. I had never seen so many stars, so close to me! I wished then that everyone could experience the night sky in this way.

The story itself went through many revisions, several titles, and a couple of different styles. Let’s just say it was a challenge. I wanted the story to be fun for children as well as lyrical. At first I named the animals names that related to the night sky, names like Ida (for International Dark Sky Association). I still love the animal names I gave, but more than one editor did not want the story to be that anthropomorphic.

I think I started writing the story in 2014, my agent started submitting in late 2016, and an offer came in late 2017. The road is long, but worth the journey.

JE: I’ll say! Was the road to publication straight and true or twisty and rutted?

MDA: Straight and true? Far from it. But really, isn’t twisty and rutted much more interesting?

When I visit schools, in-person or virtually, I tell them it only takes one “yes” to be on the way to where you want to be. It doesn’t matter how many hundreds of “noes” you’ve collected, no matter how many times you’ve fallen down, it only takes one “yes.” Then I share this slide with 13 “noes” and one small “yes.” I received 13 rejections for my first book Heart of a Tiger, but it only took one “yes” from one wonderful editor to begin my writing career. Heart of a Tiger went on to win many awards, including the Ridgway award for Best First Book by a New Author.

I still get rejections, pretty much every month. Some days I get several in a row! It always hurts a little, but I’m encouraged by mentors who are super stars with hundreds of books published, who still get rejections too.

Besides rejections, there are droughts! If you want to read about my seven-year drought, you can find the blog here: https://www.childrensbookacademy.com/blogonauts/marsha-diane-arnold-and-the-7-year-drought That was a very deep rut, but oh, my goodness, wait until you read about the brilliant editor who pulled me out of it and the talented artist who did the art for the book. The book that broke that long drought was Lost. Found. In many ways, it was worth the wait.

Besides writing my own stories, I do manuscript consultations for other writers, most of whom are brand new. I always encourage them to find a good writer’s critique group, read lots of classic books and current books, constantly read their own work aloud, and make a “dummy” book when the time is right, just for them, to check pacing and page turns. I encourage them, but also tell them picture book writers need lots of resilience and support to make it through.

What can make up for all these rejections: the times when a child writes me an admiring letter or a teacher tells me my book made a difference in a child’s day…or life, and days like today, when I opened a package from my illustrator, Susan Reagan, and found two beautiful giclee prints of my favorite images in Lights Out.

JE: How did you feel about your story when you got a look at Susan Reagan’s illustrations?

MDA: I realized the illustrations for LIGHTS OUT would be challenging, with bright lights and dark nights juxtaposed throughout the book. Creative Editions is known for its beautifully made books, but I was still nervous. When my editor showed me the earliest sketches made by Susan Reagan, I knew they had found the perfect illustrator.

The more art I saw, the more elated I became. Beautiful images of light and dark dance through the book.

JE: The way she uses light in this book amazes me. What can we look forward to next?

MDA: I’m delighted that I have another book coming out in the future, but it hasn’t been announced yet. Mum’s the word. I will share that this book had a long journey too, well over ten years, with many twists and ruts.

In the meantime, I have three manuscripts searching for homes. My dear agent takes care of that while my focus currently is on four different stories, with characters ranging from a lizard to a grinning monster to a train. Should be fun!

You can find the story behind the story for all my books and my story as well at www.marshadianearnold.com.
You can also see what I’m up to at:
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/marshadianearnold
Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/marshadianearnoldauthor/

About Marsha: Called a “born storyteller” by the media, Marsha Diane Arnold is a multi-award winning picture book author with over one million books sold. Her books have garnered honors such as Smithsonian Notable (The Pumpkin Runner), Growing Good Kids Excellence in Children’s Literature (Badger’s Perfect Garden) and Green Prize for Sustainable Literature for her bilingual Galápagos Girl. Marsha enjoys sharing her love of story through school visits (mostly virtual now), manuscript consultations, and her Writing Wonderful Character-Driven Picture Books e-course. Her primary joys are family, books, and nature.

Thanks, Marsha. I know I’m not the only one INSPIRED by this chat!

LIGHTS OUT debuts August 18th, but it’s available for preorder NOW from your favorite book outlet.

45 Comments:

  1. I can’t tell you how much I love this book. I complain about light pollution all the time. I’m ordering it today! Thank you for writing this.

    • Thank you so much, Deborah, for ordering. I hope to do a project or two with IDA – the International Dark Sky Association and other stargazers. We just need more people to understand the importance of turning off the lights. 🙂

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    Debra Kempf Shumaker

    OMG, this book looks gorgeous! And I love the subject of it. I must go find this book! Thanks for a great post!

  3. I have to have this book! Wonderful interview.

  4. This book looks wonderful. I am currently in Sun Valley, Idaho, which is in a night sky preserve area. All lights on homes/businesses/streetlamps must face down. The starry nights are incredible.

  5. What a wonderful concept with beautiful illustrations! It was fascinating to learn of your journey as a writer and of this book. Congratulations!

  6. I am looking forward to reading this beautiful and important book. Thank you for your story of persistence and the reminder that it only takes one yes!

  7. Thank you for a lovely interview, Jill and Marcia. And what a beautiful and important book this is. And it’s not just the wild animals who’re affected by it–we are too. I’ve found it strange that even the tiny light in our hallway can bother me whereas a full moon night shining through our bedroom door isn’t bothersome at all.

    I loved reading about your writing journey and how much you encourage us. Yes, it takes only one YES! May you have many more yeses! Congratulations on Lights Out!

  8. This looks wonderful, Marsha! Looking forward to reading it. Such lovely illustrations. Congrats on your yet-to-be-announced collaboration too.

  9. You truly learn something new every day. Thanks for teaching me about light pollution.

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    Jilanne Hoffmann

    These illustrations are gorgeous! I, too, lament the loss of true darkness, something this former farm girl had plenty of while growing up. I’ll be on the lookout for this book. Thanks for featuring!

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    Michelle Garcia Andersen

    Congrats, Marsha! I love this idea, and the illustrations are gorgeous. I’m looking forward to seeing what’s next from you!

  12. Wow, Marsha, this is a gorgeous book! I never thought of light pollution as portrayed in your book. I look forward to reading it.

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    Jennifer Lane Wilson

    This is an issue near and dear to my heart, and to see it so beautifully addressed – thank you!! I hope this will raise awareness and help bring about change for the better.

  14. I love this concept, Marsha. I just recently learned about light pollution regarding fireflies. Congrats!

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    Doreen Robinson

    I live in Florida and went to a turtle hatching event last year – the light pollution is a serious problem, as you said. Thanks for sharing your journey. The book looks amazing! Congratulations!

  16. What a wonderful idea, and those illustrations are fantastic!

  17. I’m excited to get my hands on this book! It looks beautiful and what a unique story.

  18. This looks beautiful! I need to pick up a copy. I’m blessed to live in one of the few International Dark Sky Communities. Light pollution is an important topic that few people know about.

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    Shannon Howarth Nelsen

    Wow! Beautiful book and beautiful, encouraging message. I needed this one today. Thanks Jill and Marsha.

  20. Isn’t Susan’s art wondrous? She is the perfect illustrator. Thank you, David.

  21. Marsha, thank you for sharing LIGHTS OUT with us. I’ve been aware of light pollution for years as my husband is an avid astronomer who got me hooked on the night sky, too. However, I hadn’t considered it from an animal perspective and will be adding this intriguing title to my TBR list.

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