Author’s Note – Writing SOLSTICE: Around the World on the Longest, Shortest Day

Jen Breach oval portrait
Solstice book cover

This article was written by Jen Breach, author of Solstice: Around the World on the Longest, Shortest Day published by What On Earth Books, 2024

We know that books are mirrors, windows, and sliding doors for young readers. But they are mirrors, windows, and sliding doors for writers as well. We grown-up writers for young readers are required to imagine what it is like to be a young person in our contemporary world. And the gift we feed our imaginations is research.

I started researching Solstice: Around the World on the Longest, Shortest Day by looking at how Earth’s tilted axis is responsible for our seasons, equinoxes, and solstices. There are dozens of marvelous, kid-oriented articles and videos across the internet that explain this ultimately, and surprisingly, straightforward astrophysical phenomenon. What I didn’t find were articles or videos about how this experience felt, what it meant to us humans. One of the few truly common experiences of all humankind is that the sun rises, shines on us, and sets. I started to imagine children on different latitudes experiencing extremes in light and dark (or dark and light, depending on the hemisphere): the further towards the poles, the more extreme the light (or dark!). I imagined children celebrating mid-summer, mid-winter, or just having another ordinary day. The single tingle of imagination that spun this idea from “a fun thing to think about” to “a potential picture book” was wondering what on Earth (ha!) a solstice looked like on the equator.

One other factor informed my approach to Solstice (as it informs my approach to absolutely everything): I identify as nonbinary. I was not interested in telling this story in hemispheres: the Earth is a sphere, a fundamentally nonbinary form, with gradients of light and dark, and spectrums of meaning. A picture book is usually eleven to fourteen spreads, which gave me up to fourteen data points, fourteen perspectives to tell a truly global story.

I flung open the windows, I threw open the sliding doors, I unfurled maps, I drew charts. I knew the book needed breadth: equal distribution between hemispheres, continents, racial and cultural experiences, as well as all kinds of family configurations and identities… and how accepted or dangerous they are in those locations.

I cross-checked cultural and personal histories from social media, online institutional magazines, personal blogs, traditional and pop-culture publications. I read reports of solstice celebrations in Norway, Ecuador, Argentina, and Stonehenge: the experiences of both the locals and the visitors that flooded these important places on that particular day. I read journals of seafarers and fishing crews working in the Arctic summer, and “overwinter” staff at South Pole research stations. I reached out to a Nepalese naturalist-jewelry designer I followed on social media; I followed up with the author of a powerful personal essay for The Guardian about growing up biracial in South Africa; I listened to audio archives about family life and celebration in Nigerian villages. And then I found more and more stories from those places. I talked to teachers and practitioners of all-but-lost languages, curators of museums with stolen or reclaimed cultural artifacts, and regular, every day, ordinary people on opposite sides of the globe. And then, on top of all of that, I layered my own imagination. Cranking open windows and sliding open doors is not a simple act. We writers must listen, but not steal, appreciate, but not appropriate, and, above all, we must break down monoliths for ourselves and others.

Meet the Illustrators page spread gives names, portraits and brief biographies for Asako Masunouchi, Gobi Salem, Daniel Gray-Barnett, Musanda Kabwe, Cristina Merchon, Nabila Adani, Tinuke Fagborun, Ubahang Nembang, Sakina Saidi, QU Lan, Mavisu Demirag, Vivian Mineker, Gordy Wright, Jannicke Hansen

The final cross-check came from Solstice’s fourteen illustrators. The What On Earth art and design team worked hard—above and beyond—to honor the global perspective of the book. They committed to the wildly ambitious project of recruiting fourteen different illustrators—fourteen artists from, or living in, the fourteen global locations covered in the book. Each offered notes of their personal experience to punch up the text and/or inform their illustrations. [Editor’s note: The link in the previous sentence leads to mini-interviews with each illustrator, courtesy of the publisher.] What a way to break down monoliths and hemispheres and binaries to find the personal in our universal experience of light and dark, time and seasons. I couldn’t be more proud of this project.

Solstice: Around the World on the Longest, Shortest Day has been enjoying fine reviews and is available now, in time for the upcoming June solstice! Author Jen Breach studied archaeology as an undergraduate and currently is a candidate for an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. For more about the author, see their website.

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