How did three staff members at the National Air and Space Museum get to collaborate on the Museum’s first children’s book, Pluto’s Secret: An Icy World’s Tale of Discovery? The short answer is that this is an extraordinary place to work. And when people are as generous with their time and talents as my collaborators have been, neat stuff happens.
The idea that became Pluto’s Secret began in the Writers’ Group that I hold for Museum curators and fellows. We meet twice a month to share mutual problems we encounter in our research and writing of aviation and space history. David DeVorkin, the Museum’s senior curator of space astronomy (who was present at the 2006 International Astronomical Union meeting in Prague during which astronomers voted on Pluto’s new designation), told the group about an article that he was writing about Pluto’s discovery and reclassification. David’s article examined how disagreements among astronomers over how Pluto should be categorized reflected pre-existing divisions in the field of astronomy. (You can find David’s final essay in Exploring the Planets (Palgrave, 2013)). David’s draft was called, “Pluto: The Problem Planet.” As a mother who spent many hours reading to my then-preschool son, our oldest, I thought, “That would be a great title for a children’s book!”
So, during my commutes in and out of Washington, DC, I added the story of Pluto’s discovery to the repertoire of tales that I would tell my son in the car to pass the time. Standard fairy tales had gotten repetitive and boring—I had even started retelling the same stories from different points of view to vary them, a skill that became useful for Pluto’s Secret —so I wanted something new.
When I eventually suggested Pluto’s tale to Trish Graboske, the Museum’s publications officer, she suggested the addition that made the Museum’s first children’s book a reality: Diane Kidd, the Museum’s early childhood manager, is also a professional children’s books illustrator! If she would illuminate our book, we might really have something. David and Diane agreed to take on the project with me and the rest is history (of science).
The collaboration between the three of us became my favorite part of this project. Usually, we learned, a children’s book illustrator might never meet the author at all. (Diane is working on a blog entry about her process to appear soon.) This time, we met as a group to discuss the concept and we worked together, in person, throughout the whole process. I wrote and rewrote the text. Diane patiently subjected her beautiful artistic illustrations to David’s exacting reviews to check all of the details: the right telescopes, the correct astronomical domes, and even appropriate equations floating above Percival Lowell’s head. And David helped to refine the story with me. My son enjoyed (endured?) MANY bedtime readings (“When is it going to be real book?”), which were often interrupted as I scribbled on the pages to edit an awkward phrase or clarify a point.
At one point, David suggested a perspective that put everything in focus: Pluto does not change! Scientists’ ideas about Pluto changed as they learned more, but the icy world Pluto is just Pluto—out there on the edge of the solar system, being itself. The story needed a different point of view. It wasn’t the story of the scientists, interesting as they were. “Pluto, the Problem Planet” became Pluto’s Secret, the story of an icy world on the edge of the solar system that did not fit the label that scientists wanted to give it. (In fact, in 2006, because of Pluto, astronomers defined “planet” for the very first time.) Diane thought that kids would connect with the character of the icy world who was not bad, just different, and did not always follow the grown-ups’ arbitrary rules.
It’s so exciting to see Pluto’s Secret out in print. I’ve finally gotten to read a real, bound version to my three children at bedtime. And we look forward to telling this tale of discovery to audiences at the Museum and around the D.C. area. Come out and see us!
Margaret A. Weitekamp is a curator in the Space History Department of the National Air and Space Museum.