A Tiny Spark and the Poet Who Made It Immortal

Like a Diamond in the Sky: Jane Taylor’s Beloved Poem of Wonder and the Stars – written by Elizabeth Brown, illustrated by Becca Stadtlander
Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2022

How much do you really know about “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star?” How much do the children in your life know about it? A new picture book biography of British poet Jane Taylor (1783-1824) will answer questions which had never occurred to you.  Is this childhood poem a piece of folk art or the work of an individual?  Is it based in astronomy or fantasy? What social and political issues, including feminism, form part of its background?  The amount of information in the book is considerable, but what makes it amazing is the way in which Elizabeth Brown and Becca Stadtlander have integrated each component together in a beautifully woven web.  Like a Diamond in the Sky is a distinguished work of picture book art, and one which intuits how children learn.

Jane Taylor grew up in a creative and inquisitive family. The opening page establishes both the resources and the obstacles which defined her life:

          In the days when girls were taught to spin wool into yarn, set the table for tea,

          and smile and curtsy at the right times, Jane Taylor lived a different kind of

          childhood, schooled by nature and the stars.

In this short, poetic, introduction, Brown invite children to understand how and why her subject came to write “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” She and her sister, Ann, explored nature, created their own books and sewed them together, and loved intellectual pursuits. Sound familiar? There are numerous echoes of the Brontë sisters here; adults will recognize them, and they may wish to explain to younger readers how familiar, in some ways, Taylor’s circumstances were.  Brown even points out that Jane and Ann sent out their work under pen names, because of common prejudice against female authors.  These allusions are part of the richness of Taylor’s story. She was both representative and exceptional, as is the beloved poem which most children will bring to the reading of this book.

Brown and Stadtlander depict the ordinary aspects of Taylor’s life: doing chores, singing, sharing meals with her family. But she also views the constellations in the night sky with her father, and recites literature at the table. She learned to love words by using them:

          the flow of the words as she ate breakfast,

          the art of the verses at midday lunch, and

          the beauty of language during dinner.

If Jane was a “bluestocking,” a woman suspected of inappropriately intellectual leanings, she was also sensitive to beauty, everywhere visible in her world. Her life is a lesson in dedication not just to observation of nature, but also to the power of language.  Brown emphasizes connections between these parts of Taylor’s character, negating any preconceptions about STEM vs. the arts.  Every page of the book reinforces the intersections in Taylor’s life: earning a living in the family business, studying science, writing books and printing them.  When she becomes discouraged, she persists. 

Stadtlander’s Victorian image of the young poet, in a long white gown, sitting by the window and gazing at the stars, signals frustration and longing. Taylor knows that women are capable of accomplishment in every field. She is ambitious, determined to convince publishers “that her words could shine as brightly on the page as any male poets’ could.” 

Finally, the reader is prepared to learn about how that famous star came to be.  In a lyrical, but also accessible, passage, Taylor meditates on what she hopes to achieve. Her poem will have a musical rhythm, it will be based on her family’s immersion in nature, and it will unite scientific observation and literature.  Completing the picture of a creative and learned woman, author and artist end with a scene of Taylor in old age, still observing, and still writing. The book’s backmatter is thorough and user-friendly, including further biographical information, quotes and sources used in the book, a timeline, and an extensive bibliography. Of course, there is also the score for the poem’s musical setting, and the complete text of “The Star,” by Jane Taylor.  Travelers  in the dark about the poet’s life can now find their way.

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