Reach for the stars: Author’s picture book in its 28th printing

Published 5:43 pm Monday, April 4, 2016


When Jerrie Oughton signs a copy of “How the Stars Fell Into the Sky” she always writes the same advice: “Remember, always reach for the stars.”

That’s what the Washington resident did 24 years ago, when she sent her book off to the publishing company Houghton Mifflin. She’d been a writer for many years, and had weathered rejection of past works, but with this submission, the stars were literally aligned in her favor.

“I sent it to the only editor in publishing whose father was an astronomer — of course she’s going to publish it,” Oughton laughed.

“How the Stars Fell Into the Sky” is a Navajo story, a creation story passed down through oral tradition. Oughton became intrigued by the tale after seeing its retelling in pictures in a National Geographic magazine, via ancient drawings on cave walls. One night, the creative urge suddenly hit and she used what she immediately had at hand to write the story — cocktail napkins.

“I wrote it almost as a poem on those cocktail napkins,” she said.

She sent off her work and was quickly informed the company wanted to create a picture book with her words. They enlisted artist Lisa Desimini, known for her cover of the Barbara Kingsolver book “Animal Dreams,” to provide the visual piece of the story. While Oughton said she’d envisioned pastels and borders, Desimini’s contribution had much more depth and rich color than she was expecting. It was a collaboration at a distance.

“There was no contact with the artist,” Oughton said. “Back when the book was published, it was almost like I wrote the words and she wrote the music and we put it together through the editor, but neither one of us ever spoke to each other about it.”

“How the Stars Fell Into the Sky” received starred reviews, and won the 1992 California Children’s Media Award for Excellence in Poetry, Music and Legend.

“Oughton’s first book for children is a lyrical retelling of a potent myth … A dramatically handsome setting for an especially noble Native American tale,” reads a Kirkus Review from 1992.

Its message has stood the test of time: this year, the book is in its 28th printing.

“It’s been quite an adventure and I’m still enjoying it,” Oughton said.

Since “How the Stars Fell Into the Sky” was released, Oughton has published several other works, including the award-winning Young Adult novel “Perfect Family” and a self-published book based in Washington, “The Good Hostage.” She also has spent plenty of time in classrooms, reading “How the Stars Fell Into the Sky” to young fans, then acting out the story with the help of puppets — an example to children that storytelling comes in many forms.

Oughton’s advice to all the children in her classroom visits: they can be anything they want to be, as long as they make a plan, pay their dues, be persistent and have a passion.

Oughton’s advice to any writer is write and write and write some more. Lay the finished work aside, don’t look at it for six months, then rewrite it, she said.

“I think you have to write into your voice. You have to write long enough to know how you sound,” Oughton said.

Oughton said she doesn’t do too much writing anymore, because life is filled with so many good things, but she still makes classroom visits — over 500 so far, according to her husband Paul.

“There comes a point in your life where you try to be the book, not write the book,” she said.

“How the Stars Fell Into the Sky” can be found in hardback and softcover at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Oughton’s books are now available as eBooks for Kindle and Nook readers.