Book Review: What Stars are Made of

While there is a necessity for books exploring differences in ability on our children’s bookshelves, their presence is sadly far and few between. Often, it is for this reason, however, that titles such as What Stars are Made of have an even greater chance to sparkle. Yes, narrated by 12-yr-old Libby, this title illustrates what it is like to live with the rare genetic disorder Turners Syndrome; a genetic disorder that affects about 1 in every 2,000 baby girls (and the author, Sarah Allen, herself). Babies with this disorder can often be born with a heart three sizes too big for their body. So, when Libby learns that her sister Nonny is having a baby, Libby begins to worry about the baby being born with an impairment too. She sets in motion a plan to win a contest with the Smithsonian Institution to help her sister save money and keep a deal with destiny.

Libby is an audacious 12-year-old that has a passion for science and a library for a best friend. Due to a few of the difficulties that arise from Turners Syndrome, Libby struggles making friends and instead turns to her favourite historical figures to buoy her through life. One day she is set an assignment that involves writing about someone revolutionary who is not featured in their textbook. She decides to focus on her number one inspiration Cecilia Payne who, in the 1920’s, discovered what stars are made of. Predictably, Cecilia did not get the credit that she deserved for this discovery due to her male colleague stealing her research. Libby’s sister Nonny has recently returned home with news of her pregnancy. Nonny and her husband are worried, however, about their current financial situation. To help her sister, Libby plans to enter (and win!) the Smithsonian contest that will feature underrated women in STEM. The prize is a large cash prize that she will give to her sister for the baby. As part of her submission, she writes to a publishing company to persuade them to feature Cecilia in their textbook. On the back of this, Libby makes a deal with the universe, that if she can succeed and do Cecilia proud, the universe will ensure Nonny’s baby is born without any impairments.

Like many others, I had never heard about Turners Syndrome before; so, learning about this disorder was a real enlightenment for me. Fiercely independent and totally courageous, Libby seems to be girl that is wise beyond her years and I found myself championing every task that she set herself to. In fact, besides providing an empathetic education on Turners Syndrome, Libby’s affiliation with all things science introduces children to a whole manner of medical themes. In particular, her concern over Nonny’s baby paves the way for some much-needed discussion around the struggles of miscarriages and problems at birth. Sadly, 1 in 4 women will experience miscarriage and, any literature that might assist children in helping their mother during this difficult time, is greatly welcome in my opinion. Indeed, it is Libby’s utter compassion and selflessness that makes these explorations so beautiful. Though she herself can celebrate her own misfortunes she expresses great concern for others that might not be able to cope so well. As such, her deal with destiny is reminiscent of the unanswered prayers all of us whisper into the ether. These medical detours coupled with the diverse cast of little-known feminist figures, made this title an absolute delight to spend 3 hours with.

Now, I’ve read many people mis-labelling this as a YA title because Libby is in high school. I would firmly say that this is an upper middle grade title (for 9-12yr olds). Whilst it deals with complex themes, children can (and should) handle way more than parents initially anticipate. Most kids prefer to read about characters that are older than them. I’d like to admit , however, that at first, even I thought she was a little clichéd and immature for her age. A smart girl overcoming her mean class bullies? Been there, done that – got the book jacket. However, as the book went on and started to explore a variety of darker themes, including financial security, miscarriages etc I thought “Okay, hang on. This is really challenging young readers” and I was completely onboard with Libby’s character progression. Nevertheless whilst I do congratulate children’s titles that tackle provocative themes, I did think that the medical jargon and ‘hard reading words’ went a little overboard at times. In particular, I wasn’t completely convinced that it was necessary to go into detail about Nonny’s difficult birth. These were minor flaws, however, that did not ruin my overall reading experience – I would simply recommend parents to sensitivity check this title if they’re unsure about giving it to their child.

There was a quote from Mulan that really sprung to mind when reading this book. “The flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of them all“. Though Libby has overcome more obstacles than most, she handles every challenge with such positivity and panache that it would be redundant feeling sorry for her – which I’m sure is one of the key messages of this book. Because, like Libby, often it is the people facing the hardest of challenges that have the biggest of hearts…

…and not just biologically.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

*For those that are interested in this book or also enjoyed it, I recommend reading Can You See Me by Libby Scott, Katy by Jacqueline Wilson and Wonder by R J Palacio *

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