Updated: Nov 8
Space Odyssey has officially launched - and with that our Willow the Wonderer picture book series is now three books strong. As I pen this blog, many books are already on their way to little wonderers all around Australia. A brand new addition to their Willow the Wonderer collection and hopefully, repetoir of life's wisdom.
It's all the stuff that celebrations are made of but getting into a celebratory mood this past week was not possible ...
Reflecting on the events transpiring around the world, I could not help but turn to gratitude and hope instead: Gratitude that we are able to pursue our vocation in publising, creating beautiful stories that plant seeds of wisdom, and hope that it inspires our young readers to build a better world one day.
Space Odyssey in particular is a timely tale as it tackles what I feel lies at the core of much of the suffering we are seeing today; aloneness, disconnectedness and difference.
Tackling feelings of aloneness, disconnectedness and difference in perfect rhyme
Since this was the third book in the series, I felt it was about time our little hero encountered some difficulties. That is after all, the reality we all live with.
Life has a way of throwing challenges our way, and we have little choice but to work through these. It's an important lesson for the little ones to learn.
The "difficulty" I decided to go with came from personal experience for both Darren and I. It had to do with feeling alone - not necessarily lonely - but still having a sense of aloneness or isloation come up from time to time. I suspect most people experience something similar - moments in our lives where we felt different and disconnected from all things and beings around us.
Our little hero too feels alone one day ... these feeling become the catalyst for Willow's adventurous odyssey, his epic search and eventual enlightenment.
I have taken great care in this book to weave what could be a fairly 'heavy' theme within folds of a great narrative that brings wonder, wisdom and joy to our readers.
And Darren of course has brought it all to life with his stunning artwork - some spreads from Space Odyssey wouldn't look amiss in a fine art gallery I think.
Darren also had a bit of fun illustrating this book, hiding a little something in every illustration that the little ones have to find.
It adds another dimension to reading the book and leaves plenty of scope for our readers to come up with imaginative subplots of their own!
A short synopsis of Space Odyssey
Willow the Wonderer - Space Odyssey begins with our little hero feeling alone one day.
"Im different from others," he thinks in dismay and wonders if there are others like him about, or is he the only odd one out?
You all know our little hero by now. He is not one to sit around and brood - for he sets off on an epic adventure to fix his mood!
Willow searches the world for other creatures like him but his mindset is such that he only sees differences in everything, everywhere.
Just as our little hero is about to give up, the universe intervenes and Willow gets swept away on an epic space odyssey! As he looks back at the Earth, Willow is awestruck by her beauty. A profound wisdom slowly dawns upon him, the same wisdom that many astronauts have realised before him ...
Illustrations from Space Odyssey by Darren Pryce
So what can space and astronauts teach us about feeling alone?
Before I started writing Space Odyssey I spent a good few weeks immersed in research. I looked up and watched (and rewatched) countless space documentaries and first hand interviews with astronauts. It's the sort of research I thoroughly enjoy :)
In one of those interviews, an astronaut who had been part of the Apollo program said something that struck me.
Throughout the entire preparation process for the mission, the focus of the crew was on the moon - getting there, landing and exploring the lunar surface - this was going to be their great discovery.
But once they had launched into space and were on their way, their shuttle spun around and at some point the whole of planet Earth came into view. For the crew of the Apollo programs, this was the first time they were seeing the Earth from space - and they were mesmerised.
At one level, it was the sheer beauty of the planet that captivated them: The swirling storm clouds, electric lightening strikes, shimmering auroras, the image of a blue marble against the blackness of space...
At another level, perhaps a deeper one, they describe the moment to have felt like a visceral experience of all their knowledge, experience and lives.
They actually lived on a planet that was spinning in space! Everything and everyone they knew came from this one place. The entire history of the human race had transpired here. This was their home - their only home. And she was beautiful. She was strong. She was wild. But she was also very fragile.
Their great discovery had turned out to be the Earth.
Something shifted inside them that day. Many came back home changed and for them, humantarian and environmental causes become their calling.
The Overview Effect
Many other astronauts that have followed in their footsteps since also reported a similar experience. In 1987 author and space philosopher Frank White coined the term Overview Effect to describe the phenomenon.
The technical definition of the Overview Effect is:
"The overview effect is a cognitive shift reported by some astronauts while viewing the Earth from space. Researchers have characterized the effect as "a state of awe with self-transcendent qualities, precipitated by a particularly striking visual stimulus".
The most prominent common aspects of personally experiencing the Earth from space are appreciation and perception of beauty, unexpected and even overwhelming emotion, and an increased sense of connection to other people and the Earth as a whole. The effect can cause changes in the observer’s self concept and value system, and can be transformative."
In simpler terms, the Overview Effect is described as follows:
When astronauts first see our planet from space, they go through intense emotions. Seeing our home against the blackness of space is a profound experience that leads to a greater appreciation for Earth and its apparent fragility, and a deep connection to humanity as a whole.
Pale Blue Dot
Carl Sagan, a reknowned astrophysicist involved the early space missions who was also a brilliant writer, wrote an infamous piece in 1994 that is popularly known as Pale Blue Dot that captured the sentiment.
It was based on a photograph of Earth taken by the Voyager 1 space probe in 1990 from a distance of approximately 6 billion kilometers - and is perhaps the first 'selfie' of the Earth! All we see of the Earth in that photo is a pale blue dot in a beam of light.
Sagan's "Pale Blue Dot" talks to what he called the greater significance of the photo. It's more poetry than prose and I think should be compulsory learning in every human's education.
If you have not already, take the time to listen to this recitation - and share it with the little ones in your lives. Also, add the excellent documentary on the Voyager mission - The Farthest - to your watch list. It will brings this incredible story to life.
Willow learns the profound wisdom of astronauts
The tales of the Apollo astronauts and Sagan's rendition of the 'Pale Blue Dot' became our inspiration for Space Odyssey. The book is our attempt to capture the awe and profound insights that the cosmos ignited in these pioneers.
Darren had come across and explored the Overview Effect many years ago but for me writing the book was the first time I delved into it.
I had long admired space travel for not only the sheer scientific prowess it demonstrated but also the sense of adventure and pioneering spirit of exploration that it evoked. It was wonderful to then learn about this other, poetic and deeply humanistic, dimension to space travel.
Seeing the earth from space was how our little hero was going to realise the profound wisdom of the astronauts - and so he did.
As Willow gazes back at the Earth from Space, he realises that which makes us all the same and inherently connected to each other. It even makes him feel better about being a little different himself - there was place for him too.
The seed of wisdom central to Space Odyssey
Whether we look at our lives through the scientific, philosophical or contemplative lens, we find that at a fundamental level there is no separation.
There is no us and them - there can't be.
Even the stuff that we are made of came from the same source ... "Forged in the heart of dying stars billions of years ago" as astrophysicists tend to put it.
What could be more fantastic!
Can we experience the overview effect on earth?
So is it possible for us to experience the Overview Effect or something like it without going to space?
I believe that it is possible and it was with this aim that we wrote the book; to use the power of storytelling, of words and of art, to evoke that feeling of connectedness to all things and all beings.
Even so, I confess that I was surprised that whilst writing the first draft of Space Odyssey around Christmas last year, I found tears streaming down my face. This happened spontaneously as I wrote out the stanzas where Willow has his realisation. Whilst most of that draft manuscript got amended through the writing and editing process, these stanzas have remained as is.
This was the first time I've been moved to tears by my own work ... perhaps it was the part of me that had felt alone through life finally finding some resolve.
When I shared this with Darren he mentioned the work of Paul Virillio, a cultural theorist who has written extensively on the palliative or healing nature of art, and how artists works through their issues in their art to a resolve which is then consciously or unconsciously passed onto the viewer.
It sounded good and I wish for it to be true. But the core of my belief - that we can experience something like the Overview Effect whilst remaining earthbound - comes from my lived experience: our mind is something that we can condition and with that comes the ability to control how we feel about ourselves, others and life in general.
'How we feel about life is in our control. We just need to remember we are part of the whole'
I first learnt of this possibility from the Yogic and Buddhist traditions. They were amongst the first to use introspection as a means of studying the mind and consciousness. What they realised is, just as we can strengthen the muscles of our body through exercise, so can we condition our mind through mental exercises.
Yogis have long understood that the mind is inherently plastic - something that is now widely recognised in neuroscience as brain plasticity.
Virtues like loving-kindness, compassion, empathic joy and equanity are not seen to be accidents in these traditions nor are they seen to be something that is innate to only a select few. Rather, these can be cultivated through practice.
What developed as a result was a series of practices known as metta or maitri meditations, which involve generating feelings of loving-kindness and/or compassion towards one's own self and others. It can also be seen as an 'equalising' practice where the loving-kindness you extend towards your own self, is the same you give to another loved one, a stranger and even an enemy.
Regular practice is said to help one overcome past hurt, find forgiveness and generate compassion for all beings. Over time, the significance one attaches on labels like "us" and "them" begins to dissipate and with that comes a deeper sense of connection with all other beings.
Having praticed this regularly for almost a decade now, I can attest to the transformative power of the practice. It really ought to be another compulsory curriculum in every human's education.
The seed of hope
Reading a story like Space Odyssey may begin just like that - a story.
But with continued reading, engagement and conversation with the little ones about it, the seed of wisdom will grow and with that, their sense of connection to the world around them.
And therein lies our hope for the future.
Besides, by the time they grow up, we may find ourselves to be part of a bigger inter-galactic civilisation! Space travel may become commonplace. It maybe then, as they look back at the Earth from their spaceship that they realise they are part of a much larger whole...
My hope and inspiration for Space Odyssey
My hope, as we release Space Odyssey into the wild, is for all of us to one day feel what some astronauts have felt : A deep sense of connection with our planet and all its beings.
If I did not believe in my heart that this was possible, I would not have put in the work to write and publish this book...
I leave you with a little bit of my personal story that went into writing Space Odyssey. As per usual we share this at the end of the book for the readers who are curious to know where the story came from...
Reeta grew up in a large extended family. Her mum had eight siblings whilst her dad had 17. At the last count, Reeta had 125 first cousins! Reeta’s childhood home in Lami, Fiji Islands was where the family would regularly get together. She loved these gatherings as it meant hours of playtime with her cousins. In the noise and gaiety however, Reeta would sometimes feel a silence descend upon her.
She’d find herself quietly looking around, watching others be completely absorbed in conversation, food or play. In that moment, even in the familiar loving crowd, she’d feel different, she’d feel alone. Reeta couldn’t help but wonder who she was and what was she doing there. After a little while the noise would return and she would go back to playing again.
This strange experience kept re-surfacing through the years and inspired Reeta to seek out a deeper understanding of life. She moved out on her own and started spending her spare time learning from scientists, philosophers, yogis and mystics.
This enquiry inspired many adventures to far flung places around the world. She was always searching – but most days Reeta felt like she was walking alone.
Slowly the silence and stillness of her solitary life started to seep in. Reeta began to tap into a deeper feeling; one of profound connection to all beings and all things. Reeta’s search continues to this day – but she no longer feels like she is walking alone.