A Dazzling Octavia E. Butler Biography Explores the Sci-Fi Legend’s Early Life

A Dazzling Octavia E. Butler Biography Explores the Sci-Fi Legend’s Early Life
A crop of the Star Child cover; see the full reveal below. (Image: Dutton Books for Young Readers)

An author as distinctive as Science Fiction Hall of Fame member Octavia E. Butler (Kindred, The Parable of the Sower) deserves an equally distinctive biography — which is exactly why Ibi Zoboi’s Star Child: A Biographical Constellation of Octavia Estelle Butler is so exciting. Described as “a poignant biography in verse and prose,” the book, which is aimed at middle-grade readers but is truly universal, explores Butler’s childhood and how it informed her award-winning, influential literary career.

Zoboi — a National Book Award finalist for her YA novel American Street — actually studied with Butler at the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop before Butler passed away in 2006. Star Child showcases Butler’s “own words and photos of documents from her childhood,” bolstered by Zoboi’s research on Butler’s papers at Los Angeles’ Huntington Library.

Here’s the full, gorgeous cover, making its debut here on Gizmodo; the art is by Zharia Shinn and the design is by Anna Booth.

Image: Dutton Books for Young ReadersImage: Dutton Books for Young Readers

And here’s an exclusive excerpt from Star Child, which brings some historical context to Butler’s earliest years.

Spirit of the Times

ZEITGEIST IS A GERMAN WORD that means “spirit of the times,” and people often use it to characterise the forces that shape a period of history. When Octavia’s parents were married in 1931, the spirit was dark as the nation was mired deep in the worst economic crisis in American history — the Great Depression. The second decade of their marriage saw the spirit shift from one of global economic hardship to one of global war. World War II began for America in 1941, when Japan attacked a naval base in Pearl Harbour, Hawaii.

For Black Americans like Laurice and Octavia Margaret, their lives were also shaped by a thriving Black culture that spread throughout America, starting with the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and 1930s and continued by writers like Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes; musicians like Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong; as well as groundbreaking athlete Jackie Robinson, while violent overt racism terrorised Black people all over the country.

From 1942 to 1946, the top-secret Manhattan Project took place in a number of US cities, including Los Alamos, New Mexico, where scientists experimented with nuclear weapons. World War II ended in 1945 when the Germans and the Japanese surrendered; the United Nations was founded later that year.

The Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson in 1947, the first African American player to play in modern Major League Baseball. Robinson had attended the same high school as Octavia years before she enrolled.

IN JULY 1947, when Octavia was just a few days old, an unidentified flying object (UFO) crashed in Roswell, New Mexico. In 1948 — when Octavia was just a year old — astronomers and physicists formulated the big bang theory, explaining the scientific origins of the universe.

Racism and violence against Black people prevailed in the South and all over the country as the beginnings of the civil rights movement developed alongside the beginnings of the Red Scare: fear of the Soviet Union and its spread of communism.

Many Black men served in World War II, including Octavia’s father, but they did so in a military that was still mostly segregated. President Harry S. Truman ended segregation in the Armed Forces in 1948 by executive order. After soldiers returned from the war, lots of babies were conceived and born, creating what was called the baby boom. Laurice and Octavia Margaret Butler gave birth to their first and only child sixteen years into their marriage.

Baby Boom

The men came home

after the war, and their girlfriends

cheered and kissed them with big, wide hugs.

Paper snow fell from the sky

as the bands marched down the

Main Streets parading for the soldiers

who fought for their nation,

for freedom, for peace in the world.

The booms were now distant

across the oceans like the sound

of thunder on the other side of sunshine.

So the soldiers married their girlfriends

and the new houses,

with their triangular roofs

and their white picket fences

were filled with love instead of hate

laughter instead of bombs

babies instead of war.


Excerpt from Ibi Zoboi’s Star Child: A Biographical Constellation of Octavia Estelle Butler reprinted by permission. Copyright Dutton Books for Young Readers.

Ibi Zoboi’s Star Child: A Biographical Constellation of Octavia Estelle Butler will be released on January 25; you can pre-order a copy here.