The Star Maiden

The Star Maiden is a beautiful retelling of an Ojibwa legend, based on a story found in ‘The Traditional History and Characteristic Sketches of the Ojibway Nation,’ 1850, by George Copway, Chief of the Ojibway Nation. It is a legend about the origin of the Water Lily. Being fond of Native American legends, waterways, and wildflowers, I somehow came upon this children’s picture book in the late 1980’s, and saw that it was written by someone named Barbara Juster Esbensen.

Though the book was never a bestseller, I was very fond of it, and often read it to Bryan as a bedtime story.

About this time I took a chance at writing my first children’s book, ‘The Windigo’s Return,’ also a retelling of an Ojibway legend, about the origin of mosquitoes. I had no idea what I was doing. Somehow I got a tip on how to reach Barb Esbensen. I called her on the phone, out of the blue. She was extraordinarily gracious, answering many questions. I asked if I could send her my manuscript. I have no clue why she said yes, but she did.

This was an important moment in my life—a turning point. Barb thought my story was good. She made a few suggestions, and agreed to put in a good word with her editor at Little Brown. I sent the story off. The editor liked the story a lot, and kept telling me, ‘I think we will publish it.’ This went on for a year, as I waited for a big ‘break.’

Eventually the book was turned down—reluctantly, I was told. Barb consoled me. But by then I had written another children’s book, something entitled ‘Old Turtle.’ Readers may have heard of it. It was accepted by a small publisher in Duluth named Pfeiffer-Hamilton. It took two long years of waiting, of not knowing what was happening, of worrying about how the art might turn out (I saw no sketches.) It was frustrating. Sometimes I called Barb along the way, and like a kind “auntie” she offered encouragement and advice.

Eventually Old Turtle was published, to much acclaim. Cheng Khee Chee’s art, that I had waited for so long, was magnificent. The publisher did a great job. The book became a hit, winning awards and selling hundreds of thousands of copies. And who cheered me on? Barb Esbensen, who had never had such luck with a book. She showered me with praise and counsel as I navigated this new world. And I am grateful still.

‘The Windigo’s Return’ was published a year or two later, by that same editor—now with a different publisher. She became a good friend and we did many other books together.

Barb Esbensen passed away in 1996, far too young. But her books are still here, on my shelf, and I think about her often. And I thank her.

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