top of page
  • lindsaykmoore

Luminous: Living Things That Light Up the Night

Book Review + Author Interview + Activities

Behold! A brilliant new informational picture book by author and illustrator Julia Kuo about bioluminescence, the peculiar phenomenon when living organisms, animals, algae and fungi produce light.

Readers accompany a mother and child as they take an imaginary journey to different ecosystems around the world and witness bioluminescent organisms from backyard lightning bugs to bristlemouth lightfish in the deep sea. Kuo's narrative is accompanied by fact-filled paragraphs on each page about the illustrated creatures that, for different survival purposes, glimmer, glow, shine or flash in dark places.

Image Credit: Julia Kuo/Greystone Books

As an illustrator, Kuo is a master of stylistic minimalism and her choices of what is drawn in and what is left out are visually poetic and only enhance the way she tells a story. The limited color palette and clean illustrations, give young readers enough information to feel seriously scientific without forgetting to leave room for imagination and wonder.

Image Credit: Julia Kuo/Greystone Books

Kuo has carefully drawn her characters to represent a mother and child from the Asian American Pacific Islander community, reflecting not only her own heritage as a Taiwanese-American but also her lived experiences. Kuo is not a stranger to adventure and has herself kayaked through bioluminescent plankton and visited glow worms hanging from caves in New Zealand.

We're grateful to have Julia Kuo today to talk with us about communicating science through writing and art, as well as the power of representation in picture books.


Tell us about a moment when you encountered bioluminescence in the wild. One of my favorite memories is seeing bioluminescence in a forest in Taroko Gorge, a national park on the eastern side of Taiwan. I went on a nighttime hike led by Taiwanese aborigine who worked at the lodge we were staying at. The moon was pretty bright that night, but once we entered the forest it got quite dark...until the guide pointed out something on the ground that was dimly glowing! On closer inspection, it looked like an otherwise innocuous piece of wood that was simply laying on the forest floor. It took me a second to realize that I'd read about foxfire before and that this must be it. It wasn't the wood that was glowing - it was the fungi that was growing on the wood! Tackling a topic like bioluminescence must have been challenging. Did the story come easily or did you play around with different concepts? I can imagine how tackling this topic from scratch could have been challenging, but luckily I didn't have to do that! Years ago I had made a simple animated video with my writer friend Justin Glanville (to whom the book is dedicated) about bioluminescence, and after that I did a small gallery show about bioluminescence with my author-illustrator friend Emily Dove. So by the time that Greystone editor Kallie George approached me with this book idea, I had already created a modest body of work about bioluminescence! I had also already worked with Kallie on my first ever board book Everyone Eats and knew I could trust all her suggestions and feedback. We were on the same page for many decisions, such as choosing to use factual side bars. So all in all it was a very smooth process! Your illustrations are so clear, with just the right about of information to help tell the story. Can you share what sort of things do you think about when designing an illustration about something scientific? I'm so glad to hear that! I knew these bioluminescent creatures would look really stunning against mostly black backdrops, so I wanted to let them shine using plenty of negative space and a focus on accuracy. That meant finding good reference photos, but I learned through this process that taking photos of deep sea creatures that live in pitch black darkness is a challenging problem in itself. (Later on, I would read Edith Widder's book Below the Edge of Darkness to understand just how relatively new this field is and what lengths scientists such as Widder went through to photograph their bioluminescent subjects). In the end, I had first-rate help in this area! My publisher connected me with an expert in this field, Dr. Steven Haddock, who is a leading researcher at MBARI (Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute). I couldn't have asked for a better collaborator. Dr. Haddock helped to fact check the text, guided me in finding reference photos, and looked over the illustrations I created. Working with him not only ensured accurate illustrations - it also gave me a better understanding of where his field of bioluminescent research was headed. What sort of questions did you have as you started researching information for Luminous? I was very confused by the pictures of bioluminescent creatures I was finding; some photos of a creature would show very inky, dark skin - while other photos of the same creature would show skin that was greyish pink. I wasn't sure if this was a variation within species, a byproduct of bioluminescence, or a matter of lighting until Dr. Haddock clarified this for me. It turns out that all the greyish pink skinned creatures were deceased specimen - and the dark, almost-black skinned creatures were the ones who were photographed while alive. What a blunder that would have been! What does it mean to you to have characters that look like you in a picture book about science, adventure and exploration? As an author-illustrator, It feels only natural to write stories about my own experiences and to draw characters that look like me and my family. My adult life has been full of outdoor adventures, although it was a long road getting there; growing up I never saw warm-skinned, dark-haired people depicted in any sort of American media as the adventuring or exploring type. I was and sometimes still am often the only person of color in outdoor spaces, and that can feel very lonely. So these experiences have compelled me to make picture books that feature people who look like me in all sorts of adventurous situations. How wonderful would it be for children of color to see themselves reflected in these places and scenarios? And it is equally important to normalize these depictions for the rest of the world.

More About Julia Kuo:

Image Credit: Julia Kuo

Julia Kuo is awesome. She has written and/or illustrated several critically acclaimed picture books, including her most recent, Luminous and Let's Do Everything and Nothing. To learn more about Julia's process, her other books and illustration work, or learn where she'd like to go on her next adventure, visit her website:

Ocean Literacy Principles

Luminous, written for ages 4-8, can be used to teach Ocean Literacy Principles in the classroom or at home as many of the organisms that are explored within its pages are found in the ocean.

Principle 5: The ocean supports a great diversity of life and ecosystems.

Principle 7B: The ocean is largely unexplored. People explore the ocean.


Creative Writing Response:

1. Some organisms use bioluminescence to scare away predators. Others use it to communicate or to attract prey, to hide or to be found. If you could produce light for a purpose like one of the creatures in the book, what would you use it for?

2. Can you think of any way humans use light as a way to communicate?

Art Project:


1 Large Black Sheet of Paper

Colorful Tissue Paper


Crayons, Oil Pastels, Color Pencils, Paint Markers or Chalk

Make a “stained glass” image of a bioluminescent organism.

  1. Read Luminous: Living Things That Light Up the Night by Julia Kuo.

  2. Choose a bioluminescent organism to study closer.

  3. Using crayons, draw your organism on a sheet of black construction paper.

  4. Using scissors, cut out the light producing areas. This step may require some adult assistance.

  5. Glue colored tissue paper to back of the poster to fill in the shapes removed.

  6. Hang posters on windows at home or in the classroom to allow sunlight to light up your organism.

Looking for more activities? Another great thing for teachers and parents looking for activities is that Greystone Books provides a very thorough Teachers Guide for including Luminous in curriculum.


bottom of page