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A Q&A with Jon Agee

Jon Agee has published more than 30 picture books, but may have come to MinervaReads readers’ attention with his picture book The Wall in the Middle of the Book. This October, he comes to England from the States, and is appearing at The Children’s Bookshow, following the publication of his latest picture book, Life on Mars, on August 1st.

life on marsLife on Mars follows a young astronaut in pursuit of evidence that there is life on planet Mars. As he explores the red planet, beautifully illustrated in stark black outlines, unbeknown to him, a large simpatico alien follows behind. Rather sweetly, the astronaut does discover life on Mars, but doesn’t quite make the discovery the reader has. Agee has pictured this planet’s landscape as rather hostile; large empty surfaces, dangerous craters and looming mountains, but this contrasts so well with the warmth of life itself that the reader is drawn into the book, both in terms of cheering on the astronaut and the alien life form. With wit in illustration and text, this is a mission accomplished.   

Before his performance at The Children’s Bookshow, I’ve been lucky enough to ask Jon some questions.

You’ve published more than 30 picture books.  Do you find it gets easier with each book?

Yes, probably, though every book seems to have its own evolution, from original idea to final execution.  The text for My Rhinoceros was written, almost word-for-word, in a notebook in one afternoon.  The Wall in the Middle of the Book began as a simple notion; treating the book’s middle (or gutter, as we call it) as if it was a solid barrier.  But it took many months for a story to materialize.  Little Santa had a promising, offbeat premise, but  – as so often happens – I couldn’t figure out where to go next, and I tossed the dummy in a file.  Months later, looking at it again with fresh eyes, the rest of the story came quickly.

So, a concept doesn’t always come to you fully formed? For example, with Life on Mars, did you start with an astronaut seeking life, or the box of chocolate cupcakes (the astronaut has taken cupcakes as a gift for the life form he hopes he’ll find)?

Book concepts begin as wisps of an idea: a doodle of people chatting, a phrase or sketch that has an unusual juxtaposition.  If it amuses me, I pursue it.  With Life on Mars, I made drawings of a little astronaut walking around a remote planet, communicating with the folks back on Earth.  “Do you see anything?” they ask.  “Nothing yet,” he responds. His matter-of-fact conversation, juxtaposed with the ominous alien creatures watching him was the spark for the story.  The chocolate cupcakes came later.

What comes first, the illustrations or the text?

Doodles (loose drawings) of people and other living creatures, followed by text or talk balloons.

the wall in the middle of the bookThe illustrations in Life on Mars have very strong defined shapes with clear thick black outlines. Whereas in The Wall you went without the outlines. How do you decide what sort of illustration will suit the subject matter?

Every book seems to require its own palette, or motif.  For Life on Mars, the sky was a flat black.  As a counterpoint, I gave the planet texture, with crayon, colored pencil and wash.  The landscape was made up of simple shapes (craters and rocks), so a thick black outline worked well.

The Wall has a two-dimensional look, like a compressed stage set, where the reader follows the action from the front row of the theater.  Since the artwork was mostly large, strongly defined shapes against the white page, I didn’t think an outline was necessary.

And the faces are drawn very simply and yet are still full of expression – the reader can work out what’s going on without the text. How do you imbue a character with expression?

Since I draw simply, I use everything available: the face, body (posture), gesture, gait, scale, juxtaposition, lighting.  In Life on Mars, the little astronaut has about ten distinct emotional episodes.  When he steps out of his spaceship he surveys the Martian vista from up on a rock.  This suggests confidence.  When he walks, he stands upright, and his footprints follow a direct route.  Again, confidence.  As he becomes doubtful, his footprints start to zigzag.  Then there’s a close-up of his face.  He looks concerned.  Further on, his posture slumps.  He abandons his box of cupcakes.  All these elements are used to convey the way the character is feeling.

Much of your text is very honed down, very sparse. Does it take a while to get to the state in which not a superfluous word is used?

The editing process doesn’t seem to stop until we’ve sent the book to the printers.  With a picture book, you’re revising both pictures and text, and how they relate to each other.  As pictures are revised, the text usually needs to be whittled down.  It’s inevitable that you fall in love with a word, line or phrase, and sometimes, only late in the process, you realize that it has to go.

In fact, many of your books play with words. Does this come fairly naturally? 

I think so.  In Nothing, a wealthy eccentric states that she has everything, but she’s never had nothing.  So she sets out to buy nothing.  In Terrific, a grump named Eugene proves – with sarcasm – how a word like “terrific” can mean two different things depending on how you express it.  Another double meaning appears at the end of The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau.  The text reads that Mr. Clousseau “returned to his painting” and the picture shows that he has – believe it or not! – walked into a painting.  In Life on Mars, the word “life” suggests a Martian creature, but it ends up meaning something completely different.

I should add that, along with my picture books, I have created a fair number of books of wordplay: anagrams, oxymorons, spoonerisms, tongue twisters, and four volumes of palindromes, beginning with Go Hang a Salami!  I’m a Lasagna Hog!  (Forwards and backwards it says the same thing).

Your books are also full of humour – how important is this in a picture book?

True, my books are often funny.  Humour is useful when writing about serious or complicated subjects (see many books by Dr. Seuss).  That said, humour is not essential.  One of my most favorite picture books, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, is not a very funny book.

What advice would you give a child who wants to be an author/illustrator?

Keep a notebook: write in it, draw in it.  Read all kinds of things: books, articles, old letters, fortune cookies.  Look around: at artwork, movies, theatre, dance, nature, animals, and people at work and play.

Two recent books, Life on Mars and The Wall, both refer in some way to topical events – Life on Mars to the essence of our being and space exploration (the anniversary of the lunar landing), – and The Wall to the divisions in our society. Is this on purpose – do you try to write topically, or are the topics just in your head?

The Wall was inspired simply by the architecture of a book; thinking about the opposing rectangular pages as unique places, separated by the binding in the middle.  Many months later, a story emerged from this.  The concept of a protective wall seemed ripe for parody, so I turned it on its head.  It was simply coincidence that the book was published at a time when a controversial wall was being discussed here in the States.

Life on Mars came about from doodles of a young astronaut wandering a barren planet, watched, unwittingly, by curious alien creatures.  There was something amusing about the juxtaposition of us knowing – and his not knowing – what was going on just behind him.  What does it mean?  The truth is, when I’m working on a book, I don’t think about what it means.  I know there’s a message or a moral, but I leave that for the readers to figure out.

With thanks to Jon Agee for answering my questions so comprehensively. To purchase tickets for The Children’s Bookshow, click here, and to purchase Life on Mars, click here. With thanks to Scallywag Press for the review copies.

Taxi Ride with Victor: A Guest Post from Sara Trofa

taxi ride with victorImagine a character who has always wanted a certain job, but when he gets it, he can’t quite master it. No, I’m not talking about Boris Johnson, but rather Victor, the main character in Taxi Ride with Victor by Sara Trofa and illustrated by Elsa Klever. This title, shortlisted for the World Illustration Awards in 2018, beautifully pairs crazily outlandish illustrations with the simple tale of a taxi driver who always gets lost, but always brings happiness, as his passengers find unexpected, but fun adventures at their surprising destinations.  

The book is as zany as Victor himself, a taxi driver navigating outer space, and holds a raft of characters with numerous eyes or limbs, and a cloud come to life. Even the narrator is a three-eyed gray blob of a creature. This is a bright and unique picture book about finding friendship and embracing activities and places one might not expect to encounter, as well as making the reader think about their own value and contribution to society.

Below, author Sara Trofa explains her inspiration for the text.

When I write, most of the time I start from a character rather than from a topic. I note their personality, how they look and behave, what they want and what their problems are. Also, I give them a name. It might sound silly, but I can’t continue if I don’t give them a name (baby name books and websites are great for that)! Of course the name might change or not even appear in the final text, depending on the narrator’s voice and other aspects, but  in my head they need to have a specific name. It’s like part of their personality. Victor has had several other names before in my story process. “Victor” was also my grandma’s oldest brother’s name.

So Victor came to me like that: a taxi driver who doesn’t take you where you ask.

Then the most exciting part comes: considering all the possibilities for the character and their behaviour. Slowly the plot takes a specific direction and I start seeing the actual meaning of what I’m creating.

Victor’s mistakes are a great opportunity to discuss relationships, not only with other people, but also with ourselves. Why do we make mistakes? Why is it so difficult for us to accept them? What are the consequences and how can we deal with them?

Our society tends to value a person for their contributions and for their “usefulness”. What could the social value of a taxi driver be if he doesn’t take you where you ask to go? If he doesn’t provide the service that he is supposed to?

Starting from there, I wanted the other characters not just to accept Victor but to actually be able to see his true value and to enjoy the unexpected outcomes of his “mistakes”.

Also, sometimes we think that we are what we do, specifically what we do as a job. But Victor is much more than a taxi driver. He gives a bigger gift to his passengers and that is possible only because the passengers are open to the possibilities of the final destinations to which he brings them.

How sad it would be if they just let themselves be mad at Victor? Or if Victor gave up after the first “failures”?

So I wanted all of them, Victor included, to be able to be surprised and to welcome the unexpected.

The readers’ point of view is also something unexpected and marvellous. Isn’t it exciting when somebody reads your story in a new way, different from what you’ve planned while writing it?! Of course the readers are re-tellers of the story, they get to create their own version of the story and that’s such a generous gift for the author.

I wrote a story about mistakes, acceptance, being together, helping each other, not giving up. Victor’s readers will tell me what else this book is about and I can’t wait for that!

For other new picture books on friendship and unexpected journeys, visit MinervaReads in October for an autumn picture book roundup. In the meantime you can purchase Taxi Ride with Victor here, and find Sara on twitter @SaraTrofa. With thanks to Prestel for the review copy, and Sara for her guest post.

Fly Me to the Moon

July 20th 2019 is the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. Along with a myriad of events to celebrate, including an exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London, podcasts and programmes, children’s publishers have gone to town (or rather the moon and back) with a plethora of books.

field trip to the moon

Field Trip to the Moon by John Hare and Jeanne Willis manages to achieve a little of everything in one small picture book, tackling gender discrimination, aligning creativity and science, showing exploration and integration, all using wit as the primary force.

On a class trip to the moon, one student is inadvertently separated from the rest of her group, but she doesn’t panic, she takes out her crayons and draws.

However, this rhyming tale isn’t narrated by her, but by the unseen aliens watching this party of space-suited school children. And it is the alien narrators who are shocked, and then delighted when she spies them and shares her crayons.

The wit is everywhere, in text and pictures, skillfully done as the reader doesn’t see any human facial expressions until the end (being underneath the space helmet) – the illustrations bear out mood and feelings in body language alone. The text is playful and clever, the aliens learning about this visiting species through observation, and the landscape is spectacularly evoked in cinematic style, the crayons and space bus providing the colour against the grey moon. Interestingly published in the States as a wordless picture book, here Jeanne Willis’s text gives more colour and texture to the book.

A lesson in grit and resilience, in learning new skills, and in not desecrating a special place.

astro girl

More girls on the moon in Astro Girl by Ken Wilson-Max, which tells the story of Astrid, a girl who wishes to be an astronaut, and has a passion for stars and space. This lovely early-years picture book explores Astrid’s passion within a domestic sphere as she explores the every day with her father, thinking about how what they are doing relates to outer space – eating meals, discussing gravity, science experiments and more. There’s a neat twist at the end – the mum comes home from her job as an astronaut. Black-outlined colourful illustrations set this book firmly within preschool territory, with a lovely timeline of women in space at the back.

the darkest dark

The Darkest Dark by Chris Hadfield and Kate Fillion, illustrated by the Fan Brothers shows a young boy playing at being an astronaut, complete with cardboard box and companion dog. The illustrations are reminiscent of Whatever Next by Jill Murphy, but this boy’s adventures stop when it gets dark and he’s scared, so wants his parents. The illustrations gradually make the reader realise that this book delves into history – the small boy lives in the 1960’s and he goes next door to watch the moon landings on television. He discovers that the dark is powerful and magical and transformative, and when he grows up, his dreams of being a spaceman come true. This longer picture book exquisitely juxtaposes the highly detailed landscape of Chris’s childhood years in the domestic sphere, before opening out into a faintly glowing lunar landscape of his adulthood. Accessible and aspirational.

counting on katherine

For more about people on the moon, an excellent child’s title is Counting on Katherine by Helaine Becker, illustrated by Dow Phumiruk, exploring how Katherine Johnson (profiled in the film Hidden Figures) put astronauts on the moon with her phenomenal maths skills. Another inspirational title, this is about working hard, nurturing passion and believing in yourself. Telling Katherine’s life story, the book highlights the racial prejudice she suffered, and also gender discrimination, yet explores how she battled both, putting the mathematics ahead of all else. The book also explains some of the maths Katherine used, and why it was so important in relation to the moon landings. An important and attractive STEM title.

trailblazers neil armstrong

A longer read, Stripes Publishers new Trailblazers series aims to make biographies accessible and engaging for younger readers, and succeeds. Trailblazers: Neil Armstrong by Alex Woolf, illustrated by Luisa Uribe, George Ermos and Nina Jones starts with a wide-ranging introduction to explain the build-up to the moonlandings and the space race, and then goes back to Armstrong’s childhood, highlighting his love for reading and then his part in the Korean War, before turning to his training with NASA. Although the text is slightly plodding, and it brushes over the prejudice experienced by those such as Katherine Johnson, for avid fans this will be a fascinating extension of their knowledge of Armstrong. Black and white illustrations throughout.

what is the moon

For extremely young readers, What is the Moon? Usborne Lift-the-flap Very First Questions and Answers by Katie Daynes, illustrated by Marta Alvarez Miguens should tick the boxes. Creative, informative and unbearably addictive, this hardy book addresses some quite tricky concepts in an intriguing way. The changing shapes of the moon, (and why it seems to change shape), how it moves and what makes it shine are all worthy questions and answered neatly and deftly. A considerable diverse cast makes this a stand out book for quick facts and fun reading.

how to be an astronaut

If you still really want to be an astronaut at eight years old though, How to Be An Astronaut and other space jobs by Dr Sheila Kanani and Sol Linero is phenomenally informative, colourful and child-friendly. I have a penchant for books that ask ‘why’, as well as what and how, and this book aims to gently explore why we want to research outer space and even visit it. Illustrating the history of space exploration with a timeline, showing the ISS with captions, and exploring not only astronaut training, but what it feels like to go into space. Paragraphs are spaced out among full page illustrations, the topics of ‘mission control’ and ‘space scientists’ are given detailed explanations, which verges into beginners’ physics, and yet the information is simply elucidated. A key space title. The paperback version includes a press-out-and-make rocket, stickers and fold-out space scenes.

balloon to the moon

Balloon to the Moon by G Arbuthnott and C Nielsen takes a different tack, tracking the era of space exploration back to ancient dreams of flight through the invention of kites in China and the hot air balloon in France. Before long, the book hits its stride with rockets, and plunges into supersonics, animals in space through to astronauts and the lunar landings, and continues beyond with the future of space exploration. With a mix of timelines, narrative, deconstructed rocket illustrations and even comics, this retro-feeling title, with its screen print illustration certainly answers the whys as well as the hows. The vintage feel with chapter heads as retro-style posters makes this an immersive as well as authoritative read.

usborne book of the moon

The Usborne Book of the Moon by Laura Cowan, illustrated by Diana Toledano shows how many different ways there are to present moon information to children. This title presents common questions – Is the moon made of cheese, does a man live on the moon – and gives answers, based first on what ancient peoples believed and the importance of the moon to different cultures, before documenting the thoughts of historical figures, such as Plutarch and Harriot, and the photographs of Daguerre, until finally landing on the space race and flights to the moon. Colourful and well-presented.

moonstruck

If you’re feeling largely inspired, then Moonstruck! Poems About Our Moon, edited by Roger Stevens, illustrated by Ed Boxall may help to fuel those dreams. From classic to contemporary, the poems address the disinterest of a young child forced to watch the moon landings to Rachel Rooney’s use of the different types of moon – Harvest, Snow, Milk – to Yeats’ exploration of the relationship between night-time cat and moon. Illustrations throughout add shape to the texture of the poems; playing with shape and light to mirror the effects of the moon.

When the Stars Come out by Nicola Edwards, illustrated by Lucy Cartwright

when the stars come outWhenever there’s a new topic at school, there’s a scramble from teachers and some pupils to find the library books that fit, the book that’s pitched correctly for the age group and touches on all the themes that the teacher wants to explore during that term. And rarely does a book match exactly. Probably because then it would be a textbook, rather than a book for exploring, a book for further stimulus and enquiry. When the Stars Come Out by Nicola Edwards, illustrated by Lucy Cartwright, is a refreshing piece of nonfiction that not only ticks the boxes when exploring ‘Time and Place, Earth and Space’ for example, but it also neatly stretches the mind, and causes pause for thought, and elicits pleasure at the same time.

Not just a space book, as the title might imply, When the Stars Come Out intends to explore our whole universe at night-time from the sciencey bits, such as why night occurs and the different constellations in the sky, but also the geographical element – both physical and human – and it also reaches right from the outer echelons of the universe into our very heads; what happens when we sleep?

Diagrams and illustrations begin the story of how the night works, showing the rotation of the Earth in relation to the sun. Then, before the constellations are explored, there’s some history on stargazing, and some recognition of why some people are scared of the dark. The moon and stars are investigated, and then tangents of this, including auroras, moonbows and shooting stars.

Coming down to earth, Edwards explores different landscapes at night, from the city to the desert, rainforests, mountains and many more including the sea, extrapolating which changes happen at night in the darkness. Animals are looked at in more detail in the next chapter, looking at sleep, dreams, nocturnal animals, and of course, humans. This chapter is particularly interesting as it’s rarely dealt with in children’s non-fiction. I liked the pie chart of sleep cycles, our natural rhythms, and then a look at super sleepers and world records, including the man who stayed awake for 11 days. It’s dangerous of course, as explained in the text, but fascinating information.

Lastly, the book investigates extreme days and nights – near the Arctic and Antarctic Circles, as well as clever inventions such as glow in the dark cement and what scientists are working on in terms of night-time and day-time differences in plant growth, for example. The book ends with a glorious celebration of the night – from Diwali to Walpurgisnacht.

This is a joyous and fascinating book. The illustrations are detailed and immersive – both conveying the science in the lunar cycle, but also a sense of wonder and mystery in dreams and night visitors. My only caveat is the size of the text against darkish backgrounds – not good for sleepy eyes – but perhaps the text’s smallness will keep the mind focussed and prevent daydreaming!

The book is large in size but well designed to reflect the information inside. The mountains spread reads as portrait rather than landscape – mirroring mountains of course, but also giving the different levels of mountainous terrain – the birds, the climbers, the foothills. Other pages look like landscapes – the savannah for example, with its panel of night sky at the top, but then it’s land mass stretching towards the reader. The animals are illustrated in action – grazing or in motion, but the text is chunked nicely into individual paragraphs, many in their own colourful panels. The book is extremely visual – the colours subtle rather than garish, reflecting the muted light of night times.

An exciting non-fiction title that illuminates the mysteries of our night-time and stimulates curious minds across a broad spectrum of inter-linking subjects. You can buy it here.

British Science Week

It’s British Science Week, 8th to 17th March, and it’s delightful to see hands-on experimenting happening at school and at home. We are growing crystals in the kitchen, and dropping eggs in school, and I’m thankful that the experimenting is that way around.

science is magicFor other science experiments, a new book is making life very easy. Science is Magic by Steve Mould is a science experiment book that uses everyday items. I don’t think there was a single item in the book that I needed to go out and purchase. Examples include a can of drink, a pack of cards, a measuring jug. Each experiment is fun and simple, and then leads onto explaining the science behind it.

We looked at the ‘pepper-repelling finger’ and learned about surface tension, experimented with ‘colour-changing potions’ and learned about the amount of acid in liquids, and made ‘a drinks can jump’ whilst learning about forces.

The reason it’s called magic – is because it aims to show things that appear to be magic, but can actually be explained by science. The tricks or experiments are easy to follow, but there are also pages on natural wonders that seem like magic, but can be explained, such as camouflage, erosion, and bio-luminescence. What’s more, there’s history too as Mould explains how certain tricks were performed in the past – how illusionist David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty disappear in 1983, and many more.

The layout is  easy to follow with large pictures and typeface, not many of the experiments appear in previous science experiment books, and there’s a good glossary at the end. Experiment here.

gaming technologyFor the more tech-minded child during Science Week, there’s the STEM in our World series, and in particular Gaming Technology: Streaming, VR and More by John Wood and Kirsty Holmes. With lovely clear writing, Wood and Holmes explain, through the narrator called Tess Tube, why STEM is important – “it’s all about understanding and solving problems in the real world.”

Gaming is a big part of the leisure industry and the book takes the reader through the history, accessible gaming for those with disabilities, and how the industry has advanced, with techniques from motion capture to VR and streaming. The book also suggests how gaming can be more than just leisure – helping to keep humans healthy and fit, and outlines ‘citizen science’ – exploring how games can help research into diseases, genetics and the environment, using examples such as ‘eyewire’ to explain how. Whale FM is another, in which players listen to clips of whale-song and match to other clips that sound the same. Players are helping scientists.

Of course books illuminating such up-to-the-minute technology will date, but for the moment this is a great nonfiction book for kids that guides learning and discussion on the topic. Designed for KS2 Science (aged 7-11), the layout is coherent and colourful – a good balance of large text and pictures; photographic, diagrammatic, and illustrative. Go gaming here.

pop-up moonStaying with physics, but branching also into astronomy, is Pop-Up Moon by Anne Jankeliowitch, Olivier Charbonnel and Annabelle Buxton. This is a real feat of paper engineering, with pop-ups on every other page, which fold back down easily after many openings of the book, and aren’t so flimsy that the reader would be scared to touch. What’s more, each pop-up really works its science. The first is a graphic representation of the position of the Earth and Moon in relation to the Sun, and shows the phases over a month. This leads into a spread about the tides and some urban myths about the power of the moon. The next pop-up is the planets in orbit, cleverly done so that it stands up beautifully when the book is open. There is some good physics disseminated in later pages about light and shadow, and space exploration. Inspirational and informative, this is a good science book for Earth and Space topics. Fly to the moon here.

The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet: A guest post from Martin Howard

cosmic atlas of alfie fleetCharlie Bucket (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl) was the first name that sprang to mind when I started reading this chucklesome new book from Martin Howard about an impoverished boy who follows up a newspaper advert to earn some quick cash doing odd jobs for an unbelievably eccentric man. But then The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet deviates from the world of Charlie Bucket into a world (or worlds) of its own, and I was both intrigued and highly amused by the comic writing, the inventive imagining, and the high adventures and cunning of its protagonist, Alfie.

The eccentric man I mentioned is Professor Bowell-Mouvemont, the president of the Unusual Cartography Club, who shows Alfie a series of worlds unknown to the majority of humans on Earth (too preoccupied with their ordinary lives to care). These worlds range from Brains-in-Jars world to planet Maureen and Outlandish. Together, the Professor and Alfie travel through these worlds as explorers. Quick to spot an opportunity, Alfie takes it upon himself to fend off danger by showing the inhabitants of these strange lands some of our own traditions, and marketing them as a way of progressing on his journey. He explains and sells advertising space in his travel guide, gives favourable reviews to inns and pubs, makes a mark on the map of the atlas he’s drawing to indicate good shops, hospitable peoples, and so on.

For the young reader, this is both highly amusing and yet also cunning – giving a serious nod to travel guides and atlases, as Wimpy Kid does for diaries. Illustrated by the award-winning Chris Mould, this is a great new series from an author with a clearly somewhat strange mind. So I asked him for his inspirations…

martin howardI first had the idea to write a travel guide to fantastical lands about fifteen years ago. I’m a huge, geeky fan of fantasy books and (like Alfie) I’ve always loved exploring the maps you find in them. A travel guide seemed like the obvious next step.

It bubbled away in the back of my mind for years before I came back to it. Stone circles, like Stonehenge, have always fascinated me. You find them in many places around the world – from Australia to Europe – and no one knows for sure why. I decided they were intergalactic portals first used by space tourists and, later, by a secret map-making society called the Unusual Cartography Club, which had a mission to explore other worlds. Having Alfie – the book’s protagonist – write a travel guide along his journey seemed perfect.

And that’s how The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet came about.

When I was young I was bullied all through my school years. In those days no one took bullying very seriously and one or two teachers even joined in. It was difficult to deal with and I found an escape from some pretty horrific verbal (and sometimes physical) abuse in books and comedy. I was lucky to be growing up at a time when some great comedians were making hilarious TV shows and on Thursday nights my parents would let me and my sister stay up late to watch Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Sketches like the Ministry of Silly Walks and Dead Parrot changed my life. If I was having a rough time at school all I had to do was say “no one expects the Spanish Inquisition” to myself in a silly voice and I’d be smiling. I can still quote many Python sketches word for word.

As I got older – I found other shows I loved: The Young Ones, Blackadder, French and Saunders, as well as older comedy movies such as The Hound of the Baskervilles with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. I saw lots of brilliant comedians perform stand-up, too. Bill Bailey, Jo Brand, Omid Djalili and lots of others. All of those shows, movies and comedians helped shape my own sense of humour.

Comedy is really important to me. It gave me optimism during traumatic times and I don’t understand why some people think funny books aren’t important. Laughter is as much a part of being human as music or love, and just as essential to our happiness. With humour we can laugh at life’s problems; without it the world would be a pretty grim place.

I also grew up during a time when Terry Pratchett was writing. I loved any fantasy books, but because I was so into comedy his had an especially big impact on me. In fact, I went to both the same schools as Pratchett, though he was there years before me. I also shopped regularly in the second-hand bookshop in Penn, Buckinghamshire, on which he based the magical library of the Unseen University. I was lucky enough to meet him once, when he was doing a talk at the local library after his second Discworld book came out, and it’s easy to see in my own writing that he has been a major influence. He introduced humour into fantasy.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy casts a long shadow, too. Like Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams made sci-fi funny. Eagle-eyed readers of The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet might spot I’ve paid a tiny tribute to The Hitchhiker’s Guide! Any book that contains space themes and humour is always going to be compared to The Hitchhiker’s Guide nowadays, and I’ve got the travel guide theme running through mine, too, so I was very aware that I was using a couple of the same ingredients as Douglas Adams. I hope I’ve used them to create a dish that has a very different flavour.

PG Wodehouse had a massive impact. I discovered the Jeeves and Wooster books when I was about twelve and his characters and his use of language to create humour are beyond incredible. In sci-fi and fantasy, I owe inspiration to Neil Gaiman, Tolkien, Ursula K. le Guin, Susan Cooper, as well as Joss Wheedon – I usually watch all seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer at least once a year! There are lesser well-known writers who have influenced me as well, like Jim Butcher whose pulp-fiction Dresden Files books about a detective wizard in Chicago are fantastic.

It’s impossible to write in isolation: all genres are built over time by writers who have made great contributions, and every writer will have favourites who have shaped the way they write, whether it’s Enid Blyton or Jane Austen. But it’s important that writers find their own voice and – I hope – in The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet I’ve written a book that recognises where it came from, but which is packed with fresh ideas and which could only have been written by me.

With thanks to Martin Howard. You can buy The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet written by Martin Howard, illustrated by Chris Mould here

Up and Away: The Skies

How often do we look up to the skies? More and more we stretch our necks downwards to look at our phones and fail to take in what’s at eye level. But even rarer is for us to look skywards. These five wonderful non-fiction titles, and one picturebook for children, explore the world above our heads – both in the day, and at night-time.

the skies above my eyesThe Skies Above My Eyes by Charlotte Guillain, illustrated by Yuval Zommer

A follow up title to the hugely popular The Street Beneath My Feet, this is a book that unfolds concertina style to explore the expanse of space above our heads. Very beautifully, the two sides follow different paths: one is countryside/rural-based in that a girl is seen lying on her back staring up through the trees, and looking at migrating birds, spiders ballooning, cloud formations and up to the Solar System past the Northern Lights. On the converse side, which is technologically-based, the girl is seen staring up past skyscrapers, to helicopters, aeroplanes, weather balloons and space rockets into the Solar System. With measurements given along the chart, and information about the atmosphere, history and physics, this is a fascinating guide to the skies above us, and all that they contain.

The book folds out to a whopping 2.5 metres tall – I cannot hold it up fully when standing, but laid out along a school corridor or a living room, this is a wonderful way to explore non-fiction. Zommer’s illustrations lend themselves both to the factual element – his rocket is intricate and cleverly shadowed, but also to the whimsical, with a floating umbrella Mary Poppins style. A well-designed, intriguing collaboration – this is exactly how to fascinate children with the world around us. You can buy it here.

cat's guide to the night skyA Cat’s Guide to the Night Sky by Stuart Atkinson, illustrations by Brendan Kearney

A more traditional guide to astronomy and the night sky in this well-designed and attractive non-fiction book. Atkinson’s long experience of writing about space and astronomy is apparent in the way that he distils tricky ideas into simple sentences, exploring in a down-to-earth way how to star gaze. Beginning with keeping safe outdoors, the book (and its guide Felicity the Cat) takes the reader through the different seasons – the best time of year to view particular constellations and what the reader should be looking for, with explanation about the makeup of stars, the phases of the Moon, the Northern Lights and much more. Atkinson is matter-of-fact about what the constellations really look like, and how to try to view a planet, but Felicity the Cat adds nice philosophical touches, such as wondering if anyone is looking back at her too.

The graphics are excellent, both the phases of the Moon and the constellations well-delineated, and there’s a feeling of immense friendliness and warmth in the domestic images of garden viewing platforms, as well as added humour with Felicity, who dresses according to the season. Includes a glossary and index. Age 7+ You can buy it here.

 

starry skiesStarry Skies by Samantha Chagollan and Nila Aye

For younger children interested in the shapes and patterns made by the stars, this is an elegant and beautiful tactile little hardback with stiff board pages. A die-cut on the cover with an uncomplicated yellow star and a teddy bear with stars for eyes showcases the target age group and the simplicity of the graphics within. The author explains that the positions of the stars tell a story, and each double spread includes a constellation with an imaginative narrative sentence alongside: Ursa Major and minor are seen when ‘Sophia’ and her mom [sic] take a forest path, Pegasus is shown alongside ‘Leah’ on horseback ready to spread her wings and fly. The two-colour scheme of yellow and black works well to really illuminate the constellations, and the book is hardy and practical for taking outside. Age 4+ Stargaze here.

 

 

 

voyage through spaceVoyage Through Space by Katy Flint, illustrated by Cornelia Li

Appealing on another level with a glow-in-the-dark fold out poster of the solar system (nicely attached and easily detached to the book with a perforated edge), is this straightforward but rather cartoonishly illustrated information book about the solar system. Each planet is afforded a double spread – with lovely illustrations of a young female astronaut and her dog peering at each planet. A glare is carefully shaded onto her mask, and she wears glasses near the sun – our courageous astronaut is seen landing on the Moon and optimistically Mars – other illustrations are even more supposed, such as when she views the asteroid belt sitting upon one of the orbiting rocks. But the text is fact-based – explaining definitions, measurements and scientists’ hypotheses.

The colour palette is particularly alluring – Neptune is cast in almost phosphorescent blue, Saturn a golden glow, Mars a rusty brown-red. Captions and annotations help to explore the full-page images, and although short, this is a great introduction to the solar system for intrepid space explorers. Age 5+. You can buy it here.

 

planetariumWelcome to the Museum: Planetarium by Chris Wormell and Raman Prinja

Planetarium is the latest in the Welcome to the Museum series, this time in conjunction with the Science Museum. Wormell’s last collaboration in this series was on Dinosaurium, whose lavishly illustrated creatures set a high bench mark for illustrated non-fiction. This tome, exploring the Solar System, is no less delightful or comprehensive, and maintains the sophisticated authoritative tone of the rest of the series.

Written by Raman Prinja, a Professor of Astrophysics at UCL, the book aims to go further than many space information books for children, starting with an explanation of radiation and light and traversing through the history of astronomy before navigating the Solar System, star life cycles and black holes. The end of the book takes in the incomprehensibility of huge superclusters and Universe expansion.

To accompany these mind-bogging theories, facts and wonders, Wormell’s power of intricate and detailed illustration has been utilised to its full extent. The detailed drawings of telescopes are like dioramas on the page, his intricate etchings of solar flares and coronal loops feel almost three-dimensional in their depiction. This is not an easy book – there is science galore and difficult concepts, but there is a handsome clarity to the text and a sense of wonder that imbues the science behind the illustrations. There’s also some wonderful prose writing:

“They [black holes] can’t be seen, but if a human got too close to one, they would be sucked in by its gravitational pull, stretched out like spaghetti and incinerated in a wall of fire!”

For space fans and astronomy maestros this is one outsized book they’ll yearn to devour. 8+ years and beyond. Explore the museum here.

the space trainThe Space Train by Maudie-Powell Tuck, illustrated by Karl James Mountford

I’ve added a picture book to my ‘skies’ blogpost because often the information and facts we absorb on a topic lead us to daydream about our own or others’ adventures in that area. And because quite often, even though a children’s ‘knowledge’ topic at school may revolve around learning facts, they will often spark off into a piece of creative writing, and this picture book ticks all the boxes in providing educational content, inspiration, imagination and energy. The Space Train is a wonderful lift-the-flap adventure about a boy and his grandma in the future and their attempts to rebuild the space train – a vehicle that propels through space faster than a rocket.

Not only is this a fun and cheeky adventure, but it is richly illustrated with a bold colour palette and a super eye for detail. There are hidden flaps and holes to peek through, and a thrilling mind-whirling combination of ‘sciencey’ words, make-believe and the power of grit and determination, as well as a wonderful relationship between grandparent and child. When Jakob and Granny attempt to fix the old space train, they have to put together the thrusters and combustion chamber by riveting and welding. But there’s intergalactic imagination too – with a Toolbot, a robot chicken, an intergalactic buffet car, an observation deck and much much more. This is an imagined future universe of fun and adventure, but complete with a modern, energetic engineer Granny and brilliantly drawn full page illustrations of what it might be like to live in a future space station. Let your imagination soar here.

Inspiring a New Generation of Space Experts

Stephen Hawking once declared that his goal was simple: “It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.” At what point do we begin to wonder about the universe, and when to want to understand it? Young readers in the library are often my most inquisitive. The five and six year olds gravitate towards non-fiction, asking questions about genes and trees, dinosaurs and evolution. And they have only to look up at the night sky to ask the big questions.

space kidsSpace Kids: An Introduction for Young Explorers by Andrea De Santis and Steve Parker
Space Kids introduces each element with a first person narrative voice. Nebula speaks first, explaining it is a wispy cloud of gas and dust. Then come Star and Constellation, Solar System and Asteroid. The text is clear and matter-of-fact with small tidbits of information. Steve Parker is a veteran of such non-fiction, and his clarity shines through.

The illustrations, showing a range of children exploring and enjoying their learning, changes tack halfway through, with a strange, almost futuristic look on the double page spread about rocks – narrated by Ariane 5.

The book then reverts to its colourful, child-friendly appearance towards the end, although finishes on a bit of a dud note with the page entitled ‘You’: vastly unnecessary and somewhat patronising.

What’s interesting is that the book leaves the impression of giving a general appreciation of Earth and space rather than imparting bucketloads of knowledge. But perhaps, at this age, some inspiration is necessary – inspiring curiosity is a major asset. You can buy it here.

once upon a starOnce Upon A Star by James Carter and Mar Hernandez
Told in rhyming poetry, this is another non-fiction book that bends to narrative and creative forms to impart information.

The poem tells the story of how the Earth was created, from emptiness and nothing to the Big Bang and through to the formation of the Earth and all that dwells upon it. It’s a feat of ingenuity that the rhyme and rhythm expertly tell the story while remaining true to their forms, and this alone is impressive.

But matching that is the brightness of the images, the almost retro-colour palette that also delights and inspires – the constant use of lines to indicate bursts of sun or energy, and a playfulness with the typeface that swirls the words around the page, whilst always maintaining legibility. It is smart to look at as well as to read.

This book, as the one above, aims to inspire as much as educate, although it gives the ‘sciencey’ bit at the end with some key facts spelt out acrostically.

This book leads to exploration and discovery and is beautifully produced. If read enough at bedtime, it could definitely inspire a future astrophysicist. You can buy it here.

Although both books show that science and the arts can mesh successfully, by taking narrative or poetic forms, sometimes the factual information given can feel a little light. For other space books, check out this blog here.

What’s the Big Idea?

Christopher Edge has written many great children’s books over the years, but his latest series of science-related fiction has been phenomenal in its ability to tell an engrossing story whilst encapsulating some of the big scientific ideas. His latest, The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day, was a MinervaReads book of the week in early April, and here he explores writing the science into the story:

A few years ago, when I started writing my novel The Many Worlds of Albie Bright, I remember a friend asking me what it was about. “It’s kind of like the film It’s A Wonderful Life,” I replied, “but with quantum physics.” A frown furrowed my friend’s face. “Quantum physics?” he said. “And it’s a children’s book?”

I don’t think I write children’s books. I think I write stories. And stories are for everyone. But from the moment The Many Worlds of Albie Bright was first published, young readers have demonstrated to me their appetite for the big ideas of science.

At school and literary festival events I’ve carried out live-action demonstrations of Schrödinger’s cat and now as I get ready to start talking about my new novel The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day I’m busy working out the logistics of building the biggest-ever Möbius strip in the world!

Science explores the big questions about life, the universe and everything – the same questions that can underpin the very best stories. Why are we here? What makes us human? How do we know we really exist? Young readers are eager to grapple with these questions and children’s literature can provide the medium to help them to do this.

As YA has grown as a genre in recent years, there’s been increasing discussion about what the difference between children’s and YA fiction actually is. Some talk about the age of the protagonist, whilst others point to the themes and issues tackled, but for me I think of children’s fiction as looking outward at the world, whilst YA books look inward. I’m aware that there are lots of examples that contradict this distinction and I think the best books do both, but this sense of inquisitiveness is what fuels my fiction.

maisie dayMy latest novel The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day is about a girl called Maisie who’s a bit of a science whiz. She passed her GCSE Maths and Science exams at the age of seven, her A Levels when she was nine, and, as the story starts on her tenth birthday, is now studying for a degree in Mathematics and Physics at the Open University. But when Maisie wakes up in an empty house with no sign of her mum, dad or elder sister, Lily, and then opens the front door to see a dense, terrifying blackness outside, Maisie quickly realises that her birthday isn’t going to be any ordinary day.  Trapped in an ever-shifting reality, she has to use the laws of the universe and the love of her family to survive. And as Maisie pieces together the puzzle of what’s really happening, she discovers that reality is not what it seems…

Science and stories both help us to make sense of the world and I hope The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day can feed the insatiable curiosity I find in the children that I meet at school and literary festival events. Through fiction we can inspire the next generation of scientists, engineers and astronauts, and use science to hook a new generation of children on reading too.

With thanks to Christopher Edge. You can buy The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day here

 

The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day by Christopher Edge

maisie dayAre you real? It was a question sparked by the picture book There’s a Tiger in the Garden by Lizzy Stewart that started our primary school library club thinking about their own existence. And then Steven Hawking died, and it was time to revisit questioning the universe and the role we play within it.

So Christopher Edge’s latest book seemed ideal as the next book to watch out for. Coming after Albie Bright and Jamie Drake, Maisie Day is the newest addition to Edge’s range of books that deal with complex scientific questions and weave them into a children’s story. And perhaps, not just the newest, but the most sciencey and yet mystifying of the three so far.

Maisie wakes on her tenth birthday busting with excitement and anticipation. But this child genius finds herself in an empty house. Not only have her family vanished, but outside the window what should be a sunny garden soon turns into an all-consuming blackness that is gradually expanding, and even entering into the house, swallowing the materials around it as it does so. Nightmarish doesn’t do justice to the sheer terror of this.

And yet, alongside this horror story (in alternating chapters) is the somewhat happy story of what does happen on Maisie’s birthday – the food preparations for the party, a normal family life revolving around her.

Luckily, Maisie is not only insightful, but a scientific whizz, and so she must use her knowledge of the laws of science to outwit the blackness, and return her state of being to the Maisie in the ‘happy birthday’ chapters.

This is an intelligent and challenging book with oodles of science written into Maisie’s thought process. For some, perhaps even a little too much, and this is hard science. Luckily, Christopher Edge has a good handle on it, and manages to convey most of it in an easy to understand and genial way.

There’s a terrific plot twist near the end that tries to explain, or rather question, the reality of all that we see around us. What it means to be human, to be real, and what our lives really are all about. Involving virtual reality, and the means by which we understand our universe and place within it, this book holds difficult concepts, but within short bitesize chapters, and an easy-to-understand narrative.

Gratifyingly, the book features not just a female lead in Maisie, but also an older sister who is crucial to the plot, and so fits well into the current ambition to pull more girls into science and computer related subjects.

This is an unusual book, very different to other novels for this age group (8+ years), and is short and accessible. This helps the reader to absorb the science whilst not getting lost in the plot, and this is some achievement. From black holes to expanding universes, sibling rivalry and electric endings – this is an intriguing and accomplished book.You can buy it here.