To celebrate Science Week I am extremely pleased to welcome Dr Dominic Walliman and Ben Newman to Teen Librarian to talk about Professor Astro Cat.
I will break up my first question into two parts, the first being how long have the two of you worked together and how did you come to be co-creators of Professor Astro Cat?
BEN: We’ve been friends since secondary school. I got to know Dominic better when he and a friend of ours put on a comedy night. A few of my close friends and I were involved in the evening. We always stayed in touch despite going off on very different paths.
Back in 2010, I designed and printed a solar system poster which sold really well from my website and I approached my publisher, Nobrow about publishing a book about Space for children. They agreed and asked if I knew anyone who could write it. I immediately thought of Dominic and when we were back in our home town for Christmas I asked him and he said ‘no’…. kidding! He said ‘yes’, really.
DOM: I got really into astrophysics when I was in 6th form after reading a book that tied in with a BBC documentary series called Universe. I wasn’t studying physics at the time, but I remember all the facts blowing my mind, and I used to come into school and tell everyone all the crazy stuff I had learned. I think that is probably why Ben thought of me when he wanted to make the book; and I jumped at the chance!
I love the Professor Astro Cat’s Solar System app and would like to know if there are plans for more apps and if they will be available for other operating systems?
BEN: Professor Astro Cat’s Solar System is in the digital mechanics being fine tuned as we speak. I believe MiniLab will be announcing some really cool stuff very soon in regards to the app and other operating systems.
In terms of new Professor Astro Cat apps, I have had numerous conversations with MiniLab about a couple of ideas that we are throwing around. Nothing in the works yet but I’m not sure I could tell you even if there were… Or could I?
What is your working dynamic like? Did you meet up to discuss the layout of Frontiers of Space and Atomic Adventure or did you write the text and work on the illustrations separately?
BEN: At the start of ‘Frontiers of Space’, we did physically sit down and work out the running order and how we thought the book should work. After the text was finished and while I was about half way through drawing that book, Dominic moved to Vancouver in Canada to work on Quantum computers.
We stay in touch via email but we found that while making the ‘Atomic Adventure’, we needed to talk more often face to face over skype. This was a huge help to both of us and made us feel like a team again. We work together very closely despite the distance.
The text is never concrete so it means that Dominic and I can revisit it while I am drawing and designing the layouts. This was a big help for ‘Atomic Adventure’ because the text informs the image and then the text can be integrated and adapted to work with the images. This fluidity was a real breakthrough for us.
DOM: Our work mostly involves me getting down a first draft of each spread and then running it past Ben. Then we do several iterations of back and forth, cutting things out and adding things in. Then when Ben is illustrating we do a few more tweaks on the text, and I sometimes help out on the images if Ben gets stuck on thinks like the technical details. I think it helps that I’m a very visual person and have some art and graphic design skills.
Ben how long did it take you to illustrate each book and do you work digitally or with traditional paper & paint/ink?
BEN: More than a year but less than two years. It’s difficult to judge the time it takes because I try to fit in other projects at the same time. In both books, there has been a lot of trial and error which at the time is incredibly frustrating but ultimately it is a detrimental part of the process.
My work is a mixture of both traditional and digital. Much more of Atomic Adventure was sketched out on the computer this time. Mainly because I wanted to illustrate with the text laid out in front of me. Frontiers of Space was illustrated in areas that I measured on the computer and then drew by hand.
Dom, there is so much information collected in so little space how long did it take you to put the text together? How many sources did you use to collate the information?
DOM: The first book took about 2 years, but now I have got the a book down to about a year. This might seem like a long time but as I’m working full time at D-Wave I use my evenings and weekends to write. Getting the word count down has definitely been something I have got better at though – it is almost like a crossword puzzle! How do I get what I want to say in as few words as possible, and it be very clear at the same time. It is super fun though.
For Atomic Adventure, most of the material came straight out of my head as Physics is a subject I have been studying for a very long time. Then I did a lot of fact checking to make sure I got it all right.
What scientific exploration will we experience next with Professor Astro Cat?
BEN: Well, there is a Professor Astro Cat space project out this summer and maybe even another project later in the year. Dominic and I are already working on his next adventure into science but it’s top secret.
DOM: I can say that the first draft of the next book is done, and I can’t wait to be able to talk about it. It is going to be a lot of fun!
Frontiers of Space was my favourite scientific picture book of 2015 and with Atomic Adventure you have given me my favourite for 2016 (it is a combination of engaging art and really interesting snippets of information) and since discovering your work I have seen more picture books dealing with scientific themes and information. Do you think we are at the beginning of a revolution in scientific picture books?
BEN: I hope so. It would be great to be a part of a movement towards engaging minds young and old in science. Children’s non-fiction has been an area well in need of some TLC for a long while now so finger’s crossed there is a resurgence.
DOM: I hope so too! I would love for science to become a bit more mainstream. When I talk to people, I find a lot of adults who think science is some mixture of intimidating, difficult or dull, and I think it is such a shame. When explained well, science is none of these things. In fact there are few things as enjoyable as understanding something new about the fundamental nature of the Universe. So if we can give the young people of today a more positive experience of science, that is fantastic, and I heartily encourage others to do the same.
For readers who fall in love with your work can both of you give a suggestion for further reading (both your own works and any other authors/illustrators that you think we may enjoy)?
BEN: I love Jim Stoten’s Mr Tweed’s Good Deeds as it is mind bogglingly illustrated and fun. Jim and I used to share a studio together when we were working on our books so he was a big inspiration. Also, Andrew Rae’s Moonhead is a brilliant illustrated story. It’s really funny.
DOM: If you haven’t read the Calvin and Hobbes books yet, I would highly recommend them. They aren’t about science, but are philosophical in the most fun way.
Thank you so much for giving up your time to answer these questions!