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Are you ready for an interstellar mission?

I am lucky enough to have known Timothy for a long time and have experienced many of his events with children which have all been fantastic. This is my first experience of reading one of his non fiction titles and I was thrilled to be able to ask him some questions and probe a little more into his love of space. I hope you enjoy learning more about the book too, plus at the end of the Blog there are some lovely images from the book itself...

My warm thanks to Timothy for taking the time to answer these questions with such fascinating answers and thanks to Sophie Griffiths at Magic Cat Publishing for giving us the opportunity.

Why did you choose to narrate the story using an animal and not a person?

One of the best things about working with an illustrator as brilliant as Nik Henderson is that they bring with them all these wonderful ideas you’d never even thought of. I assumed that, when it says at the beginning “come with me and let’s go on an interstellar mission”, the “me” was, well, me – the author. But that’s a bit nebulous for a young reader. Much better to have a character that they can see telling the story, whose presence will provide a throughline, a connection between all these rather diverse space missions. Animals were, of course, involved – and not always happily – in the early days of space exploration (I suppose the most famous was Laika the dog) so I guess that’s another reason. But, more importantly, younger readers are used to identifying with animal characters. There are no problems about representation – about class or ethnicity or whatever – with animals, so everyone is welcome in the story, which is as it should be.


Why did you choose to write about space and more specifically space missions?

I was at primary school in the early 1970s. I remember the teachers wheeling the big, wooden-framed TV into the classroom so we could watch these strange, black and white, porridgy swirls of images: the footage being beamed back to earth from some of the last missions to the Moon. They fascinated me and I’m sure they stimulated my interest in science fiction, which was very strong when I was a child (I was ridiculously young when I first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey in the cinema). So a love of space goes deep. When you get older, and you appreciate the work – the struggle – that goes into those extraordinary feats of engineering, and of courage, it gives you the urge to share it with kids. Because one of your jobs as a children’s author is to give some indication of the possibilities of life, of the world, to your readers – to broaden their horizons so they can make the most of their time.


What is your favourite space mission? Is it one of the fifteen you feature in the book? What makes it your favourite? 

Very difficult question! Having seen Ron Howard’s film Apollo 13, of course I’m in awe of the way they used that – to us – rather primitive technology to get the crew back home after things went so wrong. The ingenuity, the race against time…  I mean, I know how that story ends – happily, thank goodness – but each time I see the film, it gets me. So that mission is special to me. But I also love the Perseverance rover spread, the robot that was sent to Mars to gather information. I think that’s mostly the way Nik’s image gives the rover – nicknamed Percy, don’t forget – a personality (or percy-nality?). Space is vast and cold and anything that adds warmth and light is to be cherished.


Would you want to go into space and why? Have you ever experienced the weightlessness that the astronauts to (in a simulator for example) and if so how did it feel?

No and no! I’m very much an armchair adventurer. That’s one of the great things about being an author. You can have all these amazing adventures in your head, in the comfort of your writing room, without any of the actual peril that is part and parcel of any adventure worth the name.


Do you think that a fascination with space, especially a childhood fascination, with space is something that leads children into related careers or a continued interest?

My childhood fascination with space has certainly never left me. I could never have made it my career (you have to be really good at science and maths and those were never my strong points) but I’m still interested in science fiction, and in these extraordinary real-life accomplishments. It still seems amazing to me that I can be sitting on the bus watching live footage from Mars on my phone – that’s astounding!


As an author known for picturebooks and theatre what was your elevator pitch and how was it received?

As a matter of fact, the lovely people at Magic Cat Publishing approached me, so the elevator pitch was theirs. I’d done some non-fiction work before (including another book about space called, rather unimaginatively, “Space”) so I guess they picked me because I’d written both picture books and non-fiction. I’ve also done a lot of work in verse, both in books and for the stage, so that might also have helped recommend me as this is a rhyming text. As to their pitch, I don’t remember the details, but the heart of it was about introducing young readers to these amazing achievements, all of them parts of this one great adventure of space exploration. The challenge was to tell the story of something so complicated in a simple and accessible way without misrepresenting it. I hope I’ve been able to do that and communicate the excitement of it all. Then, if my readers want to know more after they’ve read the verse text, there’s plenty more info in the back of the book.


There is clearly research that has been done around each of these missions, where and how did you do it and did it take a long time?

Books mostly (I’m old fashioned that way) and, but with care, the web too – there’s a lot of rubbish online but there are also some amazing websites: Nasa’s, for instance. The thing about researching for any non-fiction book for young readers is that you’ve really got to understand what you’re writing about, or you won’t be able to explain it simply. With grown-ups, you can waffle away to your heart’s content, but children aren’t like that. They expect a straight answer. You can’t short-change them. What I was looking for, in each mission, was some particular detail – going back to the Perseverance rover, for instance, it was that it was nicknamed “Percy” – that gives an instant connection to a reader. These machines are the products of huge investments of thought and money, but they are just machines; it was my job to find the one human detail that allows my young readers to connect with them emotionally. Once that’s done, once the spell has been cast, the children’s enthusiasm will send them off to other sources of information. My job is to set them on the path.


Do you think children’s response to this book, as a nonfiction picturebook, is different to their responses had it been a picturebook, a fictional story about a space mission?

I suppose it’s made up of things that are a bit more various than a fiction book would be – there are space stations, telescopes, space walks, all sorts of different kinds of exploration. In fiction, you’re trying to create something that is more singular – you’re telling one story, following one character, or group of characters. This story involves thousands of people, and billions of dollars, over more than 60 years. But, as I say, Nik’s brilliant idea to have the dog in each spread means that it does have that kind of unity. I also think there are advantages to covering so many different elements in the book – there are so many more chances that children’s imaginations will be sparked. That’s the purpose of this book: to interest and, hopefully, to inspire.


What did you enjoy most during the process of creating this book?

As always in a solitary profession like writing, I most enjoyed the non-solitary moments. I loved the editorial process with Jenny, my editor, who was simultaneously scrupulous and enthusiastic, so I never lost sight of how important it was that the book should be both correct and entertaining. I also loved seeing Nik’s images come through, first the roughs, then, after he processed any notes and thoughts from the rest of us, the finished work which is magnificent. It’s a beautiful book to look at. I hope it’s also a treat to read.

The Book of Blast Off by Timothy Knapman is out now and available from all good bookshops.


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