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We Are All Astronauts - Yes, You Too!

Armadillo owner and editor Louise Ellis-Barrett was thrilled to have the opportunity to ask author-illustrator Kate Pankhurst a few questions about her latest, inspiring book.

Louise: Can I just say, before you look at the questions, that I thought the book is fantastic. I think that by writing about how to be an astronaut as well as what they do and how, along with all the space facts, is fascinating for children and adults alike! I hope that by sharing this blog, more children will be fascinated by space. Thank you for bringing books into the world of bookshops, libraries and homes.

Kate: Oh wow! Thank you so much – I’m delighted to read that. Fingers crossed the book brings lots of space joy to young readers!

What came first? The idea for the book and the research (I'm certain there must have been a lot), or the characters of Luna and her grandmother?

I’ve wanted to do a book about space for a long time, but it took a comet-whooshing bit of inspiration to strike for me to figure out how to make that book. I heard the story of Wally Funk, and it all came together. Wally was a member of the all-female team of trainee astronauts called the Mercury 13. In the 1960s they were told space was no place for girls and their mission was scrapped. Wally Funk never gave up on her dream of reaching space and in 2021, while I was working on this book, she travelled to space as part of the Blue Origin space programme. Wally was 82!

Wally sparked the idea for Granny and her backstory in the book. Once I had Granny, Luna Scope quickly followed, and I began researching all aspects of training to be an astronaut and that gave the book its shape!

Do you think children, or adults, can truly grasp the idea of just how vast space is, or is it only with books like this that we can slowly begin to comprehend?

It’s mind blowing to think about just how VAST space is. I’m not sure I can get my head around it! If we could pause to think of just how small, perfect, and rare our planet is in the vastness of space more often, a lot of the world’s problems might be overcome.

I know We Are All Astronauts is a children’s non-fiction title, and I read/review a lot of children’s books, but I genuinely feel that adults could learn from this book. Did you plan that to be the case, or was it a hoped-for result?

Some subjects, concepts and moments in history are very hard to distil into a few sentences but writing children’s non-fiction is all about doing just that. I understand things much better once I’ve simplified them down to their essence for younger readers, hopefully parents will feel that too! For example – did you know the reason why astronauts are weightless on the International Space Station isn’t because there is literally ‘zero’ gravity? There is gravity, even that far up. The reason astronauts float is because the space station is falling, but at a rate that keeps it following the curve of the Earth. So, astronauts are in free fall too! Mind blown.

I didn’t write that for young readers as it would take a whole page to explain visually! Instead, I’ve distilled it to explain that ‘microgravity’ is a situation when the effects of gravity feel very small.

Also, when reading books to my children, I LOVE the ones that I get something out of too, whether it’s a joke meant for an adult or a fun fact you never thought of in that way before.

The statistics you include about women in space, people of colour and those with disabilities are surprising for their low numbers. Where do you think the imbalance stems from and do you think Luna will encourage at least more girls into space?

I think for a very long time the role models showing that STEM/space is for girls and for girls of colour, and for those with physical differences haven’t been reflected back to children in the media and in children’s books. Thankfully there are now so many amazing books changing that message and the list continues to grow. I’m so excited to be making children’s non-fiction books at the moment.

The books we love as a children make up part of the jigsaw of who we become as adults, I’m keen to fill mine with as many positive messages and role models as possible. I hope that having a young girl with South Asian heritage as the star of We Are All Astronauts plays a small part in demonstrating to young readers that space, and jobs linked to the space industry are for everyone.

You did the research, you created the book - both the text and the illustrations. How long did the whole process take and which aspect did you find the most enjoyable?

As this was the first book in a new series it took me the best part of a year, with a couple of years of ‘rumination’ time while I worked on other books beforehand! I love the initial planning stages, discovering who your characters will be and how they will look, but that bit is probably the hardest and some days it feels like no idea is the right one. If I can do a lot of thinking at that stage, it makes illustrating and writing the rest of the book SO much easier as you know where you want to go with each double page spread. The last part of the process is colouring up colour artwork which takes hours and hours but uses a different part of my brain to writing so I can listen to music and podcasts, and even watch films as I work!

Do you prefer the freedom of illustrating your own work so that you can decide how it will look as well as what to include? Is it then more freeing for you, allowing you to take control of the writing too?

I have to say I do love doing the whole package – it takes a lot longer as the project never leaves my desk for somebody else to work on, but I get to be involved and shape the book from start to finish. I do enjoy getting illustration only briefs too though – bringing an existing text to life means you can just jump right in!

With so much packed into the book, do you think you have enough material to produce another book with a focus on space itself?

There is so much more information I could have included! Perhaps Luna could go off around the solar system and give us facts about each planet? Or perhaps she could visit the moon in time for NASA’s Artemis Missions where we will see the first women and person of colour travel to the actual moon!

I love the inclusion of ‘space creatures’ - the illustration of the Tardigrade was my favourite and really caught my attention. How do you think children will react to learning that animals were sent into space to test space travel?

I’ve just started doing school events linked to the book and the very alien-looking tardigrades are going down very well! A child told me that they are sometimes found in bathroom taps! Children do have a lot of questions about animals in space. I think it’s important to be honest and say that people back then didn’t think too hard about animal welfare or what would happen to the animals during their voyages, and that thankfully things have changed a lot today. I wanted to include their stories it’s an important part of space history – humans didn’t do it all!

I know this is a book that we will return to time &=and again. I am sure other readers will too, probably as much to their favourite spreads as well as the book as a whole. Do you have a favourite spread or fact and why?

I think my favourite spread is the Astronomy Badge spread which shows Luna stargazing with her granny from her flat’s balcony overlooking the city below. I loved making all the constellations in the night sky twinkle in the illustration and learning about the Hubble and James web space telescopes. I think it’s important to say that children can be space explorers just by looking up and learning about what they can see – you need special equipment – just your eyes and wonder!

If you could go into space, how would you want to travel? What would you want to see?

I think flying as far as Mars would be a bit far for me! I’d love to visit the moon – imagine that! A world we can see every night above our heads, but that only a handful of humans have every visited. I’d be nervous to travel on a rocket but if I could get over my nerves I’m sure the trip would be worth it!

If you could meet and talk to an astronaut, who would you choose and why?

I’d like to chat to Christina Koch – she is set to become the first women to step foot on the MOON in 2024 on the NASA Artemis Mission. I’d like to ask her how she is feeling about leaving our planet, and maybe what book she is planning to read on the long journey! (Christina is featured in We Are All Astronauts on the Women in Space badge.)


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