Monday, 7 March 2016

TO BOLDY GO: Picture books in space • Jonathan Emmett

As someone who grew up at the time of the Apollo Missions I’ve always found the idea of space travel hugely appealing and had a particular interest in stories that are set in space.

I've pitched several space-set stories to publishers over the years. However, while I’ve had some success getting space-set chapter fiction published …

The Captain Comet chapter fiction books illustrated by Andy Parker are set in space.

… none of the space-set picture books I’ve pitched have ever made it into print.

An art sample by illustrator Steve Cox for Invasion of the Botty Snatchers,
an unpublished space-set picture book we developed together.

Of course this could be because none of them were any good, but when another of my space-set picture book ideas was turned down last year, the publisher told me that one of the reasons was that, “picture books set in space generally don’t sell.”

If this is true, then I think it shows that the picture book market is currently catering to the tastes of a demographic that is relatively narrow compared to its potential readership. There are plenty of picture book age children that are interested in stories set in space. However these children are currently having this appetite fed by TV shows and films rather than books. My son and several of his friends were obsessed with the original U certificate Star Wars trilogy from the age of four and when I went to see the new Star Wars film over Christmas, I was struck by how many parents had brought small children to see it, despite its 12 certificate rating.

If publishers want to show these children that picture books are every bit as capable of matching the appeal of their favourite films and TV shows, they might consider “boldly going” into space a little more often. And I do mean “boldly”; it’s not just the setting that’s important. There is a market for gentler picture book stories set in space, but such books will not cut it with young readers with an appetite for dogfights and death stars. These children need picture books that can match the dastardly villainy, thrillingly perilous predicaments and sophisticated craft and weaponry evident in films like Star Wars.

Here are three space-set books that are a good deal “bolder” than most.

The King of Space written and Illustrated by Jonny Duddle is one of the best picture books of the last ten years and shamefully under-recognised by reviewers and awards judges alike. It’s a brilliantly illustrated, tech-tastic, action packed epic, filled with battling spaceships, menacing robots and a pint-sized megalomaniac.

The hardback edition comes with a dust-cover that unfolds to make this awesome poster of a 'warbot'.

Nuts in Space written and illustrated by Elys Dolan is a madcap space epic that's brimful of comic references to both Star Wars and Star Trek. Charged with transporting “The Lost Nuts of Legend” across the galaxy, the crew of Forest Fleet’s finest starship encounter a mischievous menagerie of creatures from little green men to ravenous Ewok-like bears, before falling into the clutches of Daft Monkey and his legion of simian stormtroopers.

The book is full of amusing in-jokes for sci-fi fans young and old, such as this encounter between Daft Monkey and Commander Moose.

Mungo and the Spiders from Space written by Timothy Knapman, illustrated by Adam Stower is part of an excellent series of Mungo stories in which Mungo, the young hero, enters the world of a favourite bedtime book. In this story it's a comic book adventure featuring a Dan-Dare-like space hero called Captain Galacticus.

Galacticus and Mungo join forces to thwart the villainous, Dr Frankenstinker, the "maddest scientist on Mercury".

Can you recommend any other picture books that "boldly go" into space? If so, we'd love to hear about them in the comments box below.

Jonathan Emmett's latest picture book is Fast and Furry Racers: The Silver Serpent Cup illustrated by Ed Eaves and published by Oxford University Press.

Find out more about Jonathan and his books at his Scribble Street web site or his blogYou can also follow Jonathan on Facebook and Twitter @scribblestreet.

See all of Jonathan's posts for Picture Book Den.


Lucy Mitchell said...

We got Moonshot at Christmas - its simple, but great. And Professor Astrocat, which is good but VERY mid-century designy. I never listened in geography in school so when I read my kids books about the solar system etc I always learn something new.

Jon Burgess Design said...

Great examples of Space picture books, Jonathan. I don't know of any myself, but I do know that those illustrators are having far too much fun illustrating them! Where will it all end? I mean, where would we all be if we all had fun doing work eh?
I have tried to get sci fi type pic book ideas going but they never made it out of my ideas sketch book. I found they got far too complicated very quickly, and avoiding some level of violence was almost impossible, so publishers would have probably disapproved anyway. I think it's tricky getting them young enough. . .

Jonathan Allen said...

That was my commenting in my other guise, I clicked the wrong button. . .

Meredith Vigh said...

Thanks for the recommendations - my children ADORE 'The King of Space' and I've just ordered 'Nuts in Space' as that looks like a complete winner - we are massive Star Wars fans!

Jonathan Emmett said...

Thanks for the recommendations. Lucy. I'll check them out.

Jonathan Emmett said...

Thanks, Jonathan. Yes, I suspect there are quite a few illustrators who'd love to be illustrating space stories that rarely get the opportunity to do so.

Most picture book publishers seem very reluctant to match the standards of age appropriateness evident in other children’s media, with many of them regarding depictions of combat/violence as a no-go area. It’s a problem that goes well beyond space stories and, as I said above, I think it’s a reflection of publishers responding conservatively to the established picture book market as is, rather than the larger potential readership. It’s a topic I banged on about at length in this UKLA seminar:

Michelle Robinson said...

I suspect the renewed interest in space from the ESA mission might change things; every school I've talked to this year has been doing space as a topic. It doesn't contain guns, but my new space picture book is still kind of exciting...!

Jonathan Emmett said...

That does sound exciting, Michelle, and as I said in the post, "there is a market for gentler picture book stories set in space" too.

Moira Butterfield said...

What an exciting selection! And great use of speech in these, which is really fun for adults to read out in different voices. They're very interactive-looking.

Juliet Clare Bell said...

My children enjoyed Bob, Man on the Moon (Simon Bartram), and You Can't Eat a Princess (which is set in space) by Gillian Rogerson and Sarah MacIntyre. I suspect you'd consider them as gentler space stories. My children weren't after the more action-based ones so I've never really thought about them, but actually, I've worked in schools with boys who struggle with reading and who don't look at books at home and I think they would love the kind of books you're talking about. Sadly I'm not sure who would buy books for them, and with slashed library budgets, they're unlikely to be a viable market in the eyes of a publisher. I suspect it's not an entirely dissimilar problem with fiction for teenage/young adult boys. I have a writer friend who wrote an excellent novel for young adult boys (which was pretty violent) with editors really liking it but saying there's no market for it as 'teenage boys don't read'. Well perhaps they would if the some of the books that would really engage them were allowed to be published... Good luck in breaking that space barrier.

Jonathan Emmett said...

I know the Simon Bartram books and would consider them to be on the gentler side, but there's clearly a market for stories like these and am not trying to put them down in any way.

I think you're right to say that although there's a readership for bolder space stories, publisher don't see them as commercially viable, but it's chicken and egg. The reason the kids that like this material aren't looking for it in picture books is that they know they're not that likely to find it there. We need a breakthrough picture book that is a commercial success and we need reviewers and award judges to recognise that this sort of content can reach readers that other books can't and get behind it. I thought The King of Space might be that book, but it did not get a single review in the national newspapers the year it came out (I checked) and Jonny tells me that (unlike some of his other books) it wasn't shortlisted for any book awards.

Wendy Greenley said...

Interstellar Cinderella is a good one! Thanks for sharing some of your favorites.