Since its debut in 2017 with Mission Moon, Drew Brockington‘s CatStronauts series has been charming young readers (and their parents) with each new installment. Five books in and Brockington will now take us back — all the way back — to the childhood of one of the series’ lead characters: Pilot Waffles, with A CatStronauts Kitten Adventure.
The Beat’s Dean Simons asks author Drew Brockington about his latest book. Waffles and Pancake: Planetary-Yum and about the challenges of grabbing a young audience.
DEAN SIMONS: Waffles and Pancake: Planetary-Yum acts as a prequel to your ongoing CatStronauts series. How did the decision to produce a prequel story come about? Why stick with the established CatStronauts world and not make it an entirely original story?
DREW BROCKINGTON: The publisher, LBYR [Little Brown Young Readers], came to me with the idea of doing a prequel of the CatStronauts when they were kittens. I pitched them the idea about the kitten discovering what inspired them to eventually become a CatStronaut, starting with Waffles and adding his sister, Pancake, in the mix. Because there is so much time between when Waffles is a kitten vs. a grown CatStronaut, it gave me a lot of wiggle room to create in. The only overlaps with the original series are that the world is only full of cats and the CatStronauts are pawesome. It’s a great jumping on point for those who haven’t heard of the CatStronauts series and want a story that is about a kid their age, going on experiences that they might go on. For the super fans, there are lots of great hidden winks and nods throughout the book.
SIMONS: In a previous interview with The Beat you mention that Waffles and Pancake is aimed toward a younger audience than the CatStronauts series, what have you found is the main difference of writing and visuals when trying to engage an even younger audience? Did your own children help nail it?
BROCKINGTON: In visually gearing towards the younger audience, I gave myself a different set of constraints to work within. Less dialogue in each bubble, less panels on each page, and bolder lines with a brighter color palette. Writing wise, I definitely turn to my own kids hijinks when figuring out how Waffles and Pancake talk to each other. I have a few home recordings of them playing together that have been a wealth of material for me. Overall I still want the stories to feel epic, but just on a smaller scale.
SIMONS: The CatStronauts series has a big cast. What made you decide to create a story set in pilot Waffles’ childhood?
BROCKINGTON: One of the big hurdles I come up against in the CatStronauts books is to make sure that each character is moving forward enough in the story. But with a smaller cast I can spend more time on the dynamics between each character and still be able to tell the story. Plus, I think having less characters jumping in and out helps with the continuity for younger readers.
SIMONS: What did you draw on to cover Waffles relationship with their sibling Pancake and their relationship with their father for this book? What did you feel you had to leave out to keep the book focused – and what did you struggle to set aside?
BROCKINGTON: I spent a chunk of quarantine watching my 5 year old twins become really good friends. It’s always fun to listen to them puzzle out something together. That’s where a lot of Waffles and Pancake’s relationship is based off of. I guess you could say I’m the Dad-Cat. I try to be really hands off with my kids, letting them learn on their own and stepping in to help guide whenever needed. When working on this book, I really struggled with adding the right amount of friction between the two kittens. All siblings fight, and all siblings know how to get under each other’s skin. But I didn’t want that to be the focus of the story, or to detract from the story at hand. It look some balancing.
SIMONS: Planetary-Yum features siblings Waffles and Pancake going on an outing with their dad to the museum – why this setting? Does this link to your own upbringing and parenting?
BROCKINGTON: Those all day car trips to a museum really stand out in my memories of early childhood. I remember the boredom of the trip to and home [from] random museums, and also the massiveness of whatever building we were touring. Those are great experiences to try to live up to and provide my own kids with. Planetary-Yum stems from a visit I made with my family to the local Planetarium where they had a Star Show for 5 and under. Watching the kids’ first reaction to sitting in a chair and looking up was really something else.
SIMONS: One thing that surprised me about the book is that Waffles and Pancake live in a separated parent environment and that you (I would argue successfully) tackled what is a very laden subject in a relatively neutral fashion – how and why did you decide to engage this subject in a book aimed toward younger readers? What do you hope your readers will take away from it?
BROCKINGTON: There are so many ways to define family, I hope that a reader will see Waffles and Pancake as just another family that cares for each other.
SIMONS: You have a map of the trip, particularly of the museum. In researching the book, did you use it as an excuse to go on regular museum visits?
BROCKINGTON: I love getting those maps when you visit a museum. They were the type of thing that you jam in your pocket when you arrive, and you never really look at until you empty your pockets when you get home. I like finding them afterwards, because then I can retrace my trip from earlier, remembering what I saw. This museum in particular was inspired by the Bell Museum in Minneapolis. It’s such a great natural history museum that focuses on the Minnesota area. It’s an awesome collection in a manageable space, and all the exhibits have been so epic.
SIMONS: I believe you have more CatStronaunts Kitten Adventure prequel books planned, was it always intended to be a series – or did it organically come out of the production of Waffles and Pancake? Will the two return?
BROCKINGTON: Yes! There are 4 books total, in the works. They were always planned as a foursome, and that has been fun when plotting out the stories. This time around, I set out to tell a loosely sequential narrative over all four books. Each book is a standalone story, and you can read one out of context not be lost at all, but they do piggy back off of each other.
SIMONS: What about the young (and younger) readers demographic attracts you? It is often quite a tricky one to nail down and can be quite intimidating. Any tips for aspiring creators?
BROCKINGTON: I really love that a young reader genre fits into the age when a kid is really getting to try out their new skill of reading for the first time. Waffles and Pancake might be the first book that a kid buys for themselves, or checks out of the library with their new library card. I always trust my gut when I’m writing for kids. If it still makes me laugh on the 15th revisions then some kid, somewhere will definitely be laughing when they read it.
SIMONS: The first CatStronaunts – and your debut book with Little Brown – came out in 2017, what have you learned about your own process, finding and engaging your audience in that time? Has much changed in your personal approach to your work? Has it become easier?
BROCKINGTON: I have learned so much since the first release of CatStronauts: Mission Moon. At this point, once the story and thumbnails are solid, the rest becomes second nature to me. The drawing process is really relaxing for me, and I can really focus in on making the art fun to look at.
SIMONS: What are your future plans and – most importantly! – when will the CatStronaunts return? Any hints for what’s to come for the crew? The world must know!
BROCKINGTON: Oh golly. So many plans that I can’t quite share just yet. :) I will just say….”Meow meow meow meow meow.”
Waffles and Pancake: Planetary-Yum will be available from all good bookshops, comic shops, and libraries from October 26.