Stargazing with Stuart

Today we’re welcoming a debut author to the blog, and the Laurence King Children’s List. October sees publication of the out-of-this-world A Cat’s Guide to the Night Sky by Stuart Atkinson, beautifully illustrated by Brendan Kearney.

 

If you look up at the sky on a dark night, what do you see? There’s a whole universe staring back at you.

 

Welcome to the blog Stuart, let’s kick off by asking if you can describe your book in no more than 5 words?

A fun feline night sky guide! (6, I know, sorry..!)

Can you tell us about the particular inspiration behind your book?

The book was “born” up at Kielder Campsite in wildest Northumberland. My partner, Stella, and I were at a “Starcamp” – a kind of weekend camping getaway for amateur astronomers and stargazers who want to see and photograph the night sky somewhere dark, well away from light pollution – and, as usual, had taken our cat Peggy (a rescue cat which had had a very hard life before coming to us) with us.

One night I was asked by Stella to take Peggy outside our folding camper so she could get on with some tidying-up. I duly picked Pegs up and carried her out into the darkness of the clear Kielder night, just to get her out of the way for a while. Usually Peggy would fall asleep in my arms, but this time I soon became aware that Peggy was wide awake and looking around her – not at the trees rustling around us in the breeze, but at the stars flashing and twinkling above us. At first I thought I was imagining it, but looking closer, no, she was definitely taking in the view, eyes scanning the sky, star-gazing with me…

And that was it, a genuine ‘lightbulb moment’. What if other cats looked at the stars? I wondered. It made sense: after the novelty of chasing mice had worn off, what else would there be to do but find a quiet spot and look at the stars glimmering above? That very night I scribbled down the idea, and eventually Laurence King was impressed enough to want to make a book out of it…

We lost Peggy a couple of years later – old age – and it broke me into bits, so of course the book, which was inspired by her, is partly dedicated to her too. It’s also dedicated to Félicette, the first cat to fly into space. Oh, you didn’t know a cat flew into space? No, not many people do. Everyone knows the story of Laika, the first dog in space, but nothing about Félicette…

What is your favourite thing about being a writer?

My favourite thing about being a writer of science and astronomy books is (hopefully!) inspiring kids to learn more about the night sky and the universe we live in. I like to open their eyes to the fact that we live on a beautiful planet, whirling around a magnificent, ancient star, which is one flickering candle flame in an enormous spiral galaxy of hundreds of billions of candle flames – and for every one of those flames there’s another galaxy out there in space. That’s incredible! But so few people realise our place in it all. I want to write the kind of books I wish had been on the school library shelf when I was their age – something to make them impatient for the Sun to set so they can get outside, look up, see the stars, and appreciate the size and beauty of it all.

 

Where is your favourite place to find inspiration and write?

My favourite place to write is in my front room, after finishing work (I work as a carer in a care home), with my legs up and our new rescue cat, Jess, stretched out along them, lying on her back with her legs in the air. (I have to balance my laptop on my stomach to write but that’s ok). As for the favourite place I find inspiration, that’s a tie between the ruins of Kendal Castle which look down on my town (800 years old, amazing, I go up there to skywatch on clear nights, which are very rare in Cumbria!) and Kielder campsite, which is in the middle of the back of beyond, so far from so-called civilization I can just think, and write, look at the stars , and dream…

Kielder Campsite, Northumberland

If you could have a drink with any writer or artist, living or dead, who would it be – and what would you drink?

I’d like to have a drink with Carl Sagan, an American writer and scientist who was very popular in the 1970s and 1980s. He created the TV series Cosmos and wrote the novel Contact, which was the basis for one of my favourite ever sci-fi films. He was a visionary, a scientist, a romantic and a dreamer. I’d want to have Laika and Félicette curled up at my feet too, though…

 

Who or what made you into a reader? Can you remember a specific book or moment?

When I was at junior school I discovered, in the library, the sci-fi Tripods trilogy by John Christopher and it hooked me from the first page. After that I devoured any sci-fi I could find…

And we’ll end with what one piece of advice would you give to someone who wants to start writing their own stories, or creating their own art?

START! Don’t worry about having a fully-developed plot or characters in place, as long as you have even the germ of an idea just sit down and start writing. See what comes out of your brain, flows down your arms, through your fingers and onto the screen or sheet of paper – it might be good, it might be bad, it might be appalling rubbish, but at least you’ll have started. And it might be better than you had dared hope…

 

Thank you for joining us today, Stuart – what an inspiring chat! We’re going to have to head away from our London office and find some dark sky to try out all the hints and tips in the book very soon.

You can see more of Brendan’s lovely illustrations here.

If you fancy a bit of stargazing this winter, check out this guide to cosmic events in December and January!

  • Posted on by LKP
  • Categories: Children
  • Tags: Astronomy, Cats, Night Sky, Planets, Star Gazing, Universe