The Space Walk

Several years ago, I awoke with an idea for a book. The idea was to write a story that on its face had nothing to do with the pictures. As an author and illustrator, I think a lot about the relation of pictures to words, and how in a picture book both parts work hard to tell their part of the story. In most cases, the words come into existence before the illustrations do, but the pictures have their own workload and shouldn’t be merely in service of the text. So what would happen if I got a manuscript about a normal everyday walk — some guy getting ready to go outside and go for a walk around his neighborhood — but then the pictures I make for that story are completely unexpected? Like, instead of his neighborhood, he goes for a walk in space?

So this book began like that. I wrote a banal little story, and drew some sketches, and then since there wasn’t really a story there, like, nothing interesting happened, I sat on it for about six years until I could figure it out. Here are some of the early images:

The idea was always on the end-nerves of my thinking parts, and over time I’d find myself telling people the idea and thinking of ways to make it a book. Who is this guy up in space? What happens when he takes a walk? Why should anyone care? Over lunches with David Wiesner, in emails with Lane Smith, and on tour with Mac Barnett, thoughts were offered, notes were taken, and progress was made to the point where I could finally see something emerging. Something exciting to me. Something I couldn’t wait to write and draw.

At some point, things started falling into place when I wrote the voice of Ground Control, back on Earth, in the voice of a parent nagging a child. Randolph, the astronaut and main character in the book, wants to go out and play. Ground Control says he has to do some chores first, before he can go out. The chores get done and Randolph heads out the door, but not before first being instructed to dress warmly, be back before dinner, and most importantly, don’t talk to strangers. This sets up the adventure that gives the book its title. Does Randolph break the rules? Not exactly, but maybe.

In late 2017 the story was ready to show to the world. Several publishers were interested in the story, and eventually it was Dial, an imprint of Penguin, and editor Kate Harrison that took on the project and helped me shape it into a real picture book. Oddly, while I’ve written or illustrated more than 80 books, and I have been making books for young readers for more than 15 years, this is the first pure standalone picture book that I both wrote and drew. It’s the kind of book that I read as a kid and fell asleep thinking about, and the kind of book I’d read to my own kids when they were young, and think “this is what I want to do — I want to make books like this.” As you might imagine, this is pretty exciting for me.

The Space Walk is to be published next week, October 29. It’s been getting some terrific reviews (see below) and was accepted into the Society of Illustrators Original Art Show. I’m very happy about this book and proud of the result. I hope you buy seven copies and read it a hundred times.

Here is an animated trailer for the book I made. Please enjoy thanks.

REVIEWS:

Publisher’s Weekly:
A selfie is worth a thousand words in this tribute to the exhilaration of getting outside and making new friends by Biggs (What Kind of Car Does a T. Rex Drive?). It’s boring as all get-out in the space ship, but not-so-vaguely parental Ground Control won’t let astronaut Randolph Witherspoon take a spacewalk until he eats lunch (brussels sprouts in a pouch), exercises and tidies, and receives a barrage of rules (“Dress warmly, don’t forget your camera, and… don’t talk to strangers”). Sound familiar? Outside the ship, there’s much to photograph, and as the story goes wordless, Randolph meets an alien who’s as much into goofy selfies as he is. (Their space-wear also shares the same chunky, adorable dome shape.) Randolph never technically “talks” to this alien stranger, but the photographs they take together help him look forward to a less lonely tomorrow. Biggs’s digital pictures juxtapose the brightly lit, dully safe capsule, festooned with gizmos, dials, and screens, against the marvels of space. The landscape offers not just a new friend but also an intergalactic portrait filled with fluorescent planets of many stripes—and a few polka dots, too. Ages 3–7.

Kirkus:
What better way to meet a new friend than taking a walk outside—even in space?
In a strangely familiar exchange, astronaut Randolph Witherspoon whines that he’s bored, and Ground Control grants permission for a stroll outside—as soon as he has lunch and cleans up his capsule. One warning: “Don’t talk to strangers!” A packet of mashed Brussels sprouts and a bit of housekeeping later, Randolph is out the hatch, floating in space that Biggs has festooned with swirly, polka-dot planets in party colors, and snapping pictures of various astro-wonders. When one of these last (looking like a tin can trailing a cluster of mechanical arms) displays a googly eye, it takes but a few big, wordless panels before astronaut and ET are happily orbiting each other, taking selfies together, and finally exchanging goodbye hugs. “Spacewalk complete!” Randolph informs Ground Control, asking if he can go out again later. “We’ll see in the morning.” It will not be lost on children that while Randolph may not actively talk to his unexpected companion, he does not seem to be observing the letter of Ground Control’s law. The porousness of this aspect of the narrative should lead to some interesting conversations between listeners and caregivers.
An effervescent outing with a refreshingly (or, in some quarters, distressingly) subversive message. (Picture book. 5-8)

School Library Journal:
While working in space, Astronaut Randolph Witherspoon starts to feel bored. A space walk would be just the thing to help get rid of the doldrums. Going out for a walk isn’t as easy as one would think. First, he needs to ask permission from Ground Control. Randolph is told that he must eat his lunch, do some exercises, and clean up the spaceship before heading outside. He isn’t too happy about this but he does what he is told. Finally, he heads out. Wait! Ground Control reminds him to dress warmly, bring his camera, be home in time for dinner, and not to talk to strangers. It’s a small price to pay to go outside for a bit. As he floats in space, Randolph takes pictures of everything he sees. There are colorful planets of different sizes all around and interesting constellations and comets that zoom by him. He also snaps some pictures of a new friend he encounters. Will he listen to Ground Control and not talk to the stranger? Children will enjoy this book. Many will find humor in the fact that an adult must obey the same rules they hear all of the time. The main character has similar facial expressions to a child being told what to do. The colors used in the space station are white and flat. Once the astronaut gets out into space, everything seems to pop. The planets are bright and appealing. The bold colors direct eyes toward the character’s surroundings. Even though the middle section does not have any text, there is plenty for children to look at and laugh about. VERDICT A great read-aloud that children will want to hear again and again.–Barbara Spiri, Southborough Library, MA

Bulletin for the Center for Children’s Books:
Astronaut Randolph Witherspoon is tired of his spaceship: “I’m bored and I want to take a walk.” Ground Control approves the venture, but not without some guidelines, especially “Don’t talk to strangers!” (an instruction Randolph misses because he’s “already out the door”). Randolph goes on to photograph outer space and even meets a stranger—an alien who responds to Randolph’s taking a picture by shooting a beam of light at him, in what also turns out to be photography. The alien creature and Randolph proceed to frolic through space taking selfies together, and though Randolph has to return to the ship, he looks forward to his next day of hanging out with his new friend. The illustrations, digitally painted to imitate brushstrokes in predominantly geometric shapes rather than words and in a zippy ’70s-esque palette, carry the weight of the book in the wordless open, close, and space rumpus, effectively conveying a new friendship that exists outside language barriers. It’s a fantasy rather than astronomical version of space (planets are as pattered and colored as Christmas ornaments, and five-pointed stars delineate clearly lined constellations), but kids will revel in the beautiful displays along with the quick and efficient story. This would be a peaceful choice to read before bed for kids who like to dream about the stars.  NB


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