Today I am delighted to be taking my turn on the blog tour for this hilarious intergalactic adventure and publishing a Q & A with author Martin Howard.
How far would you go to raise enough money to buy your mum a birthday present? Would you take a madcap caper to the most obscure corners of the universe (the Black Gates of Howling Oblivion, anyone?) to make your dear mother happy on her special day?
Alfie Fleet is poor, very poor. This is the result of his Dad “stealing his mum’s heart and then her credit card, before running off with that Julie from number sixteen.” His mum now works long shifts gutting fish in a local factory and he is desperate to raise £49.99 to buy her the perfect birthday present: a Sole Sensation 6000 foot spa!. Alfie can’t believe his luck when he spots a classified ad offering exactly this sum for one day’s work!
Hours later he finds himself in a dilapidated, house in an obscure, forgotten London square, filled with curious artefacts and maps showing places that had never featured in any of his geography lessons, in the company of Professor Pewsley Bowell-Mouvemont. The Professor informs Alfie that he is in the Headquarters of the Unusual Cartography Club. Things get weirder when they descend to the underground cavern which contains a reduced-sized version of Stonehenge, not realising that this inter-galactic transportation device is activated, Alfie steps between two stones and his adventures begin!
If you are looking for adventure, alien creatures, jokes and peril at every turn then join Alfie and the Professor as they embark on a fact checking mission before the updated edition of the Cosmic Atlas can be sent to the printers. Admire Alfie’s additions to the Atlas as he amends it with travel guide annotations and restaurant reviews – I can’t wait to book dinner at The Dead Crow with its menu for the food-lover with a taste for danger! The first stop is the planet Outlandish where Alfie causes the sort of accident that illustrates why boys of his age are not supposed to have jobs!
Can Alfie and the Professor avoid being sacrificed and manage to return to earth in time for Mrs Fleet’s birthday? What horrors will they encounter in the city of Verminium? How will a girl called Derek and a Knight called Sir Brenda help in their quest to discover an alternative stone circle? You will need to read this side-splitting adventure to find out!
This story is like a mash up of Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator and a junior version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The wry, authorial asides to the reader and the universal translating device were very reminiscent of HGTTG, and I can imagine that quotes from this book will be endlessly repeated in the playground in much the same way that my teenaged peers used to quote Douglas Adams (many years ago). I read a proof copy which had not yet been illustrated, but had placeholders for plenty of half and full page illustrations throughout. It did contain one full page map of Outlandish which had all the details you could possibly wish for (I adore books with maps). Based on this and the super cover art by Chris Mould, I imagine that the finished book will be hugely visually appealing. Underneath all the jokes and dynamic plot I admired the way the author, Martin Howard, captured Alfie’s sharp-witted personality and his determination to value the Professor’s legacy but also update it for the modern age.
I recommend this book to everyone aged 8 and over and I sincerely hope that there will be a follow up adventure and that the Cosmic Atlas will be sent to the printers, as I would love a copy!
Thank you to OUP Children’s for sending me a proof copy to review and to Martin Howard and Emma Howard for allowing me to participate in the blog tour for this mind-blowing adventure. Extra special thanks to Martin for kindly answering my questions about his new book and his writing career in general.
Q & A with Martin Howard
Q: I thoroughly enjoyed The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet and wondered what inspired it? If I had to describe it to someone I would say it was like an MG version of The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is this a book you loved as a teenager?
A: First, can I quickly say thank you for having me. This is my first ever blog tour and the amount of support and generosity from book blogs like yours has been gob-smacking. It’s a delight to be here and I very much appreciate the opportunity to waffle on about myself!
I did love The Hitchhiker’s Guide as a teen (and still do!) but it wasn’t something I had in mind when I started writing. The original idea started about fifteen years ago. I’ve always loved exploring the maps in fantasy books and in a moment of inspiration it came to me that a travel guide would be the obvious next step. It was originally intended to be a Travel Guide to Fairyland for younger children but that didn’t really suit me as a writer so I scrapped it. The idea refused to die though and when I had the idea for an intergalactic map-making society called the Unusual Cartography Club, about three years ago, including a travel guide aspect seemed like a good idea. Of course, I was aware it would make people think of The Hitchhiker’s Guide (I’ve even added a tiny tribute to it in the book), plus any funny book about space travel is always going to be compared, but I hope The Cosmic Atlas is very different.
Q: I love your main character, the quick-thinking, kind-hearted Alfie Fleet, is he based on anyone you know?
A: Alfie is a lot like my son, Sam, who constantly makes me laugh. Like Alfie he has a very good sense of humour and is very quick-witted. Alfie’s also a little like me at that age. I, too, had odd-looking knees and loved fantasy books. We’re quite a kind-hearted family, so that’s probably where Alfie’s kindness comes from.
Q: In my proof copy there are lots of place holders for pictures; who decides whether to illustrate a book, how many pictures will be included and where they should be inserted? Is it you or your publisher? Additionally, who chooses the illustrator?
A: I’ve been a big fan of Chris Mould since I first saw his artwork, and always had him in mind as the perfect illustrator for The Cosmic Atlas. Luckily, when Oxford University Press decided to publish it they agreed. I was over the moon! Obviously, he’s very well-known and in demand so I consider myself very lucky to be working with him. The publisher decides how many illustrations will be included and what to illustrate is pretty much a group decision though, obviously, Chris took the lead on what the illustrations would look like.
Q: I am hoping that this is the first book in a series; have you already planned what Alfie, the Professor, Derek and Sir Brenda will do next?
A: In fact, I’ve just finished writing the second book. I don’t want to give anything away but Alfie, Derek and the Professor are about to get visitors from the Unusual Cartography Club’s past. If people like the books (fingers crossed) I’ve got plenty more plans, and not just for Alfie and the gang. Wigless Square is surrounded by odd buildings that are home to some very strange secret societies …
Q: Are there any plans to publish The Cosmic Atlas? I imagine it would be very popular with primary school children who love to gather round an illustrated atlas.
A: None at the moment, but never say never! It’s the first book in the series so it’s early days. If people enjoy Alfie’s adventures I’d also like to go back to my original idea and make Lonely Planet type travel guides for different planets. I imagine a travel guide to Nerwong-Nerwong Plinky-Plonk could be very funny.
Q: What were your favourite childhood books and what would you recommend to a primary school child who says they don’t like reading?
A: I loved fantasy when I was young, and my favourite books were Ursula K. le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy, Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, the Narnia books and the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. I also adored PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster books. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books started coming out when I was about fourteen and I instantly fell in love with those, too. Funny books are a great way to win the hearts of children who are reluctant to read and I’d hugely recommend Andy Stanton’s Mr Gum books, the Wimpy Kid series, and anything by Jonathan Meres or Ben Davis, who are both hilarious.
Q: Have you always been a writer or did you have other jobs first? What inspired you to write children’s books? And why did you change from non-fiction to fiction writing?
A: Because I was badly bullied at school I couldn’t wait to leave. I started work as a paste-up artist in London (a job that no longer exists, it’s all done on computers now), then went back to university to study English when I was twenty-two. I had a lot of weird jobs when I was a student, selling ice-cream at the Dominion Theatre dressed as a clown, cleaning the toilets in a hospital for old people … the list goes on. After I got my degree I started work in publishing as an assistant editor in a non-fiction publishing company and worked my way up. I’ve wanted to write for as long as I can remember, but it’s a difficult way to make a living, especially when you have a young family to look after. Luckily, I have an amazingly supportive wife who encouraged me to follow my dreams. I quit my job and we moved to France so I could write. I’ve been writing children’s books ever since but I’d often write non-fiction, too. There’s a long tradition of authors putting their hand to different types of writing that stretches back to Dr Samuel Johnson (one of my heroes), and I enjoy that kind of work. It teaches you to research properly and present ideas in an interesting way. I think it’s made me a better writer. Children’s fiction is always where my heart has been though. It gives you the opportunity to be as inventive, imaginative and funny as you can possibly be! There’s a special kind of magic about children’s books, and I know how much they meant to me when I was a child. If I can give any young person the same sense of wonder and adventure I found in books at their age, I’m a very happy writer indeed.
Q: How do you plan a book? This one seems very visual – do you sketch pictures or see pictures in your head as you write?
A: Other people have said my writing is quite visual, and I think that’s just my style. I do have a movie running in my head as I write but I don’t plan books in great detail because I think it’s important that stories and characters are allowed to develop on their own rather than sticking to a plan. There’s always an outline of where they’re going but this often changes during the writing process, and I’ll happily scrap chapters, storylines or even whole books if I don’t think they’re working. I once spent an entire year writing a book that no one has ever seen.
Q: It strikes me that The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet would make a fantastic animated film/TV series are there any plans for this?
A: As I’m writing this it hasn’t even been published so no, not yet! I have got a couple of other books going through the development process though and it’s always nice when film companies are interested in your work!
Q: Will you be appearing at any children’s books festivals this year, or do you have a signing tour arranged for anywhere in the UK?
A: I’m doing my first ever school visits around the time The Cosmic Atlas is released and hope to do more throughout the spring and summer. Chris and I also plan to do something together later in the year but you’ll have to watch this space …
Q: I was seriously impressed by the amount of luggage that the Professor managed to attach to Betsy the scooter, have you ever embarked on an epic journey on an unconventional form of transport?
A: Any car journey with three young children in the back seat quickly becomes an unconventional form of transport! Between emptying sick-bags, toilet stops and breaking up arguments it’s amazing you ever get anywhere. My most epic journey was around the South West of the United States by car, which was amazing, and I once rode an elephant in Thailand, but I’d love to travel more. I especially like the idea of long train journeys.
Q: And finally… have you ever stayed at, or eaten at, a country inn which provided the inspiration for “The Dead Crow”?
A: I think anyone who lives in Britain would recognise The Dead Crow! We’ve all stepped into a small pub where a few locals drink and wished we hadn’t. In my experience though, once you’ve had a drink or two everyone is usually friendly and I’ve certainly never had to deal with villainous hairdresser scum!
Well, you’ve read the reviews, you’ve read the guest posts, you’ve read the Q&As, you might have been lucky enough to have had a visit from Martin to your school last week – now read the book, you’ll be laughing all the way across the cosmos!