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Professor Astro Cat

London-based illustrator Ben Newman creates a playful character to teach kids about space

by Gavin Lucas in Design on 01 October 2013

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For the last 30 years, if you wanted to know about space, the universe and its many wonders, Professor Stephen Hawking has pretty much been the go-to guy. However that's about to change because there's a new space brainiac with all the answers: Professor Astro Cat.

Astro Cat is the illustrated star of a beautiful new book aimed at space-interested youngsters entitled "Professor Astro Cat's Frontiers of Space." Created by quantum physicist Dr Dominic Walliman and award-winning illustrator Ben Newman—and published this month by London publisher Nobrow's children's book imprint, Flying Eye Books—the book looks to divulge all that is known about the sun, our planet, the solar system, our galaxy and the universe, by fusing facts and theories with charming and informative illustration.

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Flip through the hardback's 64 pages and Astro Cat—along with his trusty sidekick, Astro Mouse—provides the answers for whatever space-related questions an inquisitive child might have; like what happens in a space station, how a space suit works, what a satellite is, how a star is born, if there's life on Mars and what happens should you find yourself in the unfortunate scenario of being sucked into a black hole. (One would experience "spaghettification," in case you were wondering.)

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So how does an illustrator team up with a quantum device physicist to create a children's book? In this particular case, Newman and Walliman have been good friends for years. "Dominic and I met when we were about 15 and stayed in touch even though we both went off to do very different things in life," Newman explains. "Dominic studied physics and went on to do a Ph.D, while I went to art school to learn how to party hard and draw pictures." The two remained firm friends though, and two years ago decided to create the book, "Dominic's birthday is on Christmas Day. It was at Christmas two years ago that I asked him to write this book with me."

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Having worked in a bookshop for years, Newman felt there was a gap in the market for a lovingly drawn, playful but informative book that was dedicated to explaining space. "I was always disappointed with the non-fiction books for children," he recalls. "If you wanted a book or a poster about space, you had a choice between a series of crudely Photoshopped, annotated photographs or rushed, badly drawn illustrations."

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Setting out to change all that, Newman and Walliman worked together to map out the book's content. "We spent a long time working out the best order for the chapters to flow in," says Newman. "I wanted people to be able to read the book like a story from beginning to end, but also be able to flick to any given page and learn something. Dom would write out the text for the pages and we'd then discuss which bits we both thought were important. Dom is a very visual person so he would correct diagrams that I had drawn and help me by sketching out certain explanations to help me understand better."

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Newman then designed page layouts and helped edit the text with Nobrow co-founder and creative director, Alex Spiro. "Alex was hugely important in the process as he helped mold Dominic's text and challenge some of our ideas to help improve the pages," says Newman. "Alex has a great instinct for art directing accessible and beautiful books so I think the three of us made a great team."

The result is a hugely charming book packed with knowledge and humor to make learning about space fun. (One particularly sweet illustration shows Astro Cat breaking the news to a forlorn-looking Pluto that it is no longer considered a planet.)

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"Professor Astro Cat's Frontiers of Space" is now available to purchase for $24 (£16) direct from Flying Eye Books, also look out for other Astro Cat projects such as Felt Mistress' plush incarnation of the character. Newman's dad, a carpenter and wood-worker by trade, is also working on a sculptural jet-packed wooden version of the feline space hero. Check out the slideshow below for a closer look at the adventures of Astro Cat.

Photos by Gavin Lucas

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