Prickly Pussycat Predicaments: A Talk with Waffles and Pancakes Creator Drew Brockington
Look, I always liked comics. Ever since I was a kid I’d read interchangeably between Uncle Scrooge, Doonesbury, and the occasional collection of Pogo my parents kept in the house. But it wasn’t until I saw firsthand how well my own kids responded to using comics to learn to read that the possibilities truly blossomed. Yet for all that they’re fantastic teaching tools, the number of comics published with an audience below the age of nine in mind is a bit on the paltry side. Turns out, they’re not particularly easy to write.
Enter Drew Brockington.
Some of you may already know the man from his Catstronauts series. This year, he edges a bit closer to the lower end of the age range. His spin-off series is called Waffles and Pancakes. I endeavored to learn more. And yes, I may have snuck a nerdy cataloging question in there somewhere. See if you can identify it.
Betsy Bird: Thanks so much for speaking with me today, Drew! Right off the top, how are you and your family members holding up during this pandemic?
Drew Brockington: Hi Betsy! I’m so excited to speak to you. We are doing ok! Thanks for asking. My wife has taken up residency in my studio and my kids started pre-K this year virtually and are now back in-person. It’s been really awesome to watch them learn while at home. All of us have shaggy hair, and I don’t shave my face very much anymore.
BB: Sounds par for the course. Your latest book is WAFFLES AND PANCAKE is a kind of prequel to your Catstronauts books, and at a younger reading level. Was this something you’d always intended to do? And why write something for emerging readers?
DB: Waffles and Pancake wasn’t even on my horizon until my editor, Rachel Poloski, at LBYR came to me with a proposal. I was instantly on board. It makes purrfect (forgive me) sense as a story to explore the origins of how the CatStronauts got to where they are now. How many kids in elementary school say they want to be an Astronaut? It’s a dream job for a lot of people. Waffles and Pancake gives me the chance to show where the inspiration could start for someone beginning their journey to eventually work in space.
Being able to work on a book that is meant to be for an early reader is very exciting! These kids have this new skill and are excited to use it. It’s like when you take the training wheels off your bike and you realize you can ride anywhere. I love that Waffles and Pancake can be a book for those readers. I also love that Waffles and Pancake might be a kids’ first comic/graphic novel! These kittens could be the gateway to an entire genre for kids!
BB: Did you change your artistic style in any way when creating this book? The colors? Or would you say it’s roughly the same as the other titles?
DB: Because Waffles and Pancake takes place in the world of the CatStronauts, I needed to make sure it felt in line as the other books. But, because it’s for a younger age, I had to make sure the art is more accessible. This led me to using a slightly thicker line and limiting myself to fewer panels on each page to tell the story. A bigger panel meant that I could still incorporate some background details and environments that love to use in the CatStronauts series, and the thicker line makes me simplify my drawings a little more. It was a fun learning curve to teach myself how to pare down my artwork slightly.
For the colors, I took the retro palette that I use for the CatStronauts and upped the saturation a bit so the colors feel a little more modern, brighter, and fun.
BB: Being that we are currently in an era of publishing that has previously never been possible before (comics for children being strictly forbidden by gatekeeping librarians and teachers for decades) it can sometimes be difficult for us to know where to put books that are both comics and early readers. Waffles and Pancake reads younger than your Catstronauts books, so I put the choice to you. Where, in a library, would YOU prefer to put this title? In the easy reader section where emerging readers can discover and grow to love your cats or in the graphic novel / comic section, where they lead naturally into your other books?
DB: I would put them in the comics and graphics section. My hope is that section is now large enough that there are subdivisions into different genres of comics. When I walk into my favorite comic shop they have their store divided into “Older than YA”,YA, and All Ages. All ages has everything from comics for beginners up through late-middle grade stuff like Cleopatra in Space and the Avatar books by Faith Erin Hicks.
I really like this grouping because comics are such an approachable medium. My kids started reading Dog Man and CatStronauts when they were almost 4. They couldn’t read the words, but there’s so much story told through the artwork that they could understand a fairly complex narrative and identify the characters emotional arcs through out the story. I think having access to books comics that might be beyond their level is going to further them as a reader. By the time they are able to read the words in a CatStronauts book, they will have already familiarized themselves with the characters and artwork, so they can concentrate on the story.
Also, I like the idea of the current CatStronauts readers finding the Waffles and Pancake fairly easily. Because Waffles and Pancake and CatStronauts exist in the same universe, I got to add in lots of fun easter eggs and cameos for the older readers.
BB: Ah! I was going to ask about that. I mean, we’re talking space cats here. Felines in the farthest reaches of interplanetary travel. So I can’t imagine that strict accuracy is a true necessity to your work but I just gotta ask you one thing: Do you do any research for your books? Cat OR space research of any kind?
DB: Yes! There is a quite a bit of research happening when I start out. I grew up choosing to watch space shuttle launches in the library during recess time. That fascination and awe at what the NASA is capable of is definitely a showcase of the CatStronaut series. When I begin a CatStronaut book, I start looking at the mission roster for what NASA is trying to do in the future, and what they’ve done in the past. I choose a couple that look interesting and start doing a deep dive into how that mission is going to be accomplished. The main rule for the world of CatStronauts is that every scientific theory or experimental technology that humans are working on now exists in the Cat world, AND there are no budget restraints. Every satellite or rocket costs a bajillion dollars, and CATSUP (Cat-NASA – the Center for Areonautical Technology and Underlying Programs) has a million bajillion dollars at the ready.
For Waffles and Pancake, I took a big step back. To prep for Planetary-Yum I watched a lot of Planetarium programs and started building my own show about constellations and stars for what I wanted the kittens to learn. My family has started camping together for the past few years and every time we’re in the woods at night I look up and can easily point out Orion or the Big Dipper. But, I want to be able to show my kids more. I want them to be able to know where Mars is, or Polaris. Recently, we had brought the Waffles and Pancake ARC with us to a state park at night. Before bed, we read Planetary-yum, and on the way to the bathroom, we pointed out some constellations. Because the night stars in the book are made from actual star charts, it made finding them a little easier. It was the best feeling ever to watch the stars with my kids.
BB: So, any plans to make more Waffles and Pancake stories or is this a standalone?
DB: Yes!!!! I am working on three more Waffles and Pancake stories. You’ll follow the kittens as they fly on an airplane for the first time, attend a rocket launch at cape Cat-naveral, and go to sleep away camp at Space-Cat Camp! I am so excited to work on them! I’m currently finishing up colors on the second book and starting to write the 3rd. They are a blast to work on.
BB: And finally, what are you working on next?
DB: Aside from all the Cat books, I’m also finishing up a picture book about a kid who accidentally gets on a bus full of puppies and spends the day at obedience school. And I’m developing a new graphic novel idea that involves a hurricane and a lost mermaid. That one is pretty raw still, but I love chipping away at it whenever I get a chance.
I don’t know about you, but this kind of info is exactly what I needed. Many thanks to Drew for so patiently answering my questions and to the illustrious Victoria Stapleton and the folks at Little, Brown for setting up this interview in the first place. The first Waffles and Pancake book (Planetary-Yum) is out September 28th.
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