An Interview with 2021 Excellence in Nonfiction Finalist John Rocco

YALSA’s Award for Excellence in Nonfiction is awarded each year, chosen from a field of 5 finalists (2021: Candace Fleming’s The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh). This top five represents the best of the best in nonfiction, each of them handily able to rival the most action-driven novel for engagement and intrigue. These titles, however, also aim to inform, to reveal, and to enlighten.

How We Got to the Moon by John Rocco

John Rocco’s How We Got to the Moon (also a 2021 Sibert honoree) is remarkable on all those counts. It is also the only finalist this year where the author is also the artist. Rocco’s Blackout was a 2021 Caldecott Honor title, and his work has seen wide circulation via the Percy Jackson titles, for which he created the covers. Besides the sheer beauty of his work, in How We Got to the Moon, Rocco uses the art to teach, to tell the whole story of what it took to successful send astronauts to the moon and return them safely. It is a compelling story, full of narrative details to keep the pages turning; however, it is also a highly effective series of lessons in science and mathematics and engineering.

Thanks to John for sparing the time for this interview and for his wonderful book. To hear more from John and the other four finalists, click here to watch the Virtual Excellence in Nonfiction Celebration.

author John Rocco

THE HUB: The thing that might surprise readers is that you drew every illustration in the book. Despite a wealth of primary source documents and photos, you decided the illustrations should all be drawn. What lead to that decision?

ROCCO: I’ve seen many books that use mixtures of photographs and diagrams and maybe one or two illustrations scattered throughout, and I always felt there was a bit of a disconnect. I think for kids, especially when you’re handling such complex information, having it created all in one style and by one hand, gives it much better accessibility.

When you’re looking at historic events, like the Apollo program, there are so many fantastic photographs. They documented everything! But a lot of it was in black and white, and you’re seeing a photograph of a bunch of people working on a rocket, or the astronauts, and it’s hard to place yourself in that world. There’s a wall there. That is something that happened back then. And I wanted to create a book where you’re going through it in real time, so you’re in it. I think it’s a lot easier for readers to suspend their disbelief with that feeling of being part of the process, and I think that can be done with illustrations. So I had to just decide, OK, I’m going to illustrate this whole thing.

THE HUB: Which was a huge commitment! What is your art process, are you fully analog, or do you use digital tools as well?

ROCCO: At first I draw everything, pencil to paper. And then, I use the computer primarily just to color. Adding the color digitally allows me to have better control over the palette, over making changes, and with a project like this, where there are probably 500 separate illustrations, I needed to speed up the process where I could.

THE HUB: You also helped the reader feel “in it” by keeping huge chunks of the narrative in present tense, as though it were happening right now.

ROCCO: Yeah, most of it. There’s the general narrative, and then there’s lots of call out boxes with more information. Those call out boxes are not in present tense, but reading the narrative, you’re in the moment. You’re back in 1958 where they’re trying to figure out how rockets fly. And especially the last part of the book, which is actually the mission of Apollo 11. I wanted the reader to follow along because most people who’ve experienced watching anything on TV or in the movies about the Apollo missions, they experience the launch, the moon landing and the walk, and then splashdown. 

THE HUB: Kind of the highlight reel?

ROCCO: Yeah, and I was interested in all the stuff that happens in between! There’s this whole myriad of things they had to do on this journey, to get there and back safely.

THE HUB: How long was your process from idea to completion? When did the seed of this idea first get planted?

ROCCO: I guess the initial seed took place at the beginning of 2017. Just for pleasure, I had been reading books about Apollo for a long time. I was thinking about what would be my next project, and it was actually my wife who suggested it because I was always rattling off these newfound facts I had discovered, coming down to cook dinner, and being like did you know? And she said — you should do this book. You know everything about this program!

And it wasn’t even in my wheelhouse. I had never written nonfiction. But I got some great advice from people who have written nonfiction, especially my father, who said you have to vet everything. He’s a neurophysiologist, and he’s used to writing scientific papers with significant research related to the scientific instruments that he builds, so he insisted: any piece of information you think you want to include, you need to find three sources, and they have to be credible. Toward the end of that year, I had fleshed out the book I wanted to create. And at the time, I was thinking it would be about 400 pages because there was so much I wanted to include.

THE HUB: And the final product is more like 250 pages? 

ROCCO: And that’s a good thing because I don’t think I would have finished it! If it was 400 pages long, I think I’d still be working on it, and my wife would hate me! It was certainly a daunting task. And I was still finishing a few other projects, too (Camp Tiger and Noah Builds an Ark), but I was able to dive into this one in the middle of 2018. Which is also when I got married and moved across the country into a new house! Luckily, I was able to set up and go, and I owe so much to my wife, who really held our life together at that time because I was strapped to the drawing board and the keyboard for many months. I think I finished the book right at the beginning of 2020.

THE HUB: A year of research, at least, and planning. And then 2 more years of work!

ROCCO: Yeah, once I got the book sketched out and written out, I spent about nine months on the final art.

THE HUB: And it is extraordinary. I have several spreads that I would say are my favorites. Do you have a favorite spread?

ROCCO: It’s hard to say. I’ve got a few, certainly, that I’m able to say this spread is working really well because it’s got a good balance between the human and the technical aspects. I do like the splashdown spread where you meet John Wolfram and see how they recovered the ship and learn about the different parts. I also really like the spread of the woman sewing the parachutes and then the opposite side with the guys packing the parachutes into the command module. 

I was originally inspired by David Macauley’s The Way Things Work. I knew him from Rhode Island School of Design, and I loved his book. I thought it was brilliant and different, and as a child, I loved taking things apart to see how they worked and then putting them back together to see if they still worked. This book was a culmination of my fascination with that kind of problem-solving. I originally went to school for engineering – I thought I might be an oceanographic engineer. And then I was living with an illustrator, and I was fascinated with the fact that he sat at home, painted pictures, and got paid for it! And I thought, that seems like an amazing career! And he helped me figure out how to make a portfolio and I ended going to art school. But I’ve always had that think like an engineer mode in the back of my head, and with this book, all my passions with engineering and tinkering and art and history came together.

THE HUB: I think your decision to draw everything, born out of that tinkering and engineering background, is the quiet genius of this book. As someone who thought she knew a lot about the space program, I can attest to having learned a ton from this book, especially in technical matters that I previously might have breezed past. I credit those moments to the way the narrative and the drawings work together without overwhelming. How did you manage to strike such a perfect balance?

ROCCO: When I started working on the book, I knew that with these really complex concepts, I couldn’t just dive right into them. So, I decided to create the book in this stacked format, where at the beginning, you’re going to need to know Newton’s Laws because they govern everything about rockets and space flight. So we’re going to start with that, with the fundamental science behind all this. And then, we can build on top of that foundation. After that, you learn about thrust and drag and lift and weight, and then we build on top of that. Then, we can start talking about orbital mechanics and thermodynamics. And even these really complex topics can be explained very simply.

I can take a lightbulb and demonstrate the three ways heat can transfer from one object to another. That’s what heat does – it wants to equalize. So if I touch the bulb itself, that would be conduction. If I have my hand to the side of the bulb, I can still feel the heat from the light waves, and that’s radiation. And then if I put my hand over that hot bulb, and those heat waves rise up to hit my hand, that’s convection. And suddenly you understand thermodynamics. It sounds like a fancy word that you think a 9-year-old wouldn’t be able to understand. But they can! 

THE HUB: And I think it’s because it’s attached to the narrative. I can point to several illustrations in this book that could be found – are found – in countless textbooks. But there, students attach that illustration only to this lesson. Here, that explanation is attached to an emotional narrative, where memory can be more fully engaged.

ROCCO: It’s always been the mission of this book. The Apollo mission, the story of Apollo, is a perfect narrative for teaching these STEAM concepts. They’re all right there in this incredible story about 400,000 people who came together to send 3 guys 250,000 miles out into space and land on the moon! When you think about the historic nature of what they did! We’ve been walking around on Earth for a couple thousand years. This has been our home, and we’ve never left it. We’ve never left it before — or after. The astronauts going into space now, they’re only going 250 miles up.

THE HUB: Like the early test runs for the Apollo program?

ROCCO: Exactly! And we haven’t been further than that since 1972. No one has done it. Only 24 people have really gone “into space.” In the history of humankind, that’s pretty outstanding. We’re going to look back at it 500 years from now, and say, “Wow! Look what we did then!” as we go off to Mars or Venus or wherever else we’re going to go.

THE HUB: Maybe that’s why we remain so fascinated with the Apollo program? That shared commitment that we made, once Kennedy said, “We choose to go.” That set in motion everything you just described. What your book does so well is to recognize that making the decision was just the beginning. There were all these incremental problems and decisions, all these minds working in different areas to accomplish this thing that we too easily might just consider somewhat miraculous. 

ROCCO: Right. I start the book with the quote from Jim Lovell:

“It’s not a miracle. We just decided to go.”

And when you look at the problem of how we get to the moon and back safely, it’s a huge problem just like reversing climate change or overcoming systemic racism. They look overwhelming. What these engineers did is they broke it down into many, many little problems and just solved each one. 

And all the problems can be solved with simple science. Yes, they used some new techniques or some new alloys, but they didn’t invent anything new; they just solved problems. And one of my hopes for this book is that it might inspire kids to go into engineering who might not otherwise have thought of that. I wanted to show that engineers are just people who like to solve problems! They like to figure out how to get something accomplished. That’s why that’s why I used that Problem-Solution structure in the book. Because once they were able to string together all those solutions, they were able to create a ladder all the way to the moon and back.

THE HUB: And they didn’t know what problems they would encounter until they got into it, right? 

ROCCO: Yeah. Some of the things were done to such a massive scale that they didn’t realize some of the issues they would run into, and they were dealing with stuff that had never been dealt with before. They had hundreds of thousands of gallons of cryogenic fluids in a tank – and they had to keep it from boiling over? You’ve got this rocket sitting in the 70 degree weather of Florida and this fluid that had to stay at -423 degrees.

THE HUB: It’s astonishing.

ROCCO: Oh, yeah. One of my friends down in Florida was in charge of loading the second stage of the Saturn V rocket containing the liquid hydrogen. That was his job. And he has never seen liquid hydrogen in his life.

THE HUB: It’s always been safely behind layers of protection?

ROCCO: Yeah – it’s tucked into vacuum-jacketed pipes! He’s seen the gaseous hydrogen that comes out when there’s a leak, but not the liquid hydrogen.

THE HUB: As I read, I realized there was so much new infrastructure involved in this process. So back to problem and solution: the problem was we need a location that allows us the optimal launch window, so here’s the best region and now we need some land and we have to build structures that will accommodate these huge components. There was so much landscape changed!

ROCCO: Definitely. Did you know there was a town?

THE HUB: Where the Kennedy Space Center was built?

ROCCO: Yes. It was a small town built by freed enslaved people. It’s fascinating.

THE HUB: Wow. I did not know that. That’s a story I’d love to know more about. And it speaks to that huge commitment, the way the goal was all that mattered. And I can’t help but wonder about that global commitment to a shared idea and what we could do if we all chose to. Do you think something like that is even possible now? And if so what would it take?

ROCCO: Here’s the thing. I think Neil Degrasse Tyson said it best. Any big, monumental task like Apollo or building the pyramids or digging the Panama Canal has to fit into one of three categories: 1. Money – if I do this, it’s going to make me money. The Panama Canal is a great example of that.

THE HUB: Right. It’s a cost-benefit analysis. We are going to spend all this money because it’s going to end up making us all this money.

ROCCO: Exactly. Reason 2 is Praising a deity. It’s why they built the pyramids. It’s why they would spend 3, 4, 5 generations of families building a cathedral. I mean, who could build the Notre Dame today? Nobody.

Then the third and last reason is Fear of dying.

THE HUB: Survival.

ROCCO: Survival. And Apollo was about survival.

THE HUB: You think so?

ROCCO: Absolutely! Apollo came about because we didn’t want to live in a Communist world. Americans were terrified of Russians controlling space, controlling the air above us. The only reason we went to the moon was because Kennedy said, alright they’ve beaten us at everything. How can we change the finish line so we can beat them? Typical American approach – let’s just change the finish line!

THE HUB: But you’re absolutely right that fear was so much a part of it.

ROCCO: Oh, absolutely. It was obviously a big political move, but again the result was unexpected. When these guys went on their world tour afterwards, it was a unifying thing. It was like, “we, the human race, have gone to the moon.” No one said, you Americans did this. 

So with something like stopping climate change, we could have done these things 50-60 years ago, and we chose not to because we love money. That’s the bottom line. I mean, Henry Ford’s wife drove an electric car! She did! We’ve had that technology since the beginning of the automotive age!

THE HUB: Right, but we haven’t had that shared commitment. So can we?

ROCCO: Right. We haven’t. These things have been addressed, but no one has said, let’s take a stand. I think there is a big movement toward equality, and we’re all realizing that we have to put an end to this racism because it’s crazy, it’s prehistoric. And unfortunately, that’s just one of many things that need to be done. There’s not just one big goal, like landing on the moon and coming home safely, where we can say we’ve done it. But until we actually see – not just in a documentary film – but when people start dying from climate change, as people are now with fires and massive weather events. Until it affects enough people and we end up saying this is more important than money, then nothing is going to change drastically. 

For massive change, I think three things are required. You need a clear goal, whether that’s end the use of fossil fuels or whatever. And then you need a deadline. And then you need the resources to get it done. You need those three things, and with those three, we can accomplish anything. We know how to do it! Kennedy laid it out very clearly: We’re going to go to the moon, and we’re going to do it by the end of the decade, and we’re going to spend whatever it takes to get there.

THE HUB: Well I’m inspired! We could probably talk about that forever! But let’s get back to the book. You already knew a lot about the space program, I know. Were there any elements that surprised you? 

ROCCO: There were tons! There’s always something that surprises me, especially when you start a deep dive into a program like this. I love the story of the Pregnant Guppy and the Super Guppy [planes]! It was so clever and went a long way toward meeting the deadlines because of the time it saved to have these planes that could transport larger components. I love it as an example of out-of-the-box thinking. What if we just built this giant bubble plane that would allow us to fly the rocket parts across the country? I’ve seen one of the Super Guppies in Tucson, and it’s hysterical. It really looks goofy. It’s like a regular passenger plane with a giant hernia.

THE HUB: Oh, yeah, it really does look strange, but it does the job!

ROCCO: It does. And that’s an engineer, thinking: there’s got to be a different way.

THE HUB: And an entrepreneur, right? He knew if he could solve this problem, he would get the contract.

ROCCO: Exactly. He saw a need, and he decided to do this really weird thing. And Werner Von Braun loved it. I also thought the fire brooms were fascinating. When liquid hydrogen becomes gaseous, it can ignite from as little as the static from your shoes, so it’s very, very dangerous. Especially because you cannot see hydrogen fire during the day. And there’s 1500 feet of pipe going from the liquid hydrogen tank to the base of the launchpad, and then there’s another 300 feet of pipe going up and down the umbilical tower. And because it’s such a super-cold material, these pipes expand and contract, these 40-foot sections of pipe that can expand and contract up to 1 inch. So the seams would sometimes leak, and the guys inspecting the pipes would walk the length of these pipes, holding a broom out in front of them, and if the broom caught fire, they would know to stop walking.

THE HUB: Talk about the canary in the coal mine!

ROCCO: Exactly! This is just one of the many, many stories that I heard from the Apollo engineers that you don’t usually read about. 

THE HUB: One of the things that probably shouldn’t have surprised me (but did!) was how huge the VAB was! I love the drawing that demonstrates the scale with the huge United States flag taking up only a small corner of the exterior. It’s massive!

ROCCO: Oh yeah. I’ve been inside this building, and it is unbelievable. You can look up and see condensation clouds at the top – inside the building! At the time it was built, it was the largest building in the world. You could fit 3.5 Empire State Buildings inside!

THE HUB: Or you could fit the Saturn V rockets, which is why it had to be so big, right?

ROCCO: Exactly. They had three bays to stack the rockets and a fourth bay was extra.

THE HUB: I also loved learning about the safe room under the launchpad.

ROCCO: Funny story about that slide down into the rubber room! They never had to use it, thankfully, but they tested it once. There was supposed to be a guy mopping the water from the floor of the first room. During this test, there was so much water still on the floor that when they entered the room, the first guy hydroplaned all the way across the surface, and he hit the wall so hard, his ankles and legs were shattered. It was a dangerous slide!

THE HUB: Well it was 200 feet long, right?

ROCCO: Yeah, and you’re dropping down 40 feet into the ground, so they were coming in hot!

THE HUB: I guess if it meant escaping certain death from explosion, you might accept the broken legs. I mean, I imagine that if you were working on the launchpad, you had to accept the reality that barring a miracle, if there was an explosion, you could certainly die. You think about that for the astronauts, especially for those of us who lived through watching the Challenger explode. But you don’t think – or at least I hadn’t thought – about the ground crew.

ROCCO: Of course, most of the launchpad would be cleared by the time they were fueling the rocket. Once they start fueling it, the only people up there would be the close-out crew and maybe one or two others.

THE HUB: That’s a pretty powerful commitment.

ROCCO: Yeah. I was able to go out to the launchpad the morning of a shuttle launch, which they actually ended up scrubbing, so I didn’t get to see it. This would have been back many years ago, when John Herrington, the first Native American to go to space, was on the team. It is an amazing sight.

THE HUB: And your book is as well. Thank you, for How We Got to the Moon, and for this conversation. It has been delightful!

ROCCO: Thank you!