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.

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