The Children’s Book Review | November 10, 2014
John Rocco studied illustration at Rhode Island School of Design and The School of Visual Arts. In addition to writing and illustrating his own picture books, including the New York Times best-selling and Caldecott Honor-winning Blackout, he has created all of the cover art for Rick Riordan’s best-selling Percy Jackson, Kane Chronicles, and Heroes of Olympus series. He also illustrated the New York Times #1 best-selling Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods. Before becoming a full-time children’s book creator, he worked as an art director on “Shrek” for Dreamworks, and for Disney Imagineering. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter.
The Children’s Book Review: We’re going to discuss your newest picture book, Blizzard, the companion to your Caldecott Honor-winning Blackout. Before we do, let’s learn more about you and where your passion for art and desire to become a professional artist stemmed from. Go!
John Rocco: I actually didn’t think about becoming a professional artist until after I was already in college. I wanted to be a commercial shellfisherman but when my boat sunk, I headed off to the nearest college that would have me. I started studying engineering and eventually I moved off campus and shared a house with an illustrator. Watching him work was amazing, and some light went off in my head as I finally realized that this was something you could actually do for a living. He had wonderful art books that I poured over, and that just intensified my desire to become an illustrator.
TCBR: I read that you broke into the children’s book world twice. The first time was via a chance meeting with Whoopi Goldberg and the second was by joining the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. What were your takeaways from both of these experiences that you feel have shaped you into the children’s book author-illustrator you are today?
JR: Yes, that’s right. The first time I broke in was when I was a bartender and met Whoopi, and we created the book ALICE together in 1991. It’s a long story that we don’t have time for here, but let’s just say I had a lot to learn about creating picture books. It was certainly a great experience doing that first book, and Whoopi gave me a fantastic opportunity. After that book I worked in the Entertainment field for many years before I even tried my hand at books again.
The second time I “broke in” was much more conventional. I had my artwork on display at my first SCBWI conference in NYC and ended up getting contacted by Hyperion Books for Children. They asked me to illustrate the Aesop Fable, the boy who cried wolf, which eventually became Wolf! Wolf! It was a thrilling experience, and I owe a lot to SCBWI, not only for creating the opportunity for showcasing my work, but for all the things I’ve learned and the people I’ve met over the last ten years of being a member.
TCBR: And how about all of your experience working for amazing animation empires, such as Disney Imagineering and being an art director on “Shrek” for Dreamworks? How have these experiences impacted your artistic career?
JR: It’s interesting you ask that. The simple answer is that looking back at all the different projects I’ve worked on whether it was for film, tv, games, or location based entertainment, it’s always been about storytelling. And in each one of those jobs, I’ve learned something new about how to tell a story. For example, working in animation I learned how to use color, composition and lighting to enhance the emotional beats of a story. While directing commercials, I learned how to be succinct as commercials are really a 15-30 second story. While designing rides for Epcot and Disney World, I learned the importance of creating an immersive experience for the guest. In the case of books, it’s a matter of creating an immersive experience for the reader. It’s all the same stuff, just packed into a 32 page, tangible format. Just to be clear, I never was an animator, I just don’t have that skill-set, I was always an art director and worked with many amazingly talented people, from which I learned a ton.
TCBR: So now we have more knowledge about you and how you got to the point in your career that you have a companion book to a Caldecott Honor winner, let’s talk about all things Blizzard. The inspiration came from your own childhood experience during the Blizzard of 1978, when forty inches of snow fell on your Rhode Island hometown. What made you decide it was time to tell this particular story now?
JR: Actually, I think my publisher would have liked me to come out with this book last year, but I was still working on it. The artwork for this book actually took me a lot longer than some of my other books. It’s nice that this book seems to be a companion to Blackout, and I think they are also very different. Blizzard takes place in a different decade, with a different family, living in the suburbs. What is similar about the two books is that thematically they deal with similar situations; a family stuck in an unusual situation and what they end up doing about it.
TCBR: It’s really a delightful blend of the chaos a storm can bring, as well as the enjoyment that a good snowfall can provide, and also the underlying story of a young boy putting others first. In my opinion, you contain the snowstorm pandemonium under a tranquil blanket of quietness—the kind of muffled-exciting-quietness that only a large dump of snow can bring—and in doing so you provide a multilevel story time experience that will appeal to kids of many ages. What are your secrets for choosing when and where to use text, comic panels, and pictures?
JR: Wow, you put that very nicely. Thanks! Hmmm…secrets? Hard work. I end up doing many different versions of sketches, and using some blank wall space to put them up. I spend lots of time trying different solutions and switching things out, and I think being able to step back and see the whole book it really helps with pacing.
TCBR: From inception to publication, will you briefly describe the complete creative process behind Blizzard?
JR: Sure. For me it started off with telling my daughter the story a few times, as she is always asking me to tell stories about when I was little. When I realized that it might make a good picture book I started sketching out little images in a small notebook, and figuring out the story beats. Once I had something developed I ran it by my editor to get her thoughts. Then I started sketching out individual little moments that I knew I wanted to put into the book. That’s when I started covering my wall with images and began “building” the book. From there it’s a process of creating book dummies, which I will put together in InDesign on my computer. That allows me to easily swap out images and text and create a pdf that I can look at and see the flow of the book. I probably created about 30 different dummies for the book this way. Once it is all working then I start with the finished art, which always starts with a tonal pencil drawing and is finished in the computer using digital color (in Photoshop) and adding textures and watercolor washes that I make by hand.
TCBR: At what point in this process did you decide to add the gorgeous gatefold spread that shows the young boy’s circuit through his neighborhood to visit the grocery store?
JR: I had done several versions of that ¾ view on a regular double page spread, and they just weren’t working the way I wanted them to. Everything was too small, and it felt like a very different scale from the rest of the book. My editor suggested a double gatefold and my response was “REALLY! We can do that!?” I always loved Bill Keane’s Family Circus comic strips and I knew there was a great opportunity to give this painting that feel. Of course it’s not to scale, but it gives you the sense of my adventure in getting to the store. Since first discovering the map of Hundred Acre Woods, I always loved seeing maps in books. They give you such a great overview for the story.
TCBR: Because this is a story based on one of your own real-life experiences, is there are particular moment in Blizzard that holds the most sentimentality for you?
JR: I think I love the moment Mrs. DeSousa (The owner of Bills Market) is on the phone to my parents, saying “He’s on his way back now.” It’s a very subtle moment, but it says a lot about the times. Back then, you knew your neighbors, you knew the names of the people who owned the local convenience store. Children were out having adventures and people looking out for them, even if they didn’t know it.
TCBR: On average, how long did it take you to create each illustration?
JR: Once the sketches were completed I would usually spend three to five days on each painting depending on the complexity. The big map gatefold took almost three weeks to complete.
TCBR: Which art tool or supply did you use the most?
JR: I burned through a lot of 2H pencils, as I like to keep them very sharp. I first run them through an electric pencil sharpener (the same one I’ve used since college twenty-four years ago) and then I hand sharpen it using sand paper.
TCBR: Before we end, is there anything extra that you really want people to know about Blizzard?
JR: I think Blizzard is definitely the type of book to share with a child, curled up on the sofa, drinking cocoa made with hot milk!
Thanks so much for the great questions and letting me share so much about this book.
TCBR: It was our absolute pleasure. And thank you, for your time!
By John Rocco
Blizzard is based on John Rocco’s childhood experience during the now infamous Blizzard of 1978, which brought fifty-three inches of snow to his town in Rhode Island. Told with a brief text and dynamic illustrations, the bookopens with a boy’s excitement upon seeing the first snowflake fall outside his classroom window. It ends with the neighborhood’s immense relief upon seeing the first snowplow break through on their street. In between the boy watches his familiar landscape transform into something alien, and readers watch him transform into a hero who puts the needs of others first. John uses an increasing amount of white space in his playful images, which include a gatefold spread of the boy’s expedition to the store. This book about the wonder of a winter storm is as delicious as a mug of hot cocoa by the fire on a snowy day.
Ages 3-7 | Disney-Hyperion | October 30, 2014 | ISBN: 978-1423178651
Follow Along with John Rocco’s Blizzard Blog Tour
Thursday, November 6 Mundie Kids
Friday, November 7 Kid Lit Frenzy
Monday, November 10 The Children’s Book Review
Tuesday, November 11 The Kids Did It
Wednesday, November 12 OC Mom Media
Thursday, November 13 As They Grow Up
Friday, November 14 Curling Up With a Good Book
Monday, November 17 Ben Spark
Tuesday, November 18 Mr. Schu Reads
Thursday, November 20 Elizabeth Dulemba
For more information on John Rocco, visit: roccoart.com
Add this book to your collection: Blizzard, by John Rocco