Interview with John Rocco


About the Author: John Rocco is a New York Times Bestselling author and illustrator of many acclaimed books for children, including Wolf! Wolf!, winner of the Borders Original Voices Award for best picture book; Moonpowder; Blizzard, and Blackout, a winner of the Caldecott Honor.  Rocco also illustrated Whoopi Goldberg’s Alice and the covers for Rick Riordan’s internationally bestselling series Percy Jackson and the Olympians, The Kane Chronicles, The Heroes of Olympus, Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard and The Trials of Apollo. Most recently, Rocco’s first Young Adult novel, Swim That Rock, was a finalist for the New England Book Award.

For many years Rocco has been an art director in the entertainment industry, both in the US and abroad. At Dreamworks, Rocco was the pre-production art director on the top-grossing animated film Shrek. For Walt Disney Imagineering, he designed attractions at Disney’s Epcot and served as art director for DisneyQuest, a virtual reality theme park in Downtown Disney. Rocco has worked with computer graphics pioneer Robert Abel, the creator of some of the first CGI commercials and special effects, and contributed to several museum projects including Newseum in Washington D.C. and Paul Allen’s Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame.

Find John Rocco on the following platforms:

We like to thank John Rocco for talking with us about his illustrating and writing career.

Cheyenne Lopex: How long have you been drawing and when did you know you wanted to make it a career?

John Rocco: I didn’t take drawing seriously until I was about 19 years old. I was a sophomore in college studying engineering and I was sharing a house with a professional illustrator. I think at the time I didn’t realize you could make a career out of drawing pictures, but he showed me otherwise and I was hooked. From there I went about putting together a portfolio so I could get into art school and was quickly accepted into the program at Rhode Island School of Design.

CL: Is your artwork completed traditionally or digitally? Do you prefer one over the other?

JR: I begin all my artwork traditionally…pencil on paper. Then I will bring the drawing into the computer and color it there, usually adding watercolor textures, stains, and whatever else it might take to make it right. I don’t really have a preference with regards to traditional or digital, but I hardly ever start and complete a painting digitally. 99.9% of the time it begins with pencil on paper.

CL: Who inspires you? Which artists have influenced you over the years?

JR: The greatest source of inspiration for me has always been the Brandywine Illustrators from the early 20th Century; N.C. Wyeth, Howard Pyle, Maxfield Parrish, Arthur Rackham. There are others too, like Dean Cornwell and Frank Frazetta.

CL: Why illustration?

JR: Why not? I get a lot of enjoyment out of working on a drawing or painting that I am excited about. And I love books. So to work in a field where I can make artwork that ends up in books, and those books end up in kids’ hands…I’m pretty lucky!   

CL: Are you the type of artist who carries a sketchbook everywhere just in case, or do you have a specific place you prefer to work in?

JR: I am not the type to carry a sketchbook, but I do carry a small notebook to jot down ideas that I might get. I’ll see the visuals in my head and draw them down later when I return to my studio

CL: Do you ever look back on an art project, and see changes you would like to make, or do you prefer to look ahead to the next one?

JR: I never look back. I am always too excited about the next one to look back!

CL: Do you have a favorite project you’ve worked on? Or do you have one that you are most proud of?

JR: It’s almost always my most current project that is my favorite. I think that is what gets me excited about each new project, that it immediately becomes my favorite. Until it is finished, and then I start something new.

CL: What was it like winning your first award?

JR: The first award I received was called the “Borders Original Voices Award” and it was for the first picture book I had written as well as illustrated.  Borders was once a big chain bookstore similar to Barnes and Noble, and I was absolutely thrilled to receive this award, especially since the award was primarily given for outstanding new authors, and until that point, I had only considered myself an illustrator. Now I was a bona fide author! I believe the award came with a cash prize too, so that was especially nice since my daughter had just been born and money was tight.     

CL: A book cover draws readers in, but illustrations help to tell the story itself. Do you approach the artwork for book covers differently than you do picture book illustrations?

JR: Absolutely! When I make a book cover illustration I am trying to convey the feeling of the book, the mood, the themes…everything. I am trying to boil all the ideas of the book down to their essence and come up with one exciting image that conveys that. With a picture book, I am given 32-40 pages to tell the story so the approach is very different.

CL: You’ve written some books yourself; what is the difference between illustrating your own stories versus illustrating the stories for other authors?

JR: When I am writing and illustrating my own stories, the text is usually always in flux, always changing. It’s a balancing act between the text and the words, and I am constantly juggling the two in different ways to see how I might be able to make it better. With other people’s manuscripts I cannot make text changes, so things are a bit less flexible, but it also makes it easier because I know there is a constant. The text will not change, so I have to be more clever with my imagery.

CL: One of your books, Blizzard, is based on a childhood experience of yours; what was it like to revisit that experience? Do tennis rackets actually make it easier to walk in the snow?

JR: I loved working on Blizzard. It took me right back to my youth in the 1970s. A simpler time. A time before cell phones, computers, cable TV, and video games. We played outside, with our neighbors; we did things on our own. There were no play dates set up by your mom or dad, you just walked over to your neighbor’s house and that was it. And yes, tennis rackets did help me keep from sinking into the snow. The one downside was that the snow would stick to the rackets and they would get very heavy so I had to stop a lot to clean them off.

PRR Writer, Cheyenne Lopex