Rocco’s Moonpowder


Once in a while I like to look at an Illustrator, sometimes following their Illustrations to find new reads. This is one such post.


introduced: For the Spring 2011 Edition of TalyaWren, our humble zine, the daughter interviewed one of her favorite authors Adrienne Kress whose book Alex and the Ironic Gentleman has remained longstanding at the top of Natalya’s “Favorites Books” list. Looking for whom to credit the cover art for both Alex and it’s sequel Timothy and the Dragon’s Gate, I found John Rocco—found, not discovered. Seems I’ve known John Rocco for a while now. I just hadn’t realized it.

Here is a link to some of the book jackets he’s done. Recognize all the Rick Riordan series books, Diana Wynne Jones’ books?

John Rocco

After graduating from Rhode Island School of Design, John Rocco collaborated with Whoopi Goldberg to create the picture book Alice (Random House, 1992). Afterward, it was off to LA to work as an Art Director for Robert Abel. “For the next fourteen years I continued to work as a creative director in the entertainment industry both here and abroad.” On his site’s “about” page, you will be familiar with the names. 2005 met with a shift toward children’s books, creating his own books and illustrating covers for others. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife Aileen Leijten (who is quite marvelous in her own right), a daughter, and a dog, making books and touring the country on speaking engagements.

fans of Diana Wynne Jones may recognize this artwork for House of Many Ways (Greenwillow, 2009).

thoughts: Can I use the word pretty? because the work is pretty, even as it is striking. John Rocco is quite consistently compelling whether the illustration requires a human, creature, object, or landscape. One thing that really draws me to Rocco’s work is his choice of color palettes: rich and textured, deep warm colors. He has an eye for lifting an image, creating depth and dimension: strong lines, and his use of light and shadow.  I like that the lines are strong, without being hard or thick, capable of exuding energy and motion.

After realizing I was more familiar with John Rocco than I had realized, I looked up his own books. Moonpowder was available, so I checked it out. Truthfully, these are all intriguing:  Wolf! Wolf! (2007), Fu Finds the Way (2009), and Blackout (which is coming soon, 2011). I hope to be able to get a hold of these int he near future.

Meanwhile: A Review:

The Moonpowder factory is on the blink, and there’s only one person who can fix it—young Eli Treebuckle is the “fixer of all things fixable.” Can he do it and stop the nightmares that haunt him every night? Or will the world be without sweet dreams altogether? ~dust jacket

Moonpowder (Hyperion Books, 2008) I read this in the ‘pick-up line’ at N’s school and I suddenly wished I had someone to read it to me so I could just look at the pictures while I listened. The illustrations are full of wonder. They create the right balance of detail to enrich the story without overwhelming the viewer to distraction.  Another lovely aspect is how the illustrations carry the greater weight of an important facet of the story. In his comments about the writing/illustrating of Moonpowder, John Rocco writes:

“I decided to [use] graphic novel style pages, which would add to the visual drama and allow me to edit out text that would no longer be needed. I also decided that I would not have to write about his father being away at war if I could say it with the art, so I left that part of the story in the images.”

I really appreciate the graphic novel style aspect to the book. I am sure young children will be charmed by the illustrations, as well as the story, but Rocco’s choice puts Moonpowder on the shelves of the upper ages. His decision also reminds the reader to begin with the title page. The story begins there in a quiet collection of three slender panels: 1- The moon looking at his clipboard, 2- Eli fixing the radio (eyes and bulbs lit), and 3- his father in the cockpit of a plane looking at the family photo stuck to the dash.

I could also appreciate, after reading the author’s comments, that John Rocco takes his craft seriously and is seeking every nuance to better his work, looking at the layers. Rocco had an idea for his story, inspired here, drawn there, but he knew it lacked a greater coherence and a soulful conflict. In a true collaborative effort, he found the missing piece.

Eli’s father is away at War, and that is why he is having nightmares. Perhaps that is why he is trying to “fix” everything in the house. Then I realized that in the early 20th century there were two things that separated young boys from their fathers. One was the War; the other was the industrial revolution. When fathers began to go to work in factories, they no longer were able to bring their son’s to work with them. This is another reason that the Moonpowder Factory fit so well in my story, it is a fantastic metaphor for the industrial revolution. Now my story had a heart.

That there was a war might also explain the shortage of “Sweet Dreams” if one were to read the Moonpowder Factory as magically real. The heart Rocco mentions is driven home in that last pages. I adore the movement of the boy as he runs for the door, setting the lamp rocking on the table; the movement of the mother, throwing aside her apron, eyes on the window, running forward. There is similar movement throughout. The quietly composed home is alive with the kind of disturbances and absences of “decorum” that captures the eye and brings mind to consider.

The story is sweet. Its so relatively small in composition, but massive in all it would encompass. As long as there is war (or the memory of), Moonpowder will have a place on the shelves as children seek equilibrium, a peaceful nights sleep, and a sense that they are not completely helpless. And even though they can’t fix everything, it might just work out anyway. In a word Moonpowder is about Hope. Sweet dreams are about possibility, and Eli’s nightmares breathe helplessness, loss, and failure–hoplessness. Moonpowder is all about firing the imagination and creating a hopeful future, whether in the dreaming or the waking.


The blog “Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast” has a nice review of Wolf!Wolf! from a ways back.

John Rocco’s site, blog. check them out!

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Carl V. says:

    His work is very, very nice. I’m not sure how to describe it, but there is a softness to his work, an almost tactile quality that gives it a depth and dimension. I’ve seen his work before but don’t remember checking to see who it was who had done it. I particularly like the image of the girl opening the door. If that isn’t a perfect visual representation of the wonderful worlds that can be opened through reading, I don’t know what is.

  2. John Rocco says:

    Thanks for the splendid review Lovely L.
    I am glad you found this book!

    1. L says:

      thank you.

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