Write what you know. It’s what authors are always told, and Caldecott Honor-winning author/illustrator John Rocco took the advice to heart. As you can see here, barbershops weren’t his usual stompin’ grounds as a child. Rocco uses this to tell his own superhero tale in his latest picture book, Super Hair-o and the Barber of Doom.
Super Hair-o is the very funny story of a boy—named Rocco, no less—whose big hair fuels his superpowers. Ditto for his friends. Together, they are unstoppable—at least in their imaginations. Rocco lays some of the action out in comic book format, making clever use of black and white to communicate the children’s great feeling of doom at the loss of their hair when they’re all taken to the local barber. It’s a sad day, indeed: The loss of their hair means the loss of their awesome powers.
And this September Candlewick will release Jason Carter Eaton’s How to Train a Train, an entertaining send-up of pet care manuals, all about choosing, tracking and training your own locomotive. Rocco’s illustrations are splendid, and the book is sure to please readers of all ages.
I interrupted John’s book tour to talk a bit about both books and what’s next for him.
I don't think we've chatted since you won the 2012 Caldecott Honor. What has life in picture books been like since then?
I think the biggest change for me since winning the Caldecott Honor was the confirmation that my work was going in the right direction. It’s also fantastic that I can pay for my meals at any restaurant in the world by just doodling on a napkin! That’s what the librarians had told me, although it hasn’t really worked yet.
I will admit: There is a certain satisfaction knowing your book will be sticking around for a while. Blackout has been published in eight languages and is currently being made into a live action feature film by Fox 2000. I still giggle at the thought of it all.
Your protagonist in Super Hair-o and the Barber of Doom is named after you, and your author photo is of you as a child with impressively and ginormously large hair. How long has this story been in you, waiting to come out?
Yes, little Rocco is the “hero” in Super Hair-o and the Barber of Doom, and I was hesitant to name the character after myself, but after working on the book for a long time, it became obvious that this story was about me. I had an extremely big afro as a child, as my mother never made me go to the barber. I also grew up on a block that had about 14 boys, and we were all little daredevil superheroes in training.
I love How to Train a Train. Have you always loved trains? Also, how did you create the art for this one?
When I was little, my grandparents took us to a place called Edaville Railroad, where you could ride this old steam engine through the cranberry bogs of Massachusetts. Afterwards, you could put a penny on the tracks, and when the train came by it would flatten it like a piece of gum. I don’t think they let you do that anymore.
While creating the art for How to Train a Train, I really wanted to make sure these trains felt like the real deal and not some watered-down cartoony version of a train. I wanted the steam, the rust, and the elaborate tangle of metal gears and pipes to be at the forefront. The art was created with pencil and colored digitally on the computer.
What's next for you? Working on anything now that you can talk about?
YES! What’s next? That’s always the most exciting thing for me to talk about.
I have a novel, called Swim That Rock, coming out next spring that I wrote with my best friend, Jay Primiano. He was the captain of the shellfishing boat I started working on when I was 11 years old, and we have been talking about writing this book for years. I cannot describe how thrilled we both are!
I am also working with Rick Riordan on a book of Greek mythology. They will be the original stories but told with a modern perspective that will give them plenty of kid appeal.
Also on the drawing table is a new picture book, called Blizzard, which recounts my experience as a child in the famous East Coast Blizzard of ’78.
So, yeah, I’m gratefully busy!
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.