After writing and illustrating numerous fictional stories for young readers, Chris Gall will publish a first nonfiction book—a look at the 1969 moon landing—in time for the forthcoming 50th anniversary. Go for the Moon interweaves scientific and technical explanations with memories and emotion from the author’s own childhood experiences in the late ’60s, creating a uniquely personal lens through which to view the historic event. Gall spoke with PW about the importance of the moon landing, developing a format through which to merge this book’s concurrent plots, and adapting his process over time.
How did your writing about the moon landing come about? Did you plan to write a book to coincide with the 50th anniversary or were you approached by someone?
I had planned on it. It was one of those situations where I was trying to think of what to do next. I’d always wanted to do a book about the moon and the moon landing, so I felt it was the time to do that. So, the anniversary did have an impact, but it was always on my list [of books to write].
Go for the Moon is rooted in personal experience and your lifelong interest in space. Can you speak about the personal experience(s) that informed the book?
When I was a kid in the late ’60s, everyone had moon fever. It was the biggest event that had ever happened in science or space flight. I loved space, and astronomy was my first real interest. The first picture I remember entering into an art contest, in second grade, was of a lunar module on the surface of the moon. I wish I still had it. I remember it vividly.
I found it all amazing and fascinating, so that part of the book was very personal. I still go back and watch the footage of the landing over and over again. It always makes me tear up. It’s so amazing to me that it even happened.
Why do you consider it important that the story of the moon landing is shared with young readers?
I was doing a school visit recently and it was the first time I was presenting Go for the Moon. The presentation was for fourth, fifth, and sixth graders, but they knew so little about it. I know it happened a long time ago, but I still think it’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen happen. I want to remind kids about this wonderful thing and how monumental of an achievement it was. I want them to discover that.
After all the research and the writing, the takeaway for me has been how incredibly dangerous it all was. Especially the very first landing that almost had to be aborted because of computer failure. They took some very, very real risks and people died along the way. That part of it, realizing that it wasn’t as simple as it looks on television and in movies, really struck me.
There are two stories happening concurrently in Go for the Moon: your childhood experience of watching the shuttle launch and moon landing and reenacting it at home, and the science and process involved in the real launch. How did you come to embrace this dual format for the book?
There have been other books about the moon landing—some with more science and some with very little science—and I didn’t want to just repeat that. That story has been told. I was looking for a more personal angle that would make it more identifiable for a young reader, so that they could put themselves in that place of wonder.
Structurally, putting the stories together was one of the biggest challenges. Being able to tell the stories simultaneously without confusing them or losing track of one or the other was necessary. I decided to illustrate it in a way that shows my mission mimicking the NASA mission. This brings it back to what a child can conceive of in their own bedroom.
This was the most challenging book I’ve ever worked on. I can’t remember how many drafts I did before we finalized the copy. There were probably six months of development. I would work on the artwork, then change my mind about something I’d written because it didn’t feel right or didn’t work with the art. The story wasn’t copyedited until everything was completed.
Did you know from the start that you wanted to tie in your experiences and memories of childhood, too?
That came later. In early drafts, there was no story of me, but I kept wondering how I would tell the story in a different way. I think an editor suggested my being in the book. Then I went back and incorporated those elements.
What type of research did you conduct while writing this book?
I really underestimated how much research I was going to have to do. [In Go for the Moon], I’m explaining scientific principles, like thrust, and the guidance computer, and you really have to understand a great deal before you can distill it into something a third grader will understand. I had a giant stack of technical books and schematics and flight plans to reference.
I had a couple of great expert sources, too. David Woods, who is the world’s foremost authority on the Apollo missions, proofread the book at the end, which was helpful because I wanted to make sure nothing small was missing or out of sync.
I didn’t rely very much on sources found on the internet, aside from actual NASA documents. Pictures and movies are also very unreliable as visual resources. There were differences in all the rockets on the Apollo missions, so I really had to be careful.
You use cutaways and shifts in point-of-view to present the technical details of the NASA mission. How did you decide on this style and technique to communicate the more technical aspects of the story?
Every book I do is sort of a different style. I choose the style based on the subject matter and, because I knew this book would have a lot of technical and mechanical information, I wanted it to be representational without being photorealistic. It’s kind of an adaptation of a book I did called The Littlest Train, which was simpler but included the mechanics of trains.
Do you find that your writing process varies depending on whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction?
Yes, definitely. This was my first nonfiction book and it’s a whole different thing. You’ve got the research aspect of it and have to figure out how to tell a story in an interesting way with just the right amount of science. When you’re doing fiction, you can make whatever you want up; it’s freer in a way.
When starting a new illustrated project, where do you normally begin?
I always do a dummy book—or two or three or four, depending on how many versions my editor wants. Just the sketches and how the illustrations work with the words.
Almost always, when I’m pitching a project, I do a mock cover first. With type and everything, just as if it were on the shelf at the store. And, for whatever reason, that seems to really help me. I do this magical cover and it helps me think about the story inside.
Do you have a go-to medium or must-have tools?
I’m 100% digital these days, ever since Dog vs. Cat, which was the first book I did with no physical sketches. Go for the Moon was completely done in Photoshop. Originally, my art was all black and white wood-cut engravings on board. I would scan them, then add color in a variety of different programs. As time went by, my hands couldn’t do engravings anymore, so I found ways to simulate the linework. I adapted.
What advice do you have for artists interested in creating picture books?
That’s a question I get a lot. My go-to advice is always to do your research. Before you write stories about your dog or whatever it is, do your research about how the industry works so you know the protocols. I’ve known a lot of people who followed those rules and became great published authors.
Also, decide why you want to do it. Do you want a career? Just to have a few published books?
Do you still do much commission or for-hire illustrating?
Most of those are older. Ninety percent of my work centers around books. I still really enjoy doing illustration work as a commissioned illustrator, but those jobs are far and few these days; I just hold on to them emotionally.
Is commission work how you broke into the book industry?
Yes, that’s correct. It was always something I wanted to do, but I was so busy with other work. Then, I thought about what my first project would be and who I’d give it to. I was one of those people who was totally ignorant of the industry and was just lucky.
I had this idea after 9/11 about re-doing America the Beautiful. I’m related to Kathy Lee Bates, who wrote the words to America the Beautiful, and I felt it was serendipitous. So, I put together a proposal and, long story short, it got into the right person’s hands at a literary agency. They said, “Yes, we can sell this,” and I thought, “Wow, it’s this easy?” That’s how it all started. I was lucky!
What’s on your to-do list for the next year?
Right now, I’m working on another nonfiction book. It’s tentatively titled Jumbo. It’s the story of the world’s first wide-bodied jet, known as the jumbo jet. People ask which one that is—it’s the giant one with the big hump on the top. It changed air travel forever. Before the jumbo jet, the average ticket cost to travel across the Atlantic, adjusted for inflation, was $10,000, so very few people could afford air travel to visit faraway places. The jumbo jet changed all of that. I’m getting all excited because it’s one of my favorite planes!
Go for the Moon by Chris Gall. Roaring Brook, $19.99 June 11 ISBN 978-1-2501-5579-5