Friday, May 31, 2019

Q&A with Dean Robbins

Dean Robbins, photo by David Giroux
Dean Robbins is the author of the new children's picture book biography The Astronaut Who Painted the Moon. It focuses on the life of astronaut and artist Alan Bean (1932-2018). Robbins' other books include Margaret and the Moon and Two Friends. He is based in Madison, Wisconsin.

Q: You've also written about NASA computer expert Margaret Hamilton. How did you choose astronaut Alan Bean as the subject of your new book?

A: I was obsessed with space as a child, growing up during the heyday of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. Writing Margaret and the Moon revived my childhood passion, and I began reading more about that period.

By chance, I saw a New York Times story profiling every astronaut who walked on the moon. Their stories were similar until I got to Alan Bean. He was the only visual artist in the bunch, devoting his post-NASA career to paintings that expressed the wonder of walking on another world. I couldn’t believe I’d never heard about the only artist to travel in outer space. That was the genesis of The Astronaut Who Painted the Moon.

Q: How closely did you work with Alan Bean on this book?

A: I was shy about contacting one of my lifelong astronaut heroes about collaborating with me. But Alan couldn’t have been nicer, offering to read over my manuscript and even to contribute images of his own art to the book. His suggestions were invaluable, and it’s so meaningful to me that he gave The Astronaut Who Painted the Moon his stamp of approval.

Q: What do you think Sean Rubin's illustrations add to the book?

A: Sean had a daunting task: rendering another artist’s work within the context of his own visual style while doing justice to my story. And he pulled it off masterfully.

He immersed himself in research, poring over images of historical aircraft and making a trek to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. But rather than using all that information in a literal-minded way, Sean created a one-of-a-kind work of art, with magic on every page.

For example, in the spread where Alan is learning to be an artist, he paints on the space between us, the readers, and him, the character in the book, as if it were a pane of glass. This imaginary plane fills up with brushstrokes as Alan masters his craft. As I said, magic.

Q: Especially given that this is the 50th anniversary of astronauts walking on the moon, what do you hope kids take away from the book?

A: I hope they come to appreciate Alan Bean and his remarkable contribution as the only artist to travel in outer space. Alan is a lesser-known astronaut, despite his heroic achievement as only the fourth person to walk on the moon.

I also hope young readers gain a sense of how artists approach their work, uniquely expressing what they see and feel to give the rest of us a new perspective on the universe. Alan’s paintings convey a personal vision of outer space in a way that no photograph ever could.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My next picture book is very different from The Astronaut Who Painted the Moon, portraying the connection between Latin jazz and the civil rights movement in 1950s New York City. Back down to earth!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Dean Robbins.

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