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Originally published Friday, February 26, 2010 at 7:02 PM

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Kids' books: Author, illustrator Brian Floca's career has him over the moon

Brian Floca, author and illustrator of "Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11," talks about his books and career.

Scripps Howard News Service

Brian Floca's career in children's books began with a lucky break.

In 1991, Floca was a student at Brown University in Providence, R.I., and also taking sclasses at the nearby Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). At RISD, Caldecott Medalist David Macaulay, one of Floca's teachers, connected him with Avi, the children's-book author who needed an illustrator for the book he was working on — a new kind of "comic-book novel."

The result of Floca's work with Avi, who goes by the one name, was "City of Light, City of Dark," published in 1993 as one of the first serious graphic novels for children. Since then, Floca has illustrated more than two-dozen books for Avi and other writers. He's also written and illustrated a half-dozen books of his own, including "The Racecar Alphabet" and "Dinosaurs at the Ends of the Earth."

In 2008, Floca's book, "Lightship,"won a Sibert Honor as one of the best informational books for children that year. (The Robert F. Sibert Medal is awarded annually by the American Library Association to the best nonfiction kids' books; several honor books also are usually chosen).

This year, Floca won another Sibert Honor for his book, "Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11" (Atheneum, $17.99), which also was chosen by The New York Times as one of the best children's books of 2009.

Floca still marvels at the trajectory his career has taken. At a recent talk with the Children's Book Guild of Washington, D.C., Floca noted that "I didn't even know that what I was doing was creating 'informational books for children' " until 2008, when he won his first Sibert Honor.

Floca's nonfiction books use the picture-book format, but their blend of information and illustrations actually works best for kids ages 7-10. In creating his own books, Floca says that he focuses on subjects in which he's always been interested — subjects like race cars, dinosaurs, trucks and, especially, astronauts.

Floca actually created his first book about an Apollo mission nearly a decade ago. The book was never published, however, as Floca found that his initial effort to write about the subject was overloaded with information. So he put it aside, and worked on other projects.

A few years ago, Floca decided to try again.

"It ended up being an interesting way to do a nonfiction book — read as much as you can, wait five years, and the things you remember will be the key parts of your book."

While creating "Moonshot" was a labor of love, it wasn't easy. There were multiple drafts of both the text and the illustrations, and Floca went through dozens of designs for the cover. (Those interested in finding out more about the book's backstory can check out Floca's notes on his Web site, http://brianfloca.com/MoonshotNotes.html).

In "Moonshot," Floca perfectly captures the awesome nature of the Apollo 11 flight, both to the astronauts who were on it, and those who were watching them far below. In fact, Floca is particularly proud of his decision to include illustrations of a family following the mission.

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"They're never really mentioned in the text, but they help humanize the story," he said.

Born in Temple, Texas, Floca says he's been drawing "for as long as I can remember." His debut as a published illustrator may have come in the fourth grade. That's when his teacher, Mrs. Persons, included his drawings of scenes from "Star Wars" on the class's mimeographed lesson plans, even though, as Floca says, "I'm pretty sure the Death Star had nothing to do with what we were studying that week."

At Brown, Floca studied art, history and art history, and cartooned for the school newspaper. Floca later earned a master's from the School of Visual Arts.

Today, Floca calls himself "a picture-book guy," saying that he loves "visual storytelling." He's just finished illustrating "A Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring," a book written by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan. His own next children's-book project will focus on steam locomotives.

"I like the idea that I'm making books that kids will read ...," Floca said. "... But mostly what I like about making children's books and picture books in particular is that they give me the chance to find something that interests me ... to really try to figure it out, and then try to find a pleasing way to put together a story about it in words and images," Floca said.

"It's like making a movie. A very small movie, but I get to be screenwriter, director and director of photography, and I enjoy all those roles."

Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at Kam.Macpherson@gmail.com.

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