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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Simona Ceccareli and Joyce Lapin

I get the sincere pleasure of interviewing both Simona Ceccarelli and Joyce Lapin about their illustrating/writing and collaboration on their adorable new picture book.

Simona Ceccarelli is a children’s book illustrator. She grew up in Italy, with a passion for both art and science, a large library – which has been expanding out of control ever since – and the urge to open all doors and follow every path. She studied science and worked as a medical research scientist for more than 10 years.

Art eventually lured her back to follow “the road not taken.” She studied illustration and visual development at San Francisco’s Academy of Art University and found her happy place in children’s illustration.

Her main path now is from the coffee machine to my studio, where I find all the adventure, excitement, laughter and emotion I could ever dream – and more. When she’s not drawing, she’s laughing with her kids, planting flowers, riding horses and reading books (not all at the same time). For other information on Simona, see our interviews (here) and (here). And see her Illustrator Saturday interview with Kathy Temean (here).

Simona’s the illustrator of Beasties Love Booties (2020), This Book is Upside Down (2020), If You Had Your Birthday Party on the Moon (2019), One by One/Una a Una (2019), The Dinosaurs Dance (2019), and the SOIC and Friends books (2018-19).

Joyce Lapin has enjoyed reading and learning about other worlds since childhood. A former advertising copywriter, she's happy to have found a kinder, gentler life writing books.

Joyce is originally from Glen Cove (Long Island, NY) and now lives in Simsbury, Connecticut. Her favorite nonfiction readings include biographies and survival stories. For fiction, she loves anything by John Grisham and Elin Hilderbrand.

Joyce’s happy place is the beach. The light of her life are her 10 great-nieces and great-nephews.

She is also the author of If You Had Your Birthday Party on the Moon (2019). Also check out Kathy Temean's wonderful interview of Joyce (here).

Their newest picture book collaboration, The Little Spacecraft That Could: New Horizons’ Amazing Journey to Pluto and Arrokoth, releases May 18th.

Welcome Simona and Joyce,

Tell us a little about how you got started illustrating and writing? Where/when do you work? What is your favorite type of book to illustrate and write?

SIMONA: It’s a trope, but true: I’ve drawn since I can remember. Apart from a few random gigs along the years, I had a completely different life and career until about 8 years ago, when I decided to go to art school and change direction...pretty drastically. I studied visual development for animation but after graduation focused on children’s books illustration instead. I found the combination of storytelling, design, and humor was at the core of my interests and personality.

When I jot down ideas and sketches I can be anywhere and anytime - ideas flash and dash like fireflies and you have to be quick to catch them! When I’m working on final paintings, I’m in my home studio and generally under a pretty rigorous schedule of between 4 and 10 hours per day. That can be very early in the morning or late in the evening, as I love to spend the brightest hours of the day pottering in the garden.

My favorite books to illustrate have a lot of action and humor, different settings, and many characters, both animals and children.

JOYCE: I’ve always been a writer; from the time I was a child. I think it’s because I was a voracious reader. I especially loved reading about animals and astronomy. I remember school teachers telling me to “expand” and read other stuff, but it took a while because I was a stubborn kid!

I’m a lucky lady in terms of where I work. My desk is right next to large windows overlooking the pool in my apartment complex. It feels really zen, and I sometimes can’t believe my good fortune.

I write at my computer for large chunks of time, but I solve many manuscript problems in other places. Early in the morning, while I’m still in bed, is kind of a magical time for me. I’ll be lying there, mentally reviewing a trouble spot, and the way the text should flow suddenly becomes clear. Oh, the value of a fresh mind and fresh eyes! I’ve learned to keep a mini-recorder in my night table drawer for this reason.

Sounds like wonderful places to work. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

SIMONA: It’s not a secret but it still surprises people. I was a research scientist for most of my life: working in chemical and then medical research for more than 15 years.

JOYCE: With respect to my books, I guess a secret would be that I have no formal background in physics, chemistry, or engineering. I have to work very hard on everything STEM-related, and I always check and then double-check with my wonderful science consultants.

That's so interesting! Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?

SIMONA: My childhood was a little unconventional...we didn’t read traditional picture books in my family. My favorite authors were Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan, John Carter of Mars), Michael Ende (Momo, The Never-ending Story, Mirror in the Mirror), Russel Hoban (The Mouse and His Child), Robert E. Howard (Conan). I loved the art of Frank Frazetta, who illustrated the covers of Howard´s and Burroughs‘ books....I drew mostly heroic fantasy back then!

JOYCE: I loved an author by the name of Walter Farley. I even found myself mimicking his style in school writing assignments! This writer had a series of chapter books called The Black Stallion (later made into the feature film). I also loved Heidi, and I read it over and over again!

I loved so many of those books (and then films), too! Joyce, what was your inspiration for The Little Spacecraft that Could? Is the title a nod to The Little Engine that Could?

JOYCE: Absolutely. And thank you for this question! As a kid, I’d read a book called, The Search for Planet X. (At the time, Pluto was often called “Planet X.”) So I grew up with a special fondness for this little world.

As an adult, I enjoy TV documentaries on the planets, and I’d watched a terrific one on the New Horizons mission to Pluto. Shortly after that, I was in Barnes & Noble and saw the book Chasing New Horizons (by Alan Stern, leader of the New Horizons mission, and his colleague, David Grinspoon). Since I had Pluto on the brain, I bought the book and was enthralled with it.

Shortly afterward, I happened across a copy of The Little Engine That Could—and the idea for The Little Spacecraft That Could came into focus.

Seems like serendipity. Simona, what captured your attention or imagination with The Little Spacecraft that Could?

SIMONA: The idea of giving a voice to the probe, New Horizons, is just brilliant. On one side, it was a challenge to give a spacecraft a personality, complete with emotions and body language. On the other hand, it is so powerful to identify with the small vessel, as it tackles its ambitious and long journey of discovery.

You definitely succeeded! I fell in love with that little gal. I mean - look at that face! I assume you both had to do some research for this book. How did the research, writing, and illustrating of The Little Spacecraft that Could compare to writing and illustrating If You Had Your Birthday Party on the Moon?

SIMONA: The premise of The Little Spacecraft that Could is a lot more factual. With If You Had Your Birthday Party on the Moon, I could invent a lot of details: what the rocket looked like, for example, or the children’s spacesuits. “Little Spacecraft” is the story of a real space mission all the technical and scientific information needed to be conveyed accurately in the illustrations.

Some aspects of the visual research were quite challenging: for example, finding out what the interior of the mission control room looks like! Luckily, there is some footage of the team during key moments of the journey and I could freeze the frames to get some views of the control room.

JOYCE: It was much harder to research The Little Spacecraft That Could. There’s just so much to the spacecraft and her journey! The most enjoyable part for me was writing about New Horizons’ discoveries. I loved creating fun, fresh ways to describe Pluto’s amazing features!

At the heart of my research was Alan Stern and David Grinspoon’s book, Chasing New Horizons. (You wouldn’t believe what my copy looks like now, with all my notes, scribbles and post-it stickies!) I also used about another half-dozen books on Pluto, plus numerous articles on Jupiter, gravity, the Kuiper Belt, and more.

I was very lucky to have the support of Prof. Stephen E. Schneider (astronomer at UMass), who was also my science consultant for If You Had Your Birthday Party on the Moon. And once the book was under contract with Sterling, I reached out to Alan Stern himself—and in one of the most validating experiences of my life, Alan jumped right on board, generously answering my questions, fact-checking me, and providing support.

It's so awesome that Alan Stern helped with the project and that the team released actual footage. Simona, many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in The Little Spacecraft that Could? Could you share a few with us? Do you have a favorite Spread?

SIMONA: Every spread of The Little Spacecraft that Could has so much additional information and details besides the main illustration, that there really was no space for a secondary narrative! I enjoyed giving personalities to the Olympian Gods that gave their names to the planets of the solar system.

Text © Joyce Lapin, 2021. Image © Simona Ceccarelli, 2021.

That spread, which shows Jupiter’s gravity-assist is also one of my favorites. I also love how the (imaginary) view from the surface of Pluto turned out, towards the end of the book.

If you think this one looks amazing, wait until you see the surface of Pluto - heck all of the illustrations! Joyce, when you first saw the illustrations for The Little Spacecraft that Could, did any surprise or delight you? Which is your favorite spread?

JOYCE: I was ecstatic when I saw Simona’s illustrations! But I wasn’t at all surprised because I knew she was going to nail it. And yes, I have several favorite spreads!

Text © Joyce Lapin, 2021. Image © Simona Ceccarelli, 2021.

I love the spread on pages 5-6, where the spacecraft is leaving Earth’s atmosphere. She just looks so happy to be on her way to Pluto! I also love pages 14-15, (above) where the spacecraft is getting a speed boost from Jupiter’s gravity. She looks like she’s on some kind of cosmic Disney ride! But my very favorite image has to be the cover. Simona perfectly captured the fun and thrill of New Horizons’ journey to the edge of the solar system.

You both did an amazing job creating a beautiful and informational book. What's something you want your readers to know about The Little Spacecraft that Could?

SIMONA: I was thrilled that Dr. Alan Stern himself, the principal investigator of the New Horizon mission, reviewed the illustrations. It was a tense few days until he gave his approval! [Oh, I can just imagine!]

JOYCE: There was unbelievable drama right before the spacecraft reached Pluto! Ten days before New Horizons’ rendezvous with Pluto, her Earth team suddenly lost contact with the spacecraft. Can you imagine the panic?! After so many years of planning and preparation—and then 10 years and three billion miles of spaceflight—suddenly the whole dream of exploring Pluto was in peril.

It turned out that the spacecraft’s computer had been handling so many tasks that it had “switched authority” to its backup computer. The New Horizons team worked like mad 24/7 and had everything running smoothly in time for the Pluto flyby. [Wow!]

Was it any different creating The Little Spacecraft that Could versus your first book together, If You had Your Birthday Party on the Moon?

SIMONA: While from the same creators, The Little Spacecraft that Could and If You had Your Birthday Party on the Moon are two very different books. Both are creative non-fiction, but If You had Your Birthday Party on the Moon plays with a purely imaginary situation (how would it be to bring all your friends to the moon for a party?) while The Little Spacecraft that Could relates a real mission, and new knowledge about the remote fringes of the solar system. There’s no human characters sharing in the action of the little spacecraft: we identify with the probe itself. That gives the two books a very different mood.

JOYCE: Simona and I developed a wonderful relationship creating the Moon book—so it was very reassuring to have my partner in place for the Spacecraft book. I live in Connecticut and Simona is in Switzerland, so there’s a big time difference. But it doesn’t seem to matter because Simona seems to never sleep! (Hey, get some more Z’s, Swiss Miss!)

I hope you two get to create another book together! Are there any projects each of you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

SIMONA: : Several books I’ve worked on last year are coming out in the next months: the hilarious series School of Talents by Silke Schellhammer, with Carlsen Verlag(4/29), My Room is a Zoo by Jerry Ruff with Amicus Publishing (8/10), Fuchsland—a very atmospheric midgrade fantasy by Katja Frixe with Dressler Verlag, and a couple more.

Right now, I’m working on several midgrade titles, including the much anticipated second volume of “Willow,” and on a wonderfully poetic picture book by Sabine Bohlmann.

Finding the time to work on my own book dummy is proving quite difficult right now!

JOYCE: I do have something, but it has to stay in the vault until my agent responds to it. 😊

Well, we'll be keeping our eyes and ears open for these books and all future news. I wishyou both great luck with these endeavors! How are you both been staying, or trying to stay, creative over this past year? Anything in particular that you’ve found to be helpful?

SIMONA: We moved….While it was something we wanted since a while, the home-office and home-schooling arrangement definitely was the final trigger. With a much bigger house, I now finally have my own studio (with a door!) and the garden has become my new hobby and a wonderful place to relax and refuel.

JOYCE: What an interesting question! The extra time at home has definitely helped me progress with manuscripts. And the additional reading I’ve been doing has been really stimulating. As many people will attest, this past year would’ve been a lot tougher without books!

So glad you both found a little silver lining in this crazy, mixed-up year! Last question, what is your favorite animal? (Or an animal you’re currently enamored with) Why?

SIMONA: The octopus - still and always. A very clever animals with strong survival skills...and I would love to have nine brains and eight arms...

JOYCE: That would have to be dogs. When I pet a dog, I swear I feel the endorphins flowing!

Thank you, Simona and Joyce for stopping by and sharing with us. It was delightful to chat with you both.

Be sure to come back on Friday for the sneak peek Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on the The Little Spacecraft that Could: New Horizons’ Amazing Journey to Pluto and Arrokoth.

To find out more about Simona Ceccarelli, or get in touch with her:

To find out more about Joyce Lapin, or get in touch with her:

Check out New Horizons "acting" debut in her book's trailer (here).


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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