Author Dean Robbins likes to write about his heroes — be they spunky civil rights leaders or virtually unknown software coders.
His latest book, “The Astronaut Who Painted the Moon: The True Story of Alan Bean,” does just that by telling the story of Alan Bean, who was the fourth person to walk on the moon as part of the Apollo 12 mission in 1969. It is illustrated by Sean Rubin and interestingly marries the subjects of science and art while also explaining to young children the significance of one man’s journey to the moon and his life after.
“I grew up loving astronauts,” Robbins said, describing his childhood in the “heyday” of the Apollo missions. “As a little kid, I stayed up till the middle of the night to watch the first moon landing. Astronauts were my heroes.”
Q: How would you describe “The Astronaut Who Painted the Moon: The True Story of Alan Bean?”
A: It’s about Alan Bean, who was the fourth person to walk on the moon with the Apollo 12 mission. He also was the only visual artist ever to go into outer space. This book is about his obsession with flying super-fast spaceships and learning to express himself as a visual artist.
Q: Some readers might have never heard of Alan Bean. What is his background?
A: As a child, Bean loved everything about airplanes. He would beg his parents to take him to the airport just to watch planes take off and land. At the same time, he also loved thinking about the way things looked, devoting himself to making perfect model airplanes that he hung from the ceiling in his bedroom. It’s no surprise that he grew up and learned how to fly the most exciting experimental planes of the era. At the same time, he took his first art classes and threw himself into learning how to draw and paint. When he became an astronaut, he was able to look at outer space with an artist’s eye. He got back to Earth and provided a human perspective on the moon in his paintings — something you can’t find in photographs of that gloomy, black and white, barren place. His paintings expressed the wonder of walking on a new world.
Q: I read that Bean wanted to depict the moon in color.
A: While the moon is monochromatic, Bean’s paintings are filled with color. He didn’t necessarily believe in painting things realistically, but in using color expressively to show how he felt about being in outer space. He loved Claude Monet and knew that if Monet painted things exactly the way they looked, we wouldn’t care about him.
Q: Your children’s books seem to follow a theme: The first two focus on minority rights and the second two more on science. They all tell stories of a lesser known people in history. How do you pick the topics and subjects for your books?
A: They’re always heroes of mine: historical figures who inspire me. They’re extraordinary people who’ve beaten the odds to do something amazing to change the world. In “Two Friends,” Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass are oppressed people who refuse to be dominated. In “Miss Paul and the President,” Alice Paul uses her ingenuity to convince President Woodrow Wilson to support women’s right to vote.
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Q: For your last two books, “Margaret and the Moon: How Margaret Hamilton Saved the First Lunar Landing” and “The Astronaut Who Painted the Moon” you interviewed Hamilton and Bean. What was that like?
A: For the book on Alan Bean, I wrote a first draft and wondered if Bean would be willing to collaborate. I was incredibly shy about doing that because Alan was my childhood hero. I was shocked when he wrote back and said he would be happy to read over my manuscript and provide images that we could use in the back of the book. I realized that, with his books and the paintings, he’d always been interested in sharing his experience of outer space. Now he had a chance to do that with an audience he’d never reached before, elementary school kids.
Q: I was sad to see that Bean died suddenly last year.
A: I was heartbroken that he died before having a chance to see the finished book. However, he did get a chance to see the final manuscript. In one of his last emails to me, he wrote in all caps, “HELLO DEAN, THIS IS BEAUTIFULLY WRITTEN. ALAN.” I’ll always cherish that.
Q: Was it a similar process interviewing software engineer Margaret Hamilton?
A: I had a draft telling the story of Hamilton’s little-known role in writing the code that helped NASA get to the moon. I was interested in collaborating with her but didn’t know how to get in touch with her, or even if she was still alive. It turned out that, in her 80s, she was still running her own software company. She was excited about having a book about herself that she could read to her grandkids. She provided all sorts of technical details about her work in our interviews, and at one point I asked her if she could explain her coding in a way a third grader could understand. She thought about it for a minute and said “No” —she understandably wasn’t used to thinking about her work that way. I thought, OK, that’s my job.
Q: You spent many years at the Isthmus as the arts editor and then as the paper’s editor-in-chief. You are now co-editor of On Wisconsin (UW-Madison’s alumni magazine) in addition to writing your own books. When did you know you wanted to transition, at least in part, to children’s literature? Is it what you expected? Deadlines are certainly different.
A: I’ve always had heroes, like Jackie Robinson and Susan B. Anthony. I had their pictures up on my wall starting in elementary school. I took trips to visit places they lived when I got older. I just love walking in their footsteps. About 10 years ago, I thought how fun it would be to get kids as interested as I am in these historic figures. So I threw myself into writing nonfiction children’s book manuscripts. To me, writing a story about my heroes is a way to get closer to them. Then there’s the bonus of going to schools and doing presentations. Watching kids’ faces light up with curiosity and awe is a sublime feeling.
Q: One of the reviews on your website talks about how the book on Alan Bean combines art and science — a concept being widely used in elementary schools as part of a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) curriculum. Was it your hope when you wrote the book to show the parallels of science and art, or just a happy coincidence?
A: I’ve always loved the arts — that is my background. Part of the reason I wanted to write the book is to exalt the role of an artist. Science got astronauts to the moon, but it took an artist to express what it felt like to be up there — to provide images that people could relate to. I think the book shows the unique role of an artist in expressing a perspective on an experience — in this case, the incredible experience of leaving Earth behind for a strange new world.
Q: What can you tell us about “Mambo Mucho Mambo!: How Latin Jazz Brought a City Together” due out next year?
A: It’s about the intersection of civil rights and Latin jazz in New York City in the 1950s. It was a very segregated time, but a club called the Palladium opened its dance floor to people of all kinds: African Americans, Jews, Puerto Ricans, Italians. At the Palladium they could all come together and dance to mambo music. This became a forerunner of the civil rights movement. The book centers on an Italian woman and a Puerto Rican man who met at the Palladium and became a world-famous mambo team.