Chapter 16
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Rocking the Cradle

How Melissa Duke Mooney channeled a passion for rock ‘n’ roll into a bold new children’s book

Melissa Duke Mooney loved music—and when she began shopping for an ABC book for her then 4-year-old daughter, Nola, but found nothing that inspired her, she hit on an idea: what if there were an ABC book based on rock ‘n’ roll artists, with famous acts representing each of the twenty-six letters? Being the woman she was—a do-er, a crafter, an instigator of many fun projects—Mooney decided that, since the book didn’t exist, she’d have to create it herself.

The work that resulted, The ABCs of Rock, is an essential addition to the hip kid’s library, as splashy and loud and irrepressible as the artists to whom it pays homage—David Bowie, Nirvana, Iggy Pop, and the Velvet Underground, to name a few. (Parents who grew up on rock ‘n’ roll may dig it even more than their offspring.) The book itself brings to mind an LP record (its trim size is a slightly smaller square), and the pages explode with colorful, gritty screenprints that capture the scruffy vigor of rock ‘n’ roll, drawing on the iconography of the acts represented (Led Zeppelin’s zeppelin, Nirvana’s cheerleaders, Elvis Costello’s signature black frames). The artwork, by Print Mafia (Connie Collingsworth and Jim Madison) of Bowling Green, Kentucky, hews to the photocopier aesthetic of zines and rock-show fliers: the black and white speckles of enlargements, the old-school cut-and-paste collages, the beauty and electricity in imperfection.

Tragically, Melissa Mooney never got to see her vision become reality. She died of meningitis in 2009, at age forty-one. Her husband, Neil Mooney, later decided to see her project to fruition with the help of some close friends. He knew she would have wanted it that way. Neil Mooney graciously answered a few questions about Melissa, and the making of The ABCs of Rock, via email.

Chapter 16: What did music/rock ‘n’ roll mean to Melissa?

Mooney: She was a huge music fan. She listened to music constantly, and it was a big part of her/our lifestyle. We always went to see lots of bands. She was famous for throwing costume parties. Two of the best were a “Come as a Rockstar” karaoke party, and, a few weeks before she died, she had a great party, at Foo Bar, where people came dressed as their favorite record cover. It was one of the best parties I’ve ever been to. The most fun was watching people who just happened to come to the bar that night walk in and see a room full of living record covers. There were some priceless expressions.

Chapter 16: What was the process of choosing the bands for the book like? There must have been some tough decisions.

Mooney: There was lots and lots of brainstorming, as well as combing through the thousands of CDs we have. Luckily, I keep them in alphabetical order. We sat around for weeks, bouncing ideas around. It was very hard to choose which to use for some letters. Others, like W and Z, didn’t have a lot of possibilities. Thanks goodness The White Stripes said yes, or we might have had to use Winger or Wham! Sometimes, it came down to who would agree to be in it. Led Zeppelin was nearly replaced with Lynyrd Skynyrd, but they finally agreed at the eleventh hour. Lots of the choices were some of Melissa’s favorites, like the Go-Go’s, Elvis Costello, and Queen.

Chapter 16: How did she choose Print Mafia to do the illustrations?

Mooney: She’d tried a few other people, but could not get someone with the right feel. Her friend Leigh Ann Johnson mentioned that she knew Connie and Jim from Print Mafia. Leigh Ann showed Melissa some of their work, then made the introductions. Things clicked immediately. It was obvious right away that Print Mafia was the perfect choice for the book.

Chapter 16: Did she take on the task of acquiring permissions from all the artists mentioned in the book? What was that process like?

Mooney: Melissa did begin getting the permissions. It was very slow going. Understandably, most bands’ management companies are geared toward talking to people who are going to make their clients large amounts of money. The book was, by comparison, small potatoes. Therefore, it took a lot of work and persistence to get the time and attention of managers, etc. At the time she died, Melissa only had a handful of agreements.

Chapter 16: What other sorts of projects was she involved with?

Mooney: She had a wide range of creative interests. She sang in a few bands, including one with me called Junebug. She was in a burlesque troupe in L.A. for a while, called The Velvet Hammer. She was always doing some sort of craft project as well, like making sock monsters or doing needlepoint on baby bibs. We talked a lot about following up The ABCs of Rock with other music-related ABC books, such as Country, Jazz, etc.

Chapter 16: There’s a quote from Iggy Pop on the cover: “Have a ball with these ABCs of Rock.” Is there a story behind that?

Mooney: I’m afraid I don’t have the story on the Iggy quote. I think the folks at Tricycle Press may have gotten that done. I was thrilled to see it, though. I am a huge Iggy fan.

Chapter 16: Do your kids listen to the bands in the book? Do they have any favorites?

Mooney: Nola and Tallulah love music. I suppose they had to, since they grew up in a house where it is played constantly. We started them on lots of Dan Zanes and Laurie Birkner when they were little, but played them other stuff like Lucinda Williams, Bob Marley, The Ramones, The White Stripes. They are both huge Raconteurs fans. I used to sit with Nola when she was three and watch Rolling Stones and New York Dolls videos. Super fun. We used to have family dance parties where we’d dress up and dance in the den to their latest faves. Shaggy’s “Oh Carolina” was in heavy rotation for a while, and is still guaranteed to get them on their feet. We’ve been talking about a trip to Graceland lately. I’m a huge Elvis fan and I’m bringing them up to love and respect His Highness. Unfortunately, they’ve discovered Top Forty recently, so they also get some radio time with Rhianna and Katie Perry. At the Mooney house, we mix the sacred and profane, if you will. I have a band called the Red Caps, and they come to see me whenever we play a kid-friendly venue.

Chapter 16: Any they don’t like?

Mooney: They are not too big on metal. It made for a rough few days right after [Ronnie James] Dio died last summer. They heard a lot more “Holy Diver” than they were in the mood for.

Chapter 16: After Melissa passed away, who first took up the idea of continuing to work on the book?

Mooney: I did. It felt very important to me that her dream should come true. I had no idea who her contacts at Tricycle Press were, so I just called up and asked to speak to the person in charge of the project. They were already aware of her death but were excited to hear that I wanted to go forward with it.

Chapter 16: And how far along was it at that point?

Mooney: The list of bands she wanted was complete, but she’d only gotten about five permissions. A good bit of the artwork was done, but there was a lot of back and forth between Tricycle and Print Mafia as images were submitted to Tricycle. Our friend Anissa Mason, a music publicist, did a lot to complete the band approvals, as did Skip Rudsenske, the lawyer who’d drawn up the approvals contract the bands signed. He went above and beyond his original role and was wonderful at nailing down the bands.

Chapter 16: When you look at the book, what do you think about?

Mooney: My favorite thing about the book is that it is tangible evidence of Melissa’s spirit: her love of music, her creativity, and her desire to make the world a more fun place. If a person that didn’t know her were to ask me “What was she like?” I would hand them The ABCs of Rock and they would immediately get a strong sense of her personality. When I look at it, I think of her, and of the good times we had with music. I should mention that the girls’ favorite song right now is “The Kids Are Alright.” And you know what? They both are.