Adam Rex is the author and illustrator of children’s books, which include the New York Times best-selling Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich and Moonday. He has also illustrated books by other authors, most notably, Neil Gaiman’s Chu’s Day and the Mac Barnett titles Chloe and the Lion and Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem. Additionally, Adam has written a trilogy of middle school-age novels, the Cold Cereal Saga, and his first children’s novel, The True Meaning of Smekday, is being adapted into a DreamWorks animated film, HOME, due in theaters this March.
Adam is known for his painterly style and his often irreverent sense of humor. However, beneath the humor lies his heart, which is evident in his captivating writing and rich illustrations. In person, he is deadpan funny, charmingly self-deprecating, and warm in his praise of authors and illustrators whom he admires. He was extraordinarily generous in sharing his time with us for this interview.
You have stated that the very best of picture books are ageless. They don’t have an expiration date. We agree that there is no reason why an older child or an adult can’t buy and enjoy picture books.
I don’t know how anybody could argue that a genuinely good story, even if it’s a short story, told visually, is something that you’re supposed to outgrow. We don’t outgrow fables. We certainly don’t outgrow jokes; those are short, fun stories that we enjoy telling each other. Why not enjoy a short fun story, in book form, with a lot of pictures?
There’s such a drive among certain parents to get their kids to graduate away from picture books, which is intensely frustrating to me. I would much rather parents say, “Try these books that are more challenging, and also let’s get these picture books.” Because having a well-developed sense of visual literacy is important too. Also, not every book needs to be testing your lexus level. Books are supposed to be enjoyed, and if I’m forty years old and I have over three hundred picture books at home then . . .
It shouldn’t have to be art for children, writing for children.
Yeah, if it’s a good story, it’s a good story. If it’s good art, it’s good art.
I absolutely do think that a children’s picture book is a success when the writing and the illustration are working in concert and can’t really exist without each other.
Generally, the worst thing you can possibly do -- unless you are doing it for a particular effect -- is have the text read: “They sat down and ate breakfast” with an illustration of them sitting down and eating breakfast. Hopefully, the illustrations are telling you something new that the text isn’t, or they’re even working in counterpoint, so that something very unexpected is happening.
Often, the first thing an editor will do when she gets a picture book manuscript is to remove all directions to the illustrator, if absolutely possible. But sometimes a little bit is necessary. If the author intends a counterpoint, as in Billy Twitters and his Blue Whale Problem, by Mac Barnett, where the manuscript merely said, “There is no way that Mom is letting me take that blue whale to school.” The next spread after that absolutely needed to be Billy pulling his whale behind his bicycle on the way to school.
That was a forgivable bit of blocking with just a little parenthetical notation that said: “Billy is on the next page pulling the blue whale to school.” I probably would have figured that out on my own, because the next bit of text was, “At school, I try to hide my blue whale but Mr. Wilson sees him anyway.” I probably would have put the two together. So in a case like that, it doesn’t bother me, that kind of blocking.
I do like being able to add something that isn’t actually in the original text whenever possible. In the first book I did with Neil Gaiman, Chu’s Day, I included a snail that you can follow throughout most of the book, just for my own amusement. It was kind of an homage to Lowly from the Richard Scarry books, where you can find him in every illustration.
And clearly no one told you to do that.
No, there was nothing in [the manuscript] about that. I was pleased to see that in the manuscript for the second book, Neil actually gave that snail a name and made him a speaking character. So I made the writer write something. Which is always a nice feeling.
You’ve commented that you’d like to do more writing. And you’ve said that it is a little more uncharted territory. Though not entirely now, as you’re a published author.
The writing is definitely more of a tightrope walk for me than the illustration. I would hate to ever say that I’m good enough at illustration that I don’t worry about it anymore; I do have this confidence that with any illustration, I’m going to have something that I’m satisfied with at the end.
But I don’t know if that’s going to happen when I sit down to write. So that risk of flaming death -- that makes it more interesting. I’ve also written a few picture book manuscripts that I’d like eventually to see published, with somebody else’s illustrations.
During a Tucson Festival of Books event, we heard you mention a possible future book about a school’s first day with children instead of a child’s first day of school. Did you ever do anything with that?
That’s the one I just sold to Roaring Brook Press. It actually came out of a joke. I was at a children’s book creator party up in Portland. We were talking about projects we were working on and people started joking about all the bad picture books out there, like the cliché where the kid is nervous about his first day of school. But guess what? School is fun! When it came around to me, I said, “I’m working on that book right now. Neil Gaiman wrote that book and I’m illustrating it. And it’s going to be called Chu’s First Day of School. Then I leaned over to Mac Barnett and said, “A school is nervous about his first day of children.” And we laughed and I thought nothing more about until the next morning when my agent and I were talking and I told him about this funny joke and he said, “You’re going to write that.” Really? Then I thought yeah, maybe I am going to write that. So I ended up writing something I really like.
In a case like that, do you have any control over who the illustrator would be?
I think I have a little more say than the average writer, which is to say that the average writer has almost none. The typical M.O. is that the editor or art director chooses somebody and politely runs that name by the author, but at that point they’ve pretty much made the decision, regardless of what the author says.
And you like your illustrator?
Oh, I love him. His name is Christian Robinson. I love his work. And I love that his work doesn’t look anything like mine. My thoughts for that book were definitely more simplistic, less painterly. I can say I would not have done it this way and if I’d tried to do it this way, I wouldn’t have done it as well. It’s a good reason to have somebody else illustrate something. I wouldn’t do as good a job at making Christian Robinson, as Christian Robinson. To this day I haven’t seen an illustration of his that I haven’t been completely delighted by.
We had read that you’d like to illustrate for a few authors who currently write for adults, but that if they could ever be persuaded to step off that ledge and write for children . . .
There’s definitely a short list of authors that I would drop everything to do work for and Neil Gaiman was one of those, because I am a longtime fan. David Sedaris would be one of those people, and Sarah Vowell. If someone reads this blog and gives me a shout-out, I’m ready.
What is your typical production rate for creating your books?
Lately, I’ve been doing about one novel and one picture book a year. But according to everyone I was talking to at the Texas Book Festival, I am really fast and really prolific. It just made me think that maybe I’m doing too much work. I don’t know if what they were saying was just code for “Man, slow down. Your quality is suffering.”
Right. Quit flinging those books out on the unsuspecting public.
Writing picture books can be unpredictable. I know some picture book authors don’t like me to say this, but I’ve written some picture books in an afternoon. It just came out, almost exactly right the first time. It still needed editing later, but the thing’s only five hundred words to begin with. And then I’ve had other picture books that I’ve worked on, off and on, for fifteen years.
Like with Moonday?
Yes, and the first draft of it bears almost no resemblance to what was published several months ago, apart from the fact that a little girl found a moon in her backyard. In the original draft, she then met the Man in the Moon and he had parked the moon in her backyard because he didn’t want to drive it around anymore. He had job dissatisfaction, so he just wanted to hang out at her house and watch TV and eat butterscotch. And then all of the other anthropomorphic personifications of forces of nature, like Father Time and Mother Nature, came looking for him.
That was the original draft. If people read Moonday now, they will find none of that. Because, as embarrassing as it is to admit, this book started out as a dream. I had a dream back in 1999 and the moon was in my backyard, and I climbed up on it and I explored it. The dream made me feel a certain way, so I spent the next thirteen years trying to write a book that felt like the dream. And that early bit of slapstick, with all the crazy characters, had nothing to do with that theme, so that’s why I eventually ditched those and ended up with something a little more dreamlike, a little more lyrical, a little more contemplative and a departure from Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich and Chloe and the Lion.
Several of your books have main characters that are girls. Do you choose to do that intentionally or does it evolve from the kind of story it is? Do you write differently for a girl versus a boy main character? Does it cross your mind at all?
It crosses my mind, but usually just afterwards, second-guessing. I think it strikes me very early. I do seem to have a tendency to make my protagonists girls, although the main character of my trilogy, Cold Cereal Saga, is a boy.
But The True Meaning of Smekday has a girl protagonist, Moonday has a girl, Pssst! has a girl. When I was thirteen years old and they adopted my little sister, I watched her grow up, so maybe every girl character is my sister. I tend to make my passive characters boys, because that’s the kind of boy I was. And my more assertive characters are girls because assertive girls are awesome and I think assertive boys can be mistaken for bullies. Making the assertive character a girl makes her read as the good kind of assertive. I try to go back and forth.
I hope I’ll just do what the story calls for, but I think only expensive psychoanalysis could really get to the root of why I choose one or the other.
And we can do that. That’s within our power.
It couldn’t hurt.
Outside of book reviews, what else would be of interest to an author/illustrator such as yourself?
One thing that pops into my mind is, it would be nice to contact notable creators and ask them why they like a particular book that isn’t their own book. Get Mac Barnett to tell you his favorite picture book. One thing that gets us motivated is being able to recommend things and get you to like the things that we like.
That’s exactly what we hope to do with this blog.
The same people who may be weary promoting themselves might get excited when they can tell you, “Oh, you’ve got to read this James Marshall book, The Stupids Die.’’ That is one of Jon Scieszka’s favorites, and he tells people that at almost every opportunity.
What is yours?
The Monster at the End of the Book was important to me as a kid. It was way ahead of its time, a licensed Sesame Street product, but it was this amazing little picture book. It starred lovable furry old Grover. Grover notices on the title page, “What? There’s a monster at the end of this book! I’m afraid of monsters.” Then, “Please let’s put this book down. Did you not understand me? There’s a monster at the end of this book.” And Grover resorts to tying pages together, eventually bricking up an entire spread.
And that spread was the most important to me because after you turn the page, lying at the bottom of a pile of rubble is Grover, saying in a weak little voice, “Did you know that you are very strong?” This was in the ‘70s and this was the book that I feel informed Mo Willem's Pigeon books and Jon Sciezcka’s post-modern fairy tales. There was really nothing like it at its time, and it is still in print.
Do you still have your original copy?
No, but I did find a nicely beaten up copy at a thrift store that I could pretend was my original. It even had some crayon drawing in it here and there. To have a pristine copy of that would seem wrong.
Are any of your books at this point available as eBooks?
All of my novels, I think. I don’t think any of my picture books are available as an eBook.
Would you have a problem with that? Or are you open to any format?
I love what happened at the Texas Book Festival. When I was up on stage with Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett and they got this question -- it comes to us a lot -- in basically this form: “What do you think about technology?”
And Mac Barnett said, “Paper is technology.” And it is.
A lot of us, when this first started happening, we panicked a little bit. But we realized, we just want readers. Why quibble over the format in which they read our book? There are always worries about piracy with eBooks. But as somebody else said — I’m just going to try make the whole rest of the interview other people’s quotes from now on! “For most authors the issue isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity.”
I would rather have a million readers who didn’t pay anything for my book, than a million dollars and no readers at all. What I would love is a million readers and dollars. But if I had to choose, I would rather have the readers. I would get a part-time job at an art supply store and I would keep writing things in the evenings and I would be very famous and poor and that would be fine.
With the technology out there now for eBooks, do you ever consider, when you’re creating a picture book, that some aspect of it would translate well to an eBook or make it more difficult?
I’ve never given a thought to that. One thing I want people to do with picture book eBooks . . . and to quote Irene Gallo of Tor.com -- See? I said I was going to make the rest of this interview quotes. I’m not terribly smart myself, so I rely on the intelligence of others. She said, “People don’t read books because there isn’t enough television to watch. So let’s let books be books.”
Just because you can add flash animation and bells and whistles -- even literal bells and whistles -- to the story, doesn’t mean that you should. People aren’t reading a book, wishing “Man, I wish this could be just a little bit more like TV.”
What do you think about board books?
I think it’s aimed at giving kids this chubby book that they can turn pages at their own pace. You can leave them alone with it. My little nephew, who is almost one, has already ripped the corner of one of my books, not on purpose, but because there is no fine tuning at that age. I just hope I don’t ever get so precious with my picture books that I won’t let a kid ruin it.
As you said, you don’t want a pristine copy that would suggest that it hadn’t been read over and over again, slept with . . .
Yeah, it’s weird, when parents apologize to me for how ratty some book of mine is, when they present it to me to sign. I’m like, “Wow, this is great.”
We want this blog to feature creative folks, like you, who are producing amazing work in this field, pointing to work that we admire or find inspirational.
I respect the decision to only give positive reviews, but I go both ways. In The Picture Book Proclamation that Mac Barnett drew up, it says we need more robust criticism of children’s books in order to make good children’s books. But there can be robust criticism of books that you like. There can be, “This is why a book is good and this is why we think it is art.” The vast majority of children’s book reviews — and book reviews in general -- consist of a synopsis of what the book is about, with a tag line of: “Children nine to twelve will love this wacky imaginative tale.” That’s not a review. You might as well just print whatever is on the book cover flap.
You are particularly gifted at using humor to touch on significant childhood issues without knocking them over the head, but still getting the idea across.
My instinct is definitely to downplay things, sometimes to my detriment. I think I can downplay things so much that people end up not connecting to the story. Sometimes that knock-over-the-head approach is exactly what’s called for. I feel that’s the way I’ll grow as an author. I’ll stop being afraid to just go for the tearjerker, if it’s appropriate.
I think I have to make my peace with the fact that all fiction is manipulation. It’s not a bad thing to be brazen about that and go right for the heart strings rather than my usual M.O.: to just knock gently on the door and ask if maybe today you would like to feel something deep and emotional about my characters, but if not, I’m sorry to have taken up your time. Let me just leave a pamphlet and I’ll get out of your hair.
GALLERY OF BOOKS
(a selection of Adam's books)
All images used with permission from Adam Rex.
Read the second part of our interview:
Adam Rex: Part 2