The Proust-Esque Questionnaire is based on a set of 36 standardized questions designed by Marcel Proust in the 1890’s to give an overview of the respondent’s personality. Our goals are less lofty, but hopefully will provide some insight into how your favorite authors and illustrators work and what they love.
Our guest: AJ COSMO is the Los Angeles-based author and illustrator of the bestselling e-books The Monster That Ate My Socks and Monsters A to Z. He released his first middle grade novel, Soaked in April; as part of the Look. It’s My Book program, every copy of Soaked sold provides a copy to an underprivileged child. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter.
I don’t know if it’s technically the earliest, but it’s definitely the most distinct. I was given a copy of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff and it was the first book that I read entirely on my own. I adore that book, though it still gives me pause to think in the adult world. Oddly, it’s also the book that my mother doesn’t remember ever giving me…
2. With which children’s literature character do you most identify?
Jonas from The Giver. I’ve always felt a burden of responsibility and a sense of knowing something that others either don’t know or aren’t paying attention to. Both of the character and the book perfectly captured that time in our lives whenever we feel totally alone in the human experience.
3. Who is your favorite children’s book author? Illustrator?
It fluctuates. Currently the winner is Neil Gaiman (left) because he does in single chapters what it takes other authors entire books to do. I was a huge fan of R.L. Stein growing up and now I respect him for the unbelievable work output he had in the nineties. Madeleine L’Engle is eternal as is Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein.
I’m sad to say that I don’t have a favorite illustrator, at least not off the top of my head.
4. If you were throwing a KinderLit dinner party for five guests, who would you invite?
A teacher, a mother, a dad, a little girl, and a young boy. Being around other writers is wonderful and I always enjoy my time at SCBWI meetings (Society of Children’s Book Writer’s and Illustrators). However, the most insightful and valuable discussions I have had on children’s literature have come from the consumers themselves, specifically children. There’s nothing more thrilling (or terrifying) than a school visit.
5. What quality do you think is most important in good children’s literature?
Grit. I think the classics take us as close as emotionally possible to utter desolation and then pull us back, dust us off, and give us a piece of candy.
Children are a lot smarter than most adults give them credit for. Good children’s literature never talks down to the reader and always tells an entertaining story. It’s the reason that many a parent were as eager to read the new Harry Potter book as their child was to listen.
6. If your own work has a defining characteristic, what is it?
Perseverance. My characters don’t give up, even in the face of the worst things that can happen to them. I like to think of it like dragging a person through mud and then hosing them down. The brightest spots always shine through.
7. If you were to die and come back as a character from children’s literature, who would you like it to be?
I chewed over this for a few minutes and came to the conclusion that almost all of the characters in any given story have trouble that I simply don’t want to deal with.
I think Ivan and Ruby from The One and Only Ivan are adorable and I love that book, but their life in hindsight was pretty rough. Same holds true for any of the characters from The Phantom Tollbooth at least before Rhyme and Reason were restored (though I might enjoy being a Doldrum). It would be quiet dangerous to live in Wonderland, or Neverland for that matter, and I’m pretty sure that I would try to unionize my fellow Oompa Loompas if I were working in the chocolate factory.
I guess what I’m trying to say here is that while I love to visit these places, I would never buy a condo there.
8. If you could go back and redo one thing in your own work, what would it be?
The soul of each story is a reflection of the time and place that it was created. It can’t be recaptured. I have learned and grown with each story and now that we are four years into this, and something like 40 stories written and illustrated, I am a far different author/illustrator than I was when I started. But I wouldn’t change a thing about any of them. Some of the stories hit, others didn’t, but each had something to say.
I look at them like crystals. They form as they will and once hardened can never be changed, even if they’re imperfect.
9. What is the greatest piece of advice you were ever given?
My painting professor in college told me that “you build your audience.” I never took it literally until I became a children’s book author.
It then rang true with me when Macklemore said in his song “10,000 Hours“: “The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint, the greats were great because they paint a lot.” These two sentences form one idea: persistence. You build yourself and you build your life a day at a time. The only difference between a success and a failure is that one of them stopped sooner than the other. Perseverance. Just like in the stories I tell.
10. Describe your work process.
Carefully make a plan and then throw it out the window. I work organically, using different techniques for different stories. I think that each story dictates the method of its creation.
Mostly I write directly into Word but this new book I’m working on asked to be written out by hand in a notebook. Some books want to be illustrated first while others need their characters developed way before a story is formed. I think that people that create a formula for writing are handicapping their creativity, unless they are just starting out.
As far as what my week looks like, it usually alternated between writing, illustrating, and marketing. Although most days are a little of everything.