Our guest: Adam Rex is a Tucson, Arizona-based author and illustrator. His most recent picture book is School’s First Day of School, which was published by Roaring Brook Press and illustrated by Christian Robinson. Up-coming titles include How this Book Was Made, written by Mac Burnett (Disney-Hyperion), XO, OX: A Love Story, illustrated by Scott Campbell (Roaring Brook) and The Legend of Rock, Paper, Scissors, written by Drew Daywalt (Balzer + Bray).
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.
1. WHAT IS YOUR EARLIEST MEMORY OF CHILDREN’S LITERATURE?
I’m tempted to name some of the earliest books that I know I liked and still clearly remember, like The Monster at the End of This Book and The Bike Lesson. But when I was a college kid I was shopping in a Waldenbooks and saw a book cover that almost knocked me over with nostalgia. It was one of Lilian Hoban’s Arthur books—I’m not sure which one—but the important thing was that this image with its particular composition and shade of pink was like a vibrating string back to my own childhood. And I often think of this episode when people ask me why I make kid’s books. I think about a book which, fifteen years later, could make me feel like I’d woken suddenly from a dream to discover I was still five years old.
2. WITH WHICH CHILDREN’S LITERATURE CHARACTER DO YOU MOST IDENTIFY?
I suppose Bert is technically a children’s literature character? I’ve been thinking lately about how as a child (and a younger brother), I identified strongly with Ernie. But these days I wonder why I can’t be left alone for ten minutes to eat oatmeal and read a book about bottle caps every now and then.
3. WHO IS YOUR FAVORITE CHILDREN’S BOOK AUTHOR? ILLUSTRATOR?
Oh, I don’t know. I want to crib that response from Ex Machina and say that, as I’m not six, I don’t have a favorite. I think kids fixate on favorite foods and animals and authors and these things become like compass points as they move through life. And then they get older and realize that having a favorite animal has resulted in their getting nothing but horse books every birthday and Christmas for six years and their tastes get more complex and inclusive.
Maybe. I’m writing all this down sort of stream of consciousness, so it’s probably wrong. But asking if I like Christian Robinson better than Isabelle Arsenault better than Daniel Adel better than Carson Ellis strikes me a little like asking, What’s better, apples or soup?
4. IF YOU WERE TO THROW A KINDERLIT PARTY FOR FIVE GUESTS, WHO WOULD YOU INVITE?
It’s probably boring that I’m not going to choose any fictional characters, but I can’t seem to divorce myself from the idea that if I ask a fictional character something, then it’s really going to be her creator who answers me. I could invite Dumbledore to my party or I could invite J. K. Rowling (left) and isn’t that sort of the same thing?
I really wish I could have met Maurice Sendak, with the caveat here and for every answer following that I always think the prospect of meeting one’s heroes is kind of a bad idea. I would try not to talk shop and instead ask him about his childhood.
I don’t think Dorothy Parker ever wrote any kid’s books, but I’d nonetheless sit her next to A. A. Milne and see if a fight broke out.
And, finally, I’d invite Crockett Johnson and make sure there were crayons on the table.
5. WHICH QUALITY DO YOU THINK IS MOST IMPORTANT IN GOOD CHILDREN’S LITERATURE?
Giving a damn.
6. IF YOUR OWN WORK HAS A DEFINING CHARACTERISTIC, WHAT WHAT IS IT?
I would really like to say that it’s a gentle, beating heart—something nourishing and warm that you didn’t expect to find hiding at the center of each story.
But everyone else would probably just say “humor.”
7. IF YOU WERE TO DIE AND COME BACK AS A CHARACTER FROM CHILDREN’S LITERATURE, WHO WOULD YOU LIKE IT TO BE?
I wouldn’t mind coming back as a boy wizard. But maybe, like, a homeschooled wizard? Hogwarts was a death trap.
8. IF YOU COULD GO BACK AND REDO ONE THING IN YOUR WORK, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
I’ve made some mistakes in characterization and representation in my novels that I wish I could iron out. It’s hard to have a permanent record of your ignorance available on Amazon for anyone who wants to read it.
9. DESCRIBE YOUR WORK PROCESS.
It isn’t easy to describe. I tell students that they should try to write every day if they want to be writers, or draw every day if they want to be artists. And then I go home and maybe do one but not the other for two months straight.
And I try to alter my methods as much as possible for every book, which means that step five of one book might be to start prepping watercolor paper for oil paintings, but step eight on the book I’m illustrating right now was photographing fruit. Maybe tomorrow I’ll have to make a tiny shirt out of toilet paper for a Sculpey puppet, or repaint a globe of the Earth. I’ll try to break it down:
Writing Picture Books:
- Gaze out over the treetops from my lonely mountaintop tower, searching for the merest hint of a forest fire, wondering if I’ll ever see anything worth reporting, anything at all ever again, and then catch a peripheral glimpse of gray on the blue horizon as I go inside to brew another pot of coffee.
- Sorry, I accidentally wrote the first step for being a forest ranger fire lookout. Instead of for writing picture books. Sorry.
- Try to actually write the picture book text, which has taken me anywhere from a day to twelve years.
- Send the finished text to my agent and listen to his reasonable explanation as to why it isn’t right for the market or ready to be sent to any editors.
- Go out and look at the trees some more.
Illustrating Picture Books:
- Break the manuscript up into sections that seem to belong on the same page or on the same spread. Go back and count sections after I’ve finished and see if I have a 32 page or 40 page or 48 page picture book on my hands.
- Draw out 32 or 40 or 48 tiny rectangles onto a page and start filling them up with crude thumbnail compositions. Erase a lot.
- Flesh those thumbnails out into larger, cleaner sketches. Flesh THOSE sketches out, making little alterations all the while.
- Make a sketchy dummy of the whole book and send it off to my editor. Argue politely about it.
After everyone compromises, feel my way through whatever largely improvised method I’ve cooked up for the final illustrations.
- Like the first step for writing picture books above, but with mostly forest fires and only one tree? I don’t know.
10. TELL US ABOUT A BOOK YOU LOVE, THAT, FOR ONE REASON OR ANOTHER, HAS NOT FOUND A WIDE AUDIENCE.
I think I’m largely ignorant about how other people’s books are doing. But I will say that I think Emily Hughes and John Hendrix (right) ought to be household names. They’re probably doing all right.