Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Aaron Zenz

h1 July 30th, 2013 by jules

Today, I’m having breakfast with author/illustrator Aaron Zenz, whose work is very much geared at toddlers and preschoolers. And this, I think, is something I don’t do enough here at 7-Imp — invite to the breakfast table, that is, those whose work is geared specifically at the crowd of very, very young, wee ones.

This isn’t Aaron’s first visit to 7-Imp. His bright, slapstick illustrations for The Hiccupotamus are featured in this older post (2009). As you’ll read below, that was Aaron’s debut title, and it’d be perfect for a preschool read-aloud or for the very youngest of listeners, filled with spot-on rhymes as it is, all hyper-outrageous and fun. His colorful, uncluttered colored pencil illustrations are gentle and full of cheer. As I’ve written before, your lap-sitters will take in these images with big, happy eyes. “Breezy” is a descriptor Kirkus has used to describe his art.

Aaron also visited here in 2011, showing some art from his newest title then, Chuckling Ducklings (which Betsy Bird also covered the same year).

And, as those of you who regularly read blogs probably know, his family’s book review blog, Bookie Wookie, is one of the greatest treasures of the so-called kidlitosphere.

Aaron’s having cereal with me this morning, since he describes himself as a cereal man. “I eat cereal all day long,” he said. “Breakfast. Lunch. Snacks. Our family sits down all together every day for a big dinner, but outside of that meal, I tend to eat cereal, cereal, cereal. And in particular, I have to have cereal for breakfast. If I eat something else instead—a doughnut or a bagel or pancakes—I’ll feel off for the rest of the day.”

Cereal it is—I’ll set out my most colorful cereal bowls for his visit—and I’ll get out some coffee for myself.

I thank Aaron for visiting. Let’s get right to it.

* * * * * * *

Jules: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Aaron: Happily doing both!

Illustrations and cover from Chuckling Ducklings (Walker Childrens, 2011)

Jules: Can you list your books-to-date?

Aaron: Authored and illustrated:


A sneak-peek at Orangutangled: Sketches and final art
(Click first image to enlarge)

Jules: What is your usual medium?

Aaron: Sometimes I create artwork digitally and sometimes with colored pencil. I’ll turn to the computer on a project for various reasons –- subject matter (for a book about mechanical objects, like cars), tight deadline (speed!), or simply for a change of pace (variety).

But my great LOVE is Prismacolor colored pencils. I started using them as a young kid –- it was a natural progression, stepping up from crayons. But being self-taught, I didn’t know anything about how you are “supposed” to make use of colored pencils, so I abused and battered the medium until I got results I liked. I developed a system of pressing really hard, getting solid coverage, not allowing any grain of the paper to show through. I go through hundreds of pencils on any given project and bust tons of pencil tips.

When people see my artwork now, they are usually shocked to find out they are looking at colored pencil. I don’t mix media -– it’s all just pencil lead.

Jules: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Aaron: I stomp the ground in West Michigan, minutes away from beautiful beaches, parks, and trails through rolling woods.

Spreads and cover from Steve Metzger’s
Skeleton Meets the Mummy (Cartwheel Books, 2011)

Jules: Can you tell me about your road to publication?

Aaron: I left a full-time, regular paying job in 2003 to go work for a tiny publishing company that a few friends were trying to get off the ground. These were wonderful, surreal, dream years. Just four guys, tucked away in the corner of a dusty, abandoned warehouse. One guy only had an old, propped-up door that he used for a desk. We were creating coloring books, sticker books, and activity books and were getting into really big-name stores. The ultimate goal was to eventually break into higher-end publishing, so they asked me if I’d be willing to create the company’s first picture book. Let me think about that… Um, YES.

“There was a hippopotamus / Who hiccupped quite-a-lotamus /
And every time he got’emus . . . He’d fall upon his bottomus.”

Spreads and cover from The Hiccupotamus (Marshall Cavendish, 2011)

So, my book The Hiccupotamus was born. The company only lasted a few years. And when it ended, I was left with two things: 1) unemployment and 2) the greatest portfolio piece possible: a published, successfully-selling picture book.

The same week the company officially ended, I got a reply from an art rep I’d contacted, and my rep has been feeding me a slow steady stream of picture book work ever since. Quite often, our family doesn’t know how we are going to pay bills at the end of the month. But after seven years of freelance work, the Lord has provided exactly what we need, exactly when we need it, every single time. 84 months of miracles.

Jules: Can you please point readers to your web site and/or blog?

Aaron: My personal website:; my portfolio:; our family’s book review blog:

Jules: If you do school visits, tell me what they’re like.

Aaron: I LOOOOOOVE doing school visits. It’s just as fun for me as making books themselves –- or perhaps even more so. I do author visits all around Michigan schools and libraries and even venture into other states from time to time. My programs are very interactive -– the students and I draw together, write poems together, laugh together. Puppets make surprise visits. I dump water on myself. I walk everyone through the writing and illustrating process and even show off original artwork. It’s a ton of fun.

7-Imp: If you teach illustration, by chance, tell me how that influences your work as an illustrator.

Aaron: I have taught art at multiple levels –- to elementary kids, high schoolers, college classes, even one-on-one lessons with local homeschool kids. Because I was self-taught, a lot of the art-making I do just seems to come out naturally. Teaching helps me to think through what I’m doing. It forces me to articulate why I’m doing it. It makes me process how two-dimensional illusions work the way they do.

In addition to formal teaching, I do a lot of casual drawing with my six kids. We bounce lots of ideas off each other. We create fan art for other people’s books together. My studio space is lined with their artwork. We do art projects together, like painting faces on rocks and sticks and scattering them around the community. I’m always very inspired by my kids’ creativity.

Family projects

Jules: Any new titles/projects you might be working on now that you can tell me about?

Aaron: I have three sequels that have just come out. The first one is called The Chimpansneeze and is a companion to The Hiccupotamus. It stars a Chimp and a Kinkajou, but lots of familiar faces from the first book show up, too. When I illustrated the first book in 2005, I put about 16 weeks worth of work into just the final art. The way schedules fell this time around, the new publisher only left me FIFTEEN DAYS to do the final art for the sequel. It was a crazy three weeks. But I hit the deadline!

“A chimpanzee and a kinkajou took a walk one day through the wild.
The kinkajou spotted buttercups, so he plucked them up and smiled.”

“The accident made him somersault, and a yellow fount was squeezed.
Now he’s HIPPOPOTAMUSTARD-topped … all because of the CHIMPANSNEEZE.”

Sketches, final art, and cover from The Chimpansneeze (Scholastic, 2012)

The other two sequels tie in with my book Chuckling Ducklings. That book took a look at lots of different baby animal names -– familiar ones, like Puppy, Kitten, and Bunny, as well as unfamiliar ones like Pinky, Cria, and Puggle. The two new books highlight the little critters’ moms and dads. I Love Ewe takes a romp through the names of mommy animals (think: Doe, Mare, and Hen), and Hug a Bull features daddy animal names (think: Boar, Ram, and Gander). Both books are full of puns and fun wordplay.

Exploratory thumbnails for the books
(Click to enlarge)

Illustrations and cover from I Love Ewe (Walker Children’s, March 2013)

Sketch, illustrations, and cover from Hug a Bull (Walker Children’s, April 2013)

Mmm. Coffee.Okay, we’ve got our cereal and coffee, and it’s time to get a bit more detailed with seven questions over breakfast. I thank Aaron again for visiting 7-Imp.

1. Jules: What exactly is your process when you are illustrating a book? You can start wherever you’d like when answering: getting initial ideas, starting to illustrate, or even what it’s like under deadline, etc. Do you outline a great deal of the book before you illustrate or just let your muse lead you on and see where you end up?

Aaron: My first step when illustrating is to determine what style the final art will take. I don’t strap myself down to one particular look or method, because I like to let the story determine where the art will go. I am a firm believer that “form follows function.” So, I first look at the needs of the story and let the art follow. How much detail does the action call for? How much emotion will need to be portrayed? Is it a natural/organic setting or mechanical/architectural? Do we need backgrounds at all? Is anyone wearing clothes?

If anyone is interested in learning more about this, I went into a lot of detail here.

Next, I spend a couple of days wrapping my head around the subject matter. Is it a book about a Bichon Frisé puppy? I’ll spend three days at the library with a stack of 25 reference books, sketching Bichon Frisé puppies. Is it a book about orangutans? I’ll spend days Google-image-searching orangutans, analyzing how God put them together, how I can simplify the forms, marveling at the amazing ways they stretch and fold as they lounge or swing.

(Click to enlarge)

I’ll take all those doodles and try to craft actual characters with personalities next. Sometimes I’ll work up full model sheets. If there is any kind of world-development that needs to go on, I’ll do that now, too. This is actually my favorite part of the whole process. I love bringing characters to life. I love developing the worlds they’ll inhabit. I love dreaming and designing and experimenting and crafting. This feels like pure Creation to me. After this stage, when I have to launch into specific, individual pictures, then it starts to become work. Fun work, of course. But it’s the early process of birthing a brand new personality into a freshly-imagined world that satisfies something deep inside me.

Once the elements are realized, I’ll thumbnail out the story. Usually this is very lax. I don’t divide a sheet of paper up into 32 rigid squares. Rather, I’ll play around with tiny, little, potential compositions scattered across multiple sheets of loose paper shuffling around everywhere.

Pictured above: Thumbnails, model, and sketches for Steve Metzger’s
Skeleton Meets the Mummy (Cartwheel Books, 2011)

Sketching the spreads comes next. I always draw old-school with pencil and paper and lots of erasing. After the drawings are done, I’ll scan and manipulate them on the computer. Digitally I cut, bump, stretch, and re-work the elements of the drawing to achieve the strongest compositions possible.

Once everything is approved, I can launch into final art. And I do love using colored pencil when I have the chance. I love putting those first lines onto a big white sheet of Bristol board! I love the sound of my electric pencil sharpener grinding! I swear Prismacolor pencils have a distinct smell that is heavenly to me.

2. Jules: Describe your studio or usual work space.

Aaron: Since I’ve started freelancing, I’ve been fortunate to have a room set aside in our house that I can call my own. My studio walls are covered with images I find inspiring. I’m surrounded by toys and knickknacks that I love. The space is full of hand-made gifts and drawings from my kids. It’s as if what goes on inside my head all day leaked out and covered the walls.

You can see more a little more here.

3. Jules: As a book-lover, it interests me: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?

Aaron: While I’ve always loved reading and creating art, picture books never really grabbed me until later on in life. It wasn’t until I was in college that I fell in love with The Picture Book. As a kid though, I loved reading books that transported me to fantastical realms. To this day, I can perfectly recall a very specific emotion that filled me as I read The Chronicles of Narnia. A thrilling, giddy … I’m going to have to say it … *magical* feeling. And being The Chronicles of Narnia, that’s wholly appropriate. But the feeling wasn’t coming from the enchantment merely described the storylines. The magic was the wonder of me, in those moments, falling into another fully realized, living world.

It was in college that I had my life-changing moment with a picture book. I was sitting in a corner of the library, either studying or reading a magazine. I glanced up, and Eric Rohmann’s Cinder-Eyed Cats was staring at me from the other side of the room. I looked back down, but I couldn’t escape the cats’ gaze; every time I peeked up, those eyes were calling me. I *could not* stay in my chair. I had to get up, cross the room, and open the book. That was powerful. And I knew then, if at all possible, I wanted to do that, too. I wanted to touch another person in the world somewhere by making pictures filled with story.

4. Jules: If you could have three (living) authors or illustrators—whom you have not yet met—over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose? (Some people cheat and list deceased authors/illustrators. I won’t tell.)

Aaron: Well, Eric Rohmann and I have since exchange a couple of emails, but I’d love to meet him in person and thank him for impacting my life. My other hero is Glen Keane, a Disney animator, who—better than anyone I’ve found—creates completely believable emotional beings using nothing other than a big greasy pencil and unparalleled skills. I love his art, his faith, and he’s illustrated great picture books, too. And for a third party member, I’d love to invite the pioneering cartoonist and animator Winsor McCay. Although, since he’s been dead for quite some time, that would probably be awkward, and Mr. Rohmann and Keane would be forced to carry the conversation.

Aaron: “[Here’s] a new little griffin character I just worked up and am excited about…”

5. Jules: What is currently in rotation on your iPod or loaded in your CD player? Do you listen to music while you create books?

Aaron: When I’m researching or writing or sketching—anything that requires a lot of decision making—I have to work in silence. But, once I move to the final art stage and don’t have to concentrate as much, then I listen a wide variety of things.

A lot of podcasts (A Way With Words). A lot of sermons (John Piper). I’ve got a huge collection of movie Soundtracks –- hundreds and hundreds of instrumental movie scores (Williams and Zimmer and Giacchino). When I do turn to wordy music, my tastes tend to be … odd. Roger Miller. The Boy Least Likely To. AR Rahman. Classic Sesame Street music/ (It’s not on my iPod for my kids. Yes, it’s there for me.) The Andrews Sisters. But I love U2 as well, so I can’t be too strange.

6. Jules: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?

Aaron: I live in Winsor McCay’s hometown — I even helped get a historical marker placed here to celebrate his achievements. I’ve spent the last six years putting on programs to introduce kids to McCay and his creations (Little Nemo, Gertie, and more). Some of my books were illustrated in their entirety, while sitting in the library across the street from the location of his childhood home.

7. Jules: Is there something you wish interviewers would ask you — but never do? Feel free to ask and respond here.

Aaron: Question: Do you know of any videos created by a group of super creative kids that re-enacts a Frog and Toad story, using plush toys for puppets?

Answer: Why, yes. Yes, I do:

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

Jules: What is your favorite word?

Aaron: “Zenzizenzizenzic.” It’s a real word that means “a number to the 8th power.” We have 8 members in the Zenz family, so it’s a fun word that makes me think of my lovely family.

Jules: What is your least favorite word?

Aaron: “Revisions.”

Jules: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Aaron: Creatively: My six kids; Spiritually: Hymns; Emotionally: Knowing my wife is happy.

Jules: What turns you off?

Aaron: Drawing horses. Drawing bicycles.

I hope I never have to draw a horse on a bicycle.

7-Imp: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)

Aaron: “Oh for the love of… [fill in the blank.]” For instance: “Oh for the love of Milk in the Carpet.” “Oh for the love of Bills.” “Oh for the love of the Missing Church Shoes.”

Jules: What sound or noise do you love?

Aaron: Strong natural wind.

Jules: What sound or noise do you hate?

Aaron: A kid throwing up in the middle of the night.

Jules: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Aaron: Park ranger.

Jules: What profession would you not like to do?

Aaron: Exterminator.

Jules: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Aaron: As I suspect is the case for most sincere believers, I do long to hear “well done, good and faithful servant.” But, honestly, regardless of what is said, I really just hope there is a hug involved.

* * * * * * *

All artwork and images are used with permission of Aaron Zenz.

The spiffy and slightly sinister gentleman introducing the Pivot Questionnaire is Alfred, © 2009 Matt Phelan.

9 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Aaron Zenz”

  1. Thank you Jules and Aaron for this interview that had me smiling every step of the way. I think a trip to the library is in order.

  2. This was a great interview. I love to laugh. I am also glad I got a look at creating and putting together a book. I always like to learn new things. I also like Aaron’s work very much (and Gracie’s and Lily’s).

  3. I really enjoyed the interview! I am chuckling over all these wonderful stories! I know our little grand baby would love listening to these wonderfully silly stories. Beautifully illustrated too! Thank you

  4. Great interview. I love the creative work he and his 6 children do together. That was lovely. I read that AZ burns the midnight oil each night, working till 5 am, I believe. Arranged work hours around family time.

  5. LOve, loVE, Love your interview and I am so excited to have several copies of Chuckling Duckling and Hiccopotumus…one to keep at our home for our grandbaby (and future grandbabies) and a copy of each for each of our three grown kids to have in their homes for all their kids :o)

    A wonderful illustrator/author with very talented kids too! I randomly came across Aaron Zenz google searching a while back and I am very happy I did.

    Blessings & Aloha!

  6. This sounds like a wonderful breakfast…

    He seems like a very sincere, kindhearted man and he has a keen illustrator and author!

    Sending a kiss your way for such a killer “K” post!

    Thanks for linking.


  7. “I just hope there’s a hug involved” may be one of the most beautiful descriptions of the hope for that heavenly greeting. Nicely said.

  8. Wonderful interview. I love your work and the thumbnail idea is something I have been thinking about. I am new to illustrating and was wondering how to prepair my art to fit comfortably on book pages. I started using prisma pencils more often a few months ago and have fallen in love with them. Your characters are so cute and playful they make me want to jump right in there with them. I hope someday soon I will be given a chance at the magical world of make believe. I can hardly PICTURE myself as an illustrator. One of my favorite things to tell people is, “dream as many dreams possible to increase the odds of living them.
    Thank you again for sharing this great interview.
    Carolin Palmer

  9. Wow, you have the most beautiful talent that anyone could wish for. All the best for your future. Lovely family.

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