A Visit with Aaron Zenz

h1 December 5th, 2017 by jules


It’s a pleasure to have a visit today from author-illustrator Aaron Zenz, who is here to talk about his winsome new picture book for very young readers, Little Iffy Learns to Fly (Two Lions, October 2017). You can see the intrepid Little Iffy above.

Filled with warm, eye-catching colors and simple sentences (with various font colors emphasizing particular words for emerging readers, such as the repeated “up”s and “down”s in the tale), it’s the story of a baby griffin, who is afraid to fly. “What if he goes up and never comes down?” writes Zenz. Little Iffy’s friends work together to help their friend, making this a sweet story of friendship (and courage — lots of it).

Aaron is here to talk about the story behind the book, and he shares lots of art. I thank him for visiting.

* * *

Aaron: Little Iffy recently swooped into the world, and I’m happy to share the story behind the story.

Way back in 2002, I began developing an entire world around five mythical friends, called The Little Mythix. I had stories written. I had a seven-page series ‘bible’ that not only detailed the main characters’ personalities, but also mapped out things like the difference between unicorn culture and fairy culture, the history of fauns, and the temperament of dragons as a social group. There were maps of the Land of Mythica and commentaries on its geography. It was epic. It was awesome.



I only showed this world to a handful of people. And a small number of publishers passed on it.

Eventually, the project went to live in my filing cabinet. But there was one piece of that world I couldn’t shake. A specific personality. One particular character. In the world I had created, griffins as a species were big and tough, brave and strong. Being half-lion and half-eagle, you would expect them to be! Except for one little bitty griffin. He didn’t fit the mold. He … well, he was far more scaredy-cat than lion. And far more chicken than eagle. I loved him. And I couldn’t let him go.

So, instead of abandoning the sprawling world of Mythica altogether, I pulled out my favorite part — the little griffin — and decided to start small. My focus became character-driven. What were his stories? Who would this worried little guy meet? And how would he react?



I renamed him Iffy Griffin and came up with a plan. Each story in the series would focus on one of his fears — heights or the dark or loud noises or bugs. Each story in the series would also introduce one new mythical creature. So, “Little Iffy and the Centaur” or “Little Iffy and the Mermaid” or “Little Iffy and the Goblin.” The parings have so much potential. Iffy is afraid of the dark, but he gets invited to a Dragon sleepover — and dragons sleep in caves. Iffy is afraid to try new foods, but he’s at a Faun picnic —and fauns are half-goat and eat literally everything.


(Click to enlarge)


In the first book, we wouldn’t meet any other creatures yet — just establish Little Iffy and learn about griffins. Little Iffy is afraid of heights, but he’s a griffin — and griffins are expected to fly!



My publisher got the character and the series, and the first book was greenlit.

Finding the right art style for the book took some time.



Due to maternity leaves in both the editorial and art departments during the creation of the book, the book saw multiple captains steering the ship. The style headed down one course for quite some time…


(Click last image to enlarge)


…and then the style did an about-face in a completely different direction. Eventually, we landed in a sweet spot — a mix of traditional and digital, pencil sketch line work and Photoshop coloring.


“Little Iffy is a bitty griffin. Griffins are part lion and part eagle.”
(Click to enlarge spread)


“But Little Iffy is a little more chicken than eagle …”
(Click to enlarge spread)


One of the big changes that came about during production was the addition of Little Iffy’s friends. At the end of the dummy, I included that image which teased future stories with other mythical creatures. The publisher liked this peek at the expanded world so much, they wanted to meet some of those characters sooner rather than later. Iffy’s big brother, Tuffy Griffin, was sidelined, and Eggs Pegasus came on board to help Iffy learn to fly instead. Of course, a young, equally-sized peer is going to go about flying lessons far differently than a big, older brother would. So much of the story got re-worked, including the addition of even more friends along for the ride to cheer them on.


“Iffy’s friends can’t wait for him to use those wings and learn to fly.”
(Click to enlarge spread)


“‘Here’s the plan!’ says Eggs. ‘Swing up and flap your wings, Little Iffy!’
‘No, thank you. Down is best.'”

(Click to enlarge spread)


“‘Here’s the plan!’ says Eggs. ‘Climb back up and flap your wings, Little Iffy!’
‘No, thank you. Down is best.'”

(Click to enlarge spread)


“‘Here’s the plan!’ says Eggs. ‘We’ll lift you up, and you flap your wings, Little Iffy!'”
(Click to enlarge spread)


I’ve loved griffins since childhood. And at every Father’s Day and birthday and Christmas I’ve told my own kids, “Just draw me a griffin!” Now one wall in my studio is full of their griffin drawings from years gone by. It overlooks an ever-growing collection of griffin toys and collectibles and prints.



So, after all these years, to have a book of my own with a griffin as the star is a dream come true. And the best part for me? I’m already receiving Iffy Griffin fan art from school kids. Looks like I’m going to have to start another wall!


(Click each image to enlarge)


(Click to enlarge cover)


To read more about Little Iffy, you can head to the following places:

* * * * * * *

LITTLE IFFY LEARNS TO FLY. Copyright © 2017 by Aaron Zenz. Published by Two Lions, New York. All images here used by permission of Aaron Zenz.

4 comments to “A Visit with Aaron Zenz”

  1. I adore gryphons – and indeed, part eagle and part lion does seem like just a very, very awkward growing up! What a cute idea!

  2. Oh my goodness, the wall of griffin art from your kids is SO awesome. I loved reading this!

  3. As a bitty griffin myself: This. Is. ADORABLE.

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