Seven Impossible Interviews Before Breakfast #44:
Author/Illustrator Adam Rex*
(*his name means “Terrible Man-Lizard”)

h1 September 6th, 2007 by Eisha and Jules

Quick: Who is eight-and-a-half feet of a word-wrangler and picture-painter with a mighty oak for a paint brush and rattlesnake venom and moonshine for paint? It’s this buckaroo, Adam Rex, whose books (and web site and blog) we love and . . . hey, wait. How can we get some of that moonshine paint?

Really, Adam Rex’s book are like. no. other’s. We think he’s making some of the most dynamic, entertaining, sometimes terrifically bizarre, sometimes really poignant, sometimes wickedly funny, and always exquisitely-illustrated books for children today, so we’re very happy he stopped by for one impossible interview (or, uh, one sandwich with Frankenstein) before breakfast — or to put it in a lingo that perhaps the Old West maverick-version of Adam Rex would understand, we think he’s the whole kit and caboodle, and that is not a bluff, compadre. Simon pure.

Adam is an illustrator but has also penned and illustrated several books of his own. He has stated in previous interviews that it wasn’t easy to break into the world of children’s lit publishing. Having done the illustrations for the cards used in fantasy role-playing games (here’s a handy-dandy list, if that kind of thing turns your crank), such as Magic: The Gathering, it was difficult to convince folks in the realm of children’s lit to take a chance on him (“I found that my fantasy-game samples—which are geared more toward teens—just scared them. The phrase ‘Like this, but cuter and with fewer axes’ doesn’t cut a lot of ice with picture-book editors,” he said in this interview at Harcourt). But, well, we’re glad someone finally did give him a shot, because he has brought us some pretty — and some pretty amazing — books.

Really, did you see his picture book debut, The Dirty Cowboy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2003), written by Amy Timberlake (this was her picture book debut as well)? It’s about a cowboy who decides to take his annual bath (hey, when you discover a tumbleweed in your chaps, it’s time to take some action) and who comes out so very clean when it’s all said and done, that his trusty ‘ol dog, who was entrusted with the cowboy’s clothes during the bath, doesn’t even recognize him. Trying to get his clothes back, he and the dog get into a rough-’n-tumble wrestling match. It’s a slapstick tall tale, which Booklist praised for the “clever composition” of the illustrations; which got a whole heap of awards, listed here, including an International Reading Association Notable Book for 2004, a Parents Choice Gold Medal, and a Bulletin Blue Ribbon (from The Bulletin for the Center for Children’s Books), and many starred reviews; and which Publishers Weekly declared was an “outstanding debut” for Adam (as well as Timberlake).

Two years later in ’05 (the same year he received the Jack Gaughan Award for Best Emerging Artist), Adam illustrated Jill Esbaum’s Ste-e-e-e-eamboat A-Comin’! (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a book about a village which comes to life when a Mississippi River steamboat arrives and unloads its goods, all inspired by a few paragraphs from Mark Twain’s Life On the Mississippi. It was named a 2006 IRA Notable Children’s Book and Bank Street Best Children’s Book of the Year. In a starred review, School Library Journal wrote, “{w}ell-drawn details abound, making this an excellent resource for historical study.” And in 2006, Adam brought us even more detailed and simply beautiful oil paintings in Elvira Woodruff’s Small Beauties: The Journey of Darcy Heart O’Hara (Knopf Books for Young Readers) about a young Irish girl who, neglecting her chores to observe the beauties of nature and everyday life, eventually shares “family memories” (the rocks, petals, and feathers from her small cottage home in Pobble O’Keefe that she took the time to notice and collect) with her homesick parents and siblings after the O’Haras are forced to emigrate to America in the 1840s. School Library Journal wrote, “Rex’s mixed-media earth-tone illustrations are extraordinarily evocative, offering touching scenes with expressive faces and deep emotion. Rich in detail of the Irish landscape, the art gives a deeper understanding of this powerful story. Together, text and illustrations create a ‘small beauty’ that gives a human face to immigration.” Jules reviewed this title last year here at 7-Imp. It’s a flat-out gorgeous book.

And then, hoo boy! Adam started bringing us some titles he put his own pen as well as paintbrush to, and boy howdy is children’s lit better off ’cause of it. (Have we made it clear yet that we’re huge fans?) . . . Tree-Ring Circus and Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich: and Other Stories You’re Sure to Like, Because They’re All About Monsters, And Some of Them Are Also About Food. You Like Food, Don’t You? Well, All Right Then were both published last year (and both by Harcourt). Tree-Ring Circus — a cumulative tale that is part word game, part counting game, part mystery, part search-and-find book, and an “absurd counting scenario” (Publishers Weekly) — was praised for its careful design, humorous details, and “marvelous hand-lettering and meticulous oil paintings {which} hearken to 19th-century Barnum ads-or 1960s counterculture poster art” (Publishers Weekly again). Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich, reviewed here by Jules last year, is an anthology of original poetry, which pays homage to classic horror-movie monsters — as well as famed illustrators — such as, Count Dracula, the Mummy, and Wolfman, as well as pop-culture creatures like zombies, witches, Godzilla, and Bigfoot. It’s almost painfully funny (this spread will do you well), and it’s sharp and clever and inventive and full of subtle details. School Library Journal praised Adam’s “smooth, unstrained rhymes” — as well as his ability to capture well each subject’s voice in the poems — and his “impressive variety of techniques and media.” If we may channel fifth-graders here for a moment, this book is seriously awesome. It’s a sure-fire kid-favorite, a great read-aloud, and we love that Adam, as Publishers Weekly put it, “gives readers the pleasure of discovering punch lines on their own.”

Adam also created the illustrations for Katy Kelly’s three Lucy Rose intermediate-aged chapter books, Here’s the Thing About Me (2004), Big on Plans (2005), and Busy Like You Can’t Believe (2006) — all published by Delacorte Books for Young Readers.

And, lucky for us all, Adam has two new books out — one just released and one to be released in October: the picture book Pssst! (Harcourt) and Adam’s first novel for young readers, The True Meaning of Smekday, published by Hyperion (Smekday also has its own web site). Back in June, Adam gave us a bit of a preview of both titles. And just yesterday we reviewed these two seriously awesome titles here at 7-Imp in an Adam Rex Double Feature. Go see. And we also asked him all about them in the interview below . . . So, without further ado, here’s Adam. We thank him kindly for stopping by.

* * * * * * *

Jules: We want to start off with “how did you get to be so awesome?” . . . but we figure that might be a bit awkward for you to answer.

eisha: Ah, screw it. How did you get to be so awesome?

Adam: Through a rigorous awesome training program of ninjutsu, beach sprints, meditation while wearing a headband, those push-ups where you do the little clap in the middle, sit-ups hanging upside down from a hay loft, and archery. Usually done montage-style to Europe’s “The Final Countdown.”

7-Imp: The True Meaning of Smekday (which rocks!) describes an invasion of Earth by an alien race known as the Boov. What was your inspiration for the Boov — how they look, speak, interact, etc.?

Adam: I should use this opportunity to give a shout-out to Bhuvnesh Jain, professor in the University of Pennsylvania Physics Department. People call him “Bhuv” for short, and I co-opted it before learning how it’s really spelled. The Boov look a lot like a number of characters I’ve been doodling in my sketchbooks for years, though if I want to be totally honest I have to admit they were inspired somewhat from the visual designs in the movies Lilo and Stitch and Monsters, Inc. They speak English quite a bit like I do when I’m lazy or drunk.

7-Imp: Are you the least bit concerned that Jennifer Lopez might sue you for naming an alien after her?

Adam: Not really. I’m pretty sure my use of her nickname is protected behind the magic elven shield of satire. As I understand it, she doesn’t want to be called J.Lo anymore, anyway. If I’m worried about anything, it’s that she uses J.Lo as the name of her fragrance line or something. So she has a brand to protect. This is something I forget for months at a time, so I’m occasionally stopped cold in a Dillards or someplace when I see a counter display that has “J.Lo” in huge letters with maybe a photo of a glittery windblown Latina and I have to remind myself that there’s a perfectly good explanation for this.

I’ve just realized that makes two nicknames I swiped for this book. Never thought of it that way before.

7-Imp: What sort of changes did you have to make to your approach/technique/way of life to tackle a full-length illustrated novel, as opposed to a picture book?

Adam: The novel was just really different. I had the experience already of writing complicated poems that required a lot of staring and writing and rewriting, but for those I was thinking in rhyme, and there wasn’t much depth of character. Other picture books I’ve written (like Pssst!) came fairly quickly and easily. The hard part was getting the idea in the first place.

The True Meaning of Smekday was the first successful (read: finished) thing I wrote wherein my technique was just to keep pushing all the characters and incidentals toward the blurry, far-off point on the map that I thought was The Ending, without a clear idea how we were all going to get there. I have a lot more trust for this approach now, but at the time I was tempted to plan too much and outline and not trust the characters. But I did come to trust them, and fortunately what could have been an overly didactic allegory became instead more of a Road to… kind of story.

7-Imp: There have been a few MG/YA novels out in the past couple of years that describe end-of-life-as-we-know-it scenarios — probably none as funny as yours, though. What’s your worst Earth-catastrophe nightmare?

Adam: This is going to sound corny, or like I’m using your blog as a venue to apologize for something, but my worst Earth-catastrophe nightmare is that bad stuff happens and I can’t find my wife. That I have to face the catastrophe without her, and without knowing what happened to her. So.

7-Imp: Pssst! is seven kinds of wonderful. How long did it take you to create this book? What is it about you and your hysterical and revealing looks into the “hidden life of creatures we thought we knew well” (as the Harcourt blurb puts it), such as with these clever zoo animals and all the creatures in Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich? Do you set out to create books with themes to which children can strongly relate (such as, this often-feeling-misunderstood theme), or do you find that you simply tell the stories you want, which happen to really resonate with children? I guess the question we’re really asking here is: Do you have an audience in mind when you create the books you both write and illustrate?

Adam: Most picture books give me work to do off and on over the course of a year. There’s a lot of down time–waiting for editorial comments and so forth. The finished art takes a few months on average.

I think I write first and foremost for myself. I love the picture book form, and have collected them for years despite not having any kids yet of my own. I certainly have my audience in mind throughout, I just kind of trust that if I write something that I find compelling or funny, and it’s appropriate for kids in tone and language, that some kids will find it compelling or funny, too. I don’t attempt to write to so-called “kids’ themes,” and I suppose that’s because I don’t really think there are such things. I don’t think we grow into new themes as we get older, I just think we express the old ones in different ways. For kids the often-feeling-misunderstood theme might be about being the new kid in school or having an odd proclivity, such as spying on all your friends and neighbors and writing brutally honest things about them in your spy notebook. The adult version of that character still feels misunderstood, she just cheats on her husband and takes pills.

7-Imp: In Frankenstein, you used a “dizzying yet fitting variety of artistic styles, layouts and lettering” (Publishers Weekly). What was the design process like on that book? For instance, did you outline a great deal of the book before you created it, or did you mostly let your muse lead you on at first and see where you ended up? And did the poems come before the art work, or vice versa?

Adam: Definitely the poems came before the artwork. I had fifteen or so written before I even started designing the looks of the characters. While designing the characters, I was thumbnailing the whole book out in sort of a storyboard format–the finished book changed a bit, but you can see a lot of it in those early layouts. At some point I showed the whole book to Harcourt in sketch form–most illustrators actually make up a dummy book of sketched layouts at the correct trim size and everything. Only really when that whole dummy was agreed by the publisher did I start painting anything.

I did want to explore as many different styles and designs as I could, though–You can’t usually get away with that sort of thing in a picture book, but the fact that Frankenstein… was a collection of different poems rather than one cohesive narrative made such a treatment feel natural.

It would be interesting to work on the art for a book in the same way I might write one–to just throw myself into it and see where it leads. But to do such a thing I’d have to be comfortable with the idea of painting a lot of images I couldn’t later use. They would no longer fit the direction of the book, or I’d suddenly realize I had no page 14 or I hadn’t left any room for the copyright info.

7-Imp: Are you going to write any more poetry anthologies for us, your nerdy, devoted fans? At a few interviews we read, you hint at another Frankenstein title — or at least more monster poems, rather. Please say it’s true!

Adam: I am currently finishing up poems for what is currently being called Frankenstein Makes a Sequel. There’s even a rumor it might come out in fall of 2008. Otherwise, I’ll just have to see. I’ve been trying to write the same Christmas poem for something like two years now–if I ever devote any serious time to that, I may even finish it.

Above: An illustration from Ste-e-e-e-eamboat A-Comin’! (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2005); Below: Adam and Jonique from the Lucy Rose series. Click on each image to visit Adam’s site and see even more . . .

Adam and Jonique from a Lucy Rose title . . . click on the image to visit Adam's site7-Imp: Your oil paintings are really beautiful and detailed and precise, yet your mixed media touches (gouache, brush and ink, scratchboard, modeling clay, and a little digital — did we get them all?) often evoke a lot of humor, such as when the young zoo visitor in Pssst! finally delivers all the items the animals have requested of her (a bit of digital collage, no?). Do you have a favorite medium? Do you find mixed media really freeing, by chance? (We are, obviously, not illustrators and find these things intriguing. If these technique/media questions are ones you’ve answered approximately one skerjillion times and/or you find them boring, feel free to ignore them).

Adam: Oil painting is my favorite medium for color. I’m most comfortable with that. I love just drawing and sketching in graphite as well. And I love to experiment with other media, though I do so understanding that the end product will probably not be as much to my liking as it would if I’d just painted it.

7-Imp: Do you always use models for your human subjects, as you did in the gorgeous Small Beauties? How often do you create reference sculptures (like with Lucy Rose and for Pssst!) to aid your drawings? And how often do you do Characters in Search of a Story {see #1, #2, #3, #4 and #5 so far; CHIMPANZEKE is pictured here to the left}, as in even ones perhaps not posted on your blog? Is your mind (do you like it being called “strange and goofy” by Kirkus Reviews, by the way?) always thinking up characters that may or may not one day find a home in a book?

Adam: If I think it’s possible that a human model will be instructive for an illustration I’m working on, then I will almost certainly shoot photos of myself or my wife or a friend. So definitely on something like Small Beauties, but I’ll often shoot a model for even non-human or stylized characters.

Pssst! sculpted character modelThe sculptures take over where my imagination stops and human models can’t help me. So I sculpted my main character from Pssst! {pictured here on the left} because, even though she has a very simple design, I knew I’d be painting her dozens of times, and I wanted all those different poses to be as consistent as possible.

I am always thinking of characters, but I realized recently to my dismay that I wasn’t really drawing them all that often. I have old sketchbooks filled with characters because I had less on my plate back then. Now, whenever I pick up a brush or pencil I know I have a book to work on that’s probably already late as it is. So the Characters In Search of Stories feature on my blog is sort of a sick solution to this–give myself another assignment (i.e. draw for fun and post the results), and I get myself back to the days of just doodling whatever in cafes. Sort of.

That Kirkus review you quote is really great and generous, by the way. “Goofy” is one of a number of words that always sounds a bit dismissive to me, though (zany, silly, and madcap are others). But I’m certain Kirkus meant well.

'Halloween'; Lucy Rose image by Adam Rex; Click on image to see a larger version on Adam's site7-Imp: How radically different (besides the obvious ways) is it for you to illustrate chapter books like the Lucy Rose ones, as compared to illustrating the picture book text someone else has created? Do you get to choose the writers whose books you illustrate?

Adam: Well, I choose the manuscripts. I can always say no. Something like Lucy Rose was different in the sense that I had a lot of potential subjects to choose from, and only 12 illustrations to do. They let me choose what I thought most needed to be illustrated.

I have the same freedom of choice when I do a picture book, too. But with a lot less text and a lot more illustrations expected of me, for the most part it’s pretty obvious what most of the subjects will be. Choosing how best to present each subject becomes the more important issue.

7-Imp: Do you enjoy your school visits? What are your presentations like? Do you run into a lot of young’uns who aspire to be illustrators?

Adam: School visits make me nervous, but I like them.

All kids are already illustrators, at least until around age 8 or so. After that you seem to lose them steadily, year after year. By maybe the 5th or 6th grade the only ones left are the “class artists.” Which is a shame.

Anyway, when you’re an author/illustrator and you’ve just spoken for 45 minutes to a group of schoolkids about writing and illustrating and then you ask if any of them would like to be an author or illustrator when they grow up, you’re going to get half the class raising their hands, so it’s not really a scientific poll.

Decree of Justice card from Magic: the Gathering7-Imp: Do you still regularly do art work for fantasy trading card games?

Adam: “Regularly” might not be the word, but I still do a little work each year. By chance I just finished a number of images for Wizards of the Coast, but now I have to concentrate on nothing but picture books until at least next spring.

7-Imp: Do you find there are any difficulties with maintaining a blog while maintaining a writing/illustrating career? Do you feel the blog helps you connect with readers? Seeing things like cover revisions and potential new characters is exciting for us, your nerdy fans, but we’re curious: What do you get out it?

Adam: I think it does help raise my profile a bit. It gives other blogs like yours a reason to keep checking in with me, and maybe even linking with my blog if I’ve posted something particularly interesting. It does take time, but honestly I WANT people to see the work I’ve done that isn’t going to make it into a book. If I like the work, I want to show it. And it’s more efficient than shoving my sketchbooks under people’s noses. And let’s face it–I’m not posting an essay or detailed synopsis of my day or short piece of fiction on a regular basis. Some people do, and I don’t understand how they’re able to keep that up.

7-Imp: An Alf sticker?

Adam: Yes. What? It was included in a pack of vintage Alf trading cards given to me as a present by my wife for Christmas or possibly our anniversary. It also came with gum.

It features an image of Alf preparing to carve at Thanksgiving dinner, and the caption, “Don’t be repulsed…it’s a turkey!” The humor here, of course, comes from Alf’s long standing desire to catch and eat the family cat. I think it helps if you imagine he has followed his reading of the aforementioned caption with that Peekskill comedian, laugh-as-rim-shot “HA!” he always used to do.

7-Imp: We know this is a cliché question, but as book lovers, it interests us: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader? You mentioned in this interview that the characters in “The Dentist” (from Frankenstein) are an homage to Charles Schulz and Peanuts. Were you a comic strip fan as a child?

Adam: Big comic strip fan. Always loved Peanuts, loved Bloom County and Calvin and Hobbes in their day, loved Doonesbury even when I was too young to understand it. I think Doonesbury taught me a lot about timing in visual humor, especially in the comic strip form. Since I didn’t understand Sino-American diplomacy or know who Spiro Agnew was I was free to concentrate on the pacing, the body language of the characters, etc.

Duck AmuckNot to dodge the question about authors, but I think animator Chuck Jones was a big influence on me as well. The short Duck Amuck probably initiated me into storytelling in the postmodern era more than college did. The Monster at the End of This Book had a similar effect on me. There. I finally mentioned a kids’ book.

I also started reading Douglas Adams at an impressionable age, as anyone who reads my novel The True Meaning of Smekday will be able to tell.

7-Imp: Can you tell us about any new titles/projects you might be working on now (other than, we hope, more monster poems)?

Adam: Apart from the monster poems, I’m illustrating the debut picture book by Mac Barnett for Hyperion. Then I’m illustrating his next two picture books as well. I really like his work.

7-Imp: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?

ThereminAdam: I’m trying to learn to play the theremin.

7-Imp: If you could have three (living) illustrators or author/illustrators — whom you have not yet met — over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose? If you think that question is entirely too unfair, we give you permission to scold us and/or ignore it.

Adam: I will ignore this. Because if I go on record, and then I eventually meet any or all of my choices, I won’t be able to play it cool and aloof.

7-Imp: We like to ask people the wonderfully weird set of questions called The Pivot Questionnaire — made most famous by its use on Inside the Actors Studio — since who knew that, say, asking someone what their favorite sound or noise is could tell you so much about them. So here goes…

* * *

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

Adam: “Monkey.”

7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

Adam: “Proactive.”

7-Imp: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Adam: Currently? Simon Pegg. It’ll probably be something else next week.

7-Imp: What turns you off?

Adam: Phonies.

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

Adam: “Franking.”

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you love?

Adam: When my cat yawns in mid-meow.

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you hate?

Adam: People cursing at their children. But that probably goes without saying.

7-Imp: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Adam: Animator.

7-Imp: What profession would you not like to do?

Adam: Re-animator.

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

Adam: “I’m going to leave the gate open and turn my back for a minute.”

* * * * * * *

For more information on Adam Rex . . .

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19 comments to “Seven Impossible Interviews Before Breakfast #44:
Author/Illustrator Adam Rex*
(*his name means “Terrible Man-Lizard”)”

  1. My two favorite moments in the interview (which I loved, top to bottom)?

    1. “[M]y worst Earth-catastrophe nightmare is that bad stuff happens and I can’t find my wife. That I have to face the catastrophe without her, and without knowing what happened to her.”

    2. “All kids are already illustrators, at least until around age 8 or so.”

    How much do you love Adam Rex? I’m guessing that it’s at least as much as I do, which is saying a lot!! And SQUEE! about Frankenstein Makes a Sequel!


  2. Ah… artists. How I love the way they think


  3. The answer to the “If Heaven exists…” question has got to be one of the best ones yet. Thanks for interviewing this HMOCL (is he on Fuse’s official list yet?).


  4. What David said. You guys really know how to get inside an artist’s/writer’s head, and it’s totally fascinating to read.

    BTW, any book with a character named after a physics professor is hot stuff in my world.


  5. We do indeed love Adam Rex. For his mind, of course. And yes, Akelda, if you’ll check out the biblio, there’s a link to his HMOCL coronation.


  6. A The Monster at the End of This Book reference! No *wonder* I like his books so much.


  7. I was going to print this interview out at work to read later (sometimes I like to read web things in print, sue me), and it was fifteen pages! Come on, you’re making the rest of us look bad.

    I fell in love with Adam Rex at first title – the Frankenstein one. What a cool guy. And a great interview.


  8. Ooh, sorry. We can get a little wordy, not to mention a little image-happy.


  9. OMG. Funny and talented. Great interview.


  10. [...] http://blaine.org/sevenimpossiblethings/?p=865 [...]


  11. Oh my. What an outstanding interview. I’m a huge A.R. fan…I think we have four of his books out of the library right now.


  12. [...] heroes, like Kadir Nelson. And we’ve interviewed some wicked funny authors, too, like Adam Rex, Jon Scieszka and Mo Willems, which was an honor as well as a [...]


  13. [...] the biscotti. And some shrimp. And, though Adam has answered the Pivot Questionnaire before (in the 2007 7-Imp interview), I felt a strong urge to hand that weird-ass questionnaire over to Mac, and he obliged me. [...]


  14. Hi, nice theme created.


  15. [...] check out: “7 Impossible Things before Breakfast” has a great interview w/ Adam Rex here. Share this:EmailFacebookRedditTwitterLike this:LikeBe the first to like this [...]


  16. [...] Those two books? Jairo Buitrago’s Jimmy the Greatest, illustrated by Rafael Yockteng and released by Groundwood Books back in April (first published in Spanish in 2010), and Mac Barnett’s Chloe and the Lion, released by Disney Hyperion in the same month — with pictures from Adam Rex. [...]


  17. [...] that I wrote about the good thing that happened when author Neil Gaiman and author/illustrator Adam Rex collaborated. I’m talking specifically about Chu’s Day, released by HarperCollins in early [...]


  18. […] everyone. Author/illustrator Adam Rex is visiting today to tell us a bit about his newest picture book, Moonday, released by […]


  19. […] Adam Rex’s rendition of Pizzoli […]


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