Deadpan, Page Turns, Storytelling & Digestion: An Interview with Adam Rex
I did a little research today. My question: When did I first become aware of the books of Adam Rex? A search of my old blog (the one back on blogger before SLJ picked me up) yielded my oldest Rexian posting: A review of Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich from July 7, 2006. Adam Rex has been creating books for children essentially since I started blogging about them. And this year, he has two picture books out. There is UNSTOPPABLE . . .
. . . and ON ACCOUNT OF THE GUM . . .
Let there be no misunderstanding when I say to you that creating a truly funny picture book is an art. It requires equal parts skill and luck and you’re clearly kissed by the gods if you can produce one honestly funny title in your lifetime. So what the heck is going on when Rex just cranks out two at once and BOTH work? I mean, really work. I may have known the man for years, but the way he’s switched up his career pushed me to ask if I could send him some questions about it. He’s good people. He said yes. And if I take anything away from this discussion it’s the understanding that when you take your career in children’s book publishing in a hitherto new direction, that risk can pay off hugely in time. I mean, at least in terms of content.
Betsy Bird: Thanks again for talking with me. I don’t know how you’ve been holding up with the pandemic and all, but in my household our kids’ online learning starts up again at the end of the week. Are you and your family hanging in there?
Adam Rex: We’re getting by. I have a 3rd grader who’s been back at school since August 6th, in a distance learning way. And so has my wife, who teaches 6th grade Physics. So I have the eight to noon shift helping Henry (during which I can get little or no work done), at which point my wife has taught her last class and can take over a while.
So we both feel like we’re keeping a lot of balls in the air. And the balls are special balls that hate being juggled, so much so that they groan I HATE JUGGLING the whole time you’re trying to juggle them, and it’s wild knowing that despite this we actually have it so much easier than a lot of people.
BB: The gentlewoman from Illinois requests that the gentleman please do a quick sketch of these groaning balls. Please.
BB: Thank you. I needed that.
Adam, the fact of the matter is that watching your picture book career has been nothing short of scintillating. I can think of no other author/illustrator today who switches so deftly between authoring his own books with his own illustrations, illustrating other people’s books, and writing his own books which other people illustrate.Other artists ask other people illustrate their books once in a blue moon, while you seem to make a habit of it. I guess when Christian Robinson did SCHOOL’S FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL back in 2016, that was the first time another artist illustrated your text. Why then switch it up regularly?
AR: By the time SCHOOL’S FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL came about, I’d been thinking for some time that it would be fun to write a book that I didn’t illustrate. I wanted to know what it was like to be on the other side of the fence like that. And so SCHOOL became the perfect test case, because frankly I didn’t understand how to illustrate that one. A book with a building for a main character. Not to mention that I had the sense that my usual style (styles?) wouldn’t work for it—I was picturing a style like Christian’s, which I suspected I’d do a poor job imitating.
BB: You’ve sort of answered my own question about how you would’ve illustrated the book yourself. Did you select Christian or did the publisher do it for you? And if the publisher did the selection, did you have any fear that you’d end up with an artist that might anthropomorphize the heck out of that school?
AR: Sure, I worried. And who knows—maybe someone like a Sophie Blackall or a Jon Klassen could pull off making the windows into eyes and the door into a mouth and make it utterly charming. If I can’t envision it that’s just a failure of imagination.
I might have gone with no anthropomorphism at all. Well after publication I realized I must have been influenced a little by all those old Peanuts strips where Sally talks to her school—and that’s just a kid and a plain brick wall. But in the end I think Christian found just the perfect amount of anthropomorphism.
And honestly, I don’t know how it happened with Christian. My agent Steve Malk and I had already agreed that he was our first choice, and then Steve pitched the manuscript to Neal Porter, and some time later Neal emailed me to say he’d come up with the perfect illustrator for School, and it was Christian Robinson. I’ve never known if that was a fantastic coincidence or a Jedi Mind trick or what.
BB: Or both. Heck, for that matter, what determines if a book will be just written by you or both written and illustrated by you? For example, this year Chronicle released your book UNSTOPPABLE, illustrated by Laura Park in May, and is also releasing ON ACCOUNT OF THE GUM, written and illustrated by you, in October. When you’re writing a book, do you already have a sense of who should take it on? Do you ever look at something like GUM and think, “Well, shoot, I better do this one because no one else is going to be able to figure out what’s already going on in my head”?
AR: Well, so SCHOOL’S FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL turned out so well that I felt I had a new question to ask myself when I wrote something: do I really believe this book needs me to illustrate it? Maybe it might—like you say, maybe I think there’s something the illustrations are going to need that isn’t plainly obvious from the text, and I don’t want to roll the dice and see if another illustrator comes up with it themselves. And they’d have to come up with it themselves, because I usually believe so strongly that the author of a picture book should keep their nose out of the illustrator’s business that I wouldn’t tell them unless asked.
I guess I thought ON ACCOUNT OF THE GUM was like that. There was a narrow path it had to walk from deadpan to outrageous. In fact I had a lot of success reading an early draft of it as a part of keynotes and workshops about making picture books—it worked so well without illustrations that for a while I worried illustrations would ruin it. That they wouldn’t be as good as what you imagined. I flatter myself that I think I walked the line I needed to, and the illustrations add to the book, and now I find myself wondering what an Emily Hughes version would look like, or a David Catrow.
Because I do find working with illustrators I love really thrilling. Illustrators who make choices I don’t and do things I don’t do, like Laura Park. She had just what UNSTOPPABLE needed. I even wrote PLUTO GETS THE CALL specifically for Laurie Keller—if she hadn’t wanted to illustrate it, I don’t know what I would have done. And passing certain texts over to other illustrators gives me a little more opportunity to work with other authors when the right manuscript comes along. Over the years I’ve had a couple heartbreaks when amazing books by other authors were offered to me, but we just couldn’t make our schedules line up.
BB: The correct match of comedic timing with the natural page turns of picture books is an idea that has probably been written up in an academic paper somewhere or other. I find that I’m often comparing UNSTOPPABLE to GUM, even though they look so incredibly different, because both have a similar sense of rising action. The difference, of course, is that while GUM is blatant about the sheer chaos that’s increasing exponentially (pairing it with STUCK by Oliver Jeffers makes sense far beyond the obvious comparisons), UNSTOPPABLE gets its laughs by surprising you with its unexpected ridiculousness. You make the page turns work for you in a couple of your other books too. That moment in ARE YOU SCARED, DARTH VADER? where he says “I am already cursed” after a page of silence. Or in WHY? when the evil villain confesses that all he’s ever wanted was his father’s approval. Where are you drawing on these natural beats from? Comics? Movies? Other picture books?
AR: Well, of course Laura deserves the credit for those page turns in UNSTOPPABLE! In my experience the page turns don’t really reveal themselves until you start sketching it out.
And man, GUM is all big page turns, isn’t it? More so than any other book I’ve done, apart from maybe GUESS AGAIN. Now that GUM is coming out I should finally read STUCK, which I realized some time ago was probably similar to my book so I intentionally avoided looking at it. But in a way, both of our books are like spiritual successors to The Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, which I think means they’re all parables about invasive species and ecosystem management. There, they should put that on the cover of the book: “A Parable About Invasive Species and Ecosystem Management.”
BB: If I could reassure you on that point, STUCK does share some basic similarities to GUM (the page turns work in much the same way) but the tone (and, for that matter, solution) is completely different. I look forward to the day you re-illustrate STUCK and Jeffers re-illustrates GUM.
AR: That should be a book, actually. Illustrators swapping characters, maybe explaining via comics panels why they did what they did, showing that art is all about making choices and solving problems. I want that book.
BB: Agreed. *makes pointed stare at Neal Porter*
AR: I’m sure I’ve developed my personal sense about timing and reveals from comics AND movies AND picture books, but the thing that always pops into my head when this question arises is Looney Tunes. Specifically Chuck Jones cartoons. I got a lot of early education about humor and slapstick from Chuck Jones, which I think means I was learning indirectly from vaudeville and Buster Keaton movies and things I wasn’t even aware of yet. And Chuck Jones and Buster Keaton were playing the pauses as much as the beats. The pauses weren’t just some necessary evil between two frenetic set pieces, the pauses could be funny in and of themselves. The pauses could be MORE funny.
BB: I mean, I wasn’t going to mention Duck Amuck, but . . . . it’s all about Duck Amuck, right? Where on earth were you watching Buster Keaton at an early age?
AR: Yeah, Duck Amuck was always the gold standard, the short you wished for every Saturday morning during The Bugs Bunny and Tweety Show. Mac Barnett and I essentially did our homage to that in CHLOE AND THE LION.
But no, I wasn’t watching Buster Keaton as a kid. I just realized later that I’d been watching cartoons made by people who were watching Buster Keaton. A lot of what works about a short like The Rabbit of Seville is Bugs’s affectless, deadpan “performance.”
I think if I have a personal style with pacing, it’s that I’m usually trying to compress and decompress. After a steady stretch I might cram a ton on one page, then take the next three pages to deliver one line. VADER was like that. The narrator warns him that a witch could curse him, then there’s that silent page where Vader is looking down, thinking, and then an empty two-page spread with a little Vader down in the corner, and you can tell he just thought about his whole life in the middle of your picture book.
BB: A lot of funny picture books can slot into types. You’ve got the ones that burst down the 4th walls, which I guess your work with Mac Barnett did with CHLOE AND THE LION. You’ve got the ones that are sort of the Monty Python equivalent of that guy telling everyone to stop being so silly (your NOTHING RHYMES WITH ORANGE, say). Heck, your FRANKENSTEIN books were essentially sketch comedy bits. I hate the “where do you get your ideas” question, so let’s change it up a bit. Are there funny tropes you’d still like to play with? Or return to?
AR: It’s kind of you to imply I only did the 4th wall-breaking metafictional picture book once. I know some people find that type played out, and I’ve done it at least three times. VADER was one of those.
Lately I’ve been kind of taken with tall tales and more traditional storytelling, which people might be surprised to hear me applying to something like UNSTOPPABLE. Here’s a book about animals combining Voltron-style to overcome obstacles. Here’s a book that peaks with a single word being repeated 532 times. But it ends with, “And people say if you look up on any clear night you can still see Congresibirdraburtlebear flying over this great land—passing laws and pinching the noses that need to be pinched.” It ends with, “Goodnight, children,” like it’s narrated by Burl Ives. Maybe I’m only interested in that kind of traditional voice if I can juxtapose it against something untraditional, but that’s where my head’s been at lately.
BB: Hmmm. Your books do read out loud particularly well. I’m interested in how you could incorporate more audible features into what it is you do. Time was that all children’s librarians were taught the art of storytelling and were trained to do it. At NYPL we often chose picture books that could be told without the images on a stage (hat tip to the books of Margaret Read McDonald there). I think you’ve a lot of different ways you could go with this. What kinds of “untraditional” methods are you thinking about?
AR: That’s interesting. I’ve sort of convinced myself over the years that a picture book that works just fine without the pictures has, by definition, done something wrong. Maybe the text didn’t leave the illustrator any part of the story to tell. But that’s overly simplistic. A text can be amazing and adding illustrations can be like building a second beautiful level on an already beautiful house.
But what I meant by untraditional is that I seem to be most interested in an earnest, traditional voice when it’s narrating something that goes off the rails a little. It’s nothing to crow about, anyway—that kind of irony is cheap. If I make you laugh and shake your head and say, “That was so weird,” then fine, I guess. What I really want to do is break your heart.
BB: Well, and much along the same lines, your prodigious output must mean that you’ve got a bunch of ideas that just didn’t work somewhere along the way. What are some of the funny picture books you wish you could have gotten to work but just didn’t quite come together?
AR: Oh, there’s so many. I hope people who are on the outside trying to break in realize that I still write more picture book manuscripts that don’t get published than ones that do. I don’t know if that’s true of most authors, but it’s true for me.
One of the first manuscripts I wrote, more than twenty years ago, was going to be a split-screen story like David Maculay’s BLACK AND WHITE. Half of it would be about two letters who leave their home on a supermarket sign and explore other signs around town. The other half tells the story of what their absence does to the townspeople—their sign now says something new, and it sparks terrible consequences. And I still love this idea, but the particulars were always kind of forced. If I can ever come up with a more elegant solution to the central problem of it, I’m going to give it another shot.
BB: What’s the funny picture book out there you wish YOU had made?
AR: Ho boy. Huh. WHO NEEDS DONUTS? strikes that sweet spot I like where it’s funny but has a lot of heart. And I love Laurel Snyder’s CHARLIE AND MOUSE books for the same reason. Especially CHARLIE AND MOUSE AND GRUMPY.
BB: You just made my day with that WHO NEEDS DONUTS? shout out. That book is a psychedelic masterpiece. But it’s not exactly normal fare. How’d you discover it?
AR: Total lucky confluence of events, I think. Probably around 2003 or 2004 I’d happened upon an example of Stamaty’s Washingtoon strip. Who knows where, because I’d never seen it before and I’ve never seen it since. But I thought it was really funny and interesting to look at, so I noted the guy’s name. Then, like, a week later I saw DONUTS in some shop because it’d just been reprinted. I thought, “Hey, that’s the guy!” And I loved it immediately because it seemed very much like a cousin to the sort of stories I write, but illustrated in a way I never would have attempted.
BB: Usually I end an interview by asking the person what they’ve got going on next, but I’m afraid of just how much you may have in the works. Let’s simplify it. Do you have any funny picture books on the horizon after ON ACCOUNT OF THE GUM?
AR: I don’t even know what comes out next! Once again I’m illustrating another author’s story, and waiting for a couple illustrators to illustrate mine, and I have something on the horizon I’ll be doing all myself. But eventually Laura Park is going to get working on a picture book I wrote that’s called DIGESTION! The Musical, and I can’t wait to see that.
Many thanks to Adam for allowing me to poke and prod at his life. If you’d like to hear him speak about his books himself, why not indulge in this small video for ON ACCOUNT OF THE GUM? You know I did.
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
SLJ Blog Network