Nothing a Few Chickens Can’t Fix: Adam Rex and Adam Rubin on Gladys the Magic Chicken
Chickens. They’re not just for dinner anymore. Just now I was going to write something along the lines of “2021 has been a good year for chickens” and back it up with examples of books like Mr. Watson’s Chickens or Egg Marks the Spot, but then I remembered. EVERY year is a good chicken year. Seriously, I challenge you to find a year in children’s book publishing where chickens did play a significant role in some kind of book. Like bears and bunnies, chickens are particular picture book staples.
Case in point, today’s interview.
It’s not that Adam Rex hasn’t paired with other creators on his books before. Just last year he managed to simultaneously publish On Account of the Gum (self-illustratred) and Unstoppable (illustrated by Laura Park). But it’s been a long time since I saw him illustrate someone else’s words. In today’s case, those words were written by Adam Rubin, the fellow behind such books as Dragons Love Tacos and, my particular favorite, Robo-Sauce. What could bring such Adams together?
Introducing Gladys the Magic Chicken. Or, to quote the publisher:
“Gladys the chicken must be magic. After all, for everyone who encounters her, a wish is granted. The Shepherd Boy wishes to be beautiful, the Brave Swordsman wishes to join the Royal Guard, the Purple Pooh-bah wishes for his only daughter to be happy, and the Learned Princess wishes to escape the palace. And one by one, each of these wishes comes true. But… is Gladys really magic? Or is everyone making their own fortune? Either way, it adds up to one heck of an adventure for a chicken named Gladys. Blending a classic storybook feel with a thoroughly modern sense of humor, this side-splitting read aloud is perfect for anyone who wishes to see magic in the world—even if they are only looking at a chicken.”
Not enough? I agree. Let’s talk to these collaborators directly to get the 411.
Betsy Bird: Origin story! I demand an interesting origin story for this book! Preferably one where you interrupt one another, correct the other person’s false memories, and confuse the general reader. Have at it!
Adam Rex: I don’t want to bore you with the same old origin story, but this started the way all chicken books do, as a nonfiction picture book about the presidency. I was working on The Next President by Kate Messner, and drawing Martin Van Buren as an eight year-old feeding chickens. These chickens, which I liked and decided to post to Twitter:
Adam Rex: Thanks to Twitter’s unpredictable vagaries, these chickens received two thousand likes and a book deal. Rubin saw them and suddenly he’s in my DMs with a picture book pitch. You’ll have to ask him if he literally saw these two and got an idea for a book, or if he had a bit of an idea already and when he saw my tweet he was like, “FINALLY, an illustrator who can draw a chicken.”
Adam Rubin: I remember it like it was December 28th, 2018. I was sitting at a cafe in southern Spain with my old pal Daniel Salmieri. There must have been a lull in the conversation when I glanced down at my phone to check Twitter and there she was, the most evocative chicken I had ever seen in my life. I don’t know how, I don’t know why but in that moment, the whole story came to me: swords and sandals and pirates and plooping… It was a strange story (and kind of long). I wasn’t sure what to make of it at first, so I did what I always do when I’m not sure if a story is good or not. I asked Dan.
He listened patiently, sipping coffee while I rambled off the major plot points of my freshly-hatched hero’s journey and after I had finished, he leaned back and offered the kind of sparkling, insightful feedback that has fueled our creative partnership for over thirteen years: “I like it.”
So I waited a few hours to accommodate the awkwardly long time difference between Seville and Tucson, then I burst into Rex’s DMs with all the subtlety of the Kool-Aid Man. As you can see from our conversation (copied below), his response was enthusiastic but he probably thought I was joking.
BB: Understandable. Now Mr. Rubin, you’ve been paired with such illustrators as the aforementioned Daniel Salmieri and Crash McCreery. This Adam Rex fellow appears to take your words in a new, epic, direction. Had you seen much of Mr. Rex’s work before you paired yourselves together like this?
A. Rubin: I was excited to work with Adam Rex as I’ve been a fan of his illustrations since Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich and I really admired his collaborations with Mac Barnett. I saw the two of them present Chloe and the Lion at some festival somewhere and it made me laugh out loud. What I like most about Rex’s style is the combination of painterly beauty and comedic details. The backgrounds are sweeping and gorgeous and the palette and the textures are so lovely to behold but he still brings a cartoonish sensibility to the characters’ poses and facial expressions. I mean cartoonish as the highest compliment by the way.
I know Rex was inspired by Looney Tunes for this book. He mentioned the background artist specifically in the dedication. But I think he’s also exemplifying the director Chuck Jones’ philosophy of character first. That’s what made those cartoons such classics. Every pose, every facial expression is an opportunity for visual humor and Rex does that so well. There’s the obvious example of Gladys’ pupil placement getting laughs throughout the book but look at the sequence with the Traveling Merchant showing off his wares; the hand gestures, the posture, the pointed toes, it’s just so funny and yet it’s done subtly and artfully. That is really, really hard to pull off.
BB: Mr. Rex, if I have learned anything from your longer works of middle grade fiction, you don’t shy away from humorous extremes. How much of your influence appears in the text? For that matter, how much of Mr. Rubin’s influence appears in your art?
A. Rex: I’m inclined to say I didn’t really influence the text at all? Apart from possibly inspiring it in the first place with what Rubin apparently thought were unprecedented chicken drawings? I just now flipped through the book, trying to remember if he rewrote anything based on my pictures, but I don’t think he did.
But the text had a huge influence on my pictures, in more than the usual sense. There was something in the voice of it that got me thinking about old cartoons. Like the “Fractured Fairy Tales” that would appear between chapters of the Rocky and Bullwinkle show, or like certain narrated UPA and Warner Brothers cartoons of the 50s. That made me want to push my usual paintings into more exaggerated and stylized directions. I got to looking at the work of Maurice Noble, the legendary background artist, for ideas about colors and shapes and character designs.
BB: Mr. Rubin, this is a significantly longer, more all-encompassing, larger-than-life bit of storytelling for you. What could have been small ends up grandiose. And while no one could argue that ROBO-SAUCE didn’t take itself to its own extremes, this feels different. What were you drawing from as you wrote this?
A. Rubin: For the past few years I’ve been thinking about “storytelling” in the more grandiose sense of passing information down from one generation to the next. I was reading a lot of comparative mythology books, Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and that sort of stuff and it made me want to try writing a classic hero’s journey style story: venturing into the unknown, overcoming challenges, returning home changed. I figured it might be fun to use that classic structure and add a bunch of snowballing stakes that play off traditional archetypes. The thing that got me most excited about it was having a hero that really has no interest in the adventure aside from finding some tasty snacks to eat. Plus, I’ll always jump at the chance to write a main character who doesn’t talk. I guess this is my attempt at the kind of tale Homer might have written if he grew up reading The Far Side and watching Mr. Bean.
BB: Mr. Rex, was there anything you wanted to do with this book that didn’t happen? Anything you had to cut or remove?
A. Rex: Not too much. I mentioned being inspired by Maurice Noble, and the first thing I thought of when you asked this is that I fell so far short of that inspiration. Noble made what look like utterly fearless choices about color and form and perspective, and in bringing up his name I’m only inviting you to notice the wide gulf between his work and mine. But I do invite you to do that—google him.
Otherwise, there’s a map in the front of the book that I entirely misunderstood in my first draft. Rubin suggested there should be a map of the ancient world that would also indicate “local chicken snacks enjoyed in each region.” But he didn’t suggest the snacks themselves, so I made a map with all kinds of chicken recipes: Chicken a la Poobah, Beaks in Sauce, Chickensticks, Feather Soup, Chicken and Offals, etc.
Turns out he meant, “snacks enjoyed by chickens,” not “snacks comprised of chicken,” and everyone thought I was a monster.
A. Rubin: Yeah, that was pretty dark. “Would you like to read a story about an adorable animal? Well, first confront this list of ways she can be murdered, dismembered and eaten!” I’m glad we cleared things up. I love the fact that the book starts with a map. Every great fantasy book starts with a map. I got to write a bunch of geographical jokes and the snacks are all references to things Gladys eats throughout the pages so kids can have fun going through and finding those details Rex put in the illustrations.
BB: This is for both of you, why are chickens inherently more amusing than other birds in children’s books?
A. Rex: Maybe the name? The Catskills comedian sound of it? I wonder if people think it’s a funny bird in places where it’s called something else.
A. Rubin: Anyone who has ever spent time around chickens will tell you they are hilarious. Humans bred them to be ridiculous. Their wild ancestors were sleek and raptor-like but now after thousands of years of domestication we have these clumsy little weirdos who can’t fly. Some chickens are really beautiful but even still they’re kind of dumb and dramatic. They make funny sounds, they make funny faces, they scratch at the ground and look like they’re dancing, they roll around in dust, they peck at the dirt with those abrupt neck juts and their fleshy red head things go wobbling around… So yeah, chickens are the funniest bird to me by a long shot.
BB: Follow up question, and this is a hard one: Is there a particular chicken from a work of fiction that you admire in some way?
A. Rex: As a married man of 20 years, I admire the way Camilla has kept things fresh with Gonzo all these years.
BB: That was a superior answer to a silly question and I commend you. Mr. Rubin, you have a hard act to follow, but go for it.
A. Rubin: That chicken in Moana was pretty dang funny. And I always loved the minstrel in the old Robin Hood movie with the animals. I guess technically both of those are roosters so can I reference one of the 10,000 panels Gary Larson drew that featured chickens? The first that comes to mind shows a hapless chicken tied to a helium balloon that has just floated into a saloon full of sword-wielding samurai. The caption was something like, “It was destined to be a short lived spectacle.”
BB: Including both the Disney Robin Hood and The Far Side? I’m going to call this a draw. Finally, what’s next for you two?
A. Rex: I don’t know! But I’m teaming up once again with Laura Park for a picture book called DIGESTION!: The Musical. It might be that.
A. Rubin: I’ve actually got my first word-dominant book coming out this February. It’s a collection of short stories called The Ice Cream Machine and I’m really excited about the way it turned out. There are six stories in the book and they all have that same title: The Ice Cream Machine. But other than that, they’re all totally different. Different characters, different genres (adventure, sci-fi, fantasy) and each story is illustrated by a different artist. Maybe I can come back in a few months to tell you more about it.
I think we can agree that this was a delight. I want to thank Messrs Rubin and Rex for the delightful conversation. Special thanks to Tessa Meischeid and the folks at Penguin Young Readers Group for pulling this together.
Gladys the Magic Chicken is on sale October 26th.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Adam Rubin is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of ten critically-acclaimed picture books, including Dragons Love Tacos, Dragons Love Tacos 2: The Sequel, High Five, Secret Pizza Party, Robo-Sauce, and El Chupacabras, which won the Texas Bluebonnet Award.
ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Adam Rex has illustrated many books for children, including the New York Times bestseller The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors by Drew Daywalt. He is the author and illustrator of Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich, also a New York Times bestseller; Nothing Rhymes with Orange; and On Account of the Gum.
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.
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