An H and Five Ws with Author/Illustrator Adam Rex

It’s no secret that I love children’s books. I’ve worked with children’s book authors in a promotional capacity for years, and I believe in the thorough importance of reading to kids as soon as they’re born. It’ll make them read when they’re older, and let’s face it, people who read are smarter and more creative than people who don’t. So … there.

I attended the Tucson Festival of Books back in March, because I’m a book nerd. I had an inspiring, educational time. I got to meet one of my childhood icons, Jon Scieszka (author of The Stinky Cheese Man), and I even had my picture taken with the Berenstain Bears. However, as luck would have it, I also had the chance to see author/illustrator Adam Rex take part in a presentation entitled “Four Funny Guys: Humor in Children’s Books.” And well, Adam Rex is a very, very funny guy.

About Adam Rex: Adam Rex grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, the middle of three children. He was neither the smart one (older brother) or the cute one (younger sister), but he was the one who could draw. He took a lot of art classes as a kid, trying to learn to draw better, and started painting when he was 11. Later he got a BFA from the University of Arizona, and met his physicist wife Marie (who is both the smart and cute one).

Adam and Marie live in Tucson, where Adam draws, paints, writes, spends too much time on the internet, and listens to public radio. Adam is nearsighted, bad at all sports, learning to play the theremin, and usually in need of a shave. He can carry a tune, if you don’t mind the tune getting dropped and stepped on occasionally. He never remembers anyone’s name until he’s heard it at least three times. He likes animals, spacemen, Mexican food, Ethiopian food, monsters, puppets, comic books, 19th century art, skeletons, bugs, and robots.

His first picture book, THE DIRTY COWBOY by Amy Timberlake, was published by FSG in 2003. His picture book FRANKENSTEIN MAKES A SANDWICH, a collection of stories about monsters and their problems, was a New York Times Bestseller. 2007 saw the release of his first novel, THE TRUE MEANING OF SMEKDAY. His second, a book for teens and adults called FAT VAMPIRE, will be published in July 2010.

Garlic and crosses are useless against Adam. Sunlight has been shown to be at least moderately effective. A silver bullet does the trick. Pretty much any bullet, really. Check out his website here: http://www.adamrex.com/.

Now, lucky you, meet Adam Rex …

An H and Five Ws with Author/Illustrator Adam Rex

How did you become a children’s book writer/illustrator?

Author/Illustrator Adam Rex

At 21 I got my first illustration job—some fill-in work on a comic book—and promptly cut down on my class schedule, convinced I’d been given my break and would be busy with freelance work from then on.  Then nothing happened for several months, but I couldn’t expand my class schedule because I’d lost my tuition waiver by changing to part-time status.  But I slowly earned more work, and by the time I graduated (5.5 years after I’d begun), I had regular jobs coming in, mostly from role-playing game companies like TSR, Wizards of the Coast, and White Wolf.  None of it paid very well, so I just did a lot of it, poorly.  

From about ’96 on I was also actively trying to get work from kids’ book publishers, which was all that I really wanted to do.  Kids’ book publishers don’t like it when you send them samples of Orcs with bloody axes, though, so I immediately started putting a kids’ portfolio together, including a full dummy of an early picture book I’d written.  Early on I couldn’t get any solid interest from book publishers, but I began to get calls from kids’ magazines like Cricket and Spider.  Working for them helped me refresh my portfolio on a regular basis, and this work lead directly to me getting my first picture book assignment from FSG—The Dirty Cowboy, written by Amy Timberlake. 

By this time I’d written a few books myself, so I started pitching dummies and proposals to FSG, but the Editor I had there wasn’t really into my writing style and sense of humor.  An author/illustrator in Philly (where I was living at the time) named Alexander Stadler offered to show my early printers’ proofs of The Dirty Cowboy to his Editor at Harcourt, and she liked what she saw.  After I sent her a couple dummies we discovered that we had similar senses of humor as well, so she bought the manuscript that would turn into my book Tree Ring Circus.  Around this time (probably early 2003) I also got a call from the literary agent that represents Dirty Cowboy author Amy Timberlake.  He’d seen early examples of my work and wanted to add me to a new stable of illustrators he was representing.  Luckily, he liked my writing, too.

Who would you like to THANK for making you the artist you are today?

Oh, I suppose I just want to thank my parents for not actively trying to talk me out of it.  They were always supportive of my interests and arranged for me to get art instruction outside of school.  And, I learned later, they were always privately anxious about this direction I was headed in.  I did well in school and to all appearances could have gone on to get any number of respectable jobs in the real world, and instead I talked all my life about being an artist of some sort.  They never let me know how disconcerting that must have been for them.

What distracts you from your work?

What doesn’t?

Where (country, city, state … of mind) have you felt most inspired?

Madrid at Christmastime has really stayed with me.  And I feel like I could have spent days just sitting outside in Puebla, Mexico, and trying to write sentences about it that had never been written before.

When have you ever wanted to just GIVE UP on children’s books?

No.  Never. Why, have you heard something?

WHY are you a children’s book writer/illustrator?

As opposed to an adult book writer?  As opposed to an electrical engineer?  I’m not sure I understand the question.  But I guess I could give the answer that’s common to all people who have a calling: I do this because I am compelled to. Because I don’t want to do anything else so much as this.

An excellent answer. From an excellent artist and writer. Thank you, Adam!

2 thoughts on “An H and Five Ws with Author/Illustrator Adam Rex

  1. Excellent interview! I love The True Meaning of Smekday and my boys love Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich. Thanks!

    • You’re welcome. And if you ever get the chance to see him give a presentation or just do a book signing, take it! He’s a great storyteller in person AND on the page 🙂

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