Aaron Zenz is the author/illustrator of Hiccupotamus and he’s the hip, groovy dad behind Bookie Woogie, a blog where he and his eldest three children review books and share their fan art. It’s obvious the Z-Family loves kidlit.
Aaron, have you always wanted to be an author/illustrator?
Hip and groovy! Lands sakes alive, I’ve never been called either of those before… I’m going to have to look up their definitions.
I’ve been writing and illustrating my own stories ever since I was a wee bitty guy. In fact the last time we were over at my folks’ house, the kids and I were looking at the little books my mom has saved that I made when I was as young as three. The creative drive has always been in me, but it wasn’t until later on in life that I thought about it vocationally. Storytelling was just so fun, I think I never really associated it with the “work” world.
It wasn’t even until part way through college that it dawned on me that I wanted a career in art. Later my attention became even more focused when I realized how much I loved the narrative aspect of illustration. I had already begun collecting picture books, long before I dreamed I’d have a chance to participate in that world.
Writing has been interesting. All through life I’d received more comments and recognition for my writing than for my art. I think people simply already knew me as the “art guy,” so my writing came as a surprise. But for me, writing and illustrating are very comparable. They’re both forms of storytelling, and the process for both seems very similar to me.
Speaking of collecting picture books, you’ve amassed nearly 3,000 of them. Who are some of your favorite author/illustrators? Whose work has inspired you?
The picture book that changed everything for me was Eric Rohmann‘s The Cinder-Eyed Cats. From the moment I saw those golden felines staring out at me from the cover, I knew — “I want to do that.” Something inside me leapt from mere interest to passionate longing. I wanted to make images that had the power to summon emotions, be it a sense of mystery… or a belly laugh… or tears. Pictures are powerful. So I’ll always have a soft spot for Eric Rohmann’s work, particularly that book.
Another person whose work I find consistently engaging is Adam Rex. Whenever I catch wind of his next new project, I find myself waiting with the kind of anticipation people usually reserve for Hollywood’s summer blockbusters.
Many apologies for slipping into name-listing mode, but I’m also greatly inspired by the work of animator Glen Keane and the art of folks like PJ Lynch, Scott Gustafson, and Peter deSeve. Winsor McCay is amazing. And so is NC Wyeth…but for illustrators, loving Wyeth is a requirement.
On the writing side, I read a lot of Beverly Cleary growing up. I also loved HG Wells and Sir AC Doyle. But I think it was Lloyd Alexander who influenced me the most. I lived in his Chronicles of Prydain as a kid.
Your website features two picture book dummies for Hiccupotamus, one from 1996 and another from 2000. Your book was published in 2005. What kept you driving toward the goal of publication year after year?
In 1996 I took a college class on Children’s Literature. It was actually geared toward teachers — how to use books in the classroom kind of stuff. At the end of the course the teacher had everyone try their hand at writing a picture book. That’s where the first dummy came from — worked up over a weekend for that class.
Over the years I continued to write and draw. I came up with scores of picture book ideas that I personally found way more exciting than Hiccupotamus. But when I shared things with people, they tended to gravitate to that first story. In fact people would randomly ask me years after seeing it — “Did you ever do anything with that hippo book?” I dinked around with it off and on over the years, pulling it out, working on the tricky rhyme, developing the characters further.
Eventually (and you’re not going to want to hear this…) out of the blue, it was a publisher who approached me. A friend of mine was participating in building a new publishing company. He had seen that first dummy years earlier when we worked together and wondered if I would “let” them publish it as their debut trade book. I had to think about that for all of three seconds!
So sadly, I don’t have a story about thousands of rejection letters and years of knocking on doors. I invested lots of time into it over those years, but had never yet tried submitting it anywhere.
The sad part of my story comes later when, after the book’s astonishing sales and whirlwind success, the company folded shortly after the release of Hiccupotamus due to the underhanded dealings of my friend’s partner. But from my understanding, it sold 17,000 copies in its first 4 months, and it continues to do well via a version in Scholastic’s book clubs.
And Marshall Cavendish plans to put it back in print this fall. Woo hoo! Hopefully sales pick up for them just as strong as where they left off. Be watching for it!
I will! And why wouldn’t I want to hear that? It’s an amazing story.
You’ve also illustrated the work of other writers. Can you tell us about the process of interpreting someone else’s words into pictures? How do you get started?
For stories that are character-based, like with Howie, I’ll spend my first energies doing character development. This is my very favorite part of the whole process. I love all the pre-production work… designing the people and critters, trying to infuse them with life and personality. Sara Henderson had described such an energetic ball of fun when writing about Howie. I set two personal goals for myself on the visual side: attempt to make him the cutest little dog you ever saw, and to fill him bursting with life. Hopefully I came close. So before even thinking about the stories themselves, I spent a few days with a tottering stack of library reference books, filling a sketchbook with page after page of Bichon Frise doodles.
After all the doodling, I make model sheets of the characters with different poses and expressions. Then I’ll finally turn my attention to the actual story and create quick thumbnail sketches of the story, trying to achieve good variety in the compositions. Sometimes this is a challenge. I recently illustrated a story about three leaves, fastened into place on their branch throughout the entire 32 pages. Lots of work went into finding ways to make each page a fun surprise – through coloring and vantage point and framing devices.
The last step, actually making the final art, is the least fun for me — then it becomes work. The subject matter and timetable often dictate the medium. I like working in colored pencil and do it whenever I can, but sometimes I’ll create everything on the computer. For example, with my two Nascar books, it was so much better for me to create mechanical objects digitally – cars and trucks and racetracks. Other times when deadlines are tight, I work on the computer because it’s much faster. The way I use colored pencil is a very timely process.
What is your best advice for new author/illustrators just starting in the business? What do you know now that you wish you knew then?
Well, I’m still among those just starting out, so I myself am listening for anyone who’s got advice!
I suggest making sure that you keep your creative endeavors fun. Don’t get caught up in checking off x-number of items on a list in order to obtain a successful career. Create what you love because you love it.
I also know that networking is just as important as what we produce. So try to find creative ways to cross paths with lots of other people. Blogging can be a great way to grow a circle of influence. Like hosting a month long “Love a Kidlit Author” celebration — perfect example of a creative way to strengthen contacts and increase a presence! Good thinkin’! Eventually, the right person will make an offer at the right time, so have a stack of things ready to go when that happens.
Aaron, it’s been a pleasure learning about your creative process. One last question…what’s your favorite kind of chocolate?
I’ll never be a coffee drinker, but I Love a big mug of hot chocolate. Oooo… I’m going to need one now.
Aaron is generously giving away a signed four-book set of the Howie I Can Read series. Leave a comment to enter the drawing!
Blog or Twitter about Aaron’s interview and receive another two entries.
I’ll announce the winner one week from today!
And stop by again soon…Aaron will share his thoughts on sharing books as a family.