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by Aaron Zenz

Kids are an amazing source of inspiration.  They haven’t yet learned the conventions and “rules” that so often inhibit our own grown-up imaginations.  My kiddos constantly astound me with the creativity that pours forth from their pencils.

My kids have a couple of blogs where I showcase their art and ideas.   Two years ago I set up a challenge for professional illustrators to use a drawing from the kids’ blog to fuel a piece of “Fan Art.”

For example, this is a drawing my daughter Lily made:


And here’s my interpretation:


Here’s a drawing from my son Isaac:


And here’s my take:


I expected that perhaps a handful of people would join me in participating. Instead, over 70 pieces of amazing art poured in from people all over the world.  You can see the full results of the celebration HERE.

It was so much fun, we just had to do all over again two years later.  One of the illustrators who contributed both years is J.C. Phillipps of “Wink the Ninja” fame.  This year she chose to recreate an image by my daughter Gracie:

And here’s J.C. Phillipps’ version:


But then, something else happened…  Here’s what Mrs. Phillipps had to say:

“I decided to give the rabbit a girl.  As I was making the girl, she started to speak to me.  Turns out, her name is Esmerelda and she loves it when things go wrong.  As I was putting this collage together, all these little story ideas started weaving their way into my mind and I now think I have a new idea to write up.  Time can only tell where it all leads—but I think little Esmerelda and I are going to have a lot of fun together.”

Awesome!  And that gets me to thinking of a particular picture book idea that I’ve had rattling around in my brain for years, sparked by one of the kid’s pictures.  I’ve yet to work it up.  Perhaps PiBoIdMo 2011 is just the time to do it!

So here’s your challenge for the day.  Write up a story idea based on the random wonderfulness of a kid drawing.  If you don’t have a kid close at hand, here are a few drawings for inspiration:

by Lily:

by Gracie:

by Isaac:


Happy writing to you all!

Aaron Zenz is giving away a copy of his latest book “Chuckling Ducklings” PLUS an original sketch of a baby critter of YOUR choosing! (see examples)  Just leave a comment here to be entered! A winner will be randomly selected in one week.

Aaron Zenz has illustrated 14 books for children.  He is also the author of “The Hiccupotamus” and “Chuckling Ducklings.”  His kids review their favorite books at their blog Bookie Woogie and share artwork at their other blog Chicken Nugget Lemon Tooty.

azportraitbygracie1

Dad Portrait by Gracie

If you enjoyed Aaron Zenz’s interview last week…wait…there’s more!

But first, the winner of the Howie I Can Read four-book giveaway is Cari from BookScoops! (Winner was chosen by Random.org.) Congratulations! Thanks to everyone who entered. Be sure to visit frequently through March–there’s more giveaways to come!

Aaron and his eldest three children, Issac, Gracie and Lily, review books and share their fan art on the Bookie Woogie blog.

I have to say, it’s brilliant. I mean, kids reviewing kids’ books! It’s a blogging breakthrough!

Aaron, it’s obvious your artistic talent has been inherited. So has your love of kidlit. What can you tell other parents about sharing a good book together?

For our family, books have always been a great way of bonding. My oldest son is 10 now, and from the time he was 3 or so, I’ve read aloud to him before bedtime. And I didn’t always pick traditional kiddie fare. Pretty early on we read Treasure Island, all the Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, A Wrinkle in Time… things of that nature. And although he may not have been able to comprehend every word of what we were reading, I think a love of story has been instilled, and also a sense of what makes for a good story. And I have to imagine it’s good for him just to hear his dad’s voice for an hour or so.

After Gracie got older, I began reading a different book to each of them every night, but now that the kids’ numbers are multiplying, I read to all of them together. It loses some of the parent-child intimacy, but the alternative is leaving someone out. Or reading for hours and hours!

There’s some selfish motive as well. With as busy as I am, I find it hard to justify taking time out to read things for my own pleasure. So I read them books I want to hear too, and it makes it seem more okay. Fortunately my taste still lies in kids’ books and YA, so everyone’s happy. The same goes for the Bookie Woogie blog… I would find it hard to justify spending time working on a blog where I rattle on about myself and my own interests. Devoting time on a blog for my kids seems happy all around.

Since we’ve started the Bookie Woogie blog, the kids’ own story writing has taken off miraculously! They have begun writing such rich, descriptive tales of their own. Taking a little extra time to discuss what we’ve read, how stories are constructed, how pictures are made, has really fueled their own imaginations.

z-familybookcase1In our home, we’ve surrounded ourselves with books. We have six book cases in our living room, a wall of shelves in the girls’ room, a case full of magazines and non-fiction in the boys’ room, three full bookcases in my studio including one stuffed in a closet due to the lack of room. On top of that, we usually have 30-40 books checked out from the library at any given time. The kids have always been surrounded by books, and they just think it’s natural and normal.

We homeschool as well, and have started noticing how this even influences our younger kids. Lily taught herself how to read at four years old. She just silently listened in on her older siblings’ lessons and surprised us all. She’s reading Judy Moody right now — she just picked up a book I had gotten for Gracie and started reading it. My wife and I always said Lily did it on her own and we couldn’t take any credit for it, but the more I thought about it, I realized that’s not entirely true. We’ve made conscious and deliberate choices (and sacrifices) to create and environment of learning in the home. So why wouldn’t that have impacted her? Three-year-old Elijah seems to be following suit. He’s already beginning to sound out and spell words. And one-year-old Evie is penning her first graphic novel (just kidding!!!).

All this, of course, has impacted my own writing. Articulating to the kids what goes into a good book, makes me more aware of those principles when I create. And when listening to them talk about books, I can see what elements kids are drawn to — and how much they catch! Since starting the Bookie Woogie blog, I’ve been amazed at all the things they grasp, things that I had figured would go unnoticed by a child.

Thanks for sharing your bookie good times with us, Aaron! We wish you much success!

Readers, please leave a comment about reading with your child. How do you instill a love of reading in your home?

aaronzenzAaron 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?

 

cindereyedThe 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.

hiccupotamus1Over 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?

howiemodelsheetFor 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.

leaf21After 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!

createheart1createheart2I 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.

howie1Me, too!

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.

The KidLit Comment Challenge helped me discover some boss new blogs and websites this weekend.

Everyone is talking about Wordle by Jonathan Feinberg. Input text and Wordle creates a word cloud, your very own piece of literary art, which I’m calling “literarti.” The more frequently a word appears in the text, the larger its relative size.

I had fun pasting my picture books into Wordle. Here is The Prince of Pizza:

You can change the font, color palate, direction of the words, and maximum word count. You can even link phrases with the tilde symbol (~) so they appear together. Keep in mind that Wordle’s gallery is uncensored, so it might not be appropriate for lil’ ones.

A site you will want to share with your young readers is author/illustrator Aaron Zenz’s Bookie Woogie: book reviews by kids, for kids (and their parents). Aaron and his three children, Isaac (10), Gracie (8), and Lily (5), review their favorite books from their impressive 2800-book home library. And when the discussion is finished, they share artwork inspired by the story. Aaron’s artistic talent has definitely rubbed off on his brood! Join them every Monday for a new book.

bendaroos1And then there’s Bendaroos. If you have a child with an insatiable artistic soul, then these colorful, bendable wax sticks promise to keep them busy for hours. You can even make your favorite picture book characters come to life by using the illustrations as a template. Your Bendaroo sculpture will lift right off the page when you’re done. As soon as ours arrive, I’ll post our creations.

7ate9

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As a children's book author and mother of two, I'm pushing a stroller along the path to publication. I collect shiny doodads on the journey and share them here. You've found a kidlit treasure box.

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My Picture Books

COMING SOON:


illus by Melissa Crowton
Tundra/PRH Canada
June 4, 2019


illus by Ross MacDonald
Disney*Hyperion
October 15, 2019

THREE WAYS TO TRAP A LEPRECHAUN
illus by Vivienne To
HarperCollins
Spring 2020

THE WHIZBANG WORDBOOK
illustrator TBA
Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
August 2020

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