Interview with Adam Rex, SCHOOL'S FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL
It's the first day of school at Frederick Douglass Elementary and everyone's just a little bit nervous, especially the school itself. What will the children do once they come? Will they like the school? Will they be nice to him?
SCHOOL'S FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL
Written by Adam Rex and illustrated by Christian Robinson
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press (June 28, 2016)
What inspired you to write School's First Day of School? AR: "It’s such a dumb origin story. But I think it’s instructive in the sense that it shows how ideas can come from just about anywhere. To me the question is never 'where do you get ideas?' but rather, 'how are you going to train yourself to notice when they come?'
So. I was hanging out with a large group of people who write and illustrate picture books, and conversation turned to some of the big clichés of the format. Learning to Share, Being Jealous of the New Baby, or what have you. So of course someone mentioned, A Child Is Nervous About His First Day of School, which made me feel weird because I was at that time in the midst of illustrating just such a book, Chu’s First Day of School. But my brain has a habit of reversing things. I’m always spoonerizing phrases to see if the result is funny. Flock of Bats turning into Block of Flats, or whatever. It’s a reflex. My brain also reflexively transposes whole words sometimes, so that evening when I heard 'A Child Is Nervous About His First Day of School' I changed it to 'A School Is Nervous About His First Day of Children.' I whispered it as a joke to a friend sitting next to me, and that’s as far as it could have gone. But I kept toying with it in my mind, wondering if there was something there. So the next day I mentioned it to my agent, and he said something like, 'That’s your next book. I can sell that in fifteen minutes.' I sat down to see if I could write it, and it came out almost verbatim to what we published a couple years later. Picture book manuscripts don’t usually come that easy."
Do you have any other favorite picture books that play with perspective? "Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis has kind of a different shift in perspective. It’s a beautiful little story about a few days in the life of some bugs. And it’s told largely through pictures, but also through dialogue presented entirely in an invented bug language. There’s no prose narration, and no recognizable words at all. But the magic of it is that, by the end of the book, you start to understand some of what is being said. By the second or third read you can translate it all in your mind. It’s really something when a book not only enchants you like that, but gets you thinking about all the untapped potential of picture books as a whole."
You have such a distinctive illustration style. I'm curious: how do you choose which books you illustrate yourself? And which ones you pair up with a separate illustrator? Are there any dream books you would have loved to illustrate? "I feel like I really opened up my career once I decided I didn’t have to illustrate everything I write. It’s been this gift that I now get to work with illustrators I admire, and watch the process from the other side of things. I’d been considering it for a couple years before it happened, but wondered if I’d really ever write anything that I’d want to hand off to someone else. Then I wrote School’s First Day of School, and immediately I thought it needed a certain touch to the illustrations. Something classic, not too busy; something distilled down to a really powerful simplicity. And none of that sounded much like my work. I started thinking of people like Christian Robinson, and imagining that I’d have to find my own version of the kind of work he does. And I’m glad I didn’t do that.
Instead of ripping off Christian, why not see if I can just get Christian. And, amazingly, my editor on that book had had the same thought. After that experience, it became easier to ask myself: Am I really the best illustrator for this? If I were my own editor or art director, would I even think of me? It’s hard to come up with an old book I love that I wish I’d illustrated. If I love it, that’s probably because it has great words and great art that are so perfectly joined that separating them would feel offensive. But I have always had a desire to illustrate the really timeless and classic stories. Jabberwocky would be fun."
If you have children, what were your favorite picture books to read to them at age three? At age five? "My son Henry is nine now, and we still read at bedtime. Nowadays that’s often chapter books or middle grade novels, but we read a fair amount of picture books as well. Henry in Love by Peter McCarty remains a favorite. When he was younger we really loved The Big Honey Hunt by Jan and Stan Berenstain. I feel kind of indifferent to the sorts of books they made about the Berenstain Bears in later years, but those first couple (I also love The Bike Lesson) are great read-alouds with a really fun unreliable character."
What are the contemporary picture books that you hope will become the classics of the future? "Hoo. Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen. We Found a Hat by Klassen as well. The aforementioned Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis. Arnie the Doughnut by Laurie Keller. My son has always loved If I Built a Car by Chris Van Dusen. Her Right Foot by Dave Eggers and Shawn Harris. Mad at Mommy by Komako Sakai. Wild by Emily Hughes. You Matter by Christian Robinson. Little Penguins by Cynthia Rylant and Christian Robinson. The Charlie and Mouse books by Laurel Snyder and Emily Hughes. Anything by Isabelle Arsenault."