Adam Rex Gets A Big Head (...Not Really)

We profile the local author/illustrator as one of his books is a year away from the big screen

Sure, having one of your books banned provides some street cred—and maybe a prime spot in the window display at Bookmans during Banned Books Week—but for Tucson children's author and illustrator Adam Rex, it's a status he'd rather do without ...

Entering the Epic Café on Fourth Avenue, Rex looks like any other coffeehouse regular. He dutifully gets in line to order coffee and breakfast, and it seems like he knows every barista working there by name.

"I live down the street," Rex offers.

However, on occasion Rex does get noticed. It's usually kids and parents who happen to be big fans and may have seen him at the Tucson Festival of Books. He's also loved by school librarians. To them, he's like a rock star of children's literature, and his anonymity could be even further shredded with the release of a DreamWorks Studios animated movie based on his first children's novel, The True Meaning of Smekday.

But becoming a celebrity wasn't why he got in the business, Rex says, and he certainly never expected to see his name on a banned-books list.

After spending years painting zombies, wizards and bloody axes for fantasy trading-card games such as Magic the Gathering, Rex finally got to do what he'd been hoping for since his high school years in Phoenix's Moon Valley area: illustrate and write children's books.

And it was his first book, in fact, that led to his appearance on a banned-book list. In 2003, Rex was asked to illustrate The Dirty Cowboy, written by Amy Timberlake. It's about a cowboy who takes a much-needed bath at a river and leaves his dog to guard his clothes. When he returns, he's so clean that he's unrecognizable and he has to fight his dog for the clothes, which get ripped apart in the process. So the cowboy has to walk home naked.

Some folks didn't appreciate the book. In 2006, it was banned at an elementary school in Texas and in 2012 a Pennsylvania school district gave it a thumbs-down.

"Every time it's happened, people have come out of the woodwork to pat me on the back and tell me how great that is," Rex says. "All I can say is it doesn't feel great. Fundamentally, there is somebody out there that is saying I am creating things that hurt children, when the whole reason I got into this is because I love kids and I want to make stories for them.

"I know that every public banning is going to lead to increased book sales and exponentially a larger number of people looking at the book that everybody is telling them not to look at," Rex says. "But it's the secret bannings that I have to really worry about—all the ones I never get to hear about (such as) when a parent is upset and goes to a school librarian and says, 'Take this book out.' And that librarian just doesn't have it in her to fight back and she takes it away and nobody notices that one book is gone out of the library, and that's that."

There could have been a butt cheek.

What bothers Rex isn't just being banned, but also the notion that somehow writers and illustrators are eager to be subversive. He thinks back to how The Dirty Cowboy came into his life and he finally got his break in children's literature. Because of his work in fantasy, it was difficult for children's book publishers and agents to take him seriously. He started doing illustrations for children's magazines, like Cricket and Spider, to help build his portfolio.

Rex graduated from the UA in 1996, but stuck around to take some new classes with his mentor David Christiana. During that time he was introduced to his future wife, who was studying astronomy. Eventually, the couple traveled along the East Coast as she researched schools where she could complete her doctorate.

"I had been corresponding for a while with a lot of people and always sending samples of my work to various editors. Some were good enough to respond that they really did like my stuff and that they'd keep it on file and call if they had anything for me," Rex says "But that never happened."

But when planning a trip to New York City to visit one of Marie's potential schools, Rex called a publishing house there and asked to meet with an editor. An editor agreed and Rex showed up with an illustrated children's book he was working on.

"He looked at my book, and then handed me the manuscript for The Dirty Cowboy. Maybe, based on how I handled humor in my magazine work, he decided this guy could do this," Rex says. "So he gave me the manuscript and I was thrilled. But then (my wife) and I went and sat in a cafe afterward and I feverishly read it and realized it was a great story. But it was also a story about a guy who takes his clothes off and never gets them back. How am I going to do this?"

For those who want to ban The Dirty Cowboy, Rex likes to explain that his editor told him he could have one butt cheek in the illustrations. But in the end, Rex didn't put in any butt at all.

"There are no butts in the book. I declined the butt and I feel like I should get a certain amount of credit for that," Rex says, a smile spreading across his face. "I showed restraint."

The same publisher gave him his next assignment, illustrating Ste-e-e-e-eamboat a-Comin'!, written by Jill Esbaum, but Rex eventually realized the firm wasn't interested in his writing or his humor. He moved on to work with other publishing companies, continuing with illustrations for other writers, including children's author Mac Barnett (Chloe and the Lion), a collaboration that's grown into a friendship.

His latest illustration work has paired him with an author he's long admired but never thought he'd have a chance to work with. Neil Gaiman, the prolific English author of fantasy, horror and science fiction, wrote a children's book called Chu's Day, published earlier this year. It's based on Gaiman's experience visiting a panda preserve in China.

Rex says Gaiman chose him to illustrate the book, which is something authors usually have no say in unless, of course, you're as successful as Gaiman.

"I'm sitting next to the guy that everyone is there to see," Rex says, describing a recent New York City book signing with Gaiman. "I try not to have big expectations or worry about that kind of thing anymore. I've seen no one show up for well-known authors."

Sitting at the Epic Café over coffee and a bagel, Rex notes that poor attendance wasn't a problem at the signing. The line snaked out the door and around the corner, and some fans had been camping there since the night before. "We signed their tent for them," Rex says.

Although most people were there to meet Gaiman, some of them were also Rex fans.

"That was nice," Rex acknowledges.

Because his brother said he was better.

When Rex was 5, he overheard a conversation between his older brother and his parents in their Phoenix-area home.

"He was complaining that it wasn't fair that I was three years younger than him and could already draw better," Rex says. "I wasn't better than my brother at anything. He was smarter and he was better at sports. So, you know, when I overheard him inadvertently tell me he thought I was better at art at the age of 5, well, I was going to be an artist."

Rex says that decision scared his parents, but they never said a thing until he was well established in his career. "I was lucky I had parents (like that). Even though I would learn later that they were quietly freaking out when I said I wanted to be an artist, they never let me know that. They just kept it to themselves. I appreciate that now."

Rex says his childhood was full of comic books, fantasy games and novels. He knew he wanted to be an artist and maybe do comics, but he didn't really understand what being an artist meant. In high school, he worked part time at a chain bookstore in a mall, which is where he discovered that the children's picture books published in the 1980s and into the 1990s were much different than the ones he grew up with.

"They were doing very lush, painterly art, which was completely unlike the kids' books we grew up with that tended to be line art and a couple of colors—maybe not even a full-color process," Rex says. "I was definitely drawn towards that. Even as a teenager I thought about what my kids' books were going to look like and I got into guys like Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith, who did Stinky Cheese Man and True Story of the Three Little Pigs. Scieszka is the writer of irreverent, funny postmodern kids' books, and I set out to basically start imitating these guys in a craven and terrible way." Fortunately, Rex says, "None of those got published."

To pay the rent, Rex did fantasy art of orcs, dragons and zombies—lots of zombies. As he started to get more work as a children's illustrator, Rex says, he recognized he could finally start saying no to more zombies.

"It was good work to cut my teeth on. I learned how to paint really fast. ... It was fun work," he says. "I certainly don't regret it at all, but what I really wanted to do was either kids' books or comics, so when I got the opportunity to start saying no to the Dungeons and Dragons book covers and the Magic the Gathering cards, my art director eventually just asked me, 'I keep calling you with new work and you keep saying no to me. What are you doing?"

When he told the art director "I am making kids' books now," there was a long silence on the other end of the line, Rex recalls. "He thought I was doing zombie art because I liked it. He was pretty horrified at the thought of the zombie guy doing children's books. He thought I was some kind of deviant at this point."

I'm, er, my kid is a big fan

A few years ago, my son and I were at the Tucson Festival of Books and he was carrying a copy of one of his favorite picture books. You could tell it was a favorite, not just because he gripped it tightly while we walked along the mall, but also because the edges were starting to look worn.

Rex was there to talk about his first novel, The True Meaning of Smekday, but that wasn't why we were there. My son wanted Rex to sign his copy of what was Rex's first children's book as both writer and illustrator, Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich. Inside are colorful drawings of almost every movie monster I grew up with: Frankenstein, Dracula, the Phantom of the Opera, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Hunchback of Notre Dame and others.

Each page featured a monster with a poem, and my son loved to read the poems over and over. The book put Rex on The New York Times best-seller list and into the home of thousands of children. When librarians reach out to him, Rex makes it a point to go to their schools to discuss his work, especially if the schools are in high poverty areas. It's the Frankenstein book and its sequel, Frankenstein Takes the Cake, that brings those invitations, he says.

But despite his higher profile these days, many of the kids he meets at schools aren't aware of his work.

"'Exactly how famous are you?' Rex says a girl asked him during a recent visit to a Phoenix school. "I said, 'If you have to ask, I'm not very.'"

At schools and festivals, the reaction from kids is always deeply satisfying, Rex says. "If you're winning them over, you're really winning them over. They don't hide their feelings. If you're boring them, they let you know."Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich, Rex's most popular book, was recently released as a paperback, which doesn't happen often with illustrated children's books, he says. It also was recently translated into Spanish.

When it comes to dealing with his fans—and their parents—at book festivals and signings, it's sometimes tricky explaining his books to the parents, Rex says.

For instance, in The Dirty Cowboy, "The main character takes his clothes off and he never gets them back," Rex notes. "The kids think its great but I am always eying the parents. The kids aren't scarred by it but the parents think their kids are going to be scarred by it. Those are the people I have to worry about."

"But I also try not to be too critical of it. ... I have nothing, of course, against parents deciding what their little kids should or should not read. I just have a problem with other parents who decide what everyone else's kids should or should not be allowed to read."

There's going to be a movie—with Rihanna and Jim Parsons

While my son sat patiently holding his copy of Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich at that Tucson Festival of Books, he heard Rex talk about The True Meaning of Smekday and listened to him read from the book. But the coolest part was watching Rex draw some of the characters.

The book, published in 2007, is about a middle-school-age girl, Gratuity, and what happens to her when aliens take over Earth. Her mother is taken by the aliens and Gratuity sets out to look for her. Along the way she befriends a renegade alien who calls himself J.Lo and they have all sorts of adventures.

I'm not saying here how it turned out, but my son thought it was such a good story that we read it again last summer.

Rex has written other books for the elementary-to middle-school-age set, including a trilogy called the Cold Cereal Saga. The second part, Unlucky Charms, was released last month. Rex says the books are about evil cereal companies and their mascots.

There's also Fat Vampire: A Never Coming of Age Story, for the older set, about a high-school-aged vampire doomed to be fat and awkward forever.

Rex admits his books are quirky. "That's why I feel really lucky that I've come this far," he says. "I probably have a real specific audience."

When I ran across Rex one day last year, he told me that my son might want to know that Smekday was being made into a movie by DreamWorks Studios.

During our recent interview at Epic, I confirmed what I had read—that singer Rihanna was doing the voice of Gratuity and Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory) would be the voice of J.Lo. The movie, to be released in late 2014, is called Happy Smekday!

Rex says he got to see storyboards and hear dialogue from the early scenes during a recent trip to Los Angeles, and he's happy with how it's going.

"I was thinking this could have gone very differently and I could have been a little disappointed with how the characters looked, but I am pretty thrilled about how closely they are going to look," Rex says.

"I'm a really firm believer in that the book is the book, and the movie is the movie. As much as people like to claim so on the Internet, I don't think any movie can ruin a book."

Rex's wife ended up working on her Ph.D. in Philadelphia. When she was done, they returned to Tucson. Her family is here, and his family is in Fountain Hills, and "It made sense for us to come back and be near family, he says.

So with a movie in the works, is it possible now to claim Rex as a Tucson celebrity?

Rex looked a bit uncomfortable when I suggested that to him amid the clattering of dishes and the hissing of espresso machines at the Epic.

"Some people may still not know who I am when the movie comes out," he said. "When I get asked what I do or what I've written, the reaction is like they've caught you in a lie, like you said you're an actor but really you're a waiter in a community production of Cats. Literally thousands of kids' books get published every year.

"I'm (just) the guy who wrote the book based on the movie you know about."

Yeah, right. Tell that to the kid at home who exclaimed, "You interviewed Adam Rex!"

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