By Mike Chesnick
School of Art
Long before DreamWorks turned his children’s book into the 2015 animated film “Home,” Adam Rex sat in a University of Arizona art classroom and dreamed about his own career.
“David Christiana taught me so much,” Rex said about the School of Art emeritus professor. “Anatomy, how to paint … but the greatest thing he did for me was just be a walking, talking object lesson — here was someone who wrote and illustrated picture books, proving it was a real thing that people did.
“I needed that. You can know a certain profession is attainable, but if you don’t actually see it, it feels a little like saying you want to be a wizard when you grow up.”
You could say Rex has become a wizard in his own right, having written and illustrated more than 40 books for children — including several New York Times bestsellers — since he graduated with a BFA in Studio Art in 1996.
And now Rex, 49, hopes to channel Christiana in the next several months as the Tucson Public Library’s fall writer-in-residence, offering one-on-one sessions to aspiring authors and illustrators at the Himmel Park and Woods Memorial branches.
In 2017, Rex won both the Margaret Wise Brown Prize in Children’s Literature for “School’s First Day of School” and the 2017 National Cartoonists Society Book Illustration Award for “The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors.” His debut novel — “The True Meaning of Smekday,” which DreamWorks developed into “Home” with Rihanna — was a 2007 nominee for the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy.
He got his start drawing comic strips for the Arizona Daily Wildcat student newspaper and making art for games such as “Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering.” Rex, who lives in Tucson with his physicist wife, Marie, and son, answered questions for the School of Art.
Q. Can you tell us about your first career break out of college?
Rex: I got my earliest work by taking a portfolio out to the San Diego Comic Con in the nineties and showing it to anyone who would look at it. I slept in my car and just hustled for the full weekend each year. That led to some jobs in RPGs and card games, which led to better work in the same field, and that kind of stuff paid my bills for years while I was trying to break into children’s books.
Q. What advice would you give current School of Art students?
Rex: I’m not sure what to say specifically to students in school right now about this moment, but I think this one is evergreen: Slow it down. Learn everything you can and try new things. That’s our job when we’re in school. But in my day, there were always students who got up on critique day and presented the same thing they always did, in the same medium and style. Style, in particular, became their armor — if anyone in class questioned their work (shaky fundamentals, lackluster composition, sloppy rendering) this kind of student invariably said, “That’s just my style; it’s supposed to look like that.” You couldn’t teach them anything …
Q. What would you like people to learn from your one-on-one library sessions?
Rex: Well, piggybacking on that last answer, I guess I’m hoping an aspiring writer and/or illustrator will show up to our one-on-one consultation looking to learn something. Something about my experiences in my field, or my beliefs about art and writing, or even my opinion of their work. And then they can walk away with everything I said and decide for themselves if it had any value. Maybe I’ll have said something that really helps them — I sincerely hope I do — but I could be wrong! Even the process of picking apart why I’m wrong could lead them to a better understanding of why what they’re doing is right.
Q. How did you develop your writing skills?
Rex: By writing a lot of really bad stories. And reading a lot of really good ones.
Q. What did you create for the Daily Wildcat?
Rex: Oh, I had a couple short-lived comic strips during my years as a student. The first was a Far Side/Bizarro-style single panel strip, except not good. And the second was more of a Doonesbury/Bloom Country-style serialized strip, except not good.
Q. Where do you get ideas for your books?
Rex: “Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich” was a title that popped into my head, fully formed, while I was on a stair stepper machine. I didn’t know what it meant but decided to try writing a book that might be called that.
“The True Meaning of Smekday” came out of the books of American history I was reading at the time, and I set out to write an alien invasion story that would encourage the average American kid to sympathize with the colonized rather than the colonizers (if you think that aspiration sounds a little fraught, it was — I made mistakes that cause me to have mixed feelings about that book now). Another book came from an anecdote my brother told me. Still another came to me when I misread a sign.
So, the point I’m getting to is: ideas come from everywhere, and I never know where lightning is going to strike next. If I did, I’d go stand there.
Q. What projects are you working on now?
Rex: My next book to arrive in stores is called “Digestion! The Musical.” It’s a stage musical about how digestion works, but in book form. I think it comes out in October. But right now I’m working on a young adult novel and a chapter book series, neither of which will be out for a couple years. Traditional publishing has a long lead time.
Q. You grew up in Phoenix and attended Thunderbird High School. Why did you make Tucson your home?
Rex: I never got a sense of Phoenix having any personality. I probably just lived in the wrong part. Tucson has personality — sometimes an embarrassing surfeit of personality. Tucson is a dog who has a million followers on Instagram because it’s so ugly it’s cute.
- Who: Adam Rex, illustrator and author
- What: 30-minute one-on-one sessions
- When: Aug. 16 to Oct. 27. Tuesdays, Himmel Park Library, 1035 N. Treat Ave., noon-2 p.m. Thursdays, Woods Memorial Library, 3455 N. First Ave, noon-2 p.m. Register
- More info
PRAISE FROM A PROFESSOR
David Christiana, a professor emeritus in the School of Art, illustrated more than 20 picture books for children and authored four for international publishers. He reflected on Adam Rex, his former student:
“Adam was an outstanding student. It was clear from the get-go that he wasn’t merely a picture maker nor simply a designer or typographer. He was then, as he is now, a human with a personal vision. That, though not unique (everyone has a unique perspective) is too often surprisingly underserved. In Adam’s case, his uber-unique perspective just seemed to ooze out all over everything he did. Further, it oozed with arresting clarity and skill. I mean, he soaked up what was going on in and out of class, twisted things around with exceptional skill, not to mention wit, and worked like a bull to make his imaginative jaunts come to life in pictures and words.
“He was also as serious as he was playful, both in the execution of his work and his approach toward a career. I remember how, early on, he grouped the works he featured on his web site into age-appropriate categories. That may seem like a natural step, but to many artists whose creative flights are as playful and original as Adam’s, taking that practical step can be difficult. What was it they used to say about mullet haircuts – ‘business in the front, party in the back?’ Well, to force the analogy, Adam was like a mullet in reverse – party in the front with business in the background. It’s a balance, or perhaps more precisely, a dance.
“Adam’s success is truly one of my great rewards as an educator. There are many perks when it comes to teaching at the School of Art and none is greater than seeing a student launch and succeed, but to see one take flight and soar with such grace and aplomb as Adam has over the years is more than satisfying, it’s a gift to relish, and I do.”