The author-illustrator team interviewed each other about their picture book collaboration, School’s First Day of School (Roaring Brook/Porter), which is out in time for back-to-school season.
Christian Robinson: What inspired you to write School’s First Day of School?
Adam Rex: I was at a party near Portland a few years ago where I actually met you for the first time, Christian. Literally everyone there was in kids’ books in one way or another, and conversation turned to picture book clichés – one of these mentioned was the old standard about a little kid or waistcoated animal who’s worried about his first day of school. I leaned over to our friend Mac [Barnett] and whispered, “A school is nervous about his first day of children,” because that’s how my brain is wired. If I hear an arrangement, I’ll often reflexively reverse it to see if it’s funny.
I must have thought there was something to this offhand joke, because I made a point of repeating it to our agent when I saw him the next morning. And he immediately said, “You’re writing that. That’s your next book.”
I sat down to try it out and came up with a voice for the school that I kind of fell in love with right away. Later I was reminded of all those Peanuts comic strips in the ’70s where Sally talks to her school and the school has thoughts of his own. I sort of think I was carrying those around in my head for 30 years, waiting to process them and remake the idea into something new.
Robinson: That was a nice get-together in Portland. I remember feeling nervous and bit out of place because I was still very new to world of kids’ books. I don’t think my first illustrated book had even come out yet. You know what’s also kinda crazy – when I first met Mac he mentioned a ghost story picture book he’d been writing [which turned into Leo: A Ghost Story, illustrated by Robinson]. I think I’ve been very lucky with first introductions and future book collaborations.
Rex: I’m guessing that you get sent a lot of picture book manuscripts, and that you probably turn down a lot more than you illustrate. So could you tell me what led you to work on School’s First Day of School, but in a way that doesn’t make it seem like I just asked you this so you’d compliment my writing?
Robinson: There are a couple of things that make me want to illustrate some manuscripts over others. One is just the feeling I have after reading: am I moved in some way, does it resonate with me? The other thing is when I begin to visualize the story, characters, setting – is it something I actually see myself having fun with? It’s really important that I can imagine myself enjoying the process of completing the story. Deciding to illustrate School’s First Day of School required very little thinking. I am a huge fan of your words and honored that you’d entrust me with making the pictures to go with them.
Which brings me to my next question. You’re an accomplished crazy talented author and illustrator. Why not illustrate School’s First Day of School yourself?
Rex: A few reasons. One was that I’d actually been looking for a project for a while where I could be the author and someone else could be the illustrator, because I just wanted to see what that was like. Of course I really only wanted to see what that was like if I could work with one of my illustration idols, but I suppose all authors feel that way: they only really want an illustrator they love, and some authors get that and some don’t. But I’m in a fortunate position, I guess, in that I can always fall back on illustrating the book myself if everyone seems to be hinting at an illustrator who I think would be a bad fit.
Did that sound harsh? I’m trying to come off as likable.
Anyway, working with an illustrator also seemed like a good way to deal with an issue I alluded to in my question to you: if we’re lucky, we all get to the point where we have more potential projects than we have time in which to do them. In the future I’d like to continue being honest with myself and admit when I’d be better off asking someone else to illustrate my writing.
So that brings me to the last reason: School’s First Day of School seemed like the perfect test case for this kind of honesty, because I really just didn’t know how to illustrate it. I wasn’t sure how to handle the main character, the school itself. I could only think of two extremes, which were to either give the school no personification at all – no face, just a brick wall like the one Sally talked to – or else turn it into something cheesy like you’d see on a “School Is Cool” poster, where there are big sparkly eyes in the windows and a smile with the tongue hanging out.
I was leaning toward the former, and whenever I imagined how I might draw and render it I kept seeing a style like yours or Carson Ellis’s or Jon Klassen’s. Nothing like my own. So instead of ripping off Christian Robinson, why not see if we could actually get Christian Robinson?
You gave the school this beautifully subtle face in its front doors, and I remember being told that you based its facade on an actual school you visited. Is that right?
Robinson: Yes, that’s right. When I agreed to do the book I shared the same anxiety you expressed concerning what the school should actually look like. I love looking for inspiration, doing research and going to museums, all the sort of things that help spark ideas. It’s really special, though, when inspiration comes to you. School was inspired by this little school I came across when I was visiting Boston. I was out sightseeing with my boyfriend, John. We were walking down a charming residential neighborhood when a school with a face appeared. I turned to John and said, “I think I found School!” John was like, “What?”
Thinking back to your school days, what were some of your favorite school smells, sounds, tastes?
Rex: I don’t know if I’d call it a favorite, but there was an entree in the rotation at my grade school cafeteria called “Salisbury Steak” that was some kind of freestanding spongiform potage covered in a sauce that would probably have to be spelled “grayvee” for legal reasons. I know that making fun of school cafeteria food is kind of hacky, but 35 years later the memory of its specific smell will sometimes just hit me, suddenly, like a punch in the nose.
I was probably supposed to say I loved the smell of paste or something. What about you?
Robinson: My elementary school had a recess split, so you were either in the first recess group or the second. I was in the first group and I remember always coming in from recess full from lunch and tired from running around outside. My desk was near the window so I could hear the kids in second recess playing outside. I think I may have been around the age when nap time was no longer a thing. But I desperately needed a nap – like clockwork I would fall asleep at my desk to the sounds of the playground. To this day the collective sounds of kids playing outside, laughing, screaming, running, dodge balls bouncing, jump ropes tapping the ground, I find comforting and makes me sleepy.
Rex: And with that, let me compose you a little soundscape, Christian: Tap, tap, tap goes the jumprope. Laughter. Tag, you’re it, hey no tag-backs. Miss Suzy had a steamboat, bright voices sing, and the tetherball tether keeps time with a swish, swish, swish, bump.
There. Christian is sleeping now.