Adam Rex writes and illustrates for readers of all ages across a range of styles, from the sentimental to the charmingly whimsical, and everything in between. His new YA novel, A Little Like Waking, is an illustrated tale of a dream, a dreamer, and what happens when reality sets in. We spoke with Rex about his three 2023 releases, the process of creating both textual and visual work, and scary clown dreams.

A Little Like Waking is pitched by your publisher as You’ve Reached Sam meets The Good Place, and is a genre-bending blend of bittersweet existentialism and the goofy stuff actual dreams are made of. What was it like to write in the space between serious and silly?

I think that’s where I live most of the time. Even with my other books, you could consider them a spectrum. But I’m always trying to write silly things. And I’m trying to write humor, but I’m always trying to break your heart too. I feel like the way to get there is to make you laugh, and then pivot to something that might be more serious or more substantial.

The story ultimately morphs into a type of quest or hero’s journey for your main characters, Zelda and Langston, including many surreal obstacles along the way. How did you come up with characters like the gym teacher-horsemen or the terrifying laundromat clown?

I’m probably just revealing too much about the interior of my own psyche when I do that. To a large extent I was mining my own dreams for, what I thought, were typical dreams. I feel like I dream a lot, which is probably a silly thing to say as I probably don’t dream any more than the average person. But I’m very bad at sleeping so I tend to wake up a lot and, as a result, remember my dreams. So it’s funny, I actually had never had a scary clown dream. I put that into the story more because I think that is just part of the zeitgeist. And then, two nights ago, I actually had a terrifying clown dream.

You manifested yourself a scary clown dream! The artwork in this book is just as essential to the story as the prose. As both an author and an illustrator, what does your process look like when creating a single work in two mediums?

People often ask me, “What comes first, the illustration or the writing?” and I feel like I’m letting them down in a sense because I always say the writing comes first. I don’t think there’s anything particularly right or wrong about that, but I don’t spend my days filling up sketchbooks with stream-of-consciousness drawings that then lead to a story later. In the case of A Little Like Waking, I do feel the end result is a story where the illustrations feel very vital, but I wrote this story not knowing if anybody was going to let me get away with illustrations at all. I wrote it as a prose novel that then kind of got infected by the artwork later on. The artwork ended up taking the place of some of the prose and making some of it redundant, and even has some sections that switch over entirely to comic storytelling. I eliminated a huge block of writing that I had previously done because it was no longer necessary to tell the story since the artwork was telling it in, hopefully, a more elegant way.

You are an author-illustrator with a prolific backlist of works for kids and teens of all ages. In fact, you have two other 2023 releases in addition to A Little Like WakingThe Story of Gumluck the Wizard and Oh No, The Aunts Are Here. What do you enjoy about writing across categories and age ranges?

I have to be honest, I’m surprised more people don’t do it. I know I’m somewhat unusual in that respect, but why? Do people who make picture books only ever get picture book ideas? I doubt it. I think perhaps they’re just not pursuing some of the ideas they get into other audiences and other genres. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I get an idea and sometimes it’s just obviously a picture book idea. And sometimes it’s not, and I love that. I’ve been given the rope to follow my ideas wherever they happen to go, even when they lead to middle grade or something that just feels more obviously YA.

Do you ever start the writing process and then in the middle of a project realize you’re writing it for the wrong age group and pivot?

Yeah, absolutely. Maybe I was restricting myself a little bit too much at the beginning of my career. My debut novel was actually written as a picture book first. And it was a terrible picture book! I read it to my wife, who said, “This isn’t it.” I realized she was right, it wasn’t working. And then it just kind of hit me a couple of weeks later, “Oh duh, it’s a middle grade novel!” It was so obviously a middle grade novel. But I don’t think I had given myself permission to think in that space until that point.

Young adulthood can be fraught with both difficult and beautiful revelations about the world. What do you hope teen readers will take away from A Little Like Waking?

The characters find themselves in this place of interrogating reality versus dream life, and this brings up a lot of discussion around agency and what we owe each other. Zelda finds herself wondering if she even has the right to have feelings for Langston because he might just be a figment of her imagination. So it’s a very tangential way to get at something that I had a bit of trouble with as a teenager, which is just thinking of other people as people—as others who are deserving of respect and human dignity. As a teenager I was a little too wrapped up in my own world to think deeply about the personhood of others. I’ve written about this a couple of times, so I think I am trying to process this experience through fiction.

That is a very developmentally appropriate moment for teenagers to realize everyone is the main character of their own story, and this really comes through in A Little Like Waking. Final question, what are you working on now?

As you mentioned, my early chapter book The Story of Gumluck the Wizard is coming out in a couple of weeks. I am working on the second in that series, which is about this silly little wizard who has silly little magical problems, but is also about giving yourself the respect of a full person, and not always just being at the beck and call of others. I’m also working on a couple of picture books. I feel like I’ve been immensely lucky that this is the kind of career I get to have, that on any given day I may be writing prose, sketching, or painting, and just going wherever the work happens to be leading me.

A Little Like Waking by Adam Rex. Roaring Brook, $20.99 Aug. 1 ISBN 978-1-250-62191-7