01 May 2014
EVEN MONSTERS by AJ Smith
Today I'm once again thrilled to help celebrate a debut book by somebody whose career I've been watching for a long time. AJ Smith drops by today to share his new picture book EVEN MONSTERS (Sourcebooks).
Q. AJ - How long have you been trying to break into the children's book industry and where did the idea come from for EVEN MONSTERS?
A. I've been trying to break into the trade market since 2004! That said, I've been fortunate to have snuck into the educational market at that time and wound up illustrating a total of thirteen books and many kids' magazine illustrations over the next few years, but continued to spin my wheels when it came to trade picture books. Still, I continued to write and make dummies and study writing, and just plain READ.
I think initially, the idea came from hearing kids say things like, "...but so-and-so doesn't have to do that," or "TJ got to listen to HIS music in the car." The idea being at the time that even these other kids had to do a lot of the same things that makes them all similar and united in some way. It evolved into monsters being my thinly veiled versions of these kids. If I can tell a story with a message, that's great, but I would rather do a silly book that JUST makes kids laugh than ever be didactic in any way. I think in Even Monsters, I wound up being able to bury a message somewhere underneath all the cooties and monster growling.
Q. What path did this book take to publication?
A. A very long and unique one. I wrote the book way back in 2006 and started pitching the dummy in 2007. It was met very favorably but ultimately not picked up at that time. I tabled the idea for a while and then around 2011, my agent thought it might be a good idea to try and create an animated, interactive version of it to show that (1) I was capable of doing that sort of work (to supplement my income), and (2) to try and sell it as an app/picture book bundle. This garnered a lot of interest from publishers, but everyone involved was surprised at how expensive it would be for the programming side of an app. Ultimately and ironically, Even Monsters was sold to Sourcebooks as JUST a picture book in 2012. Though the manuscript had changed slightly, it was essentially the same book we pitched back in 2007. I guess the timing was just right this time.
Q. What was your reaction?
A. Based on the long route to publication this book took, initially my reaction was relief and also an immediate realization that I had to seize the opportunity. It felt a little like getting called up from the minor leagues... If I was going to make it in children's publishing, this book HAD to do well! I made sure to extend that mantra not just into writing and illustration but into promotion and presentations as well.
Q. What were some of the unique challenges you faced with EVEN MONSTERS?
A. Still not having a style of my own that I was comfortable with. Part of the problem was that since I was getting a fair amount of educational work, I was reticent to leave that style behind completely and was making too many safe, tentative visual choices. I realize it is a process and I think I've come a long way stylistically (and continue to evolve) but I just decided the best way to arrive at a style was not through trying to figure out what an editor or art director might like but what I liked. I was failing anyway, so at least if I was going to continue to fail it would be by making art that I felt good about. I think my strong suit is that I have a unique and hopefully funny voice/perspective. So I'm just aspiring to use illustration and writing as vehicles to let that shine through.
Some of AJs trading cards:
Q. I think I see digital and watercolor and collage and... what was your method? (Can you share a photo of your studio?)
A. My process always starts with a pencil and a piece of white copy paper... where it goes from there is a little bit of colored pencil, acrylic washes, found objects/fabrics, cut paper/collage, good 'ol Crayola's and then I scan it all in and make sense of it in Photoshop. My studio has changed a few times since the book began. My background is in the animation industry and what I miss most about it is collaborating with (and just plain being around) other people. As such, most often, my "studio" is one of many local coffee shops. But, I do have a very small space of my own that I do all my messier (and late night) work in -- like answering interview questions ;)
Click the image to see a larger version of AJs creative space in a new window.
Q. You're now an official author/illustrator - CONGRATULATIONS! How has that changed things for you?
A I feel very lucky and thankful to make books, but I'm looking at it like every book going forward is a crossroads book that could be my last if it's not successful. I want it to keep going. I want to keep pushing myself and keep creating.
Q. How are you celebrating the release of EVEN MONSTERS?
A. We had an amazing book launch with a huge turnout. It went exceptionally well. The bookstore sold out and I was very pleasantly surprised with the whole thing. I had costumed assistants from a local theater group, squirt guns, giant underpants, cooties, whoopie pies, monster trading card giveaways, and lots and lots of ROARING kids. I love doing these sorts of events and connecting with kids/parents. Makes the whole thing seem more concrete at that point.
Q. What are you working on next?
A. I still have to wear a lot of different creative hats to make this all work. Everyday really is different. Some days, I'm an animator, some days a designer. Another day it will be writing for a local paper or illustrating a piece for a kids' magazine like Ranger Rick or Highlights. Usually I'm juggling all these things at once. The biggest thing on my plate right now is the followup book to Even Monsters, EVEN DINOSAURS, which will come out in 2015. And I am tinkering with writing a chapter book series that I am absolutely in love with and can't wait to finish... Who know's what's next after that...
Great to have you on AJ! I wish you much continued success!
MONSTER ART CONTEST
AJ is hosting a MONSTER ART CONTEST on his blog - enter your most awesome, silliest monster drawings! You can draw Glubb, Skeebu, or creator your own crazy creature! CLICK HERE for details!
Check out this adorable video AJ did to promote EVEN MONSTERS! (Click on the fixed image if the embedded one gives you any trouble.
AJ did several videos - CLICK HERE to see more!
Sourcebooks has kindly agreed to give one free copy of EVEN MONSTERS to one of my lucky commenters. Must live in the US or Canada to win. Enter below.