Hi Adam Rex
, Great to have you back on! Last we talked, you were sharing School’s First Day of School
. I’m thrilled to have you visit again, this time to talk about The Next President
, written by Kate Messner
I’m pleased to be back! And talking about a book I’m very proud of.
e: How did this book come to be? Was it a collaboration between you and Kate in any way?
It was a collaboration in the same sense most picture books are, which is to say there wasn’t all that much direct communication between Kate and I. But I do think we all (Kate, our editor, our art director, our book designer, and me) got into back-and-forths and email chains more often than the typical picture book. Talking about how best to manage what was more than the usual amount of information, puzzling over historical accuracy, and whatnot.
e: What was your creative process/medium for The Next President, can you walk us through it?
Well, a lot more research than I usually put into a picture book. I’m a fundamentally lazy person. But I did my best to get things right on this, and that meant tracking down hundreds of photos and doing a fair bit of reading. Trying to make sure that an 1841 spread showed how the US Capitol looked in 1841, which was not how it looked in the 1850s, which in turn was not how it looked in the 1860s. Stuff like that. Learning more about boats than I ever expected to. Obsessing over little things like whether I was putting the buttons on the correct side of a vest (which I say with trepidation, because admitting I obsessed over little details will just make me look dumber when a reader points out I made some huge, glaring error that stretches across two pages—it hasn’t happened yet, but I expect it will).
And here you can see some of my sketches, which are pretty rough but are nonetheless trying to manage all the text and thread us through a story that is mostly linear but not conventionally narrative.
And I took a lot of bad photos like this one of me being sworn in:
Photo on 1-3-19 at 11.13 AM
And eventually after every sketch was agreed, I refined them using all my bad photos and historical photos and redrew them in Photoshop using a handful of drawing and inking and watercolor brushes.
e: Is there a unique or funny story behind the creation of this story?
Well, I think it’s funny that the first idea that came to me when I read Kate’s manuscript was to make an illustration of Andrew Jackson covering his heart where he’d been shot in a duel, and juxtapose that with a similar image of him covering his heart while taking the oath of office at his inauguration. I was real excited about this idea. I thought it was clever, and it was the first glimmer I had of understanding how I was going to make this book half mine, and what I could bring to it.
And then later I realized presidents don’t put their hands over their hearts during their oaths. So.
e: I have to ask you about page 34… Hillary is framed on an adjacent wall to the framed presidents, the frame for #45 isn't shown, and the frame for President #46 is empty. It seems like a bias. Do you want to talk about that?
I don’t think we know who 46 will be yet! But that page was all about firsts, and so I showed only the firsts that Kate named. Others have mentioned this as bias, which I don’t entirely get. I thought it was proper to show Hillary adjacent to but not on the same wall as JFK and Obama, and I didn’t show Trump for the same reason I didn’t show Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush—they weren’t conspicuous firsts, and that spread was really about how our collective notion of who can and can’t be president is evolving.
I did make a small effort to short-circuit my biases in places. There were spreads where I needed to show a random assortment of presidents, and to keep myself from picking favorites, or confining my picks to highly recognizable figures, I counted by tens and elevens. So presidents 11, 22, 33, and 44 appear on one spread, and 10, 20, 30, and 40 appear on another.
e: What do you think makes an illustration magical, what I call "Heart Art” - the sort that makes a reader want to come back to look again and again?
I think there’s a false dichotomy between fine artists—who are assumed to be making art from the heart, entirely divorced from commercial concerns; and illustrators, who are assumed to be following orders. Obviously the latter is far less likely to be true of a picture book illustrator than, say, an illustrator of mutual fund annual reports. But regardless of what corner of the industry they come from, I think illustrators only ever get really great because they are trying to make each and every illustration their gift to the world. Maybe it turns out it’s a gift nobody wants, but they’re trying. Every illustration can have some little something—in the composition, the sensitivity of the drawing, the palette, something—that pushes past the merely good enough and makes your heart rise a little.
e: Great answer! You write picture books and novels (and movie scripts?), and you illustrate too. That’s a lot of muses pulling on you! How do you juggle it all and what is your favorite or most challenging part of being a creator of such varying media these days?
I think of it as a gift, rather than a problem. I’m being allowed to do a lot of things, and in a lot of different ways. I think the challenge is keeping my head on the problem at hand, because the project I haven’t started always seems like it’s going to be the best thing I’ve ever done.
e: Is there something in particular about The Next President you hope readers will take away with them, perhaps something that isn’t immediately obvious?
It’s not a hidden message by any means: when I was making this book I thought a lot about my son—who is not white, and who can’t even be president because he wasn’t born here. But I like that he’s never known a time when the presidential lineup was entirely white. I like that he started noticing politics at a time when a woman got very close to the Oval Office. So I want to believe this means he’ll grow up without preconceptions about what the person in that office is supposed to look like.
I know that’s not true, though. A while back I asked him who, among all his second-grade classmates, he thought might be president someday. And he asked if it could be a girl—he wanted to pick his friend Villette but wasn’t sure if that was allowed.
Those kind of preconceptions are going to get rebuilt slowly, brick by brick. And I want our book to be one more brick in some kid’s foundation.
e: The book truly offers such hope to all of the children across the US - they could be the next president! I love that! You are so prolific! What are you working on next or what would be your dream project (or have you already done it!)?
Right now I’m illustrating a fable you’ve never heard before, set 3,000 years ago. So, more historical research—the author and editor didn’t like all the liberties I was taking with ancient Mesopotamia.
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e: HA! I can't wait to see it!