When Aaron Zenz reflects back to his childhood he remembers building worlds. Imaginative play was a favorite pastime and Zenz and his pals pretended to be detectives or orphans, spending the afternoon devising scenarios. Zenz also describes himself as the kid who drew all the time. “Most of what I remember is based [on] the things I produced…I think, ‘Those were the Appleton years,’” he says, referring to the comics he created for a dog named Appleton and the set of characters that went along with him. Zenz continues to build worlds in his picture books for children. “I’m doing the same things I’ve done my whole life. Now I’m fortunate enough to get paid for it.”
Although Zenz knew he wanted to create books for children after graduating from college, he possessed little knowledge of how to make that dream a reality. Instead, he took a job as a multi-media designer in an educational software company designing characters and painting backgrounds for computer games. Three of Zenz’s former colleagues founded a publishing company called Dogs in Hats Children’s Publishing, and they invited Zenz to join them. Together they designed coloring books, stickers and activity books, with the long-range goal of publishing hardcover picture books. After two years, the partners invited Zenz to submit a story for consideration. The Hiccupotamus was a huge success, going into a third printing in only six months, but unfortunately, Dogs in Hats Children’s Publishing disbanded. Luckily for Zenz, the editors at Marshall Cavendish recognized the value of The Hiccupotamus and re-released it in 2009, four years after its original publication date.
Today, Zenz’s world-building harkens back to the kind of kid he was and the kinds of things he enjoys. “I like silly crazy nonsensical ideas and words, and…silly play.” As the illustrator for Nugget on the Flight Deck, he says, “the crazy jargon excited me. I loved the nonsense feel, but it was grounded in reality.”
Although Zenz enjoys illustrating the words of other authors, he prefers to illustrate his own work. “The part that I enjoy most about the process is developing and creating the ideas and the characters. Turning it into a book is less fun for me.” When Zenz illustrates another author’s book, he feels he “misses out on the bulk of the initial hatching of the concept or the world.”
Inspiration comes from something that tickles Zenz’s fancy, perhaps a small detail or a word or a twist on an idea that he can flesh out. One day while still in college, Zenz had the hiccups and began cracking random jokes and puns. “I thought of the word hiccupotamus, and I thought, ‘Okay, there’s my punch line. What kind of riddle or joke would lead up to having a punch line of hiccupotamus?’ Instead of a riddle, this poem fell out of my mouth…There was a hiccupotamus who hiccupped quite a lotamus and every time he gottamus, he fell upon his bottomus. I have no idea where it came from, but I jotted it in my sketchbook and forgot about it.” Now when Zenz reads The Hiccupotamusto a group of children, he receives a huge response. “It’s almost intimidating,” he says. “It gets such uproarious laughter I have a hard time believing it had anything to do with me…I don’t know how I’d go about capturing that again.”
The word puggle launched Zenz’s upcoming story, I’m a Puggle, You’re a Puggle. “A puggle is the name of a baby platypus,” he explains. “There are all these different baby animal names that everybody knows, like puppy, kitten and bunny, but then there are more obscure ones. A baby mouse is called a pinky. A baby llama is called a cria. I just love that the word puggle is out there and exists and means baby platypus.”
Zenz works from his home in western Michigan during a self-imposed third shift from 9:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. when quiet descends on his home. During the day, his wife home schools their five children and there are too many distractions for Zenz to concentrate. Generally, he sleeps until noon and enjoys his family during the afternoon.
Depending on the project, Zenz sometimes illustrates with colored pencil as in Nugget on the Flight Deck, The Hiccupotamus and the Howie books, and sometimes he creates computer-generated illustrations as in Nascar ABCs and Nascar 123s. Every project is a challenge for Zenz as he tries to improve upon or experiment with particular aspects of his style. He began collecting children’s literature before he knew he would be part of that world, not with the intent of studying it, but because he enjoys the genre. “In the midst of reading so many books for my own pleasure, I know that informs me—helps me realize what works and what doesn’t work…It fuels my ideas and knowledge of the world.”
Every night when Zenz sits down to work in the quiet of his home, he is thankful to be doing something he loves. ”I love picture books,” he says. “I love characters. I love bunnies wearing pants. I love that world. I’d live in it if I could!”