Children's Book Author Jef Czekaj on Doodling, Giving in to Goofy Stories & Cross-Disciplinary Passions

Posted by Magdalena Georgieva

jefwboomboxJef Czekaj is a children's book writer and illustrator who works and lives in Somerville, MA. Among some of his whimsical books you will find A Call for a New Alphabet, Hip and Hop, Don't Stop! and Cat Secrets. In addition to drawing and writing books, Jef is also a musician and presents at schools and libraries. I got a chance to catch up with Jef at cafe Rustica and he told me about how he ended up in this space, where he gets his ideas from, and how you too can pursue something as colorful and goofy as authoring children's books.

How did you get into making children's books?

It's kind of a backwards story. I really liked to draw when I was little. I used to make books all the time with cardboard, fold it, and just draw. By the time I got to high school I was a super shy kid and really self-conscious, so I didn't take art classes. I was also really interested in science. I had a super heavy workload and played violin so I didn't really have room for art classes. I still drew with friends and stuff, but I had stopped doing art.

By the time I got to college I didn't take any art classes. I was pretty shy so I was scared of showing my work and I didn't want to take studio classes that were three hours long, so I ended up majoring in linguistics. When I graduated I couldn't find a job, so I just started drawing again and once again, it was just for me when I was making mini comics and zines. And I started selling them.

Nickelodeon, the channel, had a magazine and I got a gig doing a regular comic for that. That gave me the money to quit my day job. I heard how competitive children's book publishing was and I didn't have any experience; I never made a portfolio or anything like that. But I did rock posters for shows around town for a local art director called Charlesbridge. One of them tracked me down and asked me to illustrate a book about digestion. Once that happened, it was easier to talk to other book publishing people.

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Is children's book publishing a competitive space?

It is, because everyone wants to write a children's book. There are also lots of celebrities - the guy from The Office has a children's book, and Madonna has a children's book, kind of everyone has a children's book... Like I said, I kind of snuck into it so I luckily didn't have to deal with any of that and now I have an agent who does all of that stuff.

Tell me more about the sneaking-into-publishing part.

When I talk to kids they want to hear, "Do this. Make a portfolio that looks like this." And I don't know any of those things. The answer really is, "I was just doing my thing." I was making these rock posters and it wasn't to be famous and it wasn't even to be in children's books; it was because I was in bands and we needed posters. And I like doing it too, so that is what led to it. It was partially luck, and partially I was in the right place at the right time. It was a mixture of me doing what I wanted to do and some luck too.

You are in bands?

I have been in a bunch of bands, none of which very popular. My most recent one is a rap group and I was the DJ in the back. So some of my books are about rapping animals so I used my DJ-ing skills. I have also played drums in bands, the guitar... But I’m not doing anything right now. I DJ every once in a while but I try not to do as much stuff.

Have you applied your study of linguistics to your creation of children's books?

The first book that I wrote and illustrated (sometimes I just illustrate books) was a book about language. It was called, The Call for a New Alphabet and it was about the letter X who wants a new place in the alphabet. The book is more about the weird grammar inconsistencies in the English language. So that one I definitely used my linguistics for.

What I liked about linguistics is that it's very cross-disciplinary - you can come at it from philosophy, from psychology, from biology. I’m definitely cross-disciplinary - I really like music, I like drawing, I like writing; it's hard for me to just do one thing.

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What I liked about linguistics is that it's very cross-disciplinary - you can come at it from philosophy, from psychology, from biology. I’m definitely cross-disciplinary - I really like music, I like drawing, I like writing; it's hard for me to just do one thing.

Do book topics get assigned to you or do you come up with your ideas?

Generally, I just come up with ideas. When I illustrate obviously they give me the script. I'd rather write than draw. It's more fun because then I get to choose the subject.

In the publishing world, there is another weird thing that people don't know about: they don't like the writer and the illustrator to talk to each other at all. I have barely talked to the people I have illustrated books for. It kind of makes sense because they don't want them to fight... When I illustrate a book they send me a script and the author can send me criticisms via them but I would be pissed at some of the decisions.

For the digestion book, I invented this whole little guy. I wanted to make it like a 50s educational film and there is always a little cartoon guy that sits on your shoulder and goes through the body. That is kind of what it was supposed to be like. But that wasn't in the script at all. I guess she liked it, but I can also see her getting mad that I took such liberties with her script.

My next book is about U.S. geography so there is more of a theme to stick to. It's about a little dog that gets lost and goes to every state in the United States. It was fun but it was a lot more research than I usually do for my children's books.

How do you judge a good children's' book from a bad one?

I know that parents have to read the book. If the kid likes the book, they have to read it every day. I try to put stuff in there that grown-ups would like too. In my rap books I have a lot of references to grown-up rap music that kids would have never heard of. Some kids' books are super simple and that works best. There are all kinds of good things about children's books. For me, I try to think that the parent has to read it over and over again.

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...parents have to read the book. If the kid likes the book, they have to read it every day. I try to put stuff in there that grown-ups would like too.

 

How do you come up with ideas?

I always have a sketchbook with me and l would just be doodling and there will be one funny character that I will just keep drawing over and over naturally and then I will think of a situation to put that character in. For some of them, like my Hip & Hop one, I may have had the title before I had the book whereas other ones happened more organically. I have a book called Cat Secrets and the premise of that is the book is just for cats - you are only supposed to read it if you are a cat. That came about because I had a cat at the time and just observing him, it seemed like he had a lot of secrets.

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Has there been any science to your art?

It used to be that science and art were very far apart, and today they interact a lot more. I draw on paper, but then I do everything on the computer so there is lots of technology stuff.

I do final art just on bristol, fancy paper, scan it in, and then do the colors on the computer because you can choose them better. If I paint something and send it to the publisher, they are going to scan it and scanners are off a little bit whereas if you do it on the computer, you can choose the pantone color and you know what it is going to look like.

Have you experimented with giving out a book for free online?

I’m considering it. Working with big publishers is nice because they handle everything but it is a very slow process. it is a year basically before your book comes out. There is a whole process: the sales people have to send it out to the places and spread the word... I have a lot of goofy ideas and it will be nice to get them out much quicker, so I am considering doing some quicker e-version, kind of what musicians are doing. By the time the book comes out, I have moved on and am working on a new book and then I have to go out and promote this old book.

I’m not really good at the promotion part, so that is the one problem with self-publishing stuff. I have to get the word out and I'm not really good at blogging and Facebook-ing or any of that. I like it but it is not in my nature to be self-promoting.

Is there anyone that you look up to in this space or even beyond who inspires you?

Honestly, a lot of my inspiration comes from having friends who are artists and who are musicians. There are, of course, artists that I really like. But I definitely get more inspiration just from going to crappy rock show in the Middle East more so than bigger things. What I like about Somerville and Cambridge is just the community. It’s so expensive to live here but I really like that there are so many creative people around, even just working in coffee shops. I don't get a lot done at home because there are always distractions, the Internet, dirty dishes or whatever... So I like coffee shops where you can hear people talking. I work a lot in Diesel in Davis Square and like the background noise. I never use headphones; I just listen to the background noise.

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Honestly, a lot of my inspiration comes from having friends who are artists and who are musicians.

 

What advice would you give to your younger self?

It’s funny because a lot of my career happened so organically, I cannot really think of a place to step in and intervene and say, "You should have done that." I guess I should have looked into book publishing earlier because, as I said, I was intimidated by the whole process, and then... sort of learned there wasn’t much of a process. My first publisher, Charlesbridge, which is based in Watertown, accepts open submission so anyone can send them illustration samples, and I would have never thought to have done that.

When I do school visits, I always show the kids my sketchbook and the pictures in it and just that you don't need anything fancy. The only thing that is expensive is the computer part and even that if you wanted to, you could do at the library. So that is one thing that really attracts me to writing. Kids often think that if you are professional, it is this inaccessible place where you are doing something...but I am really doing exactly what I was doing when I was in elementary school. Hopefully I have gotten better! But I am just making up goofy stories.

Topics: art

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