Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Power of the Picture Book: Aaron Zenz

Picture books and their creators have had a powerful impact on me in many ways over many years.  In the midst of this 30-day-long November celebration of picture books, I thought I would celebrate 30 specific picture books and creators that have influenced my life.  As lovers of the format, our family has around 5,000 children's books in our home collection, so I could easily highlight hundreds.  The giant challenge for me was to limit myself to only 30.  And as an illustrator, I thought I would celebrate these books and their creators in a unique way: through a giant piece of Fan Art...  Here goes!



How many characters did you recognize in this Picture Book Tribute?  And what feeling hit you when you picked out a familiar face?  Giddy?  Did it feel like spotting an old friend?  Did you smile?  Did you make an audible noise or even say something out loud?

That feeling you got?  That's the power of picture books.

Here's a guide to the characters I picked and their creators:


Aaron Zenz
The Hiccupotamus
I love picture books.  I read picture books.   I collect picture books.  I make picture books.  I've illustrated and/or authored 33 picture books, but "The Hiccupotamus" was my first and will always be a significant part of my life.

5 Formative Creators:

Eric Rohmann / 
The Cinder-Eyed Cats
This is the picture book that had the most profound impact on my life and calling to create.  I was in my college library, most likely studying for an exam.  I happened to look up, and I saw these cats staring at me from the other side of the room.  I looked down.  Back up.  Down.  Up.  They were still there.  Still staring.  Intently.  Calling to me.  I was physically moved to stand up, cross the room, and dive into the story.  The power of that moment - for a single image to move me to action - was striking.  And I knew I wanted to do that too.  I knew I wanted to make art that would compel people to move ...or laugh ...or think ...or change ...or inspire them to create too.

John Sandford
The Terrible Hodag
John is the person who had the most profound impact on my calling to create.  He was the first real live illustrator I ever met.  I was in awe of his art.  He befriended and encouraged me.  "You're going to do this someday," he'd say sounding as if he really meant it.  Years later when he started his own publishing company, he took those words and acted on them, hiring me as the first employee.  He got the ball rolling on The Hiccupotamus, and the course of my life was set in motion.

Glen Keane / Adam Raccoon
I discovered Glen Keane's behind-the-scenes rough animation my freshman year of highschool, and he has been my favorite artist ever since.  He's the artist behind Ariel, the Beast, Aladdin, and Tangled, but he also created fantastic books about Adam Raccoon - the greatest faith-based picture book series out there by leaps and bounds.

Scott Gustafson /
Alphabet Soup

I started collecting samples of Scott's art from catalogs in college (long before the days of Pinterest).  I actually crossed paths with him years later, and had a memorable star-struck encounter.

David Macaulay
Black and White
This has long been my absolute favorite picture book, and most likely always will be.

2 Local Pals:
The writing and illustrating life is, more often than not, a solitary and sometimes lonely endeavor.  I'm lucky to live near some other top-notch creators.  Laurie and Amy are two local friends, are kindred spirits, and have created many amazing characters.

Laurie Keller / Arnie the Doughnut

Amy Young / Belinda the Ballerina

5 Classics:
A few favorite books from my childhood:

Ezra Jack Keats / The Snowy Day

Jon Stone and Mike Smollin

The Monster at the End of this Book

Arnold Lobel / Frog and Toad

William Steig / Sylvester and the Magic Pebble

Maurice Sendak / Where the Wild Things Are

17 Contemporary Creators:
I'm closing out with 17 creators that regularly dazzle and amaze me.  Again, this list could contain hundreds!  But here are a few favorites:

Suzy Lee / Shadow

Shaun Tan / The Arrival

Mac Barnett / Sam and Dave Dig a Hole 

Jon Klassen / I Want My Hat Back

David Wiesner / Tuesday

Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith / The Stinky Cheese Man

Adam Rex / Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich

Tony DiTerlizzi / Ted

Dan Santat / Beekle

Mo Willems / Elephant and Piggie

Jarrett J Krosoczka / Baghead 

Renata Liwska / The Quiet Book 

Viviane Schwarz / There Are Cats in this Book

John Hendrix / John Brown

Kelly Murphy / Creepy Monsters Sleepy Monsters

Julia Denos / Swatch

Ben Hatke / Nobody Likes A Goblin

I suspect some of these are your favorite picture books too.  And as for any books or creators that are unfamiliar to you - why not hunt them down?  You may find some powerful, new, life-long friends!


Aaron Zenz lives in Spring Lake, MI with his lovely wife and six creative kids.  He has participated in the creation of 33 children's books, 9 of which he authored.  He loves Author Visits and travels around the country all year long, getting kids excited about reading, writing, and creating.  Just last month, his newest book "Little Iffy Learns to Fly" swooped into the world.  You can find Aaron on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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