“Cute Food Dude”: An Interview with Illustrator Alex Rodgers
by Diana Black
“There’s way more integrity in what [kids] create because they tend to dream bigger than adults.”
Akron, Ohio-based illustrator Alex Rodgers has just released his first children’s book, The Pasta Family Goes to Marinara Beach, by Cory and Laureen Tilson (1984 Publishing, 2018). Read on to find out how this greeting card veteran found his way to picture books, learn about his artistic process, and watch a video book review from a young reader.
ML: How did you become an illustrator?
AR: If I go way back, I was always doodling and drawing as a kid. I would actually make my own picture books that my mom would laminate and get spiral bound, so my parents encouraged it from a very young age. I loved art class in elementary school. Once high school and college came around, though, instead of taking a bunch of fine arts courses, I kind of found my niche within illustration and design, so that’s what I pursued. I like the problem-solving aspect of it.
Tell us a little bit about the difference between greeting card work and picture book illustration.
Well, with greeting cards, the audience is always different. One day, I’ll be making a fart card for Father’s Day, and the next, I’ll be doing some fancy hand lettering for a Wedding card. So you have to be versatile in what you can create day to day! With a card, you’re also looking to convey a story or message in the shortest amount of time. A children’s book is pretty much the opposite. This being my first picture book I learned a lot about that process and how to slow down and take my time developing the characters, the pacing, color roughs, and then completing the final artwork. It was a ton of fun to work on and I really enjoyed the process. Plus, my favorite part was that I was able to create most of the book late at night, sitting on my front porch with a bunch of fireflies flashing and crickets chirping all around me, so that was definitely an added bonus for sure.
Where do you derive inspiration for the characters in the book? They all seem so well-defined, even though you’re using a relatively simple design.
It’s a pretty distinctive look, right? I love taking ordinary everyday objects and bringing them to life in my illustrations. Beyond my day job illustrating cards, I own a children’s clothing company called Lil’ Burritos where I illustrate and screen-print onesies with my wife. All of those illustrations I do for Lil’ Burritos have basically that same style. I have cute food characters of tacos, pierogis, avocados, s’mores, etc…. So I guess I’ve become the “Cute Food Dude” now, haha. The authors, Cory and Laureen [LAST NAME] contacted me a little over a year ago for this book because they knew me from Lil’ Burritos and they wanted some cute pasta in that same style.
What would your advice be to a kid who wants to be an illustrator when they grow up?
Keep drawing. I actually find kids’ art to by my favorite art. There’s way more integrity in what they create because they tend to dream bigger than adults. I always try to aspire to illustrate through the eyes and imagination of myself when I was that age. So just keep drawing and keep that imagination going.
How much does typeface matter in establishing the “feel” of a story? Do you design the font, as well as the pictures?
I think it adds a lot! It was definitely my choice to do both the hand lettering and illustration for The Pasta Family. There were lots of quotes from the characters where I really wanted to emphasize the emotions they were feeling. I do think it depends on the book, for sure. Historically, most children’s books used typefaces out of necessity because the illustrator did one job and then passed it off to a pre-press designer who would lay in a typeface. But I enjoy doing both. So I was happy to have the option of doing the hand lettering because I felt it was the best choice for the book.
How much collaboration occurs between you and the author/s?
Definitely a lot up front! The authors created a character development brief with lots of details and hobbies for each pasta character to help figure out what they’d all look like. For instance, Papa Bowtie loves listening to jazz on vinyl when he’s not working at his bakery. Bet you didn’t know that! Each character had a similar synopsis that gave me everything I needed to know to create the look and feel of each character. After we collaborated on that and the characters were reviewed and approved by the publisher, I kind of hit the ground running and would check in with them all every week or two with new color roughs or spreads for them to review.
Who are your favorite illustrators of books for children?
If I look back to my childhood, I’d have to say Maurice Sendak, Eric Carle, Chris Van Allsburg, and Richard Scarry. I know those are pretty big names, but I really loved their books. Nowadays, I love the work of Jon Klassen, Chris Haughton, Christian Robinson, Emily Dove, Julia Kuo, Joey Chou, Oliver Jeffers, Tad Carpenter and many, many more.
What was your favorite picture book growing up? Your favorite chapter book?
That’s too hard to answer! As a young kid, it was probably Richard Scarry’s Busy, Busy World because I could discover something new every single night in the illustrations. But as I got older, my favorite was definitely Sendak’s Nutshell Library books that Carole King sang to. I watched that TV special on VHS all the time. Pierre, One Was Johnny, Chicken Noodle Soup with Rice, all of those classics. I still love that special to this day. My favorite chapter book was probably Judy Blume’s Freckle Juice.
What would you like kids to think about your book?
I hope they think it’s silly, funny, and engaging. Those were always some of my favorite type of books growing up. I loved working on The Pasta Family because it’s so quirky that kids will really get into it, and they’ll get to learn about all the different types of pasta. But there’s also a great multigenerational aspect and surprise at the end, which adults and families will really love too.
When you read, what really engages you about a book? Tell us what motivates you.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t read mostly to be entertained. I love books by Jack Handey, David Sedaris, Jon Hodgman, etc. I’m a pretty big comedy dork. I love it all. I can usually take any ordinary moment from life and somehow relate it to a Jack Handey quote. Do books from The Onion count also? At American Greetings, I’m on the humor card team, so it’s kind of required for me to stay up to date on the funny stuff.
Want to hear a real kid’s thoughts on Alex’s first book? Watch Mindy, age 7, review The Pasta Family Goes to Marinara Beach here.
You can purchase a copy of The Pasta Family Goes to Marinara Beach at https://amzn.to/2Mt4M9L. Find out more about Alex and his work at https://cargocollective.com/alexrodgers and at http://www.LilBurritos.com.