Illustrating The Next President – Author Kate Messner Interviews Illustrator Adam Rex
Hi, Adam! Thanks so much for making time to chat with me about the art for our book, THE NEXT PRESIDENT: THE UNEXPECTED BEGINNINGS AND UNWRITTEN FUTURE OF AMERICA’S PRESIDENTS.
Because you’re an author as well as an illustrator, I know you can relate to that feeling of opening up the email with the finished art for a picture book manuscript you wrote. It’s one of my favorite moments in the whole book-making process because when I send in the manuscript, I know I’m really only sending in half of a book, if that. On top of visualizing what’s in the text, illustrators really do add to the story with their art, which is what I think makes picture books so magical. There are so many choices an illustrator has to make, especially in a more complex text like this one, that I thought it would be fun to ask you about some of those.
The first one comes in the opening pages — that empty desk in the very first spread.
I loved this because while there were so many possibilities to illustrate text that simply says “Quick. Name the president of the United States,” that empty desk offers so much possibility. Was that your very first thought for that spread, or had you considered some other ideas, too?
I agree, there’s a lot you can do with that. I could’ve shown a group of kids, looking at the reader as if startled by the question. Or a sort of collage of iconic presidents, all mashed up. I could have drawn forty-four separate little presidents inside a claw machine with a player trying to pick the right one. But I just refreshed my memory by flipping back through my sketchbook and it looks like I only really had two ideas (that were essentially the same idea): show either an empty desk in the oval Office, or an empty lectern with the Presidential Seal on it. Should’ve done the claw machine.
The pages that show enslaved men literally building the nation’s capital as we talk about Washington’s presidency stopped me in my tracks. It underscores such an important point about who the Founding Fathers were, flaws and all. Can you talk a little about your thoughts on that spread?
Our nation has a “We don’t talk about that at the dinner table” approach to the Founding Fathers, and I’m glad our book doesn’t. And that’s really thanks to your lead, addressing matter-of-factly and unflinchingly that four of our first five presidents enslaved people. So it was one of my first illustration ideas to show the Big Men of History building our country through rhetoric and the written word in the foreground while other, unsung people built it in a more literal sense in the background. In fact I originally intended to carry that idea throughout the whole book; always showing ordinary people, thanklessly working behind the scenes. But there was already a lot to illustrate and something had to give.
Incidentally, the VERY first image that came to me when reading your text was the following “clever” idea about Andrew Jackson. You write about his duel, and the bullet that lodged so close to his heart that he carried it with him to the White House and all the rest of his life. So I was going to show him clutching his heart at the dueling grounds, and juxtapose him holding his hand over his heart in a similar way as he takes the oath of office. Then later I did a little research and realized presidents don’t hold their hearts at their swearings-in. So oh well.
I also love the subtle — but literal — thread that runs through the book, connecting each page, each presidency. My daughter, who’s 18 now and still loves picture books, noticed that on her first read and thought it was brilliant. Was that your plan with the art from the very beginning or did it evolve as you worked on the art?
Oh, I’m glad that it stood out to her. When I got your manuscript I was looking at probably more text than I’d ever had to consider in a picture book before, so from the start I was focused on how I could make dynamic spreads that integrated that text instead of pictures that looked like they were always trying to keep out of its way. That golden line felt like it could be a connecting thread through history, but also the unspooling thread that leads you through the maze of a book we made.
I also want to ask a little about the book’s final pages. On page 34, we talked about how America’s presidency is changing, and how our country’s first presidents “might have been surprised if they’d been around to see a Catholic or African American man elected president…or a woman nominated by a major party for the highest office in the land.” That spread brings us back to the museum, with portraits on the walls, and I’m guessing that some people will ask why the presidents aren’t in chronological order there, and why the only portraits are Kennedy, Obama, and Clinton. Why did you choose those three rather than illustrating more?
It honestly didn’t occur to me to do otherwise—it was a page about “firsts,” and they were the only three you mentioned. Had I included LBJ through Bush Jr. before Obama and Trump after, I think it would have invited people to wonder if each of them was also a first in some way. Which could be a fun exercise—every president was a first in some small way, I imagine—but it complicates an already busy page.
In general readers might notice that I tried to group presidents together in novel ways when I could. There are pages before and after the chronological section of the book, and in these framing pages I used simple math to short-circuit my biases toward picking favorite presidents, or easily recognizable faces. On the title spread are presidents 11, 22, 33, and 44. Two spreads later, presidents 10, 20, 30, and 40 are on the wall (behind big statues of Lincoln and Washington because I guess I couldn’t help myself?). So putting JFK, Obama, and HRC together on that penultimate spread didn’t strike me as unusual.
Finally, the end of this book might be my favorite of any picture book I’ve written. Your art on pages 35 and 36 makes me cry every time I see it. While I was writing this book, I was mindful of the fact that I was writing a book about almost exclusively white men, and I’m wondering if you were feeling that weight as you created those final, wonderfully inclusive spreads, too.
I was thinking a lot about my son—who is not white, and 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 caucasian. I like that he developed his first, nascent awareness of politics at a time when a woman got very close to the Oval Office. I like to tell myself that 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. Some time ago I asked him who, among all his second-grade classmates, he thought was most likely to be president someday. And he asked if it could be a girl—because he wanted to pick his friend Villette but wasn’t sure if that was okay.
So I love that you love those final pages of our book. And I have no idea if kids will look at the people on those pages and imagine all the wide-open possibilities after the near-homogeneous march of men on all the pages before it. But I hope so.
Adam Rex is the illustrator and/or author of about forty books for kids, including the bestselling Frankenstein makes a Sandwich and his recent picture book, Why?, illustrated by Claire Keane. His next book, Unstoppable (illustrated by Laura Park), likewise features the president (and every member of congress) albeit being carried away by a bird. He lives in Arizona with his wife and son. Follow him @MrAdamRex. The Next President is his first nonfiction book.
Kate Messner is the author of more than thirty books for young readers, including the newly released MG novel CHIRP (Bloomsbury, 2020), the Ranger in Time historical adventure chapter book series with Scholastic, the Fergus & Zeke easy readers with Candlewick, and many other picture books with Chronicle Books. She lives on Lake Champlain with her family and is trying to summit all 46 Adirondack High Peaks in between book deadlines. Follow her on Twitter @KateMessner and learn more at her website, www.katemessner.com.