Conversations with Adam Rex and Laurie Keller: Pluto Gets the Call and some sympathy

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Pluto. Is it a planet? A dwarf planet? A massive asteroid? An orange-brown dog with long floppy ears? Pluto Gets the Call, a wonderfully entertaining and charmingly illustrated book by Adam Rex and Laurie Keller, goes some way to answering the question while also doing a bit of explaining. For those of us who pine for the halcyon days of Pluto being a full-on planet, it’s a stark reminder of how humans can get attached to a cold, lump of rock at the edge (mostly) of our solar system.

SCIENTIFIC INQUIRER: What inspired you to do Pluto Gets the Call?

ADAM REX: Usually for me books have their start as totally random, unpredictable ideation. But in this case I was actually asked if I might like to write something about the solar system for Laurie to illustrate, and the answer was of course I want to do that. I’ve loved Laurie’s work for a long time, and I have a keen interest in astronomy. My wife is an astrophysicist, which is not why I married her, but it’s not NOT why I married her, either.

So I started developing a couple ideas of what a solar system picture book might look like. but I couldn’t get away from the idea that an anthropomorphic Pluto might be thinking about the same kinds of things that kids think about—that they’re not big enough, that they don’t belong, that they have authorities defining them in diminishing ways. It just seemed really obvious that I had to write a story about what it was like for Pluto when he found out the bad news.

LAURIE KELLER: I was inspired when my agent called and said, “How would you like to illustrate a book by Adam Rex called, Pluto Gets the Call?” Ever since I read Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich, I’ve been a big Adam Rex fan so I jumped at the opportunity to work with him (darn, now I have the song, Girl From Ipanema, stuck in my head) (oh, and Frankenstein is on the title page of the Pluto book)! I’m not married to an astrophysicist and know nary a one, so that didn’t affect my decision but I’d never done a space book before and was excited to give it a shot.

SCIENTIFIC INQUIRER: Why did you decide to have Pluto do a meet and greet across the solar system?

ADAM REX: Well, one of the taglines I wanted for this book was, “In 1930, Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto—today, Pluto discovers himself.” Or something to that effect. Right away it felt right to have Pluto go on a journey of self-discovery that coincided with a literal journey through the solar system—which of course is what everyone wanted in the first place. My other big idea was to make a book about two kids riding their bikes across the solar system looking for the perfect place to have a picnic—so it was always going to be an interplanetary meet and greet of one kind or another.

LAURIE KELLER: That was all Adam’s idea. It turned out to be quite an emotional roller coaster ride for poor Pluto, bouncing back and forth between his feelings of sadness and rejection about being demoted and his enthusiasm over introducing the reader to each planet along the way. I spent a lot of time drawing and re-drawing his expressions throughout. It was a balancing act for sure!

SCIENTIFIC INQUIRER: Did you have any difficulties distilling information into bite-sized portions? How did you decide what was important?

ADAM REX: Absolutely. I want this book to work as an affable little dramedy for the kid who never cares to dig any deeper. But my hope is that it might also give a little nudge down the rabbit hole for some kid who’s about to really get into planetary science and astronomy. I wanted brief, effective hooks for each planet, so in a lot of cases I focused on facts I myself learned later in life. Kids today are smarter than I was, but maybe Laurie and I will get to be the first people to tell someone that Mercury is very cold as well as very hot, or that several planets don’t actually have surfaces on which you can land. Then again, one of the amazing things about making picture books is that you can be that first exposure to common knowledge, too; like the fact that Jupiter’s spot is a storm, or that Saturn’s rings aren’t as solid as they look.

LAURIE KELLER: I can’t even imagine how hard that must have been for Adam! As far as my added asides, I mostly expanded on the facts that he included but once in a while just chose random facts I found interesting or could make a joke out of.

SCIENTIFIC INQUIRER: Turning to aesthetics, how did you decide how Pluto’s solar system neighbors should look?

ADAM REX: I’ll let Laurie answer that. Picture book manuscripts are meant to leave the art to the artist, so I didn’t really dictate anything apart from emphasizing Pluto’s “heart.”

LAURIE KELLER: A research trip was deemed “too expensive” so I had to rely on photographs from the World Wide Web and books. I jotted down notes about each planet as far as texture, color and relative size (the shape part was easy). I love working with textures and patterns so I painted many possibilities for each planet before deciding on which to use. I couldn’t find any Solar System-sized paper to collage onto so I scanned them into Photoshop and started playing. I basically decided on a texture for each planet based on how “convincing” it was and how they all looked together. Pluto was the most difficult to decide on since he was the main character, of course.

SCIENTIFIC INQUIRER: Which came first, the words or the images? How did the collaboration work?

ADAM REX: I think I covered this a little above, but I’ll say that all of my picture books, whether I’ve been the author or the illustrator or both, have started with the words. I have a pretty polished manuscript in place and approved by my editor before the art begins. Then the collaboration is a lot more discrete than people tend to imagine. The author is not looking over the illustrator’s shoulder, and no one’s the boss. When the system is working, I think each creator gets the space they need to make the book their own.

LAURIE KELLER: The words came first. Adam and editor, Allyn Johnston, were very “hands off” as I worked on the sketches and finished art. They had only asked that I add in some silly asides throughout which I always love doing. As I did that though, the pages got very crowded so after several rounds of sketches we decided to make it a 48 page book. We had also initially discussed having a bar along the bottom of each spread with added facts and silliness and as much as I liked the idea, it ended up detracting from the flow of Adam’s story so we all agreed to abandon that direction and add a SOLAR SYSTEM FUN FACTS page at the end of the book.

SCIENTIFIC INQUIRER: When Pluto lost its “planet” designation, not everyone agreed with the decision. A lot of the opposition was emotional in nature. Are you at peace with Pluto’s new classification?

ADAM REX: People are going to think I’m a crank for reinstating Pluto, but I’m at peace with it. Any useful definition is going to be at least a little arbitrary. I’m interested in competing proposals for criteria—I read one essay where the author argued persuasively against the “clears its neighborhood” requirement and in favor of calling any non-moon a planet if it’s 1000 km or more in diameter. But I don’t want to pretend to expertise I don’t have.

LAURIE KELLER: Working on the book was therapeutic for me in that regard, so as disappointed as I was at first, I’m ultimately OK with it if Pluto is.

SCIENTIFIC INQUIRER: Finally, what’s next for you?

ADAM REX: A book about the presidents! This one is written by Kate Messner and I illustrated it. After years of writing and illustrating nonsense I seem to taking a turn toward nonfiction that I didn’t see coming.

LAURIE KELLER: An Arnie the Doughnut picture book for the pre-school set called, “Hello, Arnie!”, (Fall 2020); a book I’m illustrating for Joan Holub about sharks called “I Am the Shark”, (Summer 2021); and I’m back to square one with my own writing, trying to decide what’s next!

To purchase a copy of Pluto Gets the Call follow the magical link.

IMAGE CREDIT: Beach Lane Books

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