North Ottawa Weekly
Spring Lake resident turns into an author of children's books

By Tricia McDonald
Photo by Brian Forde

What came first, the hiccups or the hippopotamus?  According to Aaron Zenz of Spring Lake, author of “The Hiccupotamus,” they came at the same time.

“Technically, the hiccups came first because I had them.  But the concept of the book started with the word ‘hiccupotamus,’ so the two were really simultaneous,” Zenz said.

“The Hiccupotamus,” published in October 2005 by Dogs in Hats Children’s Publishing, is Zenz’ first published children’s book.

He said he had the hiccups and was trying to come up with a joke about a hiccupotamus when the first verse of the poem formed itself in his head.  “I said it out loud and it was like, ‘Where did that come from?’” said Zenz.  “So I wrote it down.”

“There was a hippopotamus
Who hiccupped quite-a-lotamus.
And every time he got’emus
He’d fall upon his bottomus.”

Over the next eight years, he would take the story out, tweak it, then tuck it away.

“It was tricky to write because of the difficult rhyme scheme that I had come up with,” said Zenz.  “The first verse just fell out of my mouth, but then to try to find other words that would work in that rhyme scheme was really difficult.”

Zenz, 30, lives in Spring Lake with his wife, Amity, and their four children, ages 1 to 8.  His youngest son was born at the same time “The Hiccupotamus” was being published. 

He said that he connected with the publisher in a “backwards way” as the publisher contacted him.

Dogs in Hats Children’s Publishing in Elmhurst, Ill., was a new company, and Zenz was familiar with one of the company’s owners.  He came to Zenz and asked if he would be willing to let them publish “Hiccupotamus.”

“I thought about that for all of two seconds,” said Zenz.  He then said yes and had his foot in the publishing world.  The company has gone through three printings of the book in its first year and there may be a fourth, Zenz said.  “Originally, they weren’t even sure they would make that first investment back.  But three printings later, it’s far exceeded any expectations.  It’s been very profitable for them.  I’m very glad.”

Zenz has about 35 more story ideas that are in various stages of completion.  He said that one of his problems is that he is excited about all of them.  Instead of focusing on one and giving it all his attention, he dabbles on all of them.  “I don’t make huge leaps and bounds on any one of them,” he says.

He does have five or six that are in a presentable state, and he is sending those out to publishers.

Zenz considers himself an illustrator who happens to write, as opposed to an author who also can illustrate.  He has been illustrating since he was a “little guy” who was drawing all the time.  He prefers to draw with colored pencils because of the control he has with them.  “They were a natural transition from crayons as a kid,” he said.

Zenz received an art degree from Hillsdale College.  He grew up in Jackson and migrated to West Michigan after graduating from college, and has worked as a multi-media designer, graphic designer, toy designer, and illustrator.

At this point, he is working as a freelance illustrator, writer, and… “Right now I’m doing anything that pays, mowing lawns – all sorts of things,” Zenz said.  He recently partnered with an artist’s representative who has already secured work to illustrate another author’s book.  “It’s not my book, but it is work and it does allow me to keep my name out there,” he said.

He has visited many schools in Michigan, using “Hiccupotamus” in his presentations.  In the beginning he didn’t anticipate how much he would enjoy it.  “I love it,” he said.

Along with reading the book, he does a puppet performance with the younger children and writes a poem together with the older ones.  He talks about the creation of a dummy, the sketches, and the final art so they know what he does, and that there’s a lot of work involved too.

During the school visits, Zenz also is listening to what children are saying about the books they are reading.

“Reading with a kid is a crucial part of creating children’s books,” he said.  To know what kids actually want to hear, he said, you have to read with them and see what they respond to.

Zenz started collecting children’s literature in college and before he knew it, he wanted to write children’s books.  He remembers a magical moment when he saw the tigers on the cover of “The Cinder Eyed Cats” by Eric Rohmann.  Looking at that cover, he said, was very powerful.  “I wanted to do that,” Zenz said.  “I wanted to be involved in the power of telling a story with a single picture or series of pictures.”

Se started collecting books in which the illustrations moved him.  He wanted to study the techniques he liked.  He has been collecting for more than 10 years and has more than 1,900 picture books in his collection.