Hiccups, silly rhyme inspire


When he got a case of the hiccups nearly a decade ago, Michigan native Aaron Zenz responded with a nonsensical rhyme.

"I'm always making puns and jokes about things," says Zenz, noting that although he is 30, his parents and friends still shop for his gifts from among items a 5-year-old might like.

The rhyme dealt with a purple hippopotamus plagued by a chronic case of the hiccups, "and every time he got'emus, he'd fall upon his bottomus."

"When I said that line out loud I thought, 'That sounds like a children's book,' and I wrote it down in a sketchbook."

Last fall, eight years later, it became a reality with the publication of "The Hiccupotamus" (Dogs in Hats Children's Publishing, 32 pages, $15.95).  On Saturday, Zenz visits the Barnes & Noble Booksellers stores in Saginaw and Midland to sign copies.

Zenz, who lives in Spring Lake on the Lake Michigan side of the state, both wrote its rhyming text and drew its colorful images.  Made-up words and whimsy are everywhere within its pages.

A freelance illustrator and toy-designer, this is Zenz's first children's book – although he has a collection of 1,500 of them written by others; child-at-heart he remains.

"It took me so long to finish because I had created a tricky rhyme scheme with that initial line," the father of four says.  "I had sort of painted myself into a corner with it, so I'd pull the story out from time to time, refine it, and then tuck it away again."

Rhyming text complete, he then took to the illustrations.

Unlike most children's book illustrators who paint their images, Zenz is more at home with colored pencils.  He went through 119 pencils of over 100 different colors and broke 251 pencil tips, creating his style of detailed images by pressing extremely hard as he colors.  There was lots of blending and mixing of the colors too, layer upon layer.

"Colored pencils don't like to operate like that.  I tell people I abuse them.  It would probably be easier for me to paint, but I know my pencils better, and I know what I can get them to do."

Zenz says the book is selling well nationally (it's in its third printing), and something that amazes him are eyewitness accounts and emails indicating that teens also love it.

"I've gotten reports of teens huddled in the children's section of bookstores, roaring with laughter over the book."

Growing up in Jackson, Zenz says he doodled incessantly "up and down the margins" of his school papers and workbooks and was always writing stories.  Homeschooled from fifth through eighth grades, he also made little books.

"My parents homeschooled me to give me a chance to develop my creativity.  I'd write for hours, draw, and create.  I honestly believe that if I hadn't been homeschooled, there's no way I'd be doing what I am now."

Zenz received an art degree from Hillsdale College, which is where he began collecting children's books.  "I have my rounds I make, visiting second-hand bookstores and library book sales."

For the last few years, he has created illustrations for coloring books and sticker books, designed toys, and worked as a graphic designer and multimedia designer.

He is, he says, at work on four or five new children's book ideas – half in rhyme and the other half not, "but most with a nonsense flair."