It’s a frigid New York City morning when I’m attempting to thaw a long-since frozen-over familiarity with Skype. But I’m happy to make the effort to have a conversation with Adam Rubin, stationed in his adopted home of Barcelona, Spain, some six hours in the future. After all, Rubin has authored many of my favorite titles in recent years––including Secret Pizza Party, the beloved Dragons Love Tacos, and this year, El Chupacabras.
Do these not sound like some highbrow literary fiction, destined for a legacy of debate and analysis? Well, I’ll tell you, I read an awful lot of books—from those about food or the food industry, socioeconomics and social justice, to satires and thrillers and sci-fi and sprawling, world-building fantasies—but few have been as enjoyable, or anywhere near as successful, as those Rubin and I will be discussing today.
More importantly, in many ways, the books Rubin writes are an impetus for equally powerful conversations. As an aqueduct for the delivery of life lessons to our littlest citizens—among them, possibly our future leaders—they feel far more relevant than some of those more pedantic narratives on my nightstand. In those stories, monsters are often figurative or metaphorical—set against themes of political turmoil, war, addiction, even unrequited love. In these “grown-up” stories, themes of magic and whimsy are replaced by those intended to elicit profound emotion––empathy is, after all, the result of great literature. Regardless of genre or age-group, books have always had a common purpose: to make readers think and see the world in a different way, and to draw feelings to the surface, where they can be accessed and assessed—perhaps where they can be encouraged to evolve or changed altogether.
But what of the other response to reading? One that has potential to be just as connective, that we pursue with such insouciant abandon in youth. One that, as adults, becomes sanctioned—relegated to recreationally designated places and periods (vacation properties, Friday nights), only in appropriate venues and with approved company. And something that, counterintuitively, is most effective and enjoyable when it is hardest to control: laughter.
At some point in the process of maturation, laughter seems to go out of style—or at the very least, it becomes considered undignified. It’s a grown-up rite of passage to relinquish the right to unsubstantiated, spontaneous amusement––as if it suddenly loses value. But Dragons Love Tacos—and Rubin’s other books—have definitely made me laugh. And given its success, I know I’m not the only adult who would admit to that.
When I botch the Skype connection a few times trying to reach Rubin, I try to have a sense of humor about it. This adolescent technology (founded in 2003, Skype is now fourteen years old) seems to be having a bit of juvenile fun at my expense. In fact, I can almost feel my computer laughing at my ineptitude.
And then I think, that’s ridiculous. Computers can’t laugh.
But then again, if a mythical creature can take pleasure in a tortilla-wrapped lunch staple—is there anything that’s off the table? A few minutes later, I finally make contact with Rubin to find out.
You’re currently living in Spain. How has that move affected your work?
The inspiration I take from living in Spain, in general, is the profound value of multiculturalism. And how refreshing it is to see people who speak three languages and it’s not a weird thing; it’s just how they communicate with the world.
That was a big inspiration for me in making my new book, El Chupacabras. That book is an intertwining blend of Spanish and English.
Tell me a little about that book.
El Chupacabras—the goat sucker—is like a bigfoot legend that some sort of terrible beast comes and sucks the insides out from the goats on the farm or in the countryside. I thought that was a good start for a children’s book.
An ominous one, I’d say!
The legend said that the chupacabra is a terrifying beast, but maybe the truth is not so scary.
Where will it be released?
The good news is they don’t have to translate it if they want to release it in Spain. I know they have plans to sell it in Latin America, Mexico, and Spanish markets because it’s already in both languages. One of the nice things about the book is it’s totally agnostic as far as the languages go—they’re both treated equally; they’re not separated. You can’t skip over the Spanish.
You come from advertising. Is writing your full-time gig now?
I’m no longer in the advertising world. My time is now spent writing, and also collaborating with my partners. One of my big passions outside of writing is puzzles, games, magic tricks, and optical illusions, so I work as Director of Puzzles and Games for this company called Art of Play—a curator and creator of the world’s most beautiful playing cards, mechanical puzzles, games, and curious objects.
That connection to being a kid and never losing that imagination, how does that translate to your work?
I think the idea that adults are different from kids is a misleading and damaging social construct. Because people don’t change; you don’t start drinking coffee one day and suddenly you don’t like to draw and funny noises don’t make you laugh. People are too quick to lose that childlike sense of wonder, because they think it’s immature or unprofessional or something. But kids are just people who haven’t lived that long.
And how does that philosophy apply when concepting a new book?
People always ask me, “How do you know what kids are going to like?” But the truth is, I just write books I like—not something I think other people will like, or parents will like, or maybe the market needs. I just make something I really enjoy that I think is funny or interesting or weird or exciting. And I trust there is some shared sensibility that all humans have that some things make us laugh, and some things make us scared.
I’ve heard you describe the genesis of the idea for Dragons Love Tacos—that it just seemed logical that spicy salsa would be something a dragon would want to stay away from. That basic logic resonates with kids, who sometimes seem to be the most logical. Do you think your ability to tap into that logic is what makes your work so successful?
I have no idea why my work is successful. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me why one book is popular and another is not. I think we owe a lot to Game of Thrones being popular. And I think, people like dragons, and people like tacos (laughs).
I’m personally a little partial to Secret Pizza Party. I’m curious to know the logic there.
Um, I like pizza.
That makes two of us.
It may be weird and I know not everybody does this, but I always come up with the title first. Once it has a name, the name is “sticky.” I gravitate toward words and phrases I like to call “chewy” words—words that are fun to say. Like taco with its hard consonants. Secret Pizza Party—that alliteration makes it fun. I wrote Secret Pizza Party three ways—three completely different books. It started getting into this idea of secret stuff and sneaking around, and it seemed like a raccoon was the right hero for that story.
I get so excited for him. I think that’s the fun of these books; you get so invested.
People get invested in picture books. There are some really strong feelings about whether they are or are not good books, or about the psychological effect that they have on the parents or the children.
Obviously it’s meant to be fun and whimsical, but when you write a book for kids, how do you navigate that potential feeling of responsibility?
My only consideration is to not use explicit language or situations that are inappropriate. But beyond that, you’d be amazed at the things I hear or the letters I get about what people have learned from the book or what their kids have learned from the book, or what they’ve learned together. They talk about “teachable moments,” and that can come from the tiniest little object in the corner of the picture. That can come from a new word the kid is not familiar with, or a shared joke the parents repeat with the kids.
It’s been six years of getting e-mails and letters from parents and kids about why they love Dragons Love Tacos, but I think if you had to boil it down to why people like the books Dan [Salmieri, the book’s illustrator] and I make, it’s because the parents and kids get to laugh together. It’s not something where the kids are laughing and the parents are rolling their eyes, or the parents are laughing and it’s going way over the kids’ heads; the books we write are just funny and stupid and silly and wacky and ridiculous in a way an eighty-year-old grandmother can laugh at it, and so can a kid.
When you learn about the world through humor, you learn twice as fast. You have to learn what’s happening and then why it is funny. And that gives you a perspective that maybe the world is not as serious as they might tell you in school, or that “adults” might lead you to believe. That things are ridiculous no matter what age you are and that inexplicable and ridiculous things happen all day every day. You can get upset about them, or you can laugh about them.
You talk about learning through humor. We obviously take the approach of learning through food. Your books don’t all include food, but it seems to be a resonant theme. How did that happen? Are you just really into food?
I love snacks (laughs). I love to eat food, and it’s the one artform that transcends all cultures. And it’s the only artform that uses all five senses. It’s this deeply-rooted, almost mystic shared experience we all have. Do we all know what an impressionist painting looks like? Maybe not. But do we know what salty, sour or sweet is? Something delicious is appealing to everyone. It doesn’t matter what your age is or where you’re from; delicious snacks are great.
That might be my favorite quote from an interview ever. Do you have a favorite snack?
I love spicy food. Spicy food is consciousness-raising.
And in the book, it’s kryptonite for dragons.
One of my greatest regrets is I’ve accidentally scared toddlers away from spicy salsa. But it also depends on how the parent handles it. They may say, “Spicy food is not good for dragons, but it’s okay for you.”
I’ve also gotten letters from parents that their kids were picky eaters, but now have been introduced to tacos and are into something new because of the book. Food is this element interwoven through all these different cultural ideas and traditions, and it brings us together. And it is also a way to start a conversation about what makes us different and how that brings us together.
Have there been any very surprising responses to the book?
There are all sorts of very wonderful, life-affirming letters I get about shared jokes with the family or taco Tuesday that has become a family tradition, or the grandma reading to the kid, and it’s really fuzzy and heartwarming.
When you’re around kids, do you take inspiration from them? Or it just comes more naturally based on your own experiences?
I love being around kids, and I love visiting schools and meeting readers. If you were in a big gymnasium full of kids and adults and you were going to split them in half, I’d feel more comfortable on the side with the kids. I’m sure I’m not the only adult who feels that way.
In Spain, family is very important. There’s no division between kids and adults. When we go to do dinner, the kids are there. The kids are part of the conversation; the kids are sitting at the table. [Parents] don’t stick an iPad in front of them and try to keep them quiet. I like the idea that kids are part of the conversation. They get a say and their perspective is totally valid and interesting.
You must’ve become a taco authority by default.
I remember Dan and I had this conversation when he first sent me sketches for the book. I thought, These are gringo tacos! These are like, buy in the supermarket in the sleeve, crunchy tacos. And what I’m used to eating are like fresh corn tortillas with onions and cilantro. And he said there are some people who are going to read this book where this is going to be their experience with tacos.
One of the problems with monolingualism is you assume whatever the word means to you is what it means. That was one of the big lessons I took from not just from hearing people’s reactions to the book, but also just in traveling around and seeing that the same word—taco—means something completely different to all these different people. And obviously there’s a heritage to where tacos come from, and there’s an important history to how they developed, where they comes from, and what a traditional taco is all about. But a lot of people have no idea about that. To some people, they’ve never had pizza that wasn’t delivered to their house in a box.
To lighten it up and wrap this interview on a silly note, I’m curious if you ever think about what other mythical creatures might want to eat.
It’s funny you say that, because the first draft of DLT was a list book, of all the different things imaginary creatures like to eat.
Amazing. Well, here goes… Unicorns?
Unicorns would like donuts because they can keep them on their horns for later.
I would imagine Cyclops used chopsticks often because [of the lack of] depth perception; maybe they’re easier. Or maybe ramen, or some kind of soup so they can pick the bowl up and bring it to their mouth and not be rude.
I guess a sub sandwich or kebabs. Something with a little bit of length on it so they can reach from their tiny little arms to their mouth. Maybe popcorn—they could toss it.
Loch Ness Monster?
I don’t know why but I’m picturing a spaghetti-and-meatballs situation. I keep thinking about a checkered napkin tied around his or her neck. It’s got to be difficult to cook in the lake. There’s a place in Japan, I never got to try it, but they cook soba noodles by dropping them in the river, and you wait downstream, and you scoop them out and eat them. Maybe the loch ness monster would be into that.
I would imagine they’re more on like a paleo diet—probably a lot of black beans and beef jerky.
Right; they’re working, so whatever is good on the go.
Someone pointed out to me recently that the paleo diet probably had a lot of insects in it. You don’t see bodybuilders snacking on grubs too often.
Although now a lot of protein bars are using cricket and ant protein.
I have had a cricket taco! They were pretty good. It doesn’t freak me out that much to eat bugs—I don’t know why. Who knows, maybe in the future we’ll be eating a lot more bugs. When you look at how different the diet was, things are changing, certainly.
Maybe that’s the next book; you’ve got to have a sense of humor when you’re chowing down on a cricket taco. Makes it a little less scary for people.
More than anything, that’s what makes me proud of the books I’ve written—they give people a chance to laugh together. That might be the most important thing in the world. Being able to sit down with people and share a laugh; that brings people together in a way that’s very primal. I think laughter was developed as a fear response—something scary happened, but we’re going to be okay. And that means a lot to me.
Illustrations for Dragons Love Tacos and Secret Pizza Party by Daniel Salmieri. Illustrations for El Chupacabras by Crash McCreery.