From Indie Rock To R2-D2: How Somerville's Jef Czekaj Became A Children's Book Illustrator

Children's book author Jef Czekaj at his studio in Somerville. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Children's book author Jef Czekaj at his studio in Somerville. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
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One of the notions people tend to have about children’s book illustrators and authors is that the books originate as stories they tell their own children.

“People are always like, ‘It must be so exciting to have a kid. Now you have an audience,’ ” says Jef Czekaj, the author or illustrator of a dozen children’s picture books. “[My 3-year-old son] Ollie does like my books, but they’re not his favorite books.”

Still, becoming a parent has shaped the 47-year-old Somerville artist’s latest book, “Dog Rules” (Balzer + Bray). “It’s kind of about parenting,” Czekaj explains. “It’s about adoption.”

The cover of Jef Czekaj's "Dog Rules." (Courtesy of Jef Czekaj)
The cover of Jef Czekaj's "Dog Rules." (Courtesy of Jef Czekaj)

It’s a heartwarming comedy about a cat who tricks a pair of dogs into hatching an egg and raising the bird inside as their own puppy. They attempt to teach it to growl, bark and do tricks like roll over. Instead the bird tweets, flies and eats worms. “Have we been raising a baby bird the entire time?” one bewildered dog wonders aloud as the cat laughs.

“I don’t really write my books with children in mind,” Czekaj says. “I do them to amuse myself.”

R2-D2 And Indie Rock

How Czekaj began making children’s books is a story in itself. He was living in Ithaca, New York, after graduating from State University of New York at Binghamton (now Binghamton University) in 1992, where he’d studied linguistics, hosted shows on the college radio station and played in weirdo bands. But now the Long Island native had come down with a form of tinnitus.

Jef Czekaj's comic “R2-D2 Is an Indie Rocker.” (Courtesy of Jef Czekaj)
Jef Czekaj's comic “R2-D2 Is an Indie Rocker.” (Courtesy of Jef Czekaj)

“I couldn’t be in music and I wanted to keep a connection to music. I didn’t even listen to much music because my ears were really sensitive,” he recalls. Instead, during the quiet hours of his night shift at a bookstore, he began drawing a comic he titled “R2-D2 Is an Indie Rocker.”

“There are ‘Star Wars’ references, but it wasn’t really about ‘Star Wars,’ ” he says. “It was a way to poke fun at indie rockers who took themselves very seriously. I loved Mad magazine. It was like doing Mad magazine about really obscure bands. I think that’s why people really responded to it.”

Before long, Czakaj was making hundreds of copies and sending them to friends and readers who found him via magazines like Maximum Rocknroll and Factsheet Five that served as directories to the zine and self-published mini-comics world. “It was awesome getting mail. People would just put $2 in an envelope and send it to me.”

Shark Hunters

Czakaj found his way to Somerville in 1998, following some friends who had landed in the city. Moving here, he fell in with an indie comics scene orbiting around the Million Year Picnic comics shop in Cambridge’s Harvard Square and an employee there by the name of Tom Devlin, who would soon launch his own comics publishing enterprise, Highwater Books (and is now at Drawn & Quarterly in Montreal). “Then I started going to comics conventions mostly as a Highwater representative. I’d be selling my stuff.” [Disclosure: Highwater also published my own comics and I got to know Jef around this time.]

Around 1998, at the gigantic San Diego Comic-Con, he gave a copy of “R2-D2” to Chris Duffy, a comics editor at Nickelodeon Magazine, who encouraged him to pitch him some ideas for funny comics for kids. Czekaj got a couple gags published in the magazine, which was part of the Nickelodeon children’s television empire and sold at supermarket checkout counters around the country. Then Czekaj proposed an ongoing comic series that became “Grandpa and Julie: Shark Hunters.”

Jef Czekaj's "Grandpa and Julie: Shark Hunters" comic from Nickelodeon magazine. (Courtesy of Jef Czekaj)
Jef Czekaj's "Grandpa and Julie: Shark Hunters" comic from Nickelodeon magazine. (Courtesy of Jef Czekaj)

“It was timed really well because he was looking for another regular comic in the magazine,” Czekaj says. “It was about a girl named Julie and her grandfather, who were looking for the biggest shark in the world. I really wanted to do an adventure comic like ‘Tintin,’ and wanted to have a female protagonist.” It ended up being published in Nickelodeon for more than a decade.

“Nickelodeon paid really well. I was able to quit my day job at Harvard University Press,” he says. “I was really poor because that was the only thing paying me. But I could piece together a living.”

Czekaj won a grant that allowed him to self-publish a full-color collection of “Shark Hunters” in 2004. The book brought him attention. “Klasky Csupo — the ‘Rugrats’ and the original ‘Simpsons’ folks — called me. They were like, ‘We bought your book and we want to talk to your people.’ And I didn’t have any people.”

The studio produced an animated pilot, with Dustin Hoffman — yes, the Dustin Hoffman — as the voice of Grandpa.

“I was going to be rich and I could retire. I don’t know how Hollywood works, but I just assumed Dustin Hoffman wasn’t going to be involved in something that wasn’t really going to happen for sure,” he says. “It seems like Klasky Csupo fell on hard times. Needless to say ‘Grandpa and Julie’ never aired.”

Czakaj adds, “I thought the pilot was pretty terrible. And it wasn’t really funny. But I thought they did a pretty good job of making my style animated.”

Cats And Dogs

In the meantime, Czekaj was silkscreening posters for various local musical things — including Handstand Command, a collective of Somerville bands including The Anchormen (in which he played) and The Operators — and for the Cambridge shop Lorem Ipsum Books.

“An art director for [the Watertown book publisher] Charlesbridge saw that poster I made for that store and she just got in touch with me. Which was awesome because I didn’t go to art school. I didn’t have a portfolio. I hadn’t thought about doing comics. I hadn’t thought about doing picture books,” he says. “From what I’d heard it was super competitive and I didn’t know how to get in the door. I didn’t know what to do.”

Czakaj was invited to illustrate Mary K. Corcoran’s “The Quest to Digest” (2006). He says, “It followed this little green guy through this kid’s digestive system. I was thinking of ‘50s educational films. I just felt like there was always a little character going through your body.”

He illustrated other educational books. And he wrote his own. “Hip & Hop Don’t Stop!” (2010) is a celebration of rap music, starring a turtle who raps really slowly and a bunny who raps superfastly.

Jef Czekaj's “Hip & Hop Don’t Stop!” (Courtesy of Jef Czekaj)
Jef Czekaj's “Hip & Hop Don’t Stop!” (Courtesy of Jef Czekaj)

“I was in a rap group, so I was listening to a lot more hip-hop,” Czekaj says. “I was trying to do a rap book and I came up with the title and, of course, Hop is a rabbit. I couldn’t find any rap kids books at all, except a really bad biography of LL Cool J.”

“I wanted to be respectful of hip-hop culture in the book and give shoutouts to hip-hop,” he says.

Additional books included “A Call for a New Alphabet” (“The letter X is kind of pissed about his place in the alphabet,” Czekaj says. “It’s all about the weird rules in the English language.”), “Yes, Yes Yaul!” (a sequel to “Hip & Hop”), “Oink-A-Doodle-Moo,” “Horns, Tails, Spikes and Claws” and “Austin, Lost in America.”

His latest book, “Dog Rules,” is a sequel to 2011’s “Cat Secrets,” which Czekaj says “is supposedly a book that you’re supposed to read if you’re a cat. And you have to prove you’re a cat to the characters in the book in order to read it.”

Jef Czekaj's book "Cat Secrets."(Courtesy of Jef Czekaj)
Jef Czekaj's book "Cat Secrets."(Courtesy of Jef Czekaj)

“Dogs,” he says, “don’t seem to have secrets the way cats have secrets. Dogs have rules.”

“Dog Rules” is the comedy about a cat who tricks a pair of dogs into raising a bird as their own puppy. When the dogs realize they’ve been fooled, instead of being upset, they acknowledge, “Guess we have. But Junior, that doesn’t mean we love you any less.” As the cat continues to snicker at them, the tiny bird unleashes a giant “Woof!”

It’s a story about loving unconditionally. It’s a story about how parenting doesn’t always follow a linear path. It’s a story about how we can find surprising strengths within us to scare the meanies away.


Greg Cook Twitter Arts Reporter
Greg Cook was an arts reporter and critic for WBUR's The ARTery.