Jef Czekaj on the collision of picture books for kids and grown-up weirdo music
Jef Czekaj has dipped his paws in plenty of creative buckets over the years. The Arlington cartoonist has put work in as a children’s book author and illustrator, while as a musician, as he explains it, he’s been “in a bunch of bands you’ve never heard of.”
Even during the pandemic, Czekay pursued multiple paths, keeping busy the whole time. Adding to more than a dozen published print titles including Hip & Hop in the House!, he released two new albums for the kids—More Songs About Pickles And Sheep and Nouns!—plus a new picture book, Little Ghoul Goes To School, which is dropping on Balzer & Bray/HarperCollins.
Now, to celebrate the Ghoul’s big day at school, Czekaj is hosting a free “concert/book reading/puppet show” on the outdoor patio at Remnant Brewing in Union Square, Somerville on Aug. 29. We asked about his book hustle and unusual launch spectacle.
You’ve been working at the intersection of alternative kids books, local hip-hop, and various other niche markets for some time now. How do you describe this event as an overall spectacle?
So, yeah, I exist in a couple of different worlds: kid picture books and grown-up weirdo music. In general I keep these worlds apart, but every once in a while, like at this event, they collide. This should be somewhere between an Allston basement show and a story time at the public library. Wait, that sounds like a nightmare. It’ll be fun, I promise.
There is of course some debate over whether kids belong at breweries. But since it’s a kid’s book release party, is the question if adults should be there?
Adults should come because A. I don’t think you’re allowed to drop your kid off at a bar and leave (thanks for nothing, puritanical Massachusetts) and B. Someone has to drink the beer.
What’s the secret to throwing an event that kids and adults both enjoy?
I have an eight-year-old, so I’ve been to my share of kid concerts and events. They are, quite often, awful for adults. You stand in the back and try to have small-talk with the other parents over the sound of someone with an acoustic guitar singing “Baby Shark.”
When I put together a show, I try to reach out to musicians who don’t consider themselves a children’s performer. Kids like music; it doesn’t have to be specifically kid music. For example, for this show I reached out to Noell Dorsey. She’s the lead singer of the very loud, very awesome, Major Stars, and also an experimental vocalist who does cool weird things with her voice. I actually have no idea what she’s going to do. But I assume it’ll be good, and will maybe freak out some kids and/or parents.
Please, tell us about this little ghoul who goes to school.
Little Ghoul Goes to School is my latest picture book (published by Balzer & Bray/ HarperCollins). Little Ghoul is, well, a little ghoul. She’s nervous about her first day of school, because she wants her school to be awful, her lunch to be disgusting, and her teacher to be a horrible and scary monster. But what if everything is, gasp, nice?
Are you the ghoul in real life?
I was a very shy and anxious kid, so, yes, definitely. In elementary school, I would often, like weekly, get stress-induced migraine headaches that would often lead to me puking in class, the gym, the lunchroom, or pretty much anywhere. So, elementary school was pretty rough for me.
I’d like to take this opportunity to formally apologize to the custodial staff of Forest Lake Elementary School for the sheer amount of my vomit that they had to clean up.
What’s the big difference with this one from your previous projects?
This book is by far my cutest and sweetest book, and my books are generally pretty cute. I think it’s for slightly younger kids than I usually write for but, ironically, I’m pretty bad at judging the proper audience for my own books.
I wrote this book before COVID, but now seems like the perfect time to come out with a book about being anxious about going to school. So, uh, thanks, global pandemic?
And finally, what is one to wear to a kids book release party at a brewery featuring a band called Cotton Candy?
Cotton Candy (which is Mark Robinson from Teenbeat Records and Evelyn Hurley from Blast Off Country Style) are fabulous dressers. Do a Google image search for them and follow their lead.
Little Ghoul Goes To School release party at Remnant Brewing’s Outdoor Patio, 2 Bow Market Way, Somerville. Sun., Aug. 29. 3pm/free. More info: czekaj.com/ghoulparty.html
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.