My name is… Aron, spelled with one “A” because my great-grandfather’s name was spelled that way. Nels, because of my Finnish grandfather’s nickname. It’s still unclear to me if it was his nickname or the name that appeared on his birth certificate. And Steinke, which is German for “stone cutter” because the Steinkes in my family were 1800s German immigrants.
For years I was embarrassed by my name and I used to get teased because of my last name as a kid. I wish I had known how to deal with it better.
I am a… cartoonist. That means I draw and write comics. I am both illustrator and writer. I am also a teacher. I like being both but I struggle with that dual identity. Am I taken less seriously as a teacher because I devote so much of myself toward making books? Am I taken less seriously as an author because I spend a majority of my energy toward teaching?
As a kid, I was… lucky because I had access to roam around hundreds of acres of forests. I grew up on eleven acres in rural SW Washington State. My brother and/or my friend and I would just wander through neighboring forests and fields. Ducking electric fences and scaling barbed wire. I got to know crawdads and frogs pretty well. Snakes, newts, and garden spiders too. If I was bored in the house I’d just go outside on my bicycle and ride down “the trail,” which was a path that connected the road in front of our house to the road way in the back of our house. I became a connoisseur of huckleberry and thimbleberries. I ate wild hazelnuts from the filbert bushes and made arrows from the same plant and used red alder for bows and swords sharpened from hours of whittling with my pocket knife.
Writing is… something that I didn’t love or feel I understood at all until I started making comics. I love writing now but that only happened because I forced myself to get better at it. I still find it very difficult, but I now have a strategy to get better at it. Writing is re-reading. Writing is continually editing and putting down things that don’t work and chipping away at it until it does.
Writing plot is so very hard. I never want to write something that is contrived. I don’t want my work to be obviously derivative of other popular works or predictable for any age of reader. I want my writing to feel like it’s a real conversation happening in front of you. I want it to feel authentic and natural.
Drawing is… something that always came natural for me. There are so many styles and ways to make art—how can we settle on a form or a material? For me I settled on a cartoony style but it took me until I was twenty-five to find that style. My early illustrative work and animation was derivative of the people I was influenced by. You could tell when I was really into Miyazaki or Sendak. Now I feel like my style is just a natural amalgamation of the hundreds and possibly thousands of visual influences I’ve had in my life.
Reading is… something we should all have more time for. I love getting lost in a book and learning from books. I get distracted easily and because of that I’m a slow reader.
It took me a while to connect with reading as a kid. I loved reading the comic strips in my newspaper and I read collections of Garfield and The Far Side. I would often check out books from my library that I couldn’t actually access because of either my lack of reading stamina, my lack of a strong vocabulary, or both. I remember checking out a novel with a wizard and a wolf on the cover in third or fourth grade. I’d carry this book around with me and pretend I could read it because I thought of the book’s cover and what must be inside as an extension of my identity.
When I first discovered the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series by Alvin Schwartz I had that feeling of a book that finally connected with me. It was the short story format, allowing me to skip around the book, and the content that appealed to my abilities and interests. I read those books over and over. The illustrations by Stephen Gammell haunted me.
When I was in seventh-grade my friends and I started reading the Anne Rice vampire books and we had a teacher who gave us a long silent sustained reading period. That was very important for me. I didn’t really give myself chunks of time to read for pleasure at home so here I was forced to just sit and read. My peers were reading and I wanted to perform as well as them and to keep up with the conversations afterward. Reading those books felt like I was getting away with something. Those books were scandalous for a middle schooler. I remember thinking, “What if my teacher actually knew what I was reading?!”
In some ways reading prose is more private. Comics, on the other hand, telegraph exactly what you’re reading to the outside observer because it’s immediately clear to others what you’re reading. They can glance over and accidentally read your book.
That’s really the only limitation I see comics having, if it is a limitation. Maybe it’s not a limitation but it does make it hard for those who feel a stigma in our society about reading comics. I’m speaking about adults or kids who want to read outside of their perceived demographic. They may censor their public reading choices because their reading choice is out in the open. I make comics and I love reading them but I still feel a little daring when I’m reading a graphic novel out in the open at a coffee shop, on the bus, or on a flight.
Books are… always going to exist in print. As a teacher it is very clear. The novelty of reading on a screen has some merit for some kids but nothing can replace the physical act of turning a page.
I do think reading is one of the coolest things you can do. When I first met my wife she was very relieved that I read books for pleasure and for personal fulfillment. She reads very quickly and is always getting something new from the library.
To help raise readers we need to model to kids that we are readers ourselves, not just of articles on our phone, but of real, physical books. So if you’re a parent or teacher and kids don’t see you read for yourself maybe think about how you can better model your love for reading to them.
I also think it’s important to model that you read across demographics. I’m thinking specifically about how much adults would benefit from reading children’s nonfiction picture books. I’m lucky because I get to do it as part of my teaching job. That’s not to dismiss kids’ fiction books. I write children’s fiction but I just know that with children’s nonfiction I’m always learning something new very quickly. They’re designed to communicate ideas efficiently.
Did you know… my third middle-grade graphic novel in the Mr. Wolf’s Class series, Lucky Stars, is coming out on September 3rd?! And, I’m busy working on a fourth Mr. Wolf’s Class book due out next year!
You can find me… at www.mrwolfsclass.com, on twitter as @mrwolfcomics and instagram as @aronnelssteinke.