YOUR GUIDE TO THE INDOMITABLE JAY COOPER by Sara Courtney
Updated: Feb 6
Pen and paper in hand, this local author-illustrator brings joie de vivre to your elementary school or bookstore.
Jay Cooper is at it again. He is moving about the gymnasium of St. Cloud Elementary School in West Orange, darting back and forth under a projection of the words “HOW MANY OF YOU LIKE TO DRAW?” With his distinctive beard and a mischievous look in his eyes, Cooper is in his element. He takes suggestions from the audience of captivated kids engaged in an interactive drawing session of what Cooper calls “robot by committee.” How many eyeballs does the robot have? What is the shape of the robot’s head? he asks, and the kids answer, and pretty soon, to the delight of an auditorium full of kids, a quirky robot is illustrated before them – part Cooper’s, but also part theirs.
Drawing is fun! Reading is amazing! Do you like Jay Cooper yet? If you don’t know, ask your kids. And the answer is an unambiguous yes.
Cooper is an author and illustrator of more than 20 books, an executive creative director at a Broadway ad agency, and an enthusiastic collector of rare and first edition books. Perhaps you have seen him jogging around Maplewood (he’s brainstorming) or signing books at Words bookstore (He’s thanking you for supporting your local independent bookstore! And also, still brainstorming), or drawing feverishly on NJ Transit (this is from all that brainstorming). He’s a rollicking good conversationalist, prone to making unexpected detours into details you didn’t know you needed but are so happy to have, such as the fact that his scanner is named Scan Lee.
Growing up in Delaware (“There are only two people you will ever meet from Delaware. It’s me and President Biden,” he explains), Cooper always loved drawing. “I drew all the time,” he says. His love of drawing eventually grew to a love of comic books. “I started to read comic books and I just devoured them.” This dedication to comics grew into a lifelong devotion to literature, and to this day, Cooper is a passionate advocate for encouraging kids to read – whether it’s the books the parents approve of, or the comic books with potty humor. “I didn’t understand at the time I was learning all this vocabulary, and I was learning narrative structure, and story design so well, because I was just having fun reading entertaining material,” he says. The comics of his youth inspired him to major in literature – not art – when he got to college. “It was primarily because of art that I became a heavy reader.”
Cooper moved to New York City in 1998 and promptly got hired in the mailroom at Martha Stewart Living magazine. “I had no idea what I wanted to do,” he admits. “I had no direction. I followed a girl to New York City because she was going to Columbia grad school, and I sort of fell into it.” When he sent out a memo that misspelled the iconic designer as Martha Stuart, his friendly and infectious spirit helped it all blow over.
He quickly made his way up through the marketing department. After taking classes at the School of Visual Arts, his portfolio grew, and he moved into the art production department. After a stint at Penguin as a book cover designer, he was headhunted for Broadway advertising, where he has brought his creativity to everything from Broadway posters to playbills to billboards and marquees to the ads adorning the tops of taxis. Cooper has been at it for 18 years, having worked on 144 Broadway plays and musicals.
Making the leap to author and illustrator was the result of a personal challenge Cooper set for himself to become published. “So. I turned 40,” he says. “I thought, ‘I’m gonna get ahead of my midlife crisis. I’m going to take a stab at it. I’m going to take a year where I am really all chips in.” He split up his year into three increments. The first third was devoted to developing a commercial book idea; the second, to acquiring an agent to sell the book; and the third and final one focusing on procuring a book contract.
“The goal was by the time I turned 41, on my birthday, I would have a book deal,” he recalls. Cooper missed his self-imposed deadline – but only by a week. Just a week after turning 41, he had his deal – along with plenty of teasing from friends. “People say, ‘So, you failed?’ I did fail! But I failed with finesse.”
Cooper has written and illustrated over 20 books now, from the popular Pepper Party series to the Bots books. He also illustrated Maureen Johnson’s national best-seller, Your Guide to Not Getting Murdered In A Quaint English Village, which represented a significant departure from his artistic style and a challenge he was determined to meet. “It was the most stressful book I’ve worked on because it was so far outside my style, and I wanted to make sure I nailed it,” he says. “I stressed myself out so much that I came down with the shingles. I was at the wellness center on Route 22, wracked with pain, but I had my drawing pad on my lap.” He has also illustrated for the wildly popular Last Kids On Earth graphic novel series, calling it “the funniest thing I have ever worked on. I hope kids love reading it as much as I loved drawing it. I laughed out loud so many times drawing it.”
And it is, ultimately, this urge to spread humor, creativity, and literacy, that propels Jay Cooper on to book fairs, independent bookshops, and, especially, his many visits to elementary schools. “It’s my favorite part of the job,” he says. “It’s the whole reason I do it. To pay forward that experience I had as a kid that made me become a reader.” Time and again, Cooper emphasizes the importance of meeting people who work in the arts. “I didn’t realize I could potentially work in the arts in a realistic way until I met people who were doing it,” he recalls. “I grew up thinking books came from Mount Olympus and Zeus would say ‘Here’s Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.’ No real human did that kind of thing! But when I realized people like me did, it changed everything.” Cooper is determined that his visits to schools will inspire young readers and artists to realize writing and illustrating books is attainable – they can do it too.
When he is standing in a gymnasium filled with kids – or, rather, not really standing (“I don’t stand still from beginning to end.”) – he makes sure all the laughing and drawing and robot illustrating includes an emphasis on “the power of words and images together.” Calling them a super team, he encourages kids to think of the combination of words and pictures as having that “magical superfriends quality that just can’t be beat.”
He wants the teachers and parents and adults everywhere to understand this as well. Reading for fun – whether it’s highbrow or lowbrow – is what matters most, because the kids are ultimately cultivating a love of reading. “I am who I am because I read what I enjoyed extensively,” he says. “Reading Spiderman led me to read Shakespeare. Reading Mad Magazine led me to read Maya Angelou.” Comparing a child’s love of reading to eating their vegetables – "they don’t realize how strong and healthy they are becoming because they are enjoying the process so much” – Cooper draws a direct line from the silly, irreverent, madcap comics and magazines of his youth to the personal and professional dedication he feels today. “I am an example that one leads to the other,” he says, before adding proudly, “It was because I read action superhero comic books that led me to have a first edition Walt Whitman in my collection.”
All kids, and readers, and perhaps adults too – all they really need is that spark. Whether it comes from Spiderman or Shakespeare or a three-eyed robot, Cooper wants them to grab onto that spark and enjoy the ride. “Just let kids enjoy the process,” Cooper implores.
So – do you like Jay Cooper yet? Just ask your kid with her nose buried in that comic. It’s no surprise to her. She’s bound to say yes.
Sara Courtney is a writer living in Maplewood. She grew up reading Batman comics.