Ever since meeting the monsters of Maurice Sendak, Adam Rex was drawn to stories that evoked images in rich, oily color.

Books like "The True Story of the Three Little Pigs" and "The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales," both written by Jon Scieszka and illustrated by Lane Smith, transported him to "the darker dreamscape of childhood."

He envisioned "a cadre of weird guys doing picture books in the sub-basement of picture books, trying to crack each other up, sitting on the basement couch watching old Bullwinkle cartoons."

It was a revelation, Rex says, and he "hoped there was room on the couch for me."

As it turns out, there was a spot on that imaginary couch for him, and a spot on the New York Times Bestseller list to go with it. A couple, in fact.

In 2006, Rex spent a couple of weeks on the list with "Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich," which he wrote and illustrated. Now, "Chu's Day," written by Neil Gaiman and illuminated by Rex's lush oil illustrations, has neared the top of that list. Chu is a small panda with a very big sneeze.

Rex, who will appear at the Tucson Festival of Books next month, is humble about his success, saying he is "riding the considerable coattails of Neil Gaiman" in this case. But he's not sitting back and basking in it.

The 39-year-old University of Arizona grad has just released the second book in his solo trilogy, "Cold Cereal," and makes regular trips to New York to meet with editors.

But, having reached the point where he can work anywhere, he says of Tucson: "We decided we really wanted to be back here."