Photo by Jeff Fielding.
Back seven or eight years ago, when my daughter Casey was but a wee gal of 2 or 3, someone gave her a bunch of bright, colorful, simply worded books as a gift.
They were written by a man named Todd Parr—and the girl absolutely, positively loved them. First, the art popped off the page. Red! Blue! Yellow! Green! Second, the universal theme was the basic-yet-beautiful IT’S OK TO BE YOU. Third, each book ended with the words, LOVE, TODD.
At the time (and until recently), I simply thought Todd Parr was an author among hundreds of other children’s authors. I came to find out that he’s a man who has sold millions of books; that he’s considered one of the masters of the genre. Hence, when Todd agreed to be become the first children’s book author to be Quazed, I was beyond thrilled.
Here, the great Todd Parr talks about placing himself in the mind of a kid; about how it feels writing brightly in a dark world, and why a hooker-and-sick-dog themed text might not work so well.
Todd Parr, this is The Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Todd, I don’t know how old you are, but I’m guessing you’re in my range (40s). You’ve been an adult for a long time. You’ve surely had mortgages and car accidents and bills and headaches and heartaches. So how are you able to think for a kid? What I mean is, you’ve authored nearly 40 children’s books, which means you must have a finger on the pulse of a child’s brain (not literally). How? How haven’t you lost the youthful innocence we all once had?
TODD PARR: Thank you! I’m 51! And yes, I have experienced all of these things and more. I think it’s because I live in “Toddsworld,” where things are safer and filled with childhood memories like late night sandwiches with my dad, Grandma reading me Green Eggs and Ham and Go Dog Do—over and over. Tubing down the big hill in the winter, feeding my dog under the table, sleeping with my Porky Pig doll and dreaming of all the things I wanted to be in my life.
J.P.: I was just reading This is My Hair with my son two nights ago. I don’t have it in front of me, but it must have no more than 100 words. Todd, my books have 180,000 words—which means I envy you. But also—just a little—wonder how hard writing a book for children can possibly be. I ask this with no disrespect—but how hard is it? And what’s the process for you?
T.P.: I started out This Is My Hair with something we all think about—hair, no hair and how it looks—just matter of fact and the style of art that a 6-year old would do and ending it with a simple message: No matter how your hair looks, always feel good about yourself. Love, Todd. Not hard at all (for me) but then it did get more difficult. The more topics I started to write about, I found myself struggling to simplify some of these complex ideas that would make sense to young kids without being “preachy, techie or new agey” (my words). So I resorted to humor and unpredictability to help deliver my story. It has become easier for me, because I am speaking from the heart. As I continue to tackle more complex subjects—or simply help one learn their ABCs and counting (Commercial Break: Animals in Underwear ABC and Doggy Kisses 123 out 12/3/13), I had to understand a bit more about how kids learn and practice my rhyming skills for a smooth flow all while keeping in check with my overall message of kindness and delivering it with humor and unpredictability. The longer I’m at this, I’m seeing the need to tackle more and more complex things that kids and families struggle with like death and loosing a loved one. But this is was hard one for me (Hint: A book about this will be out in 2015). Also, starting out wasn’t exactly easy either as people weren’t quite sure what my books were all about. Lets just say my book, It’s Okay to Be Different, ended up in the self-help section in some books stores. Not where you want it or a good sign for a book that was intended for the picture book wall.
As far as the process, it’s always about the topic/subject or issue and then sometimes it’s the art that comes first and sometimes it’s the words. I do all my books on the computer using a draw tablet.
J.P.: I know you live in Berkeley, I know you have two dogs and I know you started painting in 1994. But what’s your saga, from there to here? Your life path? How did you go from just some kid to a guy selling more than 2 million books?
T.P.: I think it all started when I was 7 and saw a contest in the comic section of the Sunday paper. I can’t remember what the prize was but all you had to do was draw (not trace) Snoopy laying on top of his dog house and send it in. I was shocked how good mine came out and showed my mom and dad. Thier response was, “That’s nice, but you are not supposed to trace it.” I was mad that they didn’t believe that I had drawn free hand and didn’t trace it (yes, it was that good. I remember). So I tore it up and that was that. There was lots of other stuff as the “saga” continued—like being made fun of because I couldn’t read very well and had to be in a special class and embarrassed beyond belief for being called out in class by my teacher because I literally didn’t know my left hand from my right. (You’re thinking—”How did this guy get into writing children’s books?”). I know, shocking. Then I went to work at Taco Time for $1 an hour cleaning tables. I was 11 and working at Taco Time was what I wanted for my 11th birthday. My dad knew the owner and my grandma got me the job. My dream was to own my own Taco Time one day.Then my mom died and my best friend shot himself in the head the day of her funeral. Slowly the fog started to lift from my head and I was working at a record store in a mall because I loved music. Music and art were my two favorite things. I was in high school at this time and really the only thing about school that I liked was art class but I got an F because I didn’t feel like drawing a stupid fruit bowl in chalk. (DISCLAIMER: I don’t blame the teacher—I was a troubled and difficult student).
Then my family helped me get my own record store and that went bust a year later and then somehow I found myself interviewing to be a flight attendant for United Airlines. I loved that job and did it for 15 years. It gave me a lot of free time so I slowly started painting and drawing again and realized this was my lifelong passion. So, I started painting everything in site and creating T-shirts and even had my grandma make me really cool dinosaur print boxer shorts and all kinds of men’s neck tie designs that I was selling out of my suitcase to other flight attendants while flying all over the world.
Some of my original art made it into a couple of famous restaurants in San Francisco and I was creating some special designs for Macy’s but I was having a hard time keeping up with everything so I turned the licensing over to this cool couple in Los Angeles who helped launch all kinds of cool Todd Parr stuff for kids. We decided to attend the Licensing Show in New York City and that is where I met an editor at Little, Brown and she said, “Have you ever thought about writing children’s books?”
J.P.: There’s a little bit of a cutthroat element to the world of sports books. Not awful … but I’ve definitely experienced some jealousy, some anger, some resentment—and have felt it, too. What’s the scene in kids books. Do you and Sandra Boynton talk trash? Have you ever uttered the phrase, “F*ck Goodnight Moon. I’m Todd Parr, mother*cker!”
T.P.: I don’t really know any other children’s authors that well, but I have met quite a few. You know that kid when you were in school who had a pink Mohawk and smoked in the bathroom in senior hall and everyone kind of just stared at him when he walked down the hall? That’s kind of how I feel when I am surrounded by other kid’s book authors. I used to think they were like, “How the hell did he get published? I mean really, where are the cute images and the pastel colors and cute stories? Did he have a 6-year old do the art?” Again, this is how I felt—not what actually happened (that I know of). And as far as my feelings on Goodnight Moon … No, I’m not like that.
J.P.: My kids responded to your books very early on, because they’re bright and cheerful and wonderfully basic. Lines. Circles. Squares. Big words. They look simple, but—I’m guessing—simplicity isn’t simple at all. Am I off on this? How much thought goes into every line?
T.P.: No, you are correct. A lot of thought and process goes into each book. I also think about the adult that might be reading the book to the child.
J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
T.P.: The Greatest—Licensing Show in New York City. I met my editor. The Lowest—Standing on the street corner trying to unload T-shirts for $1.
J.P.: On your bio it says, “I like to paint and draw, but I failed art class.” It seems like there should be a story about this. Do explain …
T.P.: I think the story would be that we all make mistakes and we all fail at something and by not giving up, these things can lead you in a direction you may not have been thinking of.
J.P.: Todd, the world is a dark place. Climate change. Syria. Mass shootings. Breast cancer. Pollution. Greed. On and on and on and on. This might sound silly, but I’m being 100% serious. You write that your books are “about love, kindness and feeling good.” By teaching this stuff, are we at all setting our kids up? Like, do we too often pretend everything’s lovely and joyful—and then the reality hits?
T.P.: I’m all over the place with emotions on this kind of stuff and being a chronic worrier doesn’t help. Sometimes I just draw images that reflect how I feel and post them on my Facebook page to try and help others feel better. Kids are surrounded with so much bad stuff and I just want to give them hope and remind them to be kind. I like to think of my books as springboards to use when and where they are needed and rely on the parent or teacher to expand on something. Sometimes I do feel like writing a book that says life stinks, but I would rather offer hope and empower kids to feel good about themselves while learning about differences and remind them to be kind, strong and make them laugh. That’s why I wrote The UNDERWEAR Book.
I do worry about setting kids up but hoping that I am conveying some realities and possible solutions to cope.
J.P.: We live in a Penn State-influenced age when people are V-E-R-Y suspicious of adult men who have too great of an affinity for little kids, and especially little boys. Do you feel, at all, that reactions to you have changed? Are people any more suspicious? Guarded? Concerned?
T.P.: I hate that this happens and that it even has to be a question. I never really knew about stuff like this until I was well into my adult years. I just can’t understand it. I also hate to think that this would be on someone’s mind just because you are a man writing children’s books. My style of art and the simplicity of my work is what led me to create children’s books.
J.P.: Your books are available on the iPad—a wise business move, a wise exposure move. I wonder, however, how you feel about this personally? Is it the same, in your mind, for a parent and a child to cuddle in front of their iPad, as a real print book? Are we losing anything with technology? Or is it all good, as long as it’s reading?
T.P.: I’m a big fan of tech and love all things Apple but I am also a bigger fan of actual books—especially children’s books. There is something about sitting down with someone you care about and reading an actual book with them, just like my Gram did with me night after night. When people ask me about this hot topic my answer is: “Now you can take all of my books with you when you travel and not have to carry them all.”
• I have a great idea for your next book: “Don’t Pet the Stray Dog Adopted by That Hooker Over There.” Thoughts?: Nah, not for me. How about “Do Adopt the Stray Dog and Pet It by That Big Fluffy Cat”.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Byron Scott, John Travolta, Aaron Rodgers, Man of La Mancha, Tiajuana, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Craigslist, Delta Airlines, Diet Cherry Pepsi, Nickelback, X Factor, Susan Komen Foundation, Jim Rome: Susan Komen Foundation, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Nickleback, Delta Airlines, Craigslist, John Travolta, Bryon Scott, Aaron Rodgers, Jim Rome, Man of La Mancha, Diet Cherry Pepsi, Tiajuana, X Factor.
• One question you would ask Vanessa Carlton were she here right now?: If I wrote a song would she sing it.
• Celine Dion calls. She wants you to move to Las Vegas and spend a year as her official artist. She’ll pay $5 million, but you have to change your name to Candy, only wear 1980s-themed NBA uniforms and live off of graham crackers and strawberry milk. You in?: I’m in! One of my best friends is named Candy and who doesn’t like strawberry milk and graham crackers?
• Five all-time favorite movies?: ET. Toy Story. Wall-E. Beetlejuice. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. The Water Horse.
• I usually sit in Starbucks for seven-hour stretches. How many drinks am I obligated to buy?: Zero.
• Where were you on September 11, 2001? Quick memory of the moment?: Just waking up in my loft in San Francisco wondering if any of my friends were working the United flights and thinking I was never getting back on a plane again.
• Six adjectives you’d apply to this Hall & Oates video: A lot of big hair. The new wave 80s. The big record store. A blast from the past. An era of MTV. The funky clothes.
• Would you rather lick clean the bathroom floors of the Los Angeles Coliseum or commit yourself to a five-book series titled, “Twilight: Vampires Eat Children, too”? Young Adult Books are very popular and I have been wanting to write for an older audience.