The children’s author Todd Parr on his new book and message to kids: it’s OK to make mistakes

Leanne Italie talks with the author Todd Parr about spreading the message to children of inclusion, individuality and acceptance with his new book.
The children’s book author Todd Parr, with his dogs Pete and Tater Tot, in Berkeley, California. AP Photo
The children’s book author Todd Parr, with his dogs Pete and Tater Tot, in Berkeley, California. AP Photo

In Todd Parr’s world, it’s OK to wear your undies on your head, spill your milk or eat mac and cheese in the bathtub. Most of all, it’s OK to be yourself.

Inclusion and acceptance are Parr’s mainstays in more than 30 quirky picture books for young children, including It’s Okay to Make Mistakes, out now.

Parr, 52, relies on playful, brightly coloured drawings and easy-to-understand messages to win over the age 4-to-6 set, along with their teachers and parents. In today’s competitive swirl of perfectionism, it’s Parr who declares it OK to colour outside the lines, celebrate your big hair and feel lonely sometimes.

The artist and writer lives in California and worked as a flight attendant while he got his career off the ground, after leaving home in Wyoming after high school.

You’ve been called the artist who never grew up. Is that your secret to reaching children?

It’s the best answer I have when people say: ‘Well, you don’t have kids, so how do you relate to kids?’ My childhood is so vivid to me, and my dad was very funny. There’s a playfulness and simplicity still within me.

You once got an F in art. What did the teacher say about that?

I was a difficult student. I struggled a lot. I continually expressed myself in art in ways that were not being asked of me and I got an F for not doing what I was told. People ask: ‘What would you say to your art teacher now who said you should pursue a different career?’ He passed away years ago, but I think the only thing I would have said is why not point out any positives in what I was doing, like: ‘Todd, you draw really great circles, although that’s not what I asked you to do.’ Art was the one interest I had, but I didn’t have the confidence. It took me years.

You take on a lot of tough subjects in a simple, straightforward style. Are other books for children too preachy, busy or condescending?

The only self-imposed directive I had in the beginning was to stay away from preachy, teachy or new ages. My artwork originally led to a proposal from an editor who said: ‘Hey, have you ever thought about writing children’s books?’ I said: ‘No, I haven’t. I did horrible in school. I barely made it out, so no. Books are for smart people.’

I knew that whatever I did, it had to be fun and edgy and simple, so that kids could be like: ‘I can draw just like him.’ I knew I would need some humour in there. Somebody once said: ‘Oh, I thought you were a 6-year-old writing these books’. And I thought: ‘Oh God, that’s not good.’ But now I love that, because that’s what kids see and hopefully go: ‘I can do that.’ You don’t have to beat them over the head.

No one was doing these kinds of books. When I started, It’s Okay to Be Different was in the self-help section of Borders. No one knew what to do with them. People were like: ‘Where are the bunnies and the bears and the pastels?’

Why do parents love your books so much?

I always try to think about how a grandma is going to feel reading this book, like my grandmother read to me every night, or a mom and dad are going to read this book, and I want them to laugh. I want them to feel warm when they’re done.

I hope parents can really empower kids to believe in themselves, but I try to think about what parents are taking away from the books, too, to help them realise how much they love their kids.

It’s Okay to Make Mistakes is out now via www.amazon.com

* AP

artslife@thenational.ae

Published: August 2, 2014 04:00 AM

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