If you’re a parent or have been around kids in the last 20 years, chances are you’ve seen Todd Parr’s work. The author and illustrator, who lives in Berkeley, has published over 50 books with several New York Times bestsellers like The I Love You Book, The Thankful Book, It’s Okay to be Different and The Family Book. Happy, colorful, and inspirational, Parr’s books embody the type of optimism that we need right now during the coronavirus crisis.
Parr, who has been hosting virtual book readings filmed in his Berkeley studio since the shelter-in-place mandate took effect, has always found solace in story time. As a child, he struggled with a learning disability but he found comfort and understanding while reading with his grandmother.
“When I was in elementary school, there was no diagnosis of ADD or dyslexia or a recognition that you learned differently,” says Parr, 57, who grew up in a small town in Wyoming. “My grandma saw what art and pictures gave me. During story time, she started connecting me to the book by talking about the pictures on each page. Even though I couldn’t read, the art was the escape.”
After he left Wyoming, Parr worked as a flight attendant for 15 years before he settled in San Francisco to pursue his art full-time. He says traveling and seeing different cultures across the globe influenced his embracing of diversity that he champions in his books.
“I try to empower kids to feel good about who they are and learn about differences in a silly and fun way. I try to communicate that everyone should feel important no matter who you are, what color you are, and what your families are like,” says Parr. “A book like It’s Okay to be Different would have helped me growing up.” Traveling remains an important part of the author’s career, though that’s been put on hold because of Covid-19. In early February, before the social distancing precautions were put in place, Parr traveled to speak at a school in Singapore. During the two weeks he was there teaching kids, the routine shifted from a virtually normal trip to twice-a-day temperature checks at the school and the hotel where he was staying. In March, after he returned to Berkeley, all of his other travel plans for April and beyond were cancelled.
Fortunately, as someone who can work from home, Parr has stayed busy keeping kids and families entertained with positive activities that can help them work through the uncertainty of the times. He’s been working on new books, posting story times and recipes on Instagram, hosting digital readings for schools and libraries, and sending personal messages to students around the globe.
“I want to help people during this time. This is all so new and scary for everybody and you give what you can offer,” says Parr. “I am my books. There is no difference between what I write about and who I am.”
Parr says that kids and families can find comfort in drawing while they have to stay at home. He explains that parents can help kids work through their emotions and the changes to their routine by encouraging them to draw and talk about their artwork afterwards. For some creative guidance, parents can download free activity guides from Parr’s website, which include coloring, games, and instructions on how kids can make their own books.
“Parents can say, ‘draw how you’re feeling,’ or ‘draw a picture of your face,’ or ‘draw things you are worried about.’ It’s about getting kids to open up about how they’re feeling, not just pacifying them,” says Parr.
Reading is another way to soothe your family and pass the time, says Parr. He emphasizes the need for engagement during story time. “It’s not just reading a book, but talking about each page of the book,” says Parr. He suggests asking interactive questions like, “What do you like on this page? What’s your favorite color on this page? How many spots do you see on this dog? Have you ever seen a polka dotted dog?”
Another tip that Parr offers for story time is combining reading with other fun things like cooking. Parr has posted story times on Instagram where he cooks comfort food like macaroni and cheese and tomato soup and grilled cheese while he reads one of his books.
For book selections, Parr recommends his favorite works that he read while he was growing up like Dr. Seuss’s Go Dog Go and Green Eggs and Ham. Some of his own books that have fun and comforting themes for kids include The Don’t Worry Book, TheI’m Not Scared Book, and The Underwear Book. The most important thing about reading with your children during this time, says Parr, is engaging with them to create a special moment.
“If you relate the stories to your kids and make it fun, you’re communicating. It’s a way of saying, ‘I love you,’” says Parr. “That’s the thing I remember the most about story times with my grandma. We didn’t just read. We had a moment, an experience in the world of a book.”