Zibby Owens: I had such a nice conversation with Brad Montague. It was kind of a sad rainy day, and we just had the best time talking. I feel like I got to know him really well. It made his book all the better. His latest book is called Becoming Better Grownups: Rediscovering What Matters and Remembering How to Fly by — obviously by Brad Montague. He’s also developed Kid President, which is an award-winning series, and is just an all-over awesome guy. His website is Montague Workshop. He goes around the country talking to teachers and educators and everybody else helping us all rediscover our joy. He has amazing YouTube videos. He reads his book online. You should definitely check it out. Listen to Brad and me. I think it’ll give you some really good insights.

Thanks, Brad, so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” today.

Brad Montague: Thank you. Thanks for having this playground that we can play in together. This will be fun.

Zibby: Actually, we’re on Skype right now. I’m looking at your — is that your office? It looks super fun. I kind of wish I was there. You have multicolored pom-poms hanging from the window and globes and illustrations. I would expect nothing less.

Brad: If you have to have a place that you work, it should be a place you want to go.

Zibby: I need to redo this. This isn’t even my office. Anyway, yes, I’m jealous of your setup. Your latest book, Becoming Better Grownups, which you know I really loved from our Instagram Live video that we already did together, can you tell listeners what it’s about and what inspired you to write it?

Brad: I had found myself in this really rough spot, this rough patch, this dark patch. I had had a big successful project that had gone viral. All of this had happened, and I was overwhelmed. I didn’t know what to do next. I was just stuck, literally found myself here in this office just showing up and on the floor. My wife was like, dude, what’s wrong? What’s going on? You’ve lost yourself. I was working through, what next? I had all these projects that I thought, okay, I’m going to work on this next thing, and it just didn’t happen. I’d do this next thing, and it would be fun, but it didn’t happen. I was working in TV, in kids’ TV. I was working writing. I was working on other books. For whatever reason, it just kept all falling apart. I was thinking, I’m over. I’m done. I’ve got nothing left to give the world. Nobody wants anything except Kid President, this thing I already did. Then I got an email from a teacher. She said, “Hey, we’ve been using your videos. We were inspired and we wanted to share with you what we’ve been doing.” Then a lot of teachers were emailing and asking. It wasn’t like, we want you to do something. It was the one place in the world in my inbox where somebody didn’t want something from me. They just wanted me to there. They just wanted to show me something that they had been inspired by something we had done and had taken it even further. It was breathing me back to life. I was spending time with kids and people who cared about kids. I decided, I’m going to go on a listening tour. I’m not going to show up at a school and have a book to read or anything to promote or message to share other than their voices matter and I’m going to listen. I listened to kids in elementary schools all over the US in every single state. What I learned — I didn’t know it was going to be a book. I thought, this is just fun and helpful. It’s challenging me and growing me and breathing me back to life. When I saw the looks in kids’ eyes when they would tell me about what they thought it would look like to be a good grownup and who great grownups were in their lives, I was convinced I have a responsibility to share this. So it became a book.

Zibby: Wow, that’s amazing. Books that have to come to out, that you feel like you have no choice, those end up being the best books.

Brad: I’ve found so many books like that that I love that you can tell they just had to be written. The whole time with this, I kept thinking, I’m not the person to do this. There’s so many other people that should write this book. Yet it was this lump in my throat that I had to get out, I had to share. I think that’s a big part of the book too, is this idea that we wait so much for somebody better than us to arrive, someone better than us to do the things. Honestly, for whoever’s listening to this, for everybody, there’s no better person to be you than you. There comes a point where we all realize we’re in the grownup in the room. It’s terrifying, and that’s because we care, but it should be exhilarating. It should be a moment in which we can accept with joy and with gratitude that we get to be of service. We get to show up. There’s no better grownup than you, the one in the room.

Zibby: I really appreciate your sharing that this came out of a place of almost depression and hopelessness, that you’ve created this piece of beauty. When I look at you and talk to you, I think of you as this really successful, accomplished, creative guy. Yet because you couldn’t get another project right after your last insanely successful project, you felt like that was it. I feel like it’s such a common feeling, this despair. One project gets canceled, and that’s it.

Brad: You immediately slip to this place of, oh, no, I’m over.

Zibby: It’s ridiculous. Think about how much life and — you have so many projects left in you. Then of course, this one came out which was absolutely beautiful and inspiring and will help so many people. It just goes to show that for anybody out there who’s feeling really dejected about recent news that you just have to get off the floor and do something, and things will get better.

Brad: Yes, it will lead to a lovely place.

Zibby: When you went on your listening tour, what were some of the things you started hearing that stuck with you the most that made you feel the most compelled to turn your journey into a book and movement, really?

Brad: I had this thought of what it would be, just cute things kids would share, like the Kids Say the Darndest Things kind of idea of, they said a word wrong and it’s silly. There is that where kids are funny and they’re brilliant and creative and so hilarious. One kid blew my mind. It was actually a Skype conversation with a classroom. This kid had this very serious look on his face. Then he raised his hand. The teacher said, “Okay, you’ve got the microphone. Tell Brad.” Then he went, “You know, sharks probably aren’t afraid of other sharks.” I thought, whoa, I’ve never thought about that. Still, I think about that sometimes. When I would pose the question, “What would it look like to be a great grownup? Tell me about a great grownup. I want to be a great grownup, so tell me,” they wouldn’t skip a beat. They would immediately tell me about somebody in their lives that — I was thinking it would be them telling me something huge, like somebody who bought them a pony and took them on a giant trip, but it was always little things. It was about the way that their mom would pick them up from school. There was a story one kid gave about going to the park with his uncle and that that was a regular thing. He loved rolling down the hill and making him laugh. It was this incredible reminder that all they want is for the grownups in their lives to see them. Then when I started sharing that, I realized that there was actually neuroscience to prove that, that there was developmental psychology that had shown that that’s what helps us grow. The active ingredient in all of our developments is love, and not just one big grand gesture of love, but over time, every day, just little bitty bits of love. For me, it made me show up differently in my house with my kids. It made me, whenever I saw my friends who were stressing out about being parents or saw teachers, to just be able to let them relax their shoulders and let them know, hey, you don’t have to be spectacular. You already are. Just your presence of looking them in the eyes and listening is going to change everything.

Zibby: I feel like I’ve learned so much from you and from this time at home with my kids during the coronavirus about parenting and what kids actually need versus what I thought that they needed, what I thought I had to do as a good mom. Your book and your message is so spot on for now. I don’t have to roll out a red carpet for my kids. I just have to not be rude.

Brad: It’s simple, but it’s rarely easy.

Zibby: Yes, it’s so true.

Brad: This morning, it was a rollercoaster for us in our house. It started out very sweet. The kids showed up in the bed. They were wanting to cuddle. Then they started fighting. Then my daughter’s crying. I had to have this moment of just realizing, okay, pause, breathe. Let me hear what she’s upset about. Let me let her see that I see her. Let’s provide a better way forward together. Just that recognizing of what they’re going through, my kids are missing out on things that they love. They’re not very vocal about it in words because they’re seven and five. They’re not talking about the friends they miss or the events they miss. Instead, they’re acting out in other ways. It takes us tuning our eyes and ears to see all the ways they’re hurting and to acknowledge that we see it.

Zibby: But to do that, we have to be calm and present enough ourselves to be receptive to that information instead of reacting. That takes a place of centeredness.

Brad: It does. One thing I’ve had to learn too is I wanted to be kind of guarded about letting them know when I was upset and instead finding that that’s actually so helpful for them to know when dad is scared. Dad actually doesn’t have the answer right now. I don’t know what happens next, but here’s what I do know, and letting them feel that. I want them to know that we’re learning and growing together through this. That’s one of the things that I discovered too as I started to interview not only kids, but interview former kids, people over the age of a hundred. When I talked to them about what it looked like to be a great adult, what it looked like to grow, they had such a wisdom, but they also had this whimsy to them, this wonder, this lightness of being that they could be so grateful to be talking to me, didn’t even know me that well, but so grateful. When they talked about growth or they talked about how they got where they were, it was always about walking alongside the people next to them, their children. The moments they remember were the field trips. The moments they remember were when they were going through something together. Instead of passing down great wisdom from this throne and handing it down to kids, they themselves learned alongside their parents or teachers or neighbors, friends. That’s the way we are meant to grow, is in relationships.

Zibby: This advice is so good. I’m trying to store it all in my head selfishly to take it back to my own life. In your book, you have a story within a story called The Incredible Floating Girl, which you read on YouTube and is just so amazing. When your daughter was born, she laughed. How does the world conspire to squelch that laughter? What can we do to stop that? Tell me about writing the story within a story, which was so beautiful.

Brad: So much of what I was seeing — I think I had this thought that being a dad was me really educating them on how to be a human and then holding them and realizing, I don’t know how to human. I don’t know how to do this. Yet holding her and seeing that she had it all figured out, she was so happy, this peace and this laughter, and I was struck with this responsibility of, oh, no, I don’t want her to lose this. My job is now not to make her smile, it’s to keep her from stopping. How do I have her not lose this lightness? At the same time too, I had been spending time with all of these people doing interviews with celebrities and world leaders. When I would interview them, I had a kid doing it with a tin can phone. When you have an invitation for people to be more childlike and think about what it’s like to be a kid, you see them change. Their demeanor changes. Their posture changes. The lights in their eyes turn on. They come back to a place that they forgot but that was still there. Afterwards, the conversations with — people were always about, “I remember playing like this when I was… I used to draw like this when I was a kid. I used to…” There was this beautiful energy that we all had and shared together when we would talk about what it was like to be a kid. I would see people that were maybe a little cold or distant suddenly warm up. We were connected.

I wrote this story that I originally just wrote to share with a room full of teachers. I shared this story of this girl who could fly. Then her dad’s afraid that he’s going to mess it up, and so he hides her floating. He doesn’t want anybody to make fun of her. He doesn’t want anybody to see it. Then she stops flying. Then there’s this sadness. As she ages, then how does she get that back? How does she reclaim that? It was this big reminder. I wanted all those teachers in the room to know that they are people who fly and help others fly. They are doing what we’re all here to do, is to fly ourselves and then take other people along with us and remind them of their lightness, remind them of what they’re capable of. Their classrooms are homes. All of our places are not buildings. They’re runways. They’re places in which we were meant to fly together.

Zibby: Wow, that’s so beautiful. It’s definitely the first do no harm philosophy of parenting that your kids are sort of —

Brad: — Yeah, like a scout.

Zibby: Exactly. I feel like the older I get, the more I’m realizing that I have very little to do with how my kids are turning out.

Brad: They reflect us in so many ways that we swap seats a lot of times in who’s teaching. That’s one of the great gifts that I’m learning to accept now, is all the ways that they’re helping me fly and reminding me of what is good about me and also what needs some work.

Zibby: After you went on your listening tour and you had all this information and data and quotes and all this stuff that it was in your head from what you gathered, how did you go about writing the book and making it such a creative — I want to say manuscript, but it’s not. It’s like a work of art because it’s illustration and children’s book and little pictures you can photocopy and put on your fridge and story and insight. It’s a really unique end product. How did you visualize that? How did you put it all together? How did you write it?

Brad: Thanks for saying that. It went through thousands of drafts in which there was an attempt to write a very serious business-y type book. Then I was like, this is a disaster. Then it was just the Floating Girl story. When I would share the story live, I would always have these other things I wanted to share. Then I just said, okay, let me start backwards. I’m going to work backwards here. What’s the end goal? I started to think about literal faces of people that I care about that are around kids that I care about and just thought, I want them to remember what it’s like to fly and what they’re capable of helping other people fly. Then that started to inform what I wanted the book to even feel like and look like. Then I wanted it to feel like a board book, to give little moments of a little hint of what it felt like to hold a book when you were a kid and it be yours, but then it have pictures that would feel like a kid just playing and little doodles in the margins so that it would bring you back to maybe some of the earliest books you read but at the same time speak to who you are now. That was the desire. It’s one of those things that I’ve been encouraging people who want to write, to let them know that I never felt worthy of this project, never felt worthy of the message. Yet it had to be done. I feel like it is a message in a bottle from me. That’s what this book is. I hope it inspires other people to do the same with their own fingerprints, create something that will be of beauty. My struggle was that, I know what I want this to be, I know what I want it to feel like, but I don’t have the capacity to do it as well as I want. That also puts a little seed of desire in my own self to, okay, now the next time, I want to get it right. I want to get it even better.

Zibby: You are so down on yourself. I want to hire you a therapist to build up your self-esteem. This is crazy.

Brad: I will say that my counselor has been a real in the journey of helping me process what the work is, what the work is that I want to do in the world, how I want to show up. There’s actually a deleted chapter in the book that I want to do as a live show, as a thing that is about going to my counselor of the midst of — because I was in this depression and then start visited schools. At the same time, I was going to counseling. There’s a chapter. What my wonderful counselor did is she gave me a copy of The Velveteen Rabbit. She said, “Here, you need this. This is the book you need to read.” I was like, “I’ve read it. I read it as a kid. I remember it. I loved it. I don’t need to read it.” Then I finally sat down and read it. It did everything for me that I wanted this book to do for people, reminding me what it is to be real, to be of value, to already be a real rabbit.

Zibby: Aw, Brad. I have not read The Velveteen Rabbit. I don’t even think I’ve read it to my kids. I feel like it got lost in the pile of other books I was reading. I have to pull out that. I must have a copy from when I was little somewhere. I’ll have to ask my mom.

Brad: It more than holds up. There’s actually some beautiful versions of it that I love. I’ve tried to find as many as I can. One thing that’s interesting about when you read it with kids is now so much of it is dated. A kid doesn’t know, what’s velveteen? Is that a type of cheese? This idea of him getting very sick and them having to burn the toys is terrifying. They may not get all the context at all, but the emotion is very real and is timeless. The end in that story is one of beauty and sadness and really just what it is to be a person, or a rabbit.

Zibby: That’s so nice. Or a rabbit, yeah. Somehow, Easter has come and gone, which my son was obsessed with despite we don’t celebrate Easter. It’s okay. We have Easter stuff everywhere now. I’ll have to pull out another bunny book. It’s perfect. Tell me about partnering with the university. You partnered with Tennessee State University to curate free resources. You’re spreading the message far and wide. How did you come up with that idea?

Brad: When I was doing Kid President videos, I was stunned when teachers started using them in classrooms. I thought, why would you do that? Why would anything I make be of value to you in learning? This is lazy. Then they would open up about, “Actually, it helps us show this to kids. It helps us start conversations about this.” Then my imagination went wild. For a large part of the videos we made, they were made with me constantly calling up fourth grade teachers and being like, “Does this make sense? What about this? What are you trying to communicate that I could help you do in a playful way?” That, to kind of be Alfred to teacher’s Batman, was the idea. How could we just say, here’s this, now go, go save the world? Then partnering with — there’s a team of educators. It’s called iTeach. It’s this really brilliant lab full of professional educators who are helping equip teachers and also parents, anyone who works with kids, to have big conversations, to work through big ideas, to do it an engaging way. They have believed in my work and every little thing that we do on Instagram, and have been, how can we find a way to let this be a spark for even more learning?

They took the book and they took every single chapter and pulled out nuggets and projects. They did two guides that are free that are available connected to the book. One is for classrooms or for kids. The other one is for adults, like if you wanted to have a book club or wanted to get your employees together, however. Already, that has been even more rewarding than the book itself. All of the people who have said they’ve read the book and it meant something, that is incredible. Now they’re taking these — if you go to, you can download the free resources. People are creating projects with their kids alongside them. There’s a part in the book with a map. They’ve been making their own maps as a family. People have been doing things in the midst of this quarantine time where they are thinking about, we’ve got this backpack full of inessential things. What are we going to take out from this? It’s one thing to create something. It’s so much more rewarding to create something and have other people create even better things from it. It’s generative art. Now I’m addicted. Now that’s what I want to make, things that make more things.

Zibby: How are you going to do that? What does that mean? That’s on my list of things to do, is produce generative art that will change the world. How do you get up in the morning and get to work, start cracking away at that?

Brad: I think that’s the homework. It’s not all about me. Instead, now it’s all about, how can I create something that’s honest and that is from me that was helpful to me but that might inspire someone else to take it even further? One example of that is we started a project called Socktober. The idea, we found out that our local shelter, one of their most-needed items, least-donated items, was socks right as people are preparing for winter. Happens to be in October for us around here in Tennessee, so we declared the month of October, Socktober. People began to collect items that our shelter needed. Then the next year, it went on and other people started doing it for their shelters. Then I started Kid President. I said, what if Kid President declared it Socktober? Let’s just see what happens. At first, I thought, we need rules in place. We need a central office. We need some rewards or prizes.

Then I thought, no, I’m going to have faith in people. I’m just going to say, hey, here’s something good you could do. Let’s see what happens. This is maybe the ninth year. It is in all fifty states on every single continent every year. Even in months that aren’t October, people are doing Socktober. They’re creating some sort of project that is in that same spirit. It just blows my mind. I was on an airplane. This guy beside me asked what I did. I said, “I make silly videos on the internet. They’re about kids and grownups working together.” Then he said, “Oh, that’s really neat. You need to check this out. My daughter, their school does this project called Socktober.” He showed me a picture of him with his daughters. They had gone to their shelter. He had never been to the shelter. They found out what they needed. I just was stunned. I wanted to tell him, “That was my idea.”

Zibby: You didn’t tell him?

Brad: I sat there, my hands under my legs, and was stunned and just went, “That’s really cool.” The whole plane ride, just up there in the sky thinking, what in the world? It was this really profound moment of thinking, maybe it doesn’t matter who gets the credit. Maybe it just matters that it happens. When you’re obsessed with that, that leads to bigger places. It can be frustrating in a time on the internet when your ideas get passed around all the time and co-opted and turned into other things. I’ve had art that brands have turned into giant campaigns and things without my signature. That obsession with having them see and notice that I did that is not helpful. Instead, if I just keep doing the work and keep putting out the sparks, I’m obsessed with the good happening.

Zibby: Wow, that is beautiful. That is a beautiful message. I was like, great, that is my pull quote for this episode. Right there, that was perfect. I want to write it down right now and remember it. That’s really generous of spirit of you. Not many people — well, I shouldn’t say that. Hopefully, many people would share it, but I don’t know. It’s really great. Are you working on anything now mid-pandemic that’s really exciting you or getting you through each day or something that is really inspiring?

Brad: Yeah, there’s a couple of things that we’ve been able to stay focused on. My wife and I are working on a picture book together that we’re excited about. In the midst of that too, we got to partner with this group that’s a team that works with healthcare workers year-round. Normally, I do events with them, but that’s not happening. They created a Help Hero Hotline. We got to work with them. It’s a toll-free number that people can call to just say thank you. They’ve been piping in these messages that are encouraging to healthcare workers. It’s an 800 number. It’s 877-226-HERO. You can call that number. You leave a message just saying thank you to people that are on the frontlines of this crisis. Some of the healthcare workers, their offices are giving these to their employees to listen to on the way to work or as they get ready as like a rallying moment, a point to think about. Okay, we’re going in. We’re not alone. People see us. People are cheering us on. There’s a whole love army. That’s been really a fun project, life-giving. Children have been calling it, families, elderly people that are just like, there’s nothing else I can do other than tell you thank you. One little girl called in to say, “I want to be a nurse when I grow up. Keep going.” Just think about what a cool message that would be to hear and a reminder that one day there’s kids that are looking at you saying, I want to be you.

Zibby: That’s amazing, wow. Do you have advice for aspiring authors?

Brad: I would say that what has been helpful to me and was confusing to me was — there’s a musician that I really like. He’s a punk musician, Jonathan Richman. He had this band, The Modern Lovers, and did all this really creative work. I happened to be able to meet him several years back. I was right out of college. I was so excited to talk to him. He’d written so many great songs. I said, “Do you have any advice for a young artist?” He just said, “Say something true, man.” I thought, oh, come on. I was wanting something better, something rebellious. That stuck in my head. The more that I think you do question your own self of, what is true, what is the truest thing I could say right now? that will lead you to a place of wildly creative work that will be timely and timeless, always.

Zibby: That’s awesome. I love that advice. Brad, thank you so much for coming on my podcast and also doing my Instagram Live a few weeks ago.

Brad: I was so excited. I was so excited to talk to you.

Zibby: Aw, you too. You’re such a nice guy. I wish that I could give you a hug. I feel this warmth towards you. I’m so grateful for there being good people.

Brad: I’ll fly from afar. We’ll find lots of excuses to dream up and team up in the future. What you’re doing matters so much. Cheers to you and all your listeners.

Zibby: Thank you. Thanks, Brad. Have a great day.

Brad: You too.

Zibby: Buh-bye.