I’m so excited to be interviewing Christina Geist today. Christina is the author of two children’s books, Buddy’s Bedtime Battery and Sorry, Grown-Ups, You Can’t Go to School. A former television producer and news writer, she has worked for twenty years in the branding and marketing world. She now runs two companies, True Geist, a branding and design firm, and Boombox Gifts. She is based in New York City with her husband and two children.

Welcome, Christina. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Christina Geist: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: We’ve been chatting for half an hour. I could talk to Christina all day. We’re going to structure this now for the podcast.

Christina: We have to actually turn the microphone on at some point.

Zibby: I’ve just read your bio. You do a million things, two big jobs, Boombox Gifts, company branding, two kids. How do you manage your time? When do you accomplish everything? I know it’s not all at once and things happen, but I need some secrets.

Christina: The first thing for me is timing. Life is a long game. All of these things don’t happen at the same time. They happen sequentially. If I were to go back and talk to myself in my twenties, I would tell her to just do exactly what she’s doing. Use your twenties to learn. Have your eyes and ears open. Absorb as much as you can. Then for me, my thirties were about starting my family. That was a whole journey in and of itself and self-discovery and awareness. Now my forties have become this renaissance in my career. I needed all those other things to happen in order for the three hats I wear now professionally to actually work. First and foremost, moms in particular but women in general, we tend to look at someone we think is awesome and then beat ourselves up in return or doubt ourselves or question ourselves. We either do that or we look at someone we think is awesome — not to say that I’m awesome. I’m just saying this as a cultural phenomenon that I recognize in myself.

Zibby: I think you’re awesome. It’s okay.

Christina: You’re awesome. I look at someone that I think, “Oh, my god. That’s so cool she’s doing all these things,” and then I feel myself say, “She must have two nannies. There’s no way she’s ever making dinner. Maybe she’s not working out five times a week.” I look for the thing that must be wrong. She can’t be doing all of this without some kind of consequence. Culturally as women, we do that. We do it subconsciously. We observe someone doing a lot of stuff. We then talk ourselves into the things she must not be doing because she’s doing all these other things. I see it. I see it because I tend to do it myself. There’s a lot in that as women that we need to let go of. I also see this wonderful thing where we’re celebrating each other in ways like you are here, which is so cool.

The question of how to do it all, for me, I wake up each morning and I look at that day. I try to make forward motion on each aspect of my life or my jobs. Right now, I sort of have three. They’re like three pots on the stove. They’re not all boiling at the same time. One of them’s not even turned on some days. I try to make forward motion on the things that need it most that day. Then that’s enough for that day and try not to see a week out or be stressed about the thing that’s happening next week. Even, there’s a thing happening tonight. I’m not thinking about that yet because this morning I was thinking about this. It’s compartmentalization for me.

Zibby: Do you ever structure out your time? Is it more just in theory? Do you say, “This, this, that”? Do you know what I mean?

Christina: Yeah. I do have a whole to-do list process. I found out a couple years ago that I tend to absorb information best if I write it by hand. I write best when I’m typing, but I absorb best if I write by hand. I was writing my to-do list out by hand. I would take a plain piece of paper from the printer. I would write in four corners. I would write “True Geist,” which is my branding and strategy firm that I run with a guy named Todd True. It’s not all about me, True Geist. It is truly his name. I’d write “True Geist” in one corner. I’d write “Boombox” in another. I’d write “books” in one corner. I’d write “life” in another corner.

What happened is all the to-dos were segmented into these four corners. What happened then is I never felt successful. The list only got bigger. Then it would turn into the whiteboard in Homeland where she’s got crazy, scary stuff all over the place. I would constantly be adding to it. Nothing was taken away. It also didn’t allow me to prioritize that thing, life, right now, which is make the kids’ doctor’s appointments before school gets out and you can’t get a doctor’s appointment. That’s actually more important than writing the client memo that morning. If it’s down in the bottom corner, it never actually gets to take priority over the thing it needs to take priority over that day.

I started to do this just in a Word document on my laptop. When I open my laptop, I move things around in one list. It’s mixed together. Life and work are mixed together because that’s how we live. If the most important thing is to sign up for camp this morning, I put it at the top. I give it the space it deserves in my mind. When it’s halfway done, I put a strikethrough through it. When it’s all the way done, delete. It goes away. Then I’m constantly copying and pasting things to the top that are at the top right now for the next half hour or the next hour. You’re at the top of my list today because this is time that’s spent, and good time. If I don’t write it down, it doesn’t get what it deserves, which is a big chunk of time. Then you only feel guilty about the stuff that’s in the bottom corner of the list that you didn’t get to. I figured that out a year and a half ago because I felt like I was failing all the time.

Zibby: I love that. I’m going to try that.

Christina: Can’t say it works every day, but it helps me.

Zibby: I’m like you too. I have to write everything by hand, but then I have to type. I know. I’m the same.

Christina: It’s a mess. You see it. Everyone has a system with this scrolling list on their phone.

Zibby: I’ve become more interested lately in people’s systems because how is everybody doing it?

Christina: They’re not.

Zibby: When you said a minute ago you think about what the other people who are accomplishing things — I look at you and I’m like, “Oh, my gosh. She’s writing children’s books. She’s running this company.” When you say, “She must not go to gym,” or whatever, that may be true. I don’t know that there’s anything wrong with that, necessarily. Someone told me, “Pick three things. You can’t do everything.” I used to work out all the time. Now I don’t work out all the time. This is not the time where I’m exploring a hundred new gym classes because I’m working on this or whatever. It’ll come at another point. You can’t do everything all the time. I think that’s okay, right?

Christina: Totally. Yes.

Zibby: This isn’t really book —

Christina: — Sorry. I know. I’m a real talker, warning to the listeners.

Zibby: Who doesn’t want real talking?

Christina: I guess you want a talker on a podcast.

Zibby: Are you kidding? I told you already I could talk to you all day long. As a branding expert, you had to figure out your own brand — you have your True Geist website — and who you are. What are some of the key characteristics you wanted to convey when you think about yourself as a brand?

Christina: This is the world we live in right now. The Instagram-era is everyone’s a brand. You can see it in kids that are starting in this world. It’s scary in a way. I didn’t join any social media — I was on Twitter because my husband works in television. He works in news. That’s the format people follow. A long time ago, I joined Twitter basically to spy on him a little bit and see into that world. Then I had to embrace Instagram and Facebook when I launched True Geist and when I launched Boombox because that’s how brands are built these days. Someone said to me in a business meeting, “Instagram is puppies and flowers. There’s no crying on Instagram. Everybody’s perfect.” There’s these two sides of the fence. Either people are totally in these nirvana kinds of worlds of everything looks beautiful and perfect, or they take the opposite direction and are super revealing behind the scenes of everything’s that going wrong or mom fails or that kind of stuff.

For me, I don’t live in either of those worlds. I just live in my own in the middle. I feel like if you see me on social media, you should be seeing the same me that you will see right here talking to me. I try not to say anything publicly that I wouldn’t say to you right here, right now. I try not to depict my life in any way that’s dishonest. I also try not to overshare my kids’ stories because those are theirs to share when they’re old enough and their decision to make. My kids are certainly a part of that world. It’s hard especially with my husband’s position in television. It becomes difficult to completely cut your children off from the way that your life is shared publicly. That was a big transition for us, particularly when he joined The Today Show because that’s a different type of television show than Morning Joe. There is a lot more of your own life that makes its way into that world. We both had to figure out how to adapt to that. Where do you see our kids? Where don’t you?

That’s a conscious decision for me in the way that my brand is — I hate to say my brand — my brand is out there as myself. It’s not my children’s brand. That’s up to them. When they’re old enough — god forbid, I’m dreading it — but when they’re old enough, it will be their story to craft. Mine should be mine. Of course they’re a part of that. I want to give them some freedom to have control over their own narrative, which I think is a button that we’ve pushed a lot in our generation of parenting. I’m going to be curious to see how, as technology develops and as our children develop, because we’re all new to this, what the pathway looks like for them. We really don’t know yet.

Zibby: I’m terrified.

Christina: I am a little bit too.

Zibby: Boombox Gifts, I was just saying I can’t believe I haven’t heard of this. This is going to be our new sponsor. It’s the coolest thing. You make memory boxes. You can collaborate with someone else. They’re these beautiful keepsake items. How did you come up with the idea for this company and all of that?

Christina: Boombox was born when my big sis from my sorority in college — I went to Vanderbilt University. Amy, who was my big sis in our ChiO sorority house — classic Southern school experience — she was the first of my friends to turn forty. This is exactly five years ago now. We live all over the country, went to school in the South, and now everybody lives elsewhere. We were gathering for her birthday and decided to get a jewelry box from, at the time, C Wonder, which is now out of business.

Zibby: I loved C Wonder.

Christina: They had these beautiful lacquer jewelry boxes that were monogramed. They were rectangular in shape. My friend Kristin in Chicago said, “Why don’t we get one of these with an A on it? We’ll try to collect forty messages for her birthday.” I raised my hand because I’m the crafty, creative one in my group of friends. I was home not working at the time. I had some free time. I said, “I’ll take it. I can do it. There’s a C Wonder down the street. I’ll go grab the box. I’ll do this.” I sent out over my 1997 Yahoo! email account, which I still use — it’s like a time capsule, it’s amazing — I tracked down as many people as I could in her life. All of a sudden, I was privy to these messages from her two older brothers in Alabama who are not the most emotive guys, her parents, her first boss, her neighbors in Nashville. She’s a very close friend of mine, but I don’t know her day-to-day friends. All of a sudden, I’m getting to know them. Her beloved high school friends, who I did know a little bit, but getting their notes made me so happy because I knew how it was going to make her feel.

The boom is twofold. You feel a boom as a gift-giver collaborating behind the scenes for this person. Then of course, it was a huge pain in the neck to try to print all these cards, get them in the box, make them look pretty, and get on the plane and bring it to her for the fortieth birthday weekend. We watched the slideshow once. She read this box again and again. That weekend, we were on our way to dinner. My maiden name is Sharkey. My college friends call me Shark. In the taxi, Kristin, the same one in Chicago who it had been her idea, was like, “This is a thing. Shark, this should be your thing.” I said, “You’re right. This could be my thing.” A month later, I made a box for my dad. He turned seventy. He’ll be seventy-five Memorial Day weekend. I found a watch box and did the same process. That one really blew me away because we were tracking down his college roommates. He went to Yale in the 1960s before women were admitted to Yale.

Zibby: So did my dad.

Christina: Amazing. Oh, my god. We have so much in common. We really tracked down a lot of people in my father’s life. That blows you up to know how that’s going to make him feel. They were Boombox number one and number two. This is long before it was a business. I knew it was something powerful. I kept making them for friends. About a year later, I said I’m going to make this happen. I hired a web developer and said, “How can I build this? Why isn’t there any technology to help us do this?” My analogy for Boombox is that it’s like if Paperless Post and iPhoto and the best toast you ever gave had a baby, it would be a Boombox. All those things are combined into this beautiful experience. The company’s now three and a half years old. We’ve made thousands and thousands of boxes for people from all aspects of life, from birth to immemorial and everything in between. If that’s my life’s work, I’ll be totally happy.

Zibby: That’s so amazing. If I’m a part of someone else’s Boombox, like if someone else is making a Boombox for a girlfriend of mine and I send in a toast, do we all get to see all the stuff or just the recipient?

Christina: Just the gift giver and the recipient because of privacy. You may write something deeply personal and emotional to your friend that you don’t necessarily want her sister to see digitally. The gift giver is kind of the project manager. The gift giver’s the customer. They interact with a dashboard that looks a lot like a Paperless Post dashboard. People are RSVPing to a party, instead of collecting RSVPs, you’re collecting messages and photos, like a digital dashboard. That gift giver can see all of that content. They proof all the card layouts in 5×7 format in our design genie. They give us comments and feedback. We print everything. We pack it up. Certainly, sometimes the recipient will get the box and then it’ll be out at the party. People can leaf through it. They can get an electronic PDF of all the card layouts. If they want to share that, it’s perfectly up to them. We would never share it because of privacy issues.

Zibby: I was wondering about the digital piece. That’s so cool. I cannot wait to start making these. Now I don’t want everybody to know in part because now all my friends are going to get this box.

Christina: That’s okay. They’ll love it.

Zibby: They’ll still love it. It’s true. Your two children’s books, Buddy’s Bedtime Battery and now your latest one, Sorry, Grown-Ups, You Can’t Go to School, are so great. Buddy’s Bedtime Battery — my little guy is four and a half years old. I’ve been reading it him every day. My husband calls my kids O-Buddy and P-Buddy, my big kids. Then in here, it was Ro-Buddy. We were like, “!” It’s so great for so many reasons. The illustrations are so great. It’s so visual. The message, it’s about a boy — maybe you should say what it’s about. It’s a perfect wind-down at the end of the day with the tone and the melody of the words and the sense of humor to it. It’s just so great. How did you end writing Buddy’s Bedtime Battery?

Christina: Thank you. It’s the first story I wrote. For me, the challenges came with bedtime when our kids transitioned to big-kid beds. In my imagination, Buddy’s about three and a half. I don’t know how old you guys thought he was without me telling you that. He’s about three and a half. His sister, Lady, is five and three quarters, not that anyone asked. Bedtime, for us, was really challenging in those toddler years when they’re out of a crib. They’re too young to be in a bed. They’re wandering around the house. The bedtime stories are all about putting other things to sleep. I love Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site, but Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site is about the construction site, not about the sleeper, the little person who’s reading. Same with Goodnight Moon. Everything in the room is going to sleep. That’s the typical format of a bedtime story. They’re either like that, you’re either tucking other things into bed, or they might capture the frustration of the parents. Dinosaur vs. Bedtime, it’s a struggle. There’s a conflict there. Even the Little Critters — I loved those, the Little Critter books — there’s one called Just Go to Bed. The dad’s losing his mind.

Zibby: We read that all the time.

Christina: It’s fun, but they’re conflict based. There was this thing in between which is a technique called progressive muscle relaxation that I learned in a high school wellness class, believe it or not, where you wiggle your toes and then you release them. Same with your knees. You move up your body from toes to your head. You stress a muscle. Then you relax it. You gradually turn your body off. It’s a stress-management technique. It’s a relaxation technique. It’s a real thing. I had come to it throughout the course of my life if I couldn’t sleep, which is rare for me. I’m a good sleeper. Every now and then, I would remember that from high school and use it. Here I was with toddlers popping out of bed. One day, it was my daughter, who’s the older one, I just started to “Beep. Beep. Beep,” turn off her joints and little parts of her body to help her comprehend that this is done. We’ve read enough books. You’re not going to pop out again. This is done. That’s where the idea was born, that notion of “We’re done. We’ve turned you off now.” Of course, it doesn’t work all the time. I look at it as another tool in your toolbox. We could all use more tools.

Zibby: As many people can add to my toolbox is great. What about Sorry, Grown-Ups, You Can’t Go to School? This is your latest book.

Christina: Sorry, Grown-Ups was written about the same time. I wrote these when my kids were three and five. By the time this book comes out, they’ll be ten and twelve. Sorry, Grown-Ups was inspired by, obviously, the going-off-to-school process and for me, off to preschool in particular or off to, even, summer camp. When my kids were three and one, there was a little camp program that was lovely that my daughter, three years old, could go to for a few hours in the morning. We were out at my in-law’s house on Long Island. I was there with my in-laws who we call Jo-Jo and Bumpa. One morning, I put a backpack on and said, “Sorry, Bumpa, you can’t go to camp. Sorry, Jo-Jo, you can’t go to camp.” I was like, “But I can go to camp.” Lucy’s like, “No, you can’t! You can’t go to camp. Sorry, Mommy, you can’t go to camp.” Establishing this little chant for her, then she’d puff up like a peacock and go to camp. It was all about rejecting all of us, even the dog.

With back-to-school books, a lot of them follow the three-S format. Someone’s sad or shy or scared in a lot of off-to-school books. The Kissing Hand is a beautiful book, but it makes me weep. Llama Llama is shy or scared. Sometimes even the teacher’s the one that turns out to be scared, and isn’t that funny? Somebody is shy, sad, or scared. I needed the book that was not about those emotions, that didn’t even mention those emotions. It was all about empowerment and the kids rejecting the grown-ups who are trying desperately to go to school. Those were the kinds of strategies of flipping things upside down that would work best for me as a mom. In this case, everybody’s trying to go to school. The refrain is “Sorry, grown-ups, you can’t go to school. Only kids and teachers. Only kids and teachers.” That repeats throughout the book. By the time I get to third “Only kids and teachers. Only kids and teachers,” — I was just reading in a kindergarten classroom at PS 87 on Monday — they’re all moving their shoulders and chanting it along with me. It’s pretty fun.

Zibby: It’s too bad you can’t include some sort of DVD or something. I didn’t know I was supposed to chant it that way. That’s not the way I was reading it out loud to the kids.

Christina: That’s the struggle with picture books.

Zibby: They don’t do Audible picture books.

Christina: They don’t, but because we have social media —

Zibby: — You could do a YouTube something, right?

Christina: Exactly. I noticed that when Buddy came out three years ago. All of a sudden, I heard other people reading it. I was like, “Oh. That’s not how I read it.” You then have to accept that your idea becomes someone else’s. Maybe that’s okay. Maybe they read it a certain way and it’s not the way I read it. In my mind when I write, I write it in my voice. It’s my voice like this, out loud. It is a bit of an adjustment with a picture book to realize that you’re putting it out there in the world, and other people are going to take it and give it a voice that might not be your own. I will definitely do something audio based.

Zibby: Even the kids would love to listen to that. “This is the author. She’s reading. Listen to how she reads the character.” They would love that.

Christina: It’s fun. I get to tell them some of the secrets behind the book too. That’s what we do when I visit a classroom. I show them behind the scenes and how the sketches are made and the process of collaboration.

Zibby: You have to come to my kids’ school.

Christina: I will. Absolutely. I love it.

Zibby: You said you wrote twelve of these stories all at once?

Christina: Yeah. I had this sprint, we call in the web development world, this creative sprint. I had ten manuscripts with me in a Word document. With a picture book, you just put it in a Word document, unless you are the illustrator. You don’t illustrate out of the gate. Really, just wanted somebody to read them and tell me what they thought. Is there anything here? That was a long journey. It got me, one day, into Random House, into my editor’s office where she picked up the manuscript for Buddyand said, “This is ready to go.” I said, “What do you mean by that?” I had no idea how these picture books get made. I had really just wanted to have coffee with someone who makes them to understand the process so I could put myself at the beginning of the road and go down it. Here I was being told, “This one is ready to go.” I ended up selling a manuscript.

Then the question was what about the rest? Are they a series? Do they have to be bundled together? Do they have to go this way or that way? I was like, “Look, you’re the experts here. I’m going to let you go. I’m not going to be super prescriptive about my artistic vision. Let’s get a book made and have some fun. Let me learn about this process as it happens.” Sorry, Grown-Ups is definitely a companion story to Buddy because they’re the same brother and sister. They’re a bit older now. They’re about two years older. In this one, I see Buddy as a kindergartener. Lady’s in second grade. I have many more about them. Ultimately, it’d be great to have a third and round out this little collection with one more title. I have a couple in mind that are from that original collection.

Zibby: Can you give a preview of some of the other topics? Is it all the kid — do have mealtime?

Christina: When I describe a few of the ideas to kids, they love this one, which is Lady Breakable vs. Dr. Destructo. It’s my version of the sibling rivalry moment. Lady is having this gorgeous, absolutely ornate tea party in her room with Mom, whose name is Princess Pantyhose. Then Buddy comes in from karate. He’s Dr. Destructo. The door slams. There’s this rivalry on either side of the door. “Let me in. Let me in,” and the parents using their cell phones to negotiate this peace accord through the bedroom door calling back and forth. The negotiations there, that happens very regularly when you have small kids in small New York City apartments or really anywhere else, this “Don’t come into my world. This is my imaginary world.” That’s the companion in that it’s more about Lady’s imaginary world. Buddy’s Bedtime Battery is Buddy’s imaginary world as a little robot.

Zibby: It sounds like now you’ve gotten to know the market really well, like being able to say the three S’s of children’s going-to-school books. You have some market awareness now of the children’s world obviously from being in it.

Christina: Actually, it’s really just from being a reader.

Zibby: Really?

Christina: Yeah, because in my real job at True Geist, that’s what I do. I look at a category of things and then drill it down to its simplest form for a client and then figure out what’s the storytelling or the brand strategy to break into that world. That three-S format, I just observed it on my own. I don’t actually get a lot of data from — I probably could if I had more time, really immerse myself in the children’s publishing industry as an analyst and look at it that way. Sometimes the analysis inhibits the creativity. Sometimes knowing too much, it doesn’t get you the idea. I had an idea in the elevator this morning for just a simple story. I don’t know if this is out there. It’s like, “That’s a good idea.” Then the next page is, “That’s a bad idea.”

Christina: You can just imagine the pictures and all these stories. There are no words on the page other than “Good idea. Bad idea.” It’s the stuff that is happening every day. That may not involve Lady and Buddy. That may be a different idea altogether.

Zibby: It could, though.

Christina: These things I tend to just jot down. My nephew turned five a few weeks ago. I thought wouldn’t it be funny if Billy, now that he’s five, he can speak dog. All of a sudden, he can talk the same language as the dog. Wouldn’t it be funny to have this idea, “Now that I’m a big kid, I can do this.” You say, “No, you can’t speak like a dog, but you can do this, learn to tie your shoe or pack your own backpack,” these things that are in this imaginary amped-up world of things you might be able to do when you’re big. Then the reality of the thing you can do, but it’s still awesome, that juxtaposition could be really fun. Those are things that start to percolate. I put them down in my phone in a Notes page. I’ll either sit down and write that or it’ll sit there for a while and not go anywhere. Maybe someday it will.

Zibby: You must have an agent who’s helping you.

Christina: I just got an agent.

Zibby: You didn’t have — oh, because you just met with the Random House.

Christina: Yeah, it was weird. I sold Buddy’s Bedtime Battery about two years before it actually hit bookstores. The artwork process and the illustration process takes a long time. Then after Buddy was out and did well, I was able to sell the next manuscript. It’s sequential. I don’t have a three-book deal or any of that kind of stuff. That’s with the same publishing house, with Random House again, my same editor Maria, who’s lovely. Now I will release Sorry, Grown-Upsthis summer and then say, “What might come next?” Part of the reason why I’m capable of doing all these jobs is because I am not writing every single every day. I’m not promoting a book every single day. I just got an agent about a month ago. We’ll think about children’s ideas. Maybe we’ll think about other ideas too because she spans —

Zibby: — I was wondering if you were going to do something with all of your branding expertise. Obviously, you have this ability to take everyday life and make it into art and make it really relatable and connect people through it. You see the opportunities, like you were saying, even just in moments throughout the day. It would be great to have some sort of advice thing for parents or for people looking to do more branding for themselves or even the Instagram branding you were talking about. Let me just suggest some more books for you.

Christina: I appreciate that. It’s weird because I’ve never seen myself as an authority on anything. I shy away from the —

Zibby: — That’s what’s so great. That’s your tone. When people are too prescriptive, it’s off-putting sometimes, like, “I know what I’m doing.” No one knows what they’re doing.

Christina: No. I don’t really know what I’m doing either. I’ve just been lucky that I have a forum for ideas in all three of my jobs. It took me a while in life to actually look myself in the mirror and be like, “You’re creative. That’s actually your thing that you should be doing.” If you’re good at project management or you’re good at other things, you can just do them because you’re good at them. The thing you’re supposed to be doing is maybe the pathway that’s a little curvier, that takes a little longer to get to. I don’t know that I have a playbook that I could ever map out for anyone else. If there’s any one singular thing that’s my message in life is to use your words. Your words are really powerful. You should use them. You can in a lot of different ways, especially in this world and culture that we live in.

Zibby: Thank you. I have so much more to ask, but I think our time is up. Thank you for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Christina: Thank you, Zibby.