Zibby interviews 4-time Grammy nominee Justin Roberts about I’ll Be Your Polar Bear, a warm, heartfelt picture book about the lengths parents will go to comfort and protect their children. Justin reveals this book was inspired by a lullaby he wrote and then shares his fascinating career trajectory–from Montessori preschool teacher and divinity studies graduate student to 16 albums, Grammy nominations, and several books based on songs. He also describes the book editing process, his wonderful collaboration with his illustrator Chuck Groenink, and his next book Giant-Sized Butterflies On My First Day of School.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Justin. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Justin Roberts: So glad to be here. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: You are really here due to my daughter’s love and obsession with polar bears, related to your latest book. I was like, yes, I have to interview — she loves polar bears so much and always has. How did you decide to write a children’s book about polar bears? Then I want to hear about your whole career and all of that.

Justin: Polar Bear is my third picture book. It’s actually based on a song that I wrote many years ago that was on a lullaby record. My editor at the time had a newborn right when that album came out. They found themselves listening to that particular song over and over. It’s a very comforting song. After telling me how much she loved that song, she said, “Hey, do you think we could make that into a book if we changed it up a little bit?” That is how it began.

Zibby: How did it become a song?

Justin: A song usually begins for me with a couple words. The idea “I’ll be your polar bear” got inside my head. I just loved that as a comforting, “big furry arms wrapping around you” feeling. I just started writing a song about being out in the wilderness and being a little afraid and having someone say, “I’ll be your polar bear,” which seems like a parental thing to do. Although, I wasn’t a parent at the time that I wrote the song. More me imagining it or remembering how I felt when my parents were like that for me.

Zibby: I could use a polar bear in the course of workday. Everybody could use that. Back up. How did you become a musician? Where are you even from? Give me a little background.

Justin: I grew up in Iowa, in Des Moines, and went to college in Ohio at Kenyon College and played music since I was a kid and started a band there. When we graduated, we moved to Minneapolis in the nineties. I took a day job as a preschool teacher because I had had a little experience working at a co-op nursery on campus. I became a Montessori preschool teacher. They knew I was a musician. They said, “Why don’t you play some songs for the kids?” I was in my early twenties and a huge music fan. While I like simple children’s songs that are traditional, I was kind of like, what happens if I play them a Sam Cooke song? What if I play them a traditional Irish jig or whatever? Then I started writing songs specifically for them in the classroom. They really responded to it. I discovered that the songs didn’t have to be very simple, especially if they told a story. Kids would memorize really complex lyrics. They kind of respond to whatever you give them. If you play them a Ramones song, they’ll dance around like crazy. I wrote this song called “Giraffe Nightingale” that I had written for the band. I played it for the kids. It didn’t have any repeating words, but they memorized the whole song and sang it for their parents on an open house. I was just like, oh, you can do anything for kids. It opened my mind.

Zibby: That happened to me yesterday. I was literally sitting with my son. I was helping him do the sticker book thing just to have something bonding to do. He has a Siri thing. What do you even call this? The Siri ball that listens to him. He would put a song. Then I was like, “Why don’t you play ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ or ‘Sister Christian’?” just some of these old songs that I knew he’d probably never heard before. By the end of every song, he was singing along. Sometimes we played it a second time, and he would remember all — I’m like, how is he doing this? How does that happen?

Justin: The memory part is the craziest for me, watching my son memorize words and knowing what track number everything is and all of that kind of stuff. It’s just like, where is this coming from?

Zibby: How old is your son?

Justin: He’s four and a half.

Zibby: Nice. Awesome. Okay, so you were the preschool teacher. You started playing cool new music.

Justin: Basically, I left the preschool because being a preschool teacher and playing in nightclubs at night wasn’t really the best combination. I took a temp job and ended up getting into tech. I still was playing in the band. I found myself still writing songs about my cat and things like that. When the band broke up and I was heading off to graduate school in Chicago in something completely different, I had these kids’ songs. My friend Liam Davis, who I’d known for a long time from college and was a producer in Chicago, said, “Why don’t we record these songs just to have them?” We made my first record. I went off to graduate school thinking that was the end of that. It got reviewed by some national publications, with no publicist. I was in graduate school studying Sanskrit. The next thing I know, people were ordering — this was pre-internet. People were sending checks to my PO box to order CDs. I started rethinking what I wanted to do with my life.

Zibby: Wow. Now you’ve built a whole thing around it.

Justin: Now I have sixteen albums. I’ve been doing it since the late nineties.

Zibby: Amazing. That is unbelievable. Whatever happened to your love of Sanskrit? Did you end up pursuing that in any way?

Justin: I finished a master’s at the University of Chicago in divinity. It would’ve been to go on to a PhD. I was studying Buddhism at the time. At the same time, I was performing these kids’ songs. I would have some of the professors from the college be like, “What are you doing? Why are you here?” I’m thinking, maybe I should do something else. I might not be as good a lecturer as I am at writing kids’ songs.

Zibby: Now that you have this whole oeuvre and now you have the child to sing it to, does it change things? Has it inspired a new fount of inspiration?

Justin: I would say it’s different. All the time when you’re trying to be creative, you’re looking out into the world and trying to pay attention and watch for things and look for your own memories and try to remember things that are meaningful to you and find connections. I have an immediate source of whether he likes or doesn’t like a song, which I didn’t have before. I watch him a lot and how he responds to the world. There’s a song on my latest record called “Give Me a Fire Truck.” We were walking around our block one night. He was in a really grump mood. This fire truck came out of the station. His eyes lit up. He had a smile on his face. His mood changed entirely for the rest of the walk. I just was like, how amazing that there’s things like that in the world that can change your mind and put you in a new place. I started thinking, it’s not just fire trucks. It’s your teacher or your mom. There’s all these things we have in our life that do that. I wrote a song about that. I have things like that happening, for sure.

Zibby: Now that the song has become a book, do you feel like you want to take many more of your songs and turn them into books? How did you like the book process?

Justin: I love it. This is the third book that I’ve done. I have a fourth one coming out. All except one are based on songs. I learned pretty early on that you can’t just take the lyrics of a song and throw it in a book. As good as you might think the lyrics are, they just don’t fall on the page in the right way. It’s a process to learn what works in a picture book and what doesn’t. Thankfully, I have had really amazing editors at Putnam that have guided me. The first book that I wrote was based on a song called “Billy the Bully.” There was a character in that song named Sally McCabe. I always wanted to know more about her because she’s just briefly mentioned. She’s the hero of the story, but she just kind of comes and goes. I started telling the story from her perspective from the beginning to get to know her. With a book like Polar Bear, there were little images that I love from the song that I wanted to preserve. Some of them did work and some of them didn’t when it got down to thinking about what was going to happen on the page. You have to arc it a little bit differently than you do in a song. There’s something about melody that just takes things that are somewhat mundane and makes them feel more sacred or something like that. On a page, it’s a little more naked, which I think is what’s beautiful about it. Just getting the word flow right and the page turns and all that is such a — the process of editing even a picture book that doesn’t have a lot of words, it can take forever. Then you keep wanting to change it and change it and change it. Then you finally are like, okay, I think it’s there. Then I’m always like, I could change that too.

Zibby: I wrote a children’s book that came out from Penguin Random House called Princess Charming. I look at it now, and I’m like, oh, my gosh, why did I take that piece of advice on that page? I should’ve kept this. I should’ve changed this. Then I’m like, I can’t even look at this anymore.

Justin: Same thing happens to me. I always feel like I’m whittling it down when you’re editing it. Then you’re like, I could’ve whittled it more.

Zibby: Or whittled some parts less. I’m like, but where was, even, my voice there?

Justin: It’s very interesting.

Zibby: What was your collaboration like with the illustrator?

Justin: Incredible. I’ve gotten amazing illustrators throughout the years. My first book was Christian Robinson, who did Last Stop on Market Street. Then Deborah Hocking and then Chuck Groenink for Polar Bear. The thing I love about it is you really have no direct connection to the illustrator. They get what you send them. They send drafts through the publisher. You talk to the publisher. In a lot of ways, you kind of have to let them have the freedom that they have because they’re telling the story too. That’s the best part about it to me. It’s such a surprise. Some things work so much better because I find what’s happening on the page to be so moving. Chuck, it’s just gorgeous paintings in general, but he captured all these little moments in perfect ways. There’s an image where the polar bear is underneath the water, always present. It’s so translucent. It just looks gorgeous. The thing I think I realized reading the book the first time was he tells a story with color. Just the color changes over the course of the book tells the story in its own way. Seeing that, it’s incredible. I’m stick figures. That’s my level of art. I can’t do anything.

Zibby: I was just thinking that is a skill I would really like to have. I have such respect when people just look at something and turn it into something else on the page. I’m like, okay, here am I drawing a toaster again. Not that I know anything toasters, but I got it right when I was ten, and I’m going to keep doing my toaster.

Justin: Exactly. Something got cut off after eight or nine for me. I draw a house the same way.

Zibby: No improvement at all. None. Zero. Zero growth. Oh, well. I guess you have to really put your mind to what you want to work on. That’s funny. What is your next book?

Justin: The next book is based on a song that I wrote called “Giant-Sized Butterflies.” The book is called Giant-Sized Butterflies on My First Day of School. The song is something that’s very close to my heart. It’s been one of those songs where I get notes from parents where they have been playing it every single day their kid starts school even as they got older and went to high school and stuff like that. They would always play this song as a ritual to begin the school year. I vividly remember my first day of kindergarten. It didn’t go very well in terms of the separation experience. I think in some ways, I tapped into that. As I was writing it — I’m always trying to write kids’ songs that I can relate to as an adult. I love finding those connections between childhood experiences and things that happen to us as adults. In the song and in the book, the mother, to comfort the child who’s worried about their first day of school, says, “I remember the moment you were born, and that was a first day for us. We were nervous. We were scared, but we were excited.” Trying to draw those connections that everyone’s kind of going through first days all the time. That’s what being alive is about. The illustrations in this case are Paola Escobar, who’s a Colombian artist. She is so incredible. She captured it just beautifully. There’s these little fragments of butterflies following the main character throughout the book. It’s heartbreaking and beautiful. I’ve read it to my son. There’s just so much going on in the pictures that it’s fun to talk about. That’s the thing I love about picture books. It’s not just the words. It’s discussing what’s happening on the page and seeing it new every time you read it, all that.

Zibby: As my editor said, “You have to leave room for the pictures to be telling part of the story all the time.” It’s hard to, here’s the part I’m not going to write.

Justin: There’s this part, both in the song and the book, where the mother says if there were some kind of magic spell that could protect like a turtle shell, everyone would be wearing one on their first day. She drew this picture that’s a big cityscape, and there’s all these people with turtle shells literally on their back. It’s a guy holding a flower who’s clearly going on a first date and all these little things. You have to figure out what kind of first day they’re having. It’s really beautiful. It was totally her idea. It’s so great.

Zibby: I love that. That is great. When you were talking about the butterflies, I was like, you could just adapt that for weddings. We’re going into wedding season here. I’ve never had more butterflies in my life. I had a conservatory of butterflies. What about your next updates for the music side of things?

Justin: I just put out my last record in July, which is Space Cadet. It was nominated for a Grammy Award, which was great.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, that’s amazing.

Justin: I’m currently working on a brand-new record, just starting the writing process. I’m also working on a record with another artist, a soul R&B artist out of Chicago named Meagan McNeal that I’m cowriting some songs with for a record she’s putting out, which I’m excited about. Always writing new book manuscripts, which is a continual process.

Zibby: So great, though. What an inspiration for people. You’re making a living well of what you love to do and that so many people love to do, writing songs and singing. It’s just amazing. It’s so great. Now books. It’s a child’s dream.

Justin: It is. It was probably my dream when I was —

Zibby: — I’m hoping it was your dream. Well, you wanted to be a Buddhist monk or something.

Justin: One of those ways.

Zibby: Other people wanted to be singers, so there you go. Congratulations on Are You My Polar Bear? It’s so great. My daughter took it. She took it away. Everything she steals, I can’t even find it for when I need it. It made her very happy, and therefore, me. Thank you.

Justin: Yay. I’m hoping at some point, next trip out to California, I can visit your new bookstore. It looks amazing.

Zibby: Yes, please do. Please do. That would be great. That would be awesome.

Justin: Incredible. Thank you so much.

Zibby: Thanks a lot. Buh-bye.

Justin: Buh-bye.


I’LL BE YOUR POLAR BEAR by Justin Roberts

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