Kelly Corrigan, HELLO WORLD

Kelly Corrigan, HELLO WORLD

“You’re always three questions away from a world-class conversation.” Bestselling author of The Middle Place, Glitter and Glue, and Tell Me More Kelly Corrigan joins Zibby (for a second time!) to discuss her new picture book, Hello World!, which teaches readers of any age the importance of getting to know those around them. Everyone has a own story to share. Think: question marks, not periods.


Zibby Owens: Welcome back, Kelly. Thank you so much for coming back to “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to talk about your new children’s book and all the new things you’ve been up to since we last spoke.

Kelly Corrigan: How long as it been? Two years? Three?

Zibby: About that. I know, I was trying to look and see when that was.

Kelly: It was for Tell Me More, so it had to have been two years ago. I got to sit in that beautiful room of yours. We were in person back in the old days.

Zibby: I know. That was so nice. You were right here.

Kelly: We were just breathing air all over each other.

Zibby: No masks. How reckless we were. You have been up to so much since then. Oh, my gosh, you’re producing so much content and so much else. Let’s start with Hello World!, which I’m super excited about. Tell me a little bit about how this picture book came to be, how you ended up with Flamingo, your illustrator, all of it, all the good stuff.

Kelly: There’s this fun woman who I know you know named Margaret. She had done the Fancy Nancy series over at Simon & Schuster. Then she was moving to Random House, which is where all my regular books are published. She went to college with this great friend of mine named Chatto. Chatto had mentioned her to me before and said, “My friend’s sort of a publishing powerhouse. She’s read your books. You guys have kids the same age. I think you’d get a big kick out of each other.” Anyway, she said, “I’m starting this new line of books. I wondered if you would have a drink with me.” I happened to be in New York, and so we had a drink. Then we had two drinks. She said, “If you could say anything to high school graduates, just start there, what would you say?” I said, “For a kids’ book?” She said, “Trust me. Just what’s the one piece of advice that you have?” I had been just talking to my daughter Claire about this. I was saying it’s all about the people. You could be on a boat in Lake Como with the perfect drink in your hand, and if you’re not with the right people, it’s a disaster. You could be picking garbage off of the highway, and if you’re with the right people, it’s a blast. It’s a world-class day.

Then I had revised that thinking to something more specific, which was this repeated discovery that’s unfolded for me over and over, which is, sometimes you think you’re not with the right people, but it’s your fault because you haven’t asked enough questions to really find out who you’re talking to. Actually, everybody has a story. It is incumbent upon you to ask a few questions and see if you can get closer to who they are. In that way, you’re always three questions away from a world-class conversation. Conversation is the foundation of connection. Connection is the foundation of a great life. That’s what Hello World! became, this premise that if you believe, as I do and all social scientists do, that meaningful connection to others is the number-one driver of human happiness, then the only question worth asking is, how do you get meaningful connection? My answer is, you ask questions. You be the person who asks a slightly better question. I feel like everybody listening to this has had that horrifying experience of sitting at a dinner party, back in the old days when we did things like that, and thinking, I asked the people next to me questions, they didn’t ask me a single question, and thinking how much we left on the table there, how much we could have learned from each other had everybody there been curious and full of questions. That’s really the whole thesis of Hello World! This little kid, this little girl who’s so cute is taking off into the world. I’m telling her, yes, you’re going to see balconies and bridges and boulevards, but it’s going to be the people. There are going to be people everywhere. The most fun you could ever have is getting to know each one.

Zibby: I could not love that any more. I believe everything you said a thousand percent. I just love it. Sometimes when my kids go to school, I’m like, just ask people a few questions. Come home and tell me something you didn’t know about somebody today. Make that your mission. Find something out. Don’t just talk about yourself. I feel like it’s something you need to learn early.

Kelly: Yes. Sometimes I think it’s a tactical problem. I think that many people have the intent. Then they get a little tongue-tied. Many people believe in it in an abstract way. Yes, of course, if you ask more questions, you’re going to get into deeper conversations. You’re going to learn about this, that, or the other thing. I was sitting at lunch with this woman I didn’t know. It was a birthday lunch. I was doing it. I was just starting to ask some questions. “How many kids were in your family growing up?” “Just me and my sister.” “Do you guys live close by?” “Oh, yeah.” “Are you guys close?” “Pretty close. We’re close kind of in a weird way.” “What do you mean by that?” “Well, I gave her one of my kidneys.” It was just like, okay, stop everything, I’m about to have one of those million-dollar conversations. Tell me the story. Edward came home recently and said, “God, I did your stupid question thing.” He had been at dinner. He, at first, was texting me under the table and saying, “I’m dying here. I’ll be home way earlier than I thought.” Then something came up about Madagascar. He just looked at the person next to him and said to this guy who he thought was such a bore, “Have you ever been to that part of that world?” The next thing you know, this guy tells him that he was a prisoner of war for forty days in Madagascar. It was like, oh, my god, you were sitting right next to me. We were inches apart. We almost came and went. I almost went home instead to my wife. What a bore. You just don’t know.

The thing in the book, in Hello World!, that’s so fun is that I’m telling these kids, you know, your bus driver has things to tell you. The lady who puts your lunch on the tray, she’s got stories too. It’s everywhere. It’s everyone. Back to that idea of a tactical problem, I don’t think it’s a bad idea to have a couple questions in your back pocket that are your go-to questions. A really seemingly dumb question that often leads me places is, do you like your name? People often have a little funny story about their name. Either they hate it because they’re named after somebody and that person wasn’t very nice, and that’s a story unto itself, or it reminds them of somebody, or they used to hate it but now they’ve grown into it. There’s a bunch of questions in the inside of the book when you open it, the end papers that are kind of glued down to the cover, have all these balloons on them. I got to write up all these questions. That was really fun for me. If you had a store, what would you sell? That leads you places, to people’s little dreams that they’ve nursed their whole lives. I always wanted to have a bookstore. I’m sure you did too. A craft store, I always wanted to teach knitting. If you could teach a class, what would your class be? I think people are flattered to be asked.

I think that that’s the stuff of life. It’s been proven. In social science, they say that your network of, they call them weak connections, that are light connections, actually play a really big role in how you feel about your life. You have your super tight inner circle of two or three people. Then it’s what people think of as community. I live in a very small town in California. It feels kind of like a college campus. When I go get a sandwich, I almost always run into somebody that I know in my little town. Those light connections are a big part of happiness and well-being. The way to nurse those light connections or to sustain them is just to show a little interest. Ask a couple questions here and there while you’re getting your sandwich. Another question I ask that I kind of prefer to “How are you?” is “What are you working on this week?” I feel like I get into a better conversation faster. I feel like when you say, “How are you?” it almost goes nowhere. It’s ninety-nine percent going to take you nowhere. Even for kids, like my college kids, for Georgia I say, “You could just say to people, what are you working on right now?”

That is such a funny question because you just never know what you’re going to get. I remember asking that to someone. She said, “I’m working on my marriage. What are you working on?” I was like, “Whoa, let’s go back to yours. That sounds a little more interesting.” She’s like, “I’ve been married for twenty-six years, and it’s just not going that well.” It was like, thank god I asked that question because you need to talk. That’s the thesis of Hello World! I think it is the perfect graduation gift for any graduate, going to middle school, going to high school, going to college, graduating from college. It’s a way of life. It’s a way of life to say, I’m so interested in the people around me. My dad did it. That’s his line, hello world. He used to say it every morning. This is what he did. The guy was making his sandwich. He would just have this world-class, little micro-connection for three or four minutes. Then it was like, “Joe, thanks a lot. Great to see you. I’ll see you next week.” That stuff counts. It’s not thing. It’s actually a lot.

Zibby: I loved that. That was great. If there’s any message that we need now more than ever, that is it.

Kelly: It’s more substantial even than a sweet children’s book, in my mind. I have a podcast called “Kelly Corrigan Wonders.” George Saunders was the last guest we had. He wrote Lincoln in the Bardo. He’s this huge, big-time writer, I feel like one of the best living writers. He was talking about curiosity as a way of life, but also as a way of healing the nation. What he was saying is that as he’s developing characters for fiction, he’s constantly asking the characters questions in his mind. What else about you? You’re a gardener. What else about you? Oh, you have a twin sister. What else about you? Oh, you’re a Trump supporter. What else about you? Your favorite class in high school was that one day that the psychology professor came. What else about you? In the discovery of people’s more complicated story is the relaxing of judgement. If you just know one thing about a person, it’s fabulously easy to write them off. As soon as you start learning five things about a person that doesn’t necessarily agree and that don’t point you to the same conclusion, like a farmer who likes art but also is in a fight with his brother and is a donor to the Boys & Girls Club — what’s your favorite last book you read? That could take you anywhere, that conversation, because people don’t even know how much they’re revealing about themselves when they talk about fiction especially. All their values are coming out. I think it’s both a wonderful way to go through life if you’re a kid, and I think it’s a really important way to go through life if you’re a citizen in a democracy that’s trying to find a way to work together after many years of just giving each other the finger.

Zibby: Very true. That feeling, too, of that gem when you ask the right question and you happen to get the answer, I feel like that sustains me every day. I get so much joy from that. There’s nothing better. Then you see the way people light up if it’s something exciting to them or they start crying when it’s something really deep and meaningful and important. It’s just like, oh, we connected now over this. Now we are friends.

Kelly: That’s right. I think you’re three questions away from being friends with anybody. I remember the woman who was the administrator of the girls’ elementary school. She was looking something up. We were chatting while she was looking it up. Then it wasn’t coming easily, and so we chatted some more. The next thing you know, she told me that she was waiting on biopsy results. Then she’s like, “I don’t know why I just told you that.” I was like, “That’s okay. I’ve had cancer.” She’s like, “You have?” I was like, “Yeah.” Then I was the first person who knew that this woman who everybody interfaced with — this woman was known by a thousand people in my town by necessity — had this secret problem. It was that reminder again. You get that one over and over again, which is you just don’t know what people are going through. You see somebody at a party. Then you find out the next day they’re getting divorced. It’s like, but I just saw them. I thought she was being so snotty. Meanwhile, people are carrying things that are invisible to us. Being a person who asks questions might just let them put whatever they’re carrying down a for a minute.

Zibby: This is so great. I want to write everything you’re saying and put it on my bulletin board. You’re literally articulating the things that I think and feel all day long but never can say as well as you or just have not even attempted to articulate in such a way. The fact that you did it through the vehicle of a children’s book which can permeate every layer of reader is just brilliant.

Kelly: I remember talking to Margaret about Oh, the Places You’ll Go! as the ultimate graduation gift. Not to quarrel with poor Dr. Suess — it’s brilliant. It’s totally brilliant. His language is incredible, the whole thing. However, as a thesis, I actually don’t like what that book says. I don’t think anyone’s reading it in this way, in this needle-nose way, but I don’t think it’s about the places you’ll go. I actually think it’s about the people you will know in every way. In the totally cynical way, like, it’s all about the people you know, I think that’s true. I think LinkedIn, etc., proves that. For the rest of your life, you’re going to be moving from one person’s best friend’s cousin to the next person’s, oh, I met Zibby once, and then she introduced me to so-and-so. That is how the world works. People are constantly expanding their network of contacts naturally. The other thing is everything we’ve been talking about. If you’re with someone when they’re dying, it will be crystal clear. Everything else has fallen away. The last thing is the people. All their joy is in these relationships, is in the giving and receiving of love. Even with your most intimate relationships, still, asking questions is the answer.

With Edward, with my husband, I’m either talking or I’m asking questions. What feels so much better for him is for me to ask questions because it’s pre-judgement or it’s almost in the place of judgement. If he’s telling me about a work thing — he’s trying to close this huge contract now. He’s been working on it for fourteen months. It’s a total pain in the ass. It’s a big, slippery thing. As you get closer and closer to a legal contract, then there’s more and more people you got to talk to. All the short-stroke stuff is so hard. I could either be like, I can’t believe that. That’s ridiculous. Come on. How much longer? Or I could be, what do you think you’re going to do? What did Chris say? What did Shawn say? Did you try? Are you going to? That’s so much better for him. Same with kids. It’s very, tell me more. It’s very, I don’t have an answer and I’m not coming to judgement. It’s more like, I’m just so curious what this feels like for you and where you want to go from here. Claire’s just going through the college process. Way better to ask questions than to make statements. How do you feel? Does that bother you? Are you happy? What do you want to do next? How do you think you’ll make a decision? Question marks are better than periods.

Zibby: That should be a T-shirt. You should put that on a T-shirt and start selling it. Throw it up on your website. I’ll take .00002 percent of each T-shirt. I’m kidding.

Kelly: You’d probably have that T-shirt made by tomorrow. You’re the most productive little woman.

Zibby: I could. I was actually just thinking, I know how I would that do that. I’ll send you the link.

Kelly: Send me the link.

Zibby: I will. I’ll send you the link. I’m not even kidding.

Kelly: Oh, I know you’re not. You’re going to whip up a newsletter about question marks tomorrow.

Zibby: If I don’t do it, then I forget. Then you move onto the next. You understand. I feel like you’re the same DNA of sorts. Can I just ask how you are allocating your time? How are you finding time when you deal with the children’s book publicity and all that and then your show and your podcast and all the things you’re doing? How do you tangle yourself out of that scheduling mess and all that?

Kelly: It’s a lot of teamwork. On the podcast, we do this weekly podcast. It’s called “Kelly Corrigan Wonders.” We ask one question over multiple weeks or even sometimes up to a month. Then we get at it over the course of these different episodes. Right now, we have big-time writers talking about human nature. It’s Margaret Atwood and George Saunders, Brit Bennett who wrote The Vanishing Half, the brilliant Jia Tolentino who wrote Trick Mirror. I could record five podcasts a day. I can’t get enough of it because it’s everything that we just talked about with Hello World! where you just ask one question and that leads to next, leads to the next. My worst sin as a podcaster is that I record for an hour and a half and then I hand this file off to poor Susan George, who’s my producer, and she has to whittle it down. She always says, “You know, do you think you could wrap it up in an hour?” It’s like, I could, except that I’ve got time with Margaret Atwood. I don’t want to wrap it up in an hour. I want to take as many minutes as she’s going to give me. This is a genius. The answer to your question is that the partnership around the podcast with Susan George is what makes it possible. She’s this friend of mine. We were at lunch. She said, “You should do a podcast.” I was like, “I’ve thought about it before.” I really like podcasts. I love going for a walk and having a conversation in my ear even more than I love music, and I love music a lot. I thought of it, but as you know, I’m sure, there are 2.1 million podcasts. It seemed kind of ludicrous.

Then we went over to PRX, which is kind of like NPR, and started talking to them. Those people are so smart and nice and full of information. They really helped us shape it. They help with the marketing. PRX deals with the whole business side of “Kelly Corrigan Wonders.” Susan deals with the whole editing side. My job is to get guests and talk to them. That, I would do even if we didn’t push record. That is as much fun as I can have. That makes that almost entirely a joy. The only hard part about podcasting is marketing the podcast every week. I feel like I’m selling an episode every Tuesday. Then Susan reminds me, “Don’t think of it that way. They’re really good. People really like them and appreciate them. You’re just reminding them, hey, we got one.” Then the PBS show, I did this three-episode pilot on PBS last year. It’s kind of replacing Charlie Rose. It’s called Tell Me More with Kelly Corrigan. It was great. We did Bryan Stevenson, James Corden, and Jennifer Garner. It was so satisfying, ultimately. It was really hard because PBS is a huge organization. I didn’t know what I was doing at all in terms of inching my ways into this relationship and this contract. I’m an entrepreneurial gal. I could sign a contract by the end of the day. PBS is a hundred-year-old media organization with six hundred employees and a lot of lawyers. Everything felt like it was molasses to me. I was discouraged by the pace. I was like, it’s not going to happen. In fact, part of my urgency around the podcast was this assumption that the PBS thing would fall apart, and so at least I would have the podcast. I really didn’t want to wait for PBS to decide whether to do the podcast because I thought if you wait, there’ll be three million podcasts. Where will you be then? How are you going to carve out a little space?

It was kind of surprising to me that it happened. Then I thought the end product was so good, which has nothing to do with me. When you make a show like the PBS thing, it’s almost like ninety percent is choosing the right guests. Then these two people who make the show — this guy’s name is Steve Goldbloom. He does Brief But Spectacular, which is this little series on NewsHour every Thursday. It’s a little, short interview segment that’s really zippy and creative and meaningful, often. Then Melissa Williams, his partner, their production work on those episodes was so good. The amount of B-roll — Jennifer Garner mentioned that her mom grew up really poor in Oklahoma and that her mom had said to her this beautiful thing which was, “Jennifer, no matter how far you go in life, it will never be as far as I’ve gone.” She grew up just dirt, dirt poor, hopelessly poor. She made it to West Virginia. She’s a really respected member of her community. I asked Jen if she ever wanted her parents to move to LA. She was like, “Oh, my god, no. I wouldn’t take them away from West Virginia. They’re real contributors to our town.” Anyway, they found pictures of Jennifer Garner’s mom in Oklahoma when she was five. Almost everything that came up in conversation, they found the surrounding material to enrich it.

James Corden talked a lot about Carpool Karaoke. They had to work so hard to get the rights to show the Paul McCartney Carpool Karaoke, but they did. They didn’t give up. They got it. It totally makes the episode because if you don’t know what James and I are talking about when we’re talking about Carpool Karaoke and then you see this footage, all of a sudden, you’re in. They also found footage of him as a fourteen-year-old in his first school play. That’s another case where teamwork wins. The editing of those was so important for pacing, and the music they pick. There’s so many decisions. I didn’t have to get involved in that at all. At first, I thought I would hover over it. I don’t like that cut. Why don’t you this? Why don’t you cut back to him here? Then it was a complete release once I saw an edit. I was like, oh, you don’t need me. You don’t need anybody. I’ll see you at the Emmys. This is so good. Then all this time since then it’s taken to get organized to do it again. We’re doing ten episodes this fall and ten episodes next spring. Hopefully, we’ll just keep going from there. That’s as far into the future as I can see. It’ll be a weekly show on PBS. It’s kind of crazy.

Zibby: That’s so cool, the whole thing. All of the things you’re doing, it’s just so exciting. It’s so great to have a voice like yours out in the world. The sensitivity and emotional intelligence and the way you ask questions, it’s great. I’m so excited that it’s going to be out there.

Kelly: Thanks. It’s a wild ride. I think part of it is this manic desire to have a pretty full schedule when Claire leaves. I only have two kids. Georgia’s already at college. Claire’s going in August. I’m miserable about this part ending. I’m not at all excited to not live with kids. I just like the energy. I like the conversational input. I wanted four kids. I wanted real commotion. I’m not into a quiet home.

Zibby: Kelly, come on over here. Come here . We have commotion around the clock.

Kelly: I swear to god, Edward’s like, “We’re going to start a preschool.” I want to start a little preschool where I have three kids every afternoon and I just read them books. I feel like I need it. I need contact with these little people. It’s so energizing.

Zibby: I think that would be fun. I don’t want to take too much of your time up today. I’m so excited about Hello World!, especially because my children’s book is the same imprint. I’m so excited to be in the universe. That’s so exciting for me personally.

Kelly: I know. It’s great.

Zibby: I just want to ask one last question which I know you’ve answered before, but any new advice on aspiring authors, particularly in the picture book space since that’s the one that you’ve most recently accomplished?

Kelly: It’s funny. I like the words that I put together. Obviously, I am deep believer in the thesis of Hello World!, but what makes a children’s book awesome are the illustrations. There’s this woman, Stacy Ebert, E-B-E-R-T, who did the illustrations. This is her first children’s book. It’s almost laughable how important the look is. It’s a picture book. Every page, every spread, the look of the main girl, the little, tiny details, there’s so many funny little Easter eggs throughout Hello World! Once you’ve read it the fifth time, if you’re a little kid, there’s just little discoveries on every page for you. I felt very lucky to get her as an illustrator and to sort of direct all of her creative energy onto these pages. I love what she came up with. I love the palate. I love the variety of images in terms of wide angle, if you will, and then a single shot. I think it’s really surprising page to page. As you turn it, you’re like, ah, look at this. I would say that a critical thing is to have a point of view, have something that you want to say. Then the next critical thing is to find a really awesome illustrator like Stacy Ebert because that’s when it comes alive. That’s what makes it sing.

Zibby: I love that. Kelly, thank you. Thanks for chatting this morning. Congratulations on your latest project. I mean it, come on over. If you’re on the East Coast and you want some commotion, come by at seven fifteen any weekday morning, and you will get your dose.

Kelly: That’s so good. I wanted to tell everybody that if you need a signed copy of Hello World!, my local independent bookseller is Book Passage. If you do, you can buy copies. Then just put in the notes, “This one is to Jennifer. Congratulations on your graduation.” Then I’ll sign in and get it back out to you. They’re facilitating these personalized, signed gift copies. It’s Then you can get nice gifts for all the people in your life who are graduating this year.

Zibby: I’m going to go do that after this.

Kelly: Yay, do. That would be cool. I’d love to get some to your friends.

Zibby: Awesome. Thank you.

Kelly: Bye, Zib.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Kelly Corrigan, HELLO WORLD

HELLO WORLD! by Kelly Corrigan

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