Guest host Julianna Goldman interviews acclaimed singer-songwriter Rhett Miller (frontman for the Old 97s!) about The Baby-Changing Station, a hilarious new picture book about a sibling rivalry and a magical baby-changing station that can exchange little brothers for very cool gadgets! Rhett reveals the inspiration behind the book, sharing his own sibling rivalry anecdotes and parenting philosophies (dads can change diapers, too!!). He also talks about his 30-year rock band career, his partnership with the brilliant, award-winning illustrator Dan Santat, his love of poetry, and his ideas for his next project. Rhett interviewed Zibby on his own podcast Wheels Off With Rhett Miller. Click here to listen!


Julianna Goldman: Rhett Miller, author of The Baby-Changing Station, coming to us from your car, thank you.

Rhett Miller: Thanks for having me.

Julianna: I loved this book so much. As somebody who reads many, many children’s books every single night, it can sometimes be mind-numbing. I really appreciate when authors make them fun for the parents as well. I felt like this was just, on every page, a little chuckle for me as well.

Rhett: It’s funny. One of the sections I’ve ended up reading a couple of times is where James lists off his dad’s favorite bands, and so there’s a list of band names that happens in this kids’ book that includes The Kinks, he calls them the Van Halens, Sly and the Family Stone. I don’t think there’s any kids’ book out there with The Kinks appearing in it.

Julianna: Certainly not one that I’ve read, for sure. Background to this book, it asks the fundamental question that every older child faces at one point in their life, which is, would you trade in your younger sibling if someone offered you something really, really cool? Tell us the backstory.

Rhett: I grew up in Dallas. I’m the oldest of three kids. My little brother, who’s — it’s so funny. I’m fifty-two. He just turned fifty, my little baby brother. When my parents brought him home from the hospital, I was so mad. I was livid. I went and I stood in the corner. I wouldn’t turn around. There was some intimation that they walked in and found me with a pillow holding it over him. I’m not saying I was going to smother my brother, but I think it was on the table. I was very jealous of the attention this incredibly cute younger kid was getting. I never forgot that. He and I, as close in age as we were and as different as we are — he played football. We were just very different kids. Inevitably, we were really competitive. When it came time to think of a follow-up to my book of poems, I wanted one story. I thought about, when I was little, one of the main storylines of my young childhood was the introduction of these interlopers, my little brother and then eventually my little sister, Ross and Christi. Fast-forward, by the way, I love them both so much now. That’s really the engine of this book, is the idea that you don’t know when you’re presented with this initial threat to your dominance of the household, you don’t know that it won’t be long before they become an integral part of your everyday happiness. That was really what drove the narrative in this story. I really loved these characters. I loved getting to watch their relationship as I was writing the book evolve to the point where at the end — honestly, when I realized what I wanted the last page to be, I got really choked up. It was very sweet. It meant so much to me that I got to sort of relive my own love for my younger siblings and then invent these characters and live this moment of bonding for them.

Julianna: It’s so nice because older siblings can read it and say, okay, someday, they’re going to be my best friend. I don’t need to trade them in for a guitar. Younger siblings can read it and say, someday, your older brother or sister, they’re going to get it too. They’re going to be your best friend.

Rhett: I think it’s important as parents that we give kids a space to talk about the trickier parts of childhood because it’s so easy to kind of gloss things over for kids. We get to boss them around a little bit. No, don’t worry about that. Go play. Everything’s fine. When you give kids a space to address the things that make them feel threatened or overlooked, I feel like that’s a really valuable thing. You’re teaching them tools that they can use in later life to self-advocate. The reason I started writing kids’ books to begin with was because my kids were little. We read all the books. We wanted more. I thought I could maybe engage them if I were working on poems and books. Now one of them just went to college. The other is about to. The fact that we aggressively pursued this agenda of our kids standing up for themselves, addressing what they were dealing with, the trickier things — it’s okay to be unhappy. It’s also okay to find a path back to happiness. I feel like it’s really serving them well now in their young adult lives.

Julianna: I have a question about that. I feel like parenting strategies have definitely changed from when we were growing up. I’ve wondered about that. How have you seen that kind of approach to parenting shape your children as they’ve gotten older versus the way that some of us were personally raised being told, “You don’t need to feel that way. Something’s bothering you? Just focus on something else. Move on”?

Rhett: Boy, I think anytime you can look a kid in the eyes and talk to them about something that’s real and really let them tell you what they’re going through, assume on their part, a level not only of intelligence and savvy, but also a level of self-awareness that I think we often rob kids of, I think it’s important to give them that opportunity. They will surprise you. For me, not just with vocabulary, but that was something — early on, I decided, I’m not going to hold back with my kids. Not in terms of potty words, necessarily, but just in terms of big words, words. I spoke to them assuming a level of intelligence on their part that they have always rose up to. I think that there is an emotional analogue where you can say, if you assume that they have a depth of feeling that they maybe just don’t have the emotional language to express yet and then you help find it, give them a space to find it, that’s going to serve them well not just in the moment, but in the long run as well.

Julianna: Actually, that brings us back to the book. I loved in the book, how you empowered the older brother to change the baby’s diaper. Every parent gets into that, having been a parent in a pizza restaurant where my child suffers a blowout and looking down and being like, oh, god, I really don’t want to have to deal with that. I wish my kid was old enough to. I love it. In the book, the parents look at the older brother. They say, you know what? You’re old enough. It’s time.

Rhett: I know for me, one of my favorite things when my kids were little was being able to help on the basest level. I changed every diaper that was in play. I went for it. Especially as a dad, the list of things you can really do on a day-to-day basis when kids are really little is so limited. They end up leaning so much on the mom. I felt like, diaper changing, that’s something I can absolutely do. I’ve spent, at that point, twenty-plus years in a rock-and-roll band. I don’t mind gross stuff. I can handle this. I changed every diaper I possibly could. It’s a great example of how members of the family, maybe not just the dad, that aren’t the mom can step up and really be of service. It takes a village. Your family is your first little village. I know when it came to my little brother and sister when I was growing up, I made a lot of dinners. Granted, most of them were nachos in the microwave to begin with, but I made a lot of dinners. I made a lot of school lunches. Once I was able to drive, I did a lot of shuttling around. I would go to father-daughter dances when my dad couldn’t be there with my little sister. I think it’s really important that we emphasize the family unit and strengthen the bonds within the family unit. To me, changing diapers is about as perfect an example of something you can really bring to the table, as it were, of anything.

Julianna: Before we move on, you mentioned you saw gross stuff in your career in a rock band. What’s the PG-13 version of the grossest stuff that you saw?

Rhett: My band will have been together for thirty years next year. Even now — we just did a tour where we wound up in Syracuse one night for a show. The dressing room, every square inch of the wall was covered in graffiti. The couch was held together with duct tape. There were literal bugs in the dressing room. I had to change into my cool rock-and-roll shirt. I had to leave my bag with my personal belongings in that room. I’m thinking, these are the things I do for art because I love my job. If every night was like this, I might not be willing to do it. If I have to deal with bugs and graffiti and a duct-taped couch for one night out of a three-week tour, I can do this. There’s some dark moments on a rock tour.

Julianna: Way darker than a blowout. Then real quick, back to the book, I loved also how you had the baby-changing station in a men’s room. Talk about why that’s important.

Rhett: It’s funny because to me — maybe it’s because I live in a very liberal little town in the Hudson Valley of New York. Maybe I feel separated as a parent. When I tour, I see all the subtle differences between the parts of the country and the world. It didn’t really occur to me that it was a big deal that the baby-changing station is situated in a men’s room. Once the book was out, I kept hearing from people that they were so glad that I made a point to have a baby-changing station in the men’s room because we still have lots of places around the world where that’s not the case. The more I looked into it, I discovered that’s really a thing. Baby-changing stations are only in women’s rooms or maybe if there’s a family restroom. That had not even occurred to me. The fact that we are still so behind the times around the world in terms of gender duties with regards to parenting, that blew my mind. I hope we move past that quickly because everybody needs to change diapers. Come on, people.

Julianna: Sorry, I don’t know, maybe just because it’s a rainy day, but I had to chuckle when you said gender duties. Let me ask you about the book. What’s the process of writing a children’s book? You’ve partnered with the illustrator. How do you collaborate? Do you write first and then he does a first set of drawings? Does he do a first set of drawings and then you write to the images? Tell us about that.

Rhett: The first time I collaborated with Dan Santat, who is the best in the business — by the way, on a brief aside, a little lesson I learned from the first book, No More Poems. When that was finished and I was working with Megan Tingley, the great editor at Little Brown Young Readers, I had heard an interview with this illustrator. I don’t really know about kids’ literature world, but I’d heard this interview with Dan Santat. I went to Megan and said, “Do you think we could get this guy? I heard an interview of Dan Santat.” She said, “He’s the best illustrator in the world right now. There’s no way we could get Dan, probably. Don’t get your hopes up, but I’ll reach out.”

Julianna: What other books has he illustrated for that people might recognize?

Rhett: Dan won the Caldecott for his book, The Adventures of Beekle.

Julianna: When you write, do you have a tune in your head? When you read your books, is there a tune to the lyrics?

Rhett: It’s funny you ask that because there is a definite throughway from songwriting, which is my main job, to the poems originally and then this book. It’s a long book, and it has one rhyme scheme throughout, one syntax and meter formula throughout the whole book. When I came up with the concept, I lived with the idea for a while with the question of, who would be this older brother? Who would be this younger brother? Then I had a flash of inspiration. I got the opening stanza of the book, which is, “People have names, and my name is James. I’m a regular ten-year-old kid.” There was something so jaunty about that. It felt like an Irish jig or something. It was, daa-daa-daa-daa, da daa-daa-daa-daa, daa-daa-daa-daa da. I thought that was musical. More importantly, I thought that was sustainable. I knew it was a complicated cadence and a complicated rhyme scheme because it’s almost like a limerick. It’s a sandwiched set of rhymes. Then it’s got an internal rhyme. There’s a lot going on, is my point. I had to sustain that for thirty-two stanzas, or sixty-four, however many it is, a long, long stretch. There’s places where I know I stretch the syntax and the cadence a little bit, but I know that my favorite books always did that. The books I was reading my kids, sometimes it took you the second read to figure out where some of the rhymes landed and where some of the emphasis landed within the meter. I thought these books bear repeating and rereading. I thought, if anything, it would draw people back in. My favorite art is art that comes with layers. Not only are there layers of meaning, but just within the book, the sound of the stanzas themselves have layers. You get to dig into them as you reread.

Julianna: You have the book with you. Is there a section you’d want to read, your favorite section? I know you mentioned the last stanza, but we don’t want to give it away. Is there another section you’d want to read for listeners?

Rhett: Sure. You brought it up. I think it’s pretty fun, the moment where they’re out at the family pizza night. They’ve just eaten way too much pizza. They’ve just leaned back in their seats and rubbed their tummies. Everyone is full. There’s a determined-looking face basically quivering. Everybody is looking at him in wide-eyed horror at the table. It goes, “That’s how they were when little Joe stirred and let out a tiny whimper. We could all tell by the subsequent smell he’d loaded up his diaper. Dad blinked his eyes like he was surprised or super exhausted, maybe. Mom said, ‘No way. I’ve had him all day. It’s your turn to change the baby.’ They stayed in their chairs, glaring their glares. My brother just sat there and stank. They turned in their seats and they both looked at me, and my ten-year-old stomach sank. People have names, and my names is James, but normally, Dad calls me J-Bone. Tonight was not normal. He sounds all formal. ‘James, my son, this is a milestone. Your mother and I need assistance tonight with your brother and his situation. In that bathroom right there to the left of your chair, there’s a baby-changing station. You may be a kid, but it’s time that you did some diaper duty too.’ That word made me snicker, but why not? I figured. I mean, what else could I do?”

Julianna: Then the book goes from there.

Rhett: Then he’s presented with a terrible choice. Should he trade in his baby brother for these three options of really cool toys and gadgets, or does he let the little guy stick around?

Julianna: What do you love to read?

Rhett: I read fiction. I love stories. I love mystery novels. Sometimes I read action-adventure stuff when I want to be brainless. Sometimes I read proper literature. My favorite book is probably Underworld by Don DeLillo, which is a really dense book that sort of captures the American story. When my kids were little, I really loved to read poetry with them. Shel Silverstein was somebody we came back to over and over again. Again, he would address really deep, problematic moments of childhood, but he would make them light. He would let them into the conversation, but then he wouldn’t let them win. He wouldn’t let them have too much weight. He would let those just be problems that we all deal with. There’s a way to get to the other side of them. In my work, that’s really something I’ve thought about a lot. I really want to be real, but I also want to always emphasize and always land on a place of hope.

Julianna: Do you carry around a notebook or do you take notes in your phone for when you get inspiration?

Rhett: I do all of the above. I carry around multiple physical notebooks, old-timey paper notebooks. I carry a big one for songwriting, a little one for just ideas. I do utilize the notes section, like everyone else now, in my phone. I also will record in the recording app on my phone. A lot of times, I’ll wake up in the morning, and I’ll have an idea for a rhyme or an idea for a story. In the dark, I’ll hit the recording app. I’ll just mutter something in my sleepy voice into the phone. Sometimes I even go back and listen to it.

Julianna: What is next after The Baby-Changing Station? Is there a sequel? Is there another children’s book that you’re working on right now?

Rhett: I’ve been talking about what the next book might be with Megan Tingley, my brilliant editor. I tend to do too much. I’ve got a solo record called The Misfit that just came out two weeks ago. I’m about to go into the studio and record another album with my longtime band, Old 97’s. I do have some pieces of adult fiction that I return to in my most hopeful moments as a writer. My longtime dream is to write a novel. I do wind up writing a lot of essays. There is another kids’ book that I will eventually get to. It’s funny. Right now, I’ve got two or three beginnings. I don’t want to do it unless it’s a story I really care about. One thing I keep coming back to now is aging grandparents. I think there’s a story about grandkids and grandparents and how they deal with each other, especially when those grandparents start to enter that stage where they’re no longer as capable as they once were. It can be so heartbreaking. That’s not a story I want to tell, the heartbreaking part of it. There’s something really beautiful about the connection that the little kids have with their grandparents and being able to see the generational handoff, the wisdom that can be imparted. That’s something I think about a lot. I think that if I can find a way to emphasize the joy in that moment, that intergenerational moment, I think that could be a really great story. Great, now I told it, and somebody’s going to steal it.

Julianna: No. I love that idea because I think, probably, it’s one of those issues where adults see that relationship very differently than the child. The child doesn’t approach it with the same hang-ups as the children of the grandparents. There’s something very pure and innocent in that.

Rhett: As the grandparents become less of the movers within the family dynamic and more of passengers, it’s almost like those grandparents are becoming more like those kids. In a way, that bond can even grow deeper during that stage. I think there’s a way to do it, but it’s tricky. To me, that’s what’s challenging. That’s what’s exciting. I want to address something that doesn’t get addressed enough, perhaps.

Julianna: If anyone can do that with the brilliance of prose, it’s you. Thank you, Rhett Miller. We appreciate it. Thank you for making bedtime and story time quite a bit more entertaining.

Rhett: Thank you so much for having me. This is great. It’s a great podcast. I really appreciate you doing the interview. So great.

Julianna: Thank you.



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