Zibby is joined by Todd Parr, bestselling author of 60+ children’s books best known for their bright colors, silly scenes, and heart-warming, encouraging messages. Todd describes his elementary school reading troubles and finally getting diagnosed with dyslexia and ADD, his first job as a flight attendant, and how he finally turned his love of doodling into a career helping children through books! Then, he talks about his mother’s drug addiction and his best friend’s suicide, tragedies he survived in high school that later inspired his motto: “life is for living, not for surviving”.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Todd. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your forty-plus amazing books and just all the things you’re doing and everything. I’m so excited.

Todd Parr: Thank you very much. I think the number has been creeping up over sixty now.

Zibby: Over sixty? Oh, my gosh.

Todd: I can’t keep track, but it’s great. It’s great to be here. Thank you.

Zibby: Oh, my goodness. Sorry. It says fifty on the website, so I don’t know.

Todd: I don’t think anybody knows the accurate account. When they talked with my publisher recently, they said, “Including the different formats, you actually have seventy-one books.” That doesn’t count, the formats. Then there’s a box set of ten that help kids learn how to read that just came out in July. There’s ten different books in it. Does that count? Since it’s one box set, is it just one book? I think that’s why it’s confusing.

Zibby: You know what? I’ll give you the ten. Sorry about that. Tell me more about the Learn to Read set. I haven’t seen it yet. I have four kids myself. We’ve read so many of your books over the years. They were so excited I was talking to you. Everybody recommends the Bob Books, all these other books. Then there’s the Disney-themed books where you learn to read. Tell me about your books and how you’re doing it differently. I’m sure it’s just amazing.

Todd: This is coming from somebody that had trouble reading. In fact, I had to repeat second grade because I can’t read to the level that I was supposed to be at. Nobody knew why. They just thought I was a slow learner, and I couldn’t read. Later in years, finding out I’m dyslexic and ADD and things that just really didn’t identify or labelled when I was in elementary school. It’s sort of ironic that I’m even an author to begin with because I never have loved to read. I love cookbooks. I love picture books. I love things that are simple and easy. The reading thing was like, I am the least qualified to be an author, when it was first discussed. To have a box set of phonics books that helps kids learn how to read with sight words, this was all new to me because I certainly didn’t have something like that.

It was coming up with ten different concepts, colors, animals. It was really fun. They’re mini Todd Parr books, but they’re very simple. I even learned a lot more about reading. I worked with Liza Charlesworth, was sort of the overseer that made sure we were really doing what we said these books were. They turned out really cool. I was looking to see if I had a box around to show you, but I don’t. That just came out. They’re doing great. It feels good. When people say, you’re so lucky to be an author, which is true, but I don’t just write books and collect money and go on visits. I write books that help make a difference in the world to other kids. It’s a double reward that I know I’m helping others, especially since I struggled so much all through school. It’s rewarding to be able to know I couldn’t read, and now I’m giving back something that will maybe help someone at my age or sooner know how to read before they get to second grade and just get labeled as slow from there on out.

Zibby: That’s amazing. That’s really wonderful. The instinct to help people through the hardest times of our own lives is great. So many of your books help in so many ways. It’s just a wonderful, full-circle universe type thing. Can you tell me a little bit about how you got started being an author/illustrator? I read that you were a flight attendant before and how you didn’t used to use punctuation and realized that was a mistake. Tell me about your early days and how you really grew into making yourself a brand, not just an author.

Todd: The only thing in school that I was interested in was art. Looking back, I was a visual learner. I think if somebody had maybe tried a different angle of more pictures to help — nobody caught onto that. For me, second grade was the year I had to repeat it. I also think I learned to draw then because while I was not paying attention, I was always tracing Snoopy, the dog. I got to a point where I was so good that I could draw Snoopy on my own. I entered an art contest, and I won. That was the coolest thing ever, but I still couldn’t read. I knew that I loved art. That’s what I spent most of my time doing, and all through school. I never really progressed. Even in art class in middle school, I wasn’t interested in the history of art. I wasn’t interested in pen and ink and pastels and painting the fruit bowl in the middle of the classroom. I just wanted to do my own thing. I did those things, but I just wanted to follow my own path. When I got to high school, I was more determined to follow my own path and also more troubled and angry. I had a lot of things in my home life that were extremely difficult and that I don’t think anybody really knew to the extent. I was labeled as just a difficult kid. My art teacher, in all fairness to him, had said, “You’ll probably never be an artist.” It was out of anger on my part because I was difficult. I had no confidence either. When a teacher tells you something good or bad, that’s golden. You tend to believe it.

After school, I did not pursue art and found my way into being a flight attendant at United Airlines. Suddenly, I had all this confidence that I didn’t have before. I was traveling around the world. I was meeting new people, experiencing so many different things. I found this confidence that I never knew that I had. I think that’s why for young kids to be able to travel or at least experience different places even in this country and try different food and meet new people, I think it just makes you a better human being the earlier you’re exposed to differences. With that confidence, for me, I said, I really want to be an artist. I’m not going to listen to anybody if they say they don’t like my work. I just started painting anything I could get my hands on, old furniture, pieces of wood. I just wasn’t stopping. Everybody was sort of looking like, what’s he doing? It looks like a six-year-old did this. I didn’t care. I just kept pursuing. I tried galleries, and they all rejected me, in San Francisco where I was living. Then I saw some art at restaurants. I thought, maybe that’s an angle for me. I made an appointment with Postrio. The general manager there, his mom was a curator at SFMOMA. I showed him my work. He said, “Great. You can hang two pieces in the stairway there. You need to price them at over $1,500.” I was like, “There’s nobody that’s going to buy my art for $1,500. Trust me.” He goes, “No, I know my clientele here.” They sold. I was like, whoa, I’m really cool now, and adding further confidence.

Then I just kept pursuing it. Then it went into clothing and T-shirts and mugs. I was still flying. I was broke. I was borrowing money. Then at one of the last shows I was doing in Vegas for Magic Kids, I met a couple that were looking to take on properties for licensing. We really connected. From there, I just dumped it in their laps and said, “Let me create and let you do the licensing.” They really pursued from there on, greeting cards and just all kinds of everything and then FAO Schwarz. We had the books. I had four books that came out. Then we did product in FAO. Then Toys “R” Us Japan saw it. Then we ended up in Toys “R” Us Japan in all 110 stores with my art all over everything, chopsticks. I can’t say there was a ton of money in any of this, but the experience was just unbelievable, that this could be happening to somebody that got an F in art. Then you see these giant windows at FAO Schwarz when it was the original in New York and San Francisco. That adds to your confidence too. Then we just kept doing more books. Then the TV came along.

Someday I just need — like you with your book, I think it’s eighteen years in the making; mine, definitely that many years in the making or longer — really go back and look at what I’ve done because I don’t think I’m any different than anybody else. We all have our thing. We all do our thing. I feel like I’m fortunate. A lot of determination, talent. Someone would argue, he’s still drawing like a six-year-old, but that is the strength of my books because that’s my audience. My artwork doesn’t intimidate kids. It draws them in because the message is somewhat complicated. It would be fun someday to reflect back. I’m a pretty modest person. I’m like, why? We all have lives. It would be good to document every step of the way like I’m talking now and trying to think, yeah, there’s a lot more even going on now. We don’t have two hours. No one wants to care or listen to that.

Zibby: Wait, no, I do. I want to hear what’s going on now. What’s going on now? What’s next? What’s on your plate?

Todd: New books. I’m just finishing up the Monster Mac and Cheese, book, Party. It’s sort of different for me, but it turned out very fun. Then I’ll have You’ll Always Have Me after that. Then I think I have one more. Then there’s the Mermaid Theatre in Nova Scotia. They’ve developed a stage show of It’s Okay to be Different. It’s humans that look like characters. It’s black light. It was supposed to start before COVID, obviously. Now it’s back on. It’ll do an entire East Coast to West Coast tour in theaters, and also in Canada and then Singapore and Shanghai. It’s been so long in the making. I haven’t even seen it. People, when they don’t know a lot about me and they go, “What are you working on now?” they go, “Why haven’t you ever said anything about that? That’s a pretty big deal.” I go, “It’s been a long time. I don’t think it’s that big a deal.” I’m so happy that it’s happening. It’s really cool. That’s what I need to stop and think about more. Wait, take this moment in. This is really cool. Be proud of it, and not just say, oh, it’s not a big deal. That’s going on. There’s new TV in the works, kids’ TV. Again, that world, everything takes ten years and then doesn’t happen. It’s over. Then it’s back on again. It’s a very painful experience to go through, especially now.

Just enjoying everything. Like I said, I moved to Palm Springs, which I’ve wanted to do. I’ve been down here a lot for years. Even if it’s called a cocktail pool, it’s small, but it’s my own. I just needed a change, also, in my life. This year was sixty for me. I was just like, things don’t happen unless you make them happen. As we get older and we get more settled, things become more fearful. We’re like, I can’t do that. I’m too old for that. What if this doesn’t happen? I know someone I spoke with had said, you’re like a potted plant. You need a bigger pot. I thought, you know, you’re right. I do. Hence, in part, it was to come to Palm Springs. I’m excited. I took some time just to live life and not work on everything all the time. I think COVID really did that, especially for a lot of us where we paused. I was doing so many schools visits and so much traveling. Then I go to Singapore to the American School there every two years, China, Brazil, just all over the place in schools. Suddenly, I wasn’t doing it. It turned into four and five Zooms a day all around the world. Actually, I learned how to make that work and keep consistent with the brand and the fun and everything that I did in my live visits. Now I don’t know how I feel about traveling every month. It’s kind of nice not doing it. It’s not the same as being in person for the kids and the teachers and that. If you can do a cool Zoom, I think it’s maybe what I’m going to do, more of that and maybe do less traveling and just enjoy things.

Zibby: It sounds awesome. I love how you moved your plant to be a bigger pot in the most arid, dry place imaginable.

Todd: Yeah, I know.

Zibby: It would have to be a cactus. You have to be a cactus.

Todd: That doesn’t make sense, but that’s what happened. I did very simple things. I wanted a little bit bigger shower. I’m not aspiring to a big home or anything else. I want a pantry. I want a walk-in closet and a bigger shower and a pool.

Zibby: There you go. Palm Springs is awesome. I used to go every year for Indian Wells tennis tournament to go watch. Do you go to the tennis? I love it. It’s really fun. All I remember is my husband behind me and getting knocked and having someone’s glass of whatever festive drink spilled all the way down his shirt and us having to roam the stores to find him a whole new outfit so he could sit there the rest of the day. Anyway, it was fun.

Todd: Oh, really? You have memories.

Zibby: We have memories, yes. That’s a Palm Springs story for you. Can you talk more — you referenced really quickly in passing, your difficulty in your childhood. I was just wondering if you were open to even discussing that at all more.

Todd: Yeah. I grew up in a small town in Wyoming. It’s called Rock Springs. The closest city to identify would be Salt Lake City. My mom developed a drug addiction from being in a car crash from a drunk driver that hit her and broke her back. At that time, everything was Darvon, Percocet, everything just prescribed. They’re so easy to get addicted to. She developed a drug problem. We lived with that for years. Anybody that’s been through anything with that, you know what that comes with and the life that an addiction brings. It affects the entire family, even if it’s just one. No one was really willing to deal with it or take it on. She wasn’t willing. The people around didn’t know what to do as far as family. My dad was gone a lot. I was there to take care of my sister, who’s younger than me, under these conditions. At a very young age, those things that you deal with and you see and you go through are very traumatic. They cause a lot of dysfunction in your life that never goes away. You just deal with it, as most people know. You learn to live with it. You try and get better. Then at her funeral when she did die — I was fifteen when she died. My best friend shot himself in the head that day because he was gay and struggling with that. Every breath you took, you thought you were okay, and there was something more. Again, like I said earlier, we all have stuff. We all have lives. We’ve all been through things. It’s no different. Some are even so much more tragic, what people deal with. I’m okay to talk about mine, but I don’t feel that it’s a stand-out. I think it just was my life.

I’ve struggled to overcome and be able to function. Who wants to be codependent? Who wants to be insecure and jealous over losing somebody, that people are always going to leave you and hurt you? Who wants to live like that? My motto has always been about, life is for living, not for surviving. Somehow, there was a calling to me about, get out in the world. Just live and thrive. That’s what I’ve tried to do. I’ve used denial as a good motivator for me, especially with my art and everything because there was a lot of rejection. Even in the beginning when my books came out, there was, what are these? Are they picture books? Are they board books? There’s no characters. There’s no pastel bunnies. Did a baby write these? What are they? Those were all even coming from booksellers. It took a while for things to catch on. Then things slowly changed. Everybody’s always said, you’ve always been ahead of yourself. Writing the types of books that I did — I remember when It’s Okay to be Different came out twenty-two years ago. It was in the self-help section of Borders, if you remember Borders Books. It was in the self-help. I was like, “Why? It’s a picture book for kids.” Then it was just like, “A lot of parents say their kids don’t have social, emotional issues. Therefore, that book is in that section.” I was like, “No,” but I have no say over it.

Then suddenly — not suddenly, but slowly, the world caught up with me. All of a sudden, things started, wait, maybe we should talk to kids about these things at a younger age, just about the differences around us. Maybe we should help them through troubled times. Maybe there should be a book, The Goodbye Book, that deals with loss for very young kids to help them with whoever their loss, a pet, a grandparent, something just to simplify. Suddenly, then the world just gets harder and harder and harder. Then kids see and hear so much more sooner. People turn and say, how do you talk to kids about this? I was like, don’t look at me because I barely made it through high school. There is no degree in psychology or anything here. It’s just speaking from the heart. It’s thinking about, how do you want people like kids to feel? Just be who you are. Be able to just be yourself. Be confident. Be kind. Live your life. That’s what I put out. Suddenly, everything now is like, oh, he’s been around for a while. People are looking for the books. It’s a good feeling to know that I’ve been doing this for twenty-some years, and everything now just caught up with me. It’ll be interesting to see where — like I said, I have Monster Macaroni and Cheese Party coming out. There’s fun and macaroni and cheese and monsters, but there’s still a message at the end that I’m known for, is my end message. It really is just about, try new things. Meet new people. Eat new food. Learn about things. Somehow, I’ll finesse all that in. The message really is typical for one of my books. I’ve never done a book about monsters at a party eating macaroni and cheese, or making it. I want to try and have fun with that as well as continue to do the messages.

Zibby: Why do you always sign your books “Love, Todd”?

Todd: That’s one of the number-one questions.

Zibby: Sorry. I’m sorry.

Todd: No, I’m happy to answer. It was by mistake. There were four books that I had that came out in 1998. They came out. It was This is My Hair, Do’s and Don’ts, Things That Make You Feel Good, and um…

Zibby: It’s okay.

Todd: The Okay Book. There it is. Of those four books, This is My Hair was the only one that had a message in it. I put, “No matter how your hair looks, always feel good about yourself. Love, Todd.” Those books went out. Four more went out. No message. The Mommy/Daddy Book went out. No messages in those. Then people kept saying about the hair book, why don’t you put a message in all your books? I realized how that resonated with people. It started just like that. Now I wouldn’t do a book without a message at the end because it’s become a signature thing for me. What I write about, too, it very much is from within and the heart. When you can end the book with a summary of what that was and say, “The end. Love, Todd,” that’s very personable. That’s who I am. That’s what I do at my live visits. “The end. Love, Todd.” The book just fits that. Mistakes are good. I did do It’s Okay to Make Mistakes too, that book. Sometimes great things come from mistakes.

Zibby: So true. Mistakes, timing, all these things intersect. Then next thing you know, you have maybe seventy-one books or not or eighty-one or sixty-one. Just quickly, do you still have pit bulls? Do you still rescue pit bulls?

Todd: I do. I have two now. Originally, I had three. Pete and Tater Tot, they were rescued together. I just lost Tater in December. Then still have Pete and Jerry. Pete’s about the same age as Tater. I don’t know, twelve, maybe. When I got them from the shelter, it was a guessing thing. Jer-Jer, who is most like a kid of any dog I’ve seen, is so affectionate. If he were a kid, he would wear a propeller hat. That’s all I can say. He would just ride a bike all day and wear a propeller hat. That’s his personality. He was in the shelter for an entire year before I got him. They tricked me. At the same shelter, they called me up and said, “Todd, would you come do a book signing for our special Maddie’s Adoption Day so we could advertise it and maybe get more people in to adopt the animals?” I said sure. I had a book, Doggie Kisses, I think, so that was the book I signed there. At the very end, they brought over Jerry. They said, “This is Jer-Jer. He’s one year old. He’s been in the shelter his entire life. He’s reached his tolerance here. He has to find a home.” I said, “You tricked me. I cannot have three pit bulls because they sleep in my bed. Where will I sleep?” Within an hour later, we were driving home. That’s how I got three.

Zibby: Amazing. You’re at this huge turning point in your life, turning sixty, rethinking everything, heading off with a full tank of gas into the next stage of life. What do you have to say to people who are just starting out? What have you gotten to at this point that you want people to know?

Todd: When I look back, I scare myself. Looking back, the odds of things happening sometimes can really scare you. I mentioned denial. I think it’s a really good tool to use when you’re starting out because there’s so much noise. You don’t know where to go. Even now, there’s self-publishing. Then you need an agent. Should I just do it myself? What should I do? There’s e-books. There’s all this. There’s so much out there and so much noise. It’s hard to break through. I think if you can be in denial, believe in yourself — be ready to go out first. Know what you really want to do, what you really believe in. Just be patient. Try every angle possible. Of course, being an author, you get asked for advice all the time on that. I go, I wish I had a little short paragraph to give you, but I don’t. It’s a very long-winded, don’t give up. Try everything. Do this. Go for self-publishing. Go for an agent. Send it to publishers that still accept unsolicited works. Find a way to market it. Create somewhat of a branding.

You’ve got social media now to use, things that I didn’t have when I started. You have to find your own unique style in that too. You can’t just be like, I have a book coming out, and I’m going to put it in on Instagram and go, here’s the ISBN number for my fans. You got to tell a story and bring people into what you’re doing and make them feel — what’s in it for them? A lot of people, I’ve written a really great book about my daughter, Lucy. She’s amazing. The book is about her. It’s like, that’s really great. It’s cool that you did that, but why would somebody be interested in a book about Lucy, your daughter? Why would somebody be interested in that? She’s not going to mean what she means to you. How can you make that book about your daughter that’s very special something that would be more mass appeal, if you will, where everybody would love Lucy, your daughter? What does she do, and unique to, maybe, her? It’s finding those. Mine’s the end page with the message. It’s the multicolored faces. It’s the very young art, the bold, black line. It’s finding your identity and then going with that. That’s a very long answer, which I’m good for.

Zibby: Which is wonderful. You gave me the half an hour off. I just could listen. It was amazing. Thank you. I needed this.

Todd: I hope I didn’t dominate it. I had a lot to say.

Zibby: It was perfect. I have been so curious. I’ve been reading these books forever with the kids. I’m like, who is this? Who is this guy, Todd? You don’t know. You just don’t know. You don’t know about anybody. You can’t tell anything from the books. It’s just so neat for me, is all I’m trying to say.

Todd: Cool. I’m honored. I’m very honored. Again, thank you for sending me your book. I know there’s a lot of you and emotion in it and everything. I look forward to reading it. Thank you.

Zibby: Like you, I’ve had loss. People have had way worse, but these are my own losses. It’s my own story. There you go.

Todd: That’s just it. There’s lots of worse things, but it’s validating what’s happened to you and owning it, not dismissing it, which we tend to do to use that, well, things could be a lot worse. That’s true, but what happened to you — a therapist said to me, in some things that I had been through, he said, “Basically, it’s PTSD.” That label, for me, made a lot more sense than a lot of things had in my life. It was a moment to stop and pause and say, it was. Then you all of a sudden can label it, identify it, and go, that happened. It’s valid. Everything that’s wrong with me or that I feel because of that is valid, and stop trying to minimize it or sweep it under the rug or just say it happened. I understand it. It’s a label now. It’s very traumatic. I’m still here. I want to live. I want to enjoy everything out there. I want to go to Trader Joe’s and see what new things they have this week. What’s Lululemon got that I need? It’s the little things that I just want to — I want to do them all the time. I don’t want to be sad and go away. I want to look forward to things and excitement. The end. Love, Todd.

Zibby: Sponsored by Lululemon. No.

Todd: And Trader Joe’s. Don’t forget. And Yeti. I love Yeti too. Shout-out.

Zibby: Thanks so much, Todd. Have a great day.

Todd: Take care. Bye.

Zibby: Thank you for coming on. Buh-bye.



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