This article was first published in Journeys Magazine, Spring 2017.
In the brightly lit halls of Singapore American School’s early learning center, there stood a man wearing a t-shirt, shorts, and sneakers, setting up a PowerPoint presentation to be projected on a screen a couple of feet away. A lush green carpet covered the parquet floor, awaiting an audience of four-year olds. He didn’t look like an artist or an author, let alone one who has illustrated and written 50 children’s books.
I confess I’d never heard of New York Times bestselling author Todd Parr before he was announced to come to SAS as part of the academic visitors-in-residence program sponsored by SAS’s Parent Teacher Association. However, I had already decided what Todd Parr, author and illustrator, must look like. There’s something to be said about preconceived notions and this one, true to its character, most definitely missed the mark. By miles. But Todd Parr is used to that. He is used to disrupting norms, defying the odds, being different, and being okay with it!
As I sit before him, ready to fire away question after question, he displays the same sense of comfort and ease he did at two presentations I attended earlier in the week. At one I saw him engage four-year olds, who hung on to every word he said from start to finish. At another he spoke to adults—parents from the SAS community—who responded in a similar manner as the kindergartners. With Todd Parr, what you see is what you get. For children. For parents. For teachers. For strangers. Online or offline. The Todd Parr brand is consistent. Simple. Honest. Humble. Even when one is hit with stories about underwear and world peace in the same breath. “I am my books,” he says. “Everything I do is consistent with who I am.”
Growing up in the US in Rock Springs, Wyoming was not easy. For his parents, Parr never seemed to conform to normal things. However, he was encouraged to do things that made him happy. For years he felt like he didn’t belong. He wasn’t quite like the other kids. Besides, he also had a learning disability, dyslexia. And being in a special class at school did not make things any easier. With vivid clarity, he replays an incident in fourth grade. Parr chose to wear a clip-on tie and purple sunglasses for a class picture. He thought it was pretty cool and his father let him, because it made him happy. But everyone laughed at him. And it wasn’t for the last time.
Young Parr, as different as he was in some ways, in others, he was like most kids. Some of the most special moments in his life involve his grandmother reading to him. His favorite books to date are Are You my Mother?, Go, Dog!, Go, and Green Eggs and Ham. She’d read them to him every night. Over and over and over.
Like any other kid, he had wild dreams of what he wanted to be when he grew up. And one of them, not so wild, was to become an artist. He drew Snoopy all the time and that’s all he ever wanted to draw. Parr failed second grade. He proved to be a difficult student for many reasons, and was written off by his high school art teacher. Being told he would never succeed as an artist as he couldn’t pay attention nor take instructions was another addition to the list of rejections he had suffered. As he looks back, his eyes glisten, having experienced first-hand the effect of a teacher’s harsh words on a child’s fragile confidence. His books draw from these very experiences, forming the premise of his overall work. Parr speaks passionately about helping kids feel better about who they are. His books remind kids to embrace differences, to be thankful, to love one another, and to be themselves.
Barely scraping through high school, Parr found himself interviewing to be a flight attendant for United Airlines. He loved that job and excelled at it for 15 years. But that was not his calling. With free time on hand, he was drawn back to his lifelong passion for drawing and painting. The best way to display his art was on clothes! So, he started painting everything in sight and creating t-shirts. He even had his grandma make some really cool dinosaur print boxer shorts and all kinds of men’s necktie designs that he could sell to other flight attendants.
Some of his original art made it into a couple of famous restaurants in San Francisco and before he knew it, he was creating designs for Macy’s. When he launched some cool Todd Parr stuff, he ran into an editor who asked, “Have you ever thought about writing children’s books?”
This was a moment worth recording. Parr recollects how years of rejection had led to a broken confidence and low self esteem reared its ugly head and self-doubt consumed him. Instead of a college degree, he had a learning disability. But he was desperate and the opportunity had presented itself. So, he put on his blinders, ignored his naysayers, and lived in denial till he published a few books. That was in 1998. Today, the one-time flight attendant has 50 books to his name and sells millions of copies. “Over the years I have been able to go back and say I am lucky. I not only get to write children’s books, but I also get an opportunity to make a difference in the world – helping kids and families and teachers with things that are sometimes hard to explain,” Parr modestly says. “I feel that my books are helping kids become stronger, confident people.”
A testimony to his life struggle, his books—like It’s Okay to Make Mistakes, The Earth Book, The Family Book and many others—all encourage children not to shy away from new things, to experiment, and to dare to explore new paths, to embrace life and themselves, mistakes and all.
His own show and a short film later, his family, especially his father who supported him but didn’t quite understand him, realized they had someone truly special for a son. His eyes beam with pride and his voice shakes a little as Parr says that this was a moment he had longed for. It had taken almost 20 years for those who mattered most to be proud of what he had achieved.
Both in his writing and his art, Todd Parr is a creator who never grew up. The simplicity of his craft is one that is extremely difficult to achieve, especially for the complex adult mind – almost bare-boned and very childlike. A woman who bought one of his books emailed him to say, “I am surprised to learn you’re an adult, because I felt it was the work of a six-year old.” As he speaks about his childlike but bold, almost Haring-esque style of illustration and his signature sign off, one can sense the deep desire to help children understand and be understood, accept and be accepted, love and be loved, in a way he never was.
FUN FACTS YOU’D REALLY WANT TO KNOW
- He draws inspiration from watching his niece’s son, who is much like Parr himself.
- His favorite book that he wrote is The Underwear Book because it never fails to make people laugh.
- At 11, Parr started working at TacoTime and wanted to own one and name it Taco Todd’s.
- He received an F on a self-portrait in high school.
- Todd Parr recommends Be Who You Are, The Family Book, and It’s Okay to be Different
- He can eat macaroni and cheese anytime and anywhere.
- He has three dogs: Pete, Tater Tot, and Jerry
PTA SPONSORED VISITORS-IN-RESIDENCE PROGRAM
The Parent Teacher Association (PTA) is one of the key pillars of the SAS community. The countless volunteer hours committed on the part of hundreds of PTA volunteers helps to raise money for investing in community building activities across campus throughout the year. The PTA donates the balance of its money to the school at the end of each year.
In 2015-16, the PTA contributed the remaining funds as a gift to the SAS Foundation. This $200,000 gift was earmarked for the signature academic visitors-in-residence program, bringing renowned authors, illustrators, artists, actors, and dance professionals to campus to work with students in all three divisions.
The comprehensive academic visitors-in-residence program allows students to deeply understand the craft and work of professional artists and develop a lifelong appreciation for the arts. Students are able to develop relevant learning skills in relation to creativity and different modes of communication. These visits result in a greater sense of community that connects the head and the heart.
Authors and illustrators Todd Parr, Steve Jenkins, and Robin Page participated in SAS’s Festival of Reading and worked in-residence with children from early learning center to grade five, in art rooms, and in classrooms helping them to explore the art of storytelling and illustration.
Click here to read more articles from Journeys Magazine, Spring 2017.
- Todd Parr
- academic visitor-in-residence
- books early learning center
- early learning center
- elementary school
- visiting author