Todd Parr has two claims to fame: he's one of the most popular children's authors in America, and he's written one of the most frequently banned children's books in America. The latter may seem like a dubious distinction, but the former flight attendant tells Yahoo Entertainment he wears it like a badge of honor. "It's actually good, because it means that we're talking about things that people don't want to talk about," says Parr, whose colorful books include It's Okay to be Different, The Feelings Book and We Belong Together.
But Parr's 2003 tome, The Family Book, is the one that brought him to the attention of book banners. The slender volume presents kids with all the different kinds of families they might see at their schools or neighborhoods — including families "with two moms or two dads." The latter sentence and accompanying illustration is what has made The Family Book one of the most banned picture books in the country, and its author a regular speaker during Banned Books Week, an annual event during the first week of October that celebrates freedom of expression in the face of censorship.
"I embrace that," Parr says matter-of-factly. "I look at it and think about how ridiculous it is that all this is over one page in the book. I didn't put it in there thinking, 'Oh, this is going to get my book banned.' Kids really need to be able to see their families projected in ways that they can relate to. It's who I am to be as inclusive as possible. I'm proud of that book."
Parr's inclusivity initiative comes from a deeply personal place. "I had a lot of problems growing up," admits the out gay author, who has spoken about his struggles with dyslexia as a child. "I constantly felt like my family was weird, and I was embarrassed of them. I struggled with that so much, so when I started writing books, I wanted kids to be able to see that not matter what kind of family they had, it's OK."
"It wasn't about, 'Let's introduce this sexuality thing into it,'" Parr continues. "That's irrelevant for my age group. You want kids to see their families in a mainstream book and not think, 'How come I don't see my family in here?' It's so important for kids to identify themselves in what they read: It's not an opinion, it's not a discussion — it's a fact."
And Parr — whose latest book, The Monster Mac and Cheese Party, is on bookshelves now — makes it clear that the battle over The Family Book hasn't led him to back away from inclusivity. "I'm not going to run and hide because I showed two moms and two dads in a book and it got banned," he says, resolutely. "It's helped so many kids see themselves and be stronger, which offsets the noise and the hate and the fear. None of that is a deterrent. My books are making a difference, and at the end of the day I know that I'm doing more good by writing them."
1. Did your publishers express any concern about that page in The Family Book at the time?
It never came up! It was never even discussed. I told them, "I'm going to write a book about families and I want to include as many kinds of families as possible." And they never said anything like, "Todd, do you know what you're doing here?" No one questioned it. The first time I had to address it was when the book came out. That's when I noticed it was problematic. Thank you for asking me that question, because it takes me back to a time when I would write something and no one would say, "Todd, this could be problematic." It's making me very appreciative of the fact that, 20 years ago, no one brought it up and look where we are today.
If I were writing The Family Book today, I think I would address it with the editor. When I wrote it, there wasn't this potential where someone is going to attack you in every possible way on social media. They're going to dox you or call you a bad person or a groomer — all that kind of stuff. That just wasn't there. So now, I'm much more mindful of when I write my books. Like, if there's a rainbow in my book now, people might say, "Oh, it's gay. He's trying to change kids!" And it's not like I'm trying to push the envelope! It's just about being inclusive, mindful and focusing on making kids stronger and better.
But I also don't spend a lot of time thinking, "What will be the repercussions of this?" I've learned so much about the way my books have been received over the years. I wrote It's Okay to be Different because, as a kid, I had to repeat the second grade because I couldn't read and kids made fun of me. I've heard from so many people who say, "My son's autistic and he found himself in your book." I didn't even think of that when I was writing it! So I know my audience and I know what resonates with people. The goal here is simply to make kids feel good about themselves and not struggle with some of the things I struggled with. And if I'm going to take heat along the way, that's just the way it is.
2. Have you ever had protesters picket your events or had readings canceled?
No, it's mainly been online stuff — I've never had anything canceled. But it is a different environment out there now. I think about what happened with drag-queen story hour; they've been reading my books for years at those events, because they see the title It's Okay To Be Different and go, "This is me — I'm different, so I'm going to read this book." And then I've seen people online write things like, "Oh, he writes books specifically for drag-queen story hour." So that's what I'm up against.
I do think that social media has made it so much more easier for people to jump on that bandwagon, even if they don't know what they're talking about. They'll be like, "I've never heard of Todd Parr, and I've never read The Family Book. I've just heard that book is bad." And if you say, "What's bad about it?" they'll say, "It's got two moms and two dads — remove it." There's just so much noise out there.
I do remember that kids had to have permission slips at school events where I would read The Family Book. And if they didn't have those slips signed, they'd have to be removed when I got to that page of the book! Then I'd have to pause, and they'd be pulled out of the group while I'm sitting there in front of the other kids. And it would be over so quickly! By the time they were let back in, I was already way past that page. I just remember thinking back to when I was a kid and how it did more damage for me to be singled out like that. That's what I used to deal with before, and now there's even more hostility.
3. You've said that you've resisted writing a book that's specifically about Pride Month. Why is that a story you're not looking to tell?
I think I've been really careful, because I don't want my message to get mistaken for things that aren't relevant to my age group. My job is just to help kids — it has nothing to do with sexuality or me being gay. There's no agenda, because that's irrelevant in my world. I want kids to feel good and feel more confident by helping them understand about differences and other things.
Here's a better example: years ago, my publisher said, "We think you should do a Christmas book," and I was like, "I don't want to write a Christmas book." I love Christmas and I celebrate Christmas, but I don't think it fits with my overall message because it excludes people who don't celebrate it. So I told them, "I have a better idea. How about The Peace Book?" So that's what I wrote instead of a Christmas book. It's got a holiday feel in that it encompasses all sorts of different cultures and the different things they celebrate. So, for me, a Pride book or a book about climate change would have to encompass my entire message and not specifically be about that topic
I'll always go back to this: Kids need to see themselves in books. When I was a kid, I did not see myself in books. It was Go, Dog Go and Snoopy — those were my role models. And that's not bad! [Laughs] But there was no book out there that said, "Todd, it's OK to be different." Or: "Todd, your family is not as different as you think it is." The more information that kids know, the better they are. And in the end that's what life is about — being happier, stronger and more confident.