You have such a great voice for kids. Did you always know you would do children’s books?
Honestly, no. It never even crossed my mind. My editor—well, she wasn’t my editor yet—saw my art, with its bright colors and messages, and asked me about doing books. I said something like, “I can’t write books. I’m just not that smart. Also, I can’t spell very well.” But she was like, “Don’t worry. We have people that can help you with spelling.”
Your illustrations are kind of a cross between hip graphic art and kids’ line drawings.
One of my first book reviews said an actual child drew the illustrations. At the time, I thought it was so embarrassing. I was wrecked. But I’ve really come to appreciate that comment over the years, because I think it’s why kids relate so well to me and my books.
Your books are both very funny and meaningful. How do you strike that balance?
It is a balance. I’ve been lucky enough to find my way to a place where I can talk about really heavy things like emotions or handicaps and yet still keep a book light and fun.
So one page is about macaroni and cheese in the bathtub, and the next about needing glasses or a wheelchair.
I guess the word would be “unpredictable.” It’s not so in-your-face. Kids don’t want to be lectured. Nobody does, really. They want to know somebody gets what they’re going through.
What do grown-ups say about your work?
I get a lot of mail from parents who are reading aloud to their kids. They’ll say that their child is mesmerized, and the mom and dad can’t figure it out. Is it the colors or the words? And the other thing I hear a lot is that professionals—teachers, counselors, therapists—are using my books to help kids. I was really surprised by that at first.
How do teachers use them in the classroom?
To talk about friendship and accepting yourself, liking yourself. Teachers sometimes use my books as writing models too. The kids write their own versions of It’s Okay... or The Peace Book. I love that. I mean—even though they may not fully understand what peace is—the book is so simple and friendly that they can kind of piggyback on that.
You’ve gotten some criticism over “family values.” What was your response?
There’s a page in The Family Book that says “some families have two moms and some families have two dads.” People ask about it and some don’t like it. I just don’t get it. Well, I do get it—but there is no agenda here. Can’t step-families have two moms or two dads? For me, the goal is to empower kids to feel good about themselves and appreciate differences. On the other hand, at a book signing a few months ago, someone asked why I didn’t have a book that included two grandmas living together.
You said you didn’t feel good about school when you were growing up.
It was terrible. I had a wandering mind and got in trouble for it a lot. I barely made it through high school, and even flunked art. What I know now is if there had been ADHD when I was a kid, I would’ve classified. The best teachers were the ones who had the patience to help me through the reading.
How can teachers help students who are struggling?
Encourage any little bit of talent that they see, any spark at all. And sometimes you just have to let the curriculum go—and follow how the kids are thinking.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a new book that’s about adoption, fostering, and being together. And you know me—I’m writing it my way. Not too heavy.