A podcast interview with Dan Santat
The Children’s Book Review
In this episode, bestselling author and Caldecott Medalist Dan Santat talks about his graphic novel memoir A First Time for Everything.
This funny and moving memoir encourages readers not to be afraid to engage with the world and to try new things, and that when you do, maybe you’ll be surprised to discover that the big wide world out there is friendlier than you might first assume.
Listen to the Interview
Dan Santat is the Caldecott Medal–winning and New York Times–bestselling author and illustrator of The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend and the road trip/time travel adventure Are We There Yet? His artwork is also featured in numerous picture books, chapter books, and middle-grade novels, including Dav Pilkey’s Ricky Ricotta series. Dan lives in Southern California with his wife, two kids, and many, many pets.
Read the Interview
Bianca Schulze: Hi, Dan. Welcome to The Growing Readers Podcast.
Dan Santat: Thank you. Thank you very much for having me.
Bianca Schulze: So you have illustrated a lot of books, some of which are your own and some by other authors. Do you know what the total count is?
Dan Santat: I stopped taking count. I think the last tally that I had was just about, maybe over 120. And it’s bizarre because I used to use Goodreads as a measure to keep track of my bibliography. And then I don’t know. Goodreads, obviously, is full of bugs. And so one of the biggest bugs was it just stopped me at four pages of books. And so whenever a new book comes out, it just swaps out another one. And so there are titles on there that aren’t on the list. I don’t want to say I forgot that they were made, but it doesn’t jump to the front of my mind. But, yeah, I’ve done overshadow. I’ve done over 120 in my life. And at this point, last time I measured maybe over 130. I don’t know.
Bianca Schulze: Wow. That’s an insane amount of books. And I know that you’re a father and a husband, and I know firsthand that family life gets pretty crazy for all of us. What does a typical workday look like for you? And how do you fit the time in to create your was in your art?
Dan Santat: So it’s funny because when your kids are little, I think there are moments where you dread that they have to stay home because they want to be entertained, and so you don’t get a whole lot of work done. Both of my kids are now in high school. I actually savor those days off because then they just stay in the room. They amuse themselves. It saves me an hour of a commute each day. So typically, what will happen is we also have a lot of pets. I have three dogs, two cats, and a bird. And so the dogs always wake me up around 6:30. I give all three a quick walk, and then at 7:00 a.m., I make myself a cup of coffee, get the kids ready for school, take them off to school at eight, get home by about 8:30, I go for a six-mile run, you know, three times a week.
And then I start working around, oh, gosh, 9:30, ten. And then I’ll work till about 3:00, pick up the kids from school, get dinner ready, sit down and watch House Hunters or, you know, Real Housewives of Atlanta with my wife. But I’ll be sitting with her, maybe working on an iPad. Maybe I’m writing, maybe I’m sketching, and then it’s off the bed. So that’s my typical day, every day. Inner spooled with maybe trips to the post office, the grocery store. I also make dinner. I’m the cook. I’ll do laundry throughout the day, things like that. Any errands that need to be done. I missed her mom, and that’s been my life. And now it’ll be interesting because we’re at a point now where my older son is looking off into college and be, like, half-empty nesters in the next year and a half, and that’ll be interesting.
Bianca Schulze: So you mentioned that you go for a run, and a fun fact about you that I know is that you completed the LA Marathon. Am I correct?
Dan Santat: Yeah. So I’ve been in this business for about 20 years, and then, you know, somewhere around 2000 and gosh, 2014, I want to say, I got really overweight and unhealthy because I was just so focused on my career and making books, and I was just generating, you know, so many books year after year. It was like eight books, nine books a year. And it’s a very sedentary life, and you’re just sitting there and just gaining weight, eating. It got to the point where it was just getting really unhealthy for me, and I just found it hard to breathe and things like that.
And then I thought maybe it would be great to just break up the morning by going back for a morning jog. I mean, the other part of it was when you have young, energetic kids, and I hate to say this, but the thing that got me started into running was because I wanted to be healthier so I could have more energy, so I could do more work. That’s kind of the truth behind my motivation for wanting to exercise. And I was not someone who loved running. Running was, like, my least favorite thing. And so it just started with two-mile runs and then 4 miles, and then 4 miles became 8 miles, and then you kind of have this thought you were thinking, like, oh, you know, if I just ran a little bit further, I could do a half marathon, right?
And then you decide to train for the half marathon, and you see the tremendous results on your body, and it makes you feel so good, and that ends up becoming a motivation for you to work even harder. I know for most people, it’s really hard to get on the wagon, but once you do and you eventually make it a part of your lifestyle, it’s life-changing. I used to get sinus infections all the time. I get really bad colds and stuff like that and allergies. And now, because I’ve been running for about, you know, 78 years now, I don’t have sinus infections anymore. I don’t get allergies. If I have a cold or something like that, it passes through me in a day, literally, or I just don’t get sick at all. And so it’s been tremendously life-changing, and I guess the encouraging word to your folks is try something at least once because you never know, the thing that you thought you absolutely hated might end up being the most favorite thing that you’ve ever done in your life.
Bianca Schulze: Yes, I love that. Well, if you weren’t a writer and illustrator, what would you be doing for a profession?
Dan Santat: This is a question that I think we all ask ourselves when we’re at conferences and things like that. I don’t know if this is tied in together, but I always thought it would be fun to be in the advertising business. I took an advertising class in art school, and it ended up being the most useful class for my entire career. You would think maybe it was a color theory class or design or something like that, but it actually turned out to be advertising. Being able to communicate with people and using symbology, I just find that essential.
Another part is I’m really passionate. I love making furniture. I have a wood shop, and when I have time, I’ll make a table. I’ll make a chair for friends and things like that. I haven’t done it in a long, long time. The last thing I did was at the start of the pandemic, I made a ukulele out of cardboard that actually works and plays, and that was a lot of fun. That was like a two-and-a-half-week assignment. But I do also have a microbiology degree because my parents had dreams and hopes that one day I was going to grow up and be a doctor. It was with their intent that they would sign me up for AP classes and Sat prep courses in hopes that I would get into a good college and become a doctor.
And I actually graduated college with a microbiology degree, got accepted into dental school, and was on the cusp of going to dental school. And then, at the last minute, all my college roommates knew that I had a passion for art and convinced me to just try to apply to art school just to see if I could get in. And that really was the hook. Yeah. I find my life could have gone many different ways, and it could have been any of those possibilities, honestly. Ultimately, you probably would see me as a dentist. I think that’s the final answer.
Bianca Schulze: I love it. Well, I want to just shout out to your college friends and any friend that encouraged you on the way because we are also grateful that you are a writer and an illustrator. So thank you to your friends.
Dan Santat: Yes, I tell them all the time, and yeah, I’ll occasionally do events, and they’ll show up, and I’ll always give them a shout-out.
Bianca Schulze: Well, since you are a writer and an illustrator, what do you think it takes to become one? And how do you think having a love for reading and storytelling plays into that?
Dan Santat: So here’s an interesting thing. When I grew up, I was not someone who loved to read. I wasn’t someone who loved grammar. I’m not great at grammar. Part of it was because my parents never really fostered the love of reading in me because they came from Thailand. It was just a very poor third-world country. A lot of the things that they gained in terms of experience and preparation for this world were utility types of things. So my parents’ idea of reading was, well, if you want to get better at math, you should read a math book. If you want to get better at science, you should read a science book. But reading for pleasure was never something that really stuck out for them.
And so I would grow up through school, and we get these creative writing assignments, and I was an only child, so I was a real movie TV junkie. And when you grow up in the 1980s, there was some bizarre stuff back then, and that was kind of like my weird passion for storytelling. And you can debate whether or not an episode of Falcon Crest is good or bad, but it did foster the fundamentals of the beginning, middle, and end, and having cliffhangers before the commercial breaks and things like that. So you do have the loose tools of the structures of storytelling.
Now, when I got older, I had a paper route, and for those of you who are younger who are not familiar with what that is, back in the day, newspapers would hire kids to deliver newspapers from door to door. You’d go on your bicycle and deliver these newspapers, and I would save all my money. And I had a friend—a great guy—he was really into Marvel Comics, and he had a trunk. He collected all of them, like Thor, The Avengers, X Men, and all those, and I immediately just fell in love. Like, this was my outlet. But prior to that, I was reading Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes and things like that, which were great dailies. But with Marvel Comics and things like that, it led to a long story thread that would just carry on month after month.
Now, going off to a college degree, graduating with a degree, having a love for film and comic books, and then talking with friends that have a writing degree don’t typically end up doing anything with that degree. And I remember we were having this conversation. I was having a conversation with my friend, my roommate, actually, who had a writing degree, and ultimately, he grew up, you’re going to laugh, he ended up becoming a computer forensics analyst for the FBI, right? But he was always passionate about writing science fiction. Like, that was his thing. He wanted to write science fiction.
But if I recall talking to him, he went to college, and it was about the craft of writing; it was about building these beautiful sentences and just writing whatever he was interested in. And I think, ultimately, it’s not about learning the craft. It’s not about learning how to write a book or how to write a passage. I think, ultimately, a good writer has the duty or the skill, the ability to feel empathy. And what I mean by that is, when we’re telling stories, we want you to feel a certain way from our writing. We want you to cry; we want you to laugh. We want to offer hope. So I think anybody who has the ability to do these things and do them well is people who are going to excel.
Now, you could say that, for example, telling a joke is a sample of storytelling, right? You’re trying to tell a funny story. Now, anybody can tell that joke, but there are some people who excel at telling a joke exceedingly well, putting in the details, things like that, really painting a scene in your head. And so I think the thing that separates certain writers from other writers is the ability to empathize and feel an emotion and not be afraid to share those emotions.
Writing is kind of one of those mediums where you are allowed to be human. It’s the thing that lets us feel like human beings. We’re allowed to laugh, cry in our own minds, in the comfort of our own homes, if we’re not comfortable, you know, showing our emotions in front of other people, you know, you write it down in words. You can transmit to people how you want them to feel. And I think, ultimately, the craft of writing well comes down to being able to share your empathy and having other people feel that as well.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, I love that answer, Dan. I’m sitting here thinking to myself as I’m reading a book, and often those special moments that when you’re reading a book that either just make you feel good inside or make you laugh out loud or even make you cry, it’s because the author or even if it’s coming across in the illustrations by the illustrator, they’ve noticed something. And it’s either something that you’ve noticed too, and you’re like, oh, I’m not alone, because somebody else has noticed it too, to the point that it’s in this book, or they’ve noticed something that you’ve actually never stopped to think about. I’m curious. Have there been any pivotal stories that you’ve read or encountered in your life? And it doesn’t have to be a book. It could be a movie, but any kind of story that’s just really stayed with you and you feel has maybe sort of shaped you in some way.
Dan Santat: Oh, gosh, there are so many. Because I have, in my adulthood, discovered the love of reading. And one of those people who really contributed to that was David Sedaris. And I remember one of the first books a friend of mine in college lent me was Me Talk Pretty One Day, which is probably one of my favorite books. And I love his ability to tell satire in everyday instances. One of my other favorite shows is This American Life, the podcast. They just talk to ordinary people, and these ordinary people just talk about their daily lives. And by that, I think you kind of realize, oh, everyone has a story to tell, but if you tell it well, you can make it absolutely captivating, right? And so you sit back, and you think about your own life, and you think, oh, that might be an interesting tale to tell. I’ll tell my kids, and for the most part, they’re actually really engaged by things that they can relate to me about when they’re growing up, right? So. Yeah. David Sidaris. I remember hearing him on this American life. And then, a friend of mine lent me his book Me Talk Pretty One Day. There are other cases where I wanted to read something because everyone was just like, oh my gosh, this is such a good book; you have to read it. And one of those books was A Confederacy of Dunces, which won a Pulitzer. I don’t remember like in the early 90s, late eighties, and everyone was just like, oh my gosh, you have to read. This is the most hilarious book I’ve ever read. And I remember reading the book, and I could see where the humor lay, but I actually despised the character. And that was kind of a case where I realized, oh, the writing was fantastic. I could see where it works for certain people, but I do understand that this story is not for me. Right. And that was kind of a lesson in measuring taste. You could tell what good writing was, you could tell what bad writing was, but you could also tell why you liked something. But I think it’s equally as important to read something and understand in a very complex manner why you don’t like it but why everybody else does. Because I think some people will just generalize and say, I didn’t like this book; therefore, it’s not a good book. It can be both things. It can be a good book that you don’t happen to like. Right? And so I think for anybody who’s out there who’s writing, you have to be very critical about the criticism you receive about your own book reviews or maybe reading something that everyone liked, and you just scratch your head wondering, gosh, I wonder why people like this book? That I thought it was awful. Right. You can’t just be the center of your own universe and be like, this book I did not like; therefore, it is the worst book ever made because that’s not true. Other people like it, and other people relate to it. And I think being able to step outside of yourself and observe the world in that respect is invaluable in terms of not just for your skill set, not just for that, but also just as a human being.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah. Since you’ve created picture books, early readers, illustrated chapter books, and graphic novels, I’d love to know if there’s an overarching internal motivation that keeps you wanting to create books for kids and teens, even on a day that feels hard.
Dan Santat: Here’s the thing. When I was a kid, I remember thinking I was falling in love with movies, and I remember thinking to myself, like, oh, gosh, I’d love to make movies someday. Right. And this was in the 1980s, and at the time when you were watching movies in the 1980s, you rarely saw Asian people on the screen. And if you did, they were perceived one of two ways. One, you were either the bad guy or the henchman that got beaten up by Jackie Chan in a kung fu movie, which just seemed to be the only role for Asians back in the day in Hollywood. You were either getting beaten up by Jackie Chan or Steven Segal or on the other end; you were the butt of all jokes. You were in Police Academy, and you were in 16 Candles, and things like that. You were the one that talked funny.
As someone my age growing up culturally, my parents just never really had a firm understanding of Western society and the cultural zeitgeist. So a lot of it just relied on me trying to figure out things on my own. And a lot of those things that I kind of just measured by watch watching TV and movies and trying to figure out how I was supposed to act. Now, as a result of watching those things, your impression is, oh, I see 16 Candles, I see Police Academy. So I actually thought that my job in life in this country was to be the funny guy. Right. That was my conclusion. And I think just from not seeing myself because I didn’t want to be that guy who had to learn martial arts and fight Jackie Chan just to be in a movie or things like that.
But, you know, I quickly realized that at a very young age, probably nine or ten years old, I immediately realized, oh, that’s never going to be a reality for me. I’m never going to make a movie. No one’s going to give me a chance because I just don’t see myself in these things. Right? And so as I got older and I was really going deeper into my passion for art, then there was the thought of maybe being an animator, maybe telling stories because I was at an age where getting into anime and manga, you know, now it’s popular. You go to Hot Topic, there are anime shirts everywhere, and anybody can just go online and watch entire anime series from Japan.
But back in my day, it was the punk thing to do, where you would go to a comic convention, and there’d be a guy who went and took a trip to Japan and bought all these laser discs and then bootlegged them and recorded them all into VHS tapes, right? And then you would go up there, and you’d pay the guy $35. He’d give you a VHS tape and a manila folder with the script inside because it was never translated into English. And so you would go home, put the VHS tape in, and there was like this whole world that looked completely unlike the animation you see in the United States, where a lot of it was just for kids, and it was just goofy and anvils falling on the head. Meanwhile, Japan was doing a completely different thing, filled with drama and action, and love. And I’d be following along with this with manila script, and you’d just be following along with the episodes, just trying to figure things out. And it was my thing where I would just go to this, I would go to the comic conventions, and then I would just give this creepy old dude $35 to get me a bootleg VHS tape of a movie that I just couldn’t get enough of.
And I had been doing that for years. Just imbibing this entire culture of Japanese anime. Just made me think, well, maybe I could be an animator; maybe I could make movies because then I don’t have to be seen. Like, no one has to see me and see that I’m Asian. I could just make animated features. Around that time when The Lion King came out, all these articles started coming out saying if you can animate on a computer, you can make a lot of money. And I thought, well, that’s my in. That’s the thing that I can do to break into the business. And that was the thing that kind of really kind of eased my parents into the idea that, okay, maybe this is a legitimate kind of living.
And so I remember going into art school and then taking my first computer animation course and absolutely hating it because it took 14 weeks to make 1 minute of film. And the software was so user-unfriendly, you could tell it was made by an engineer. And there were certain things, and I just wanted to make this ball shiny or something. And instead, it gives you this graph and says, well, calculate the ambiance between a measure of one and zero on the sine wave. And you’re just like; I just want to make the ball shiny, right? That’s absolutely infuriating.
And then it wasn’t until going down the hall that there was a children’s book illustration and writing course, which was started by David Shannon, but it was being taught by this lovely instructor. And she just broke down the basics of the children’s publishing industry, how to get into it, the size of picture books 32 pages and word count, and the number of illustrations and just really sold the idea of how friendly the industry was. And for me, I thought, this is what I really want. Because animation, it requires a lot of people to tell a story, and it took me 14 weeks to make 1 minute of film. There has to be a better way to tell stories. And so I fell in love with children’s book illustration and creation because it was 32 pages. You worry about an editor. You worry about the art director, and that and that’s it, right? And it just seemed like a tangible goal.
That, for me, was all I ever wanted. I just wanted to be able to tell stories and have them published. Because I think it’s funny how there are sometimes some people that say, oh, I don’t care if people read my books. And I think that’s being really insincere because you’re not the person. How many times have I heard people say, oh, yeah, I don’t care if I won the calico? And then you find out that they didn’t sleep the whole night before. That means you care. That doesn’t mean you don’t care. Okay? Don’t be too cool to say that you don’t care. All right? Everybody cares. Everyone wants a good review.
It’s been my outlet to tell stories because there is beauty in telling stories to kids because kids aren’t cynical. They’re up for a good story. Whereas when you’re trying to entertain and tame someone who is a little bit older, you’re getting into teenagers, you’re getting into adults. Everyone has a very cynical view of everything, and it takes a lot to impress, or it might be a case where they just don’t believe what you’re trying to sell them. They always feel like they’re being sold something, and there’s something about it that it’s harder to entertain someone when their guard is up. I’m not saying that I don’t enjoy the challenge, but there is something pure about kids where you can tell a story, and they’re open to the idea.
Obviously, beginning my illustration career as a picture book illustrator. I mean, there are definitely things that I love to draw, and they just happen to be dinosaurs and robots and things like that. And I started out my career as, like, the funny guy, and I think that just kind of came from my cultural upbringing. Growing up, I think that’s what kind of led me on my way to this day. If I’m working on my own book and it takes a lot longer, I’ll illustrate other people’s manuscripts simply because I find each one to be a learning experience, just kind of seeing how writers think. You learn a tremendous amount from each experience and each project that you work on.
Bianca Schulze: It feels like you live and breathe art and share stories. And so I want to move on to talk specifically about the book you’re here to talk about, which is a first time for everything. And I have to just say that I loved it. I was laughing out loud. But it’s not your first graphic novel, but it is your first graphic novel memoir, so let me know if I’m mistaken. But the seed for this story was planted by your sons asking you when you first fell in love. Is that right?
Dan Santat: Yeah. So, I mean, to go a little bit further back, I was really touched by Gene Yang’s novel American Born Chinese. That was one of these stories where it just spoke to my soul. And I think one of the big parts that really struck me was he said the thing that made me feel really uncomfortable, and that was the main character woke up one day and he was white. And there was something about him that just was so thrilled to be white because it would just make life a lot easier. And he felt like he would be included just by changing the color of his skin. And I felt that, and I never said that to anybody because I always felt so ashamed of that song. Right.
And so I first met Gene back in 2010 at the Miami Book Festival, and that was when my first graphic novel, Sidekicks, came out. And we were hanging out. We got along really well, and we were sharing our stories about how we got into publishing despite the fact that we both had parents that wanted us to grow up and be engineers and doctors and things like that. And we just related very closely in terms of our experiences. And Gene was the one that initially planted the seed and said, well, you should consider writing a memoir about that experience.
And years went by, and I remember being at an NCTE conference in Boston and sitting in front of a bunch of librarians who asked me that same question about how I got into children’s publishing. And I told him the whole story about, you know, my parents wanted me to be a doctor and things like that. And then I think it was an editor from the Horn Book who emailed my editor at Little Brown, Connie Hsu, who was working there as an editor at the time. And then the seed just kind of got planted. I want to say this was like 2013.
And then the idea was, hey, sounds like people want a memoir about this. Maybe you should consider writing one. And then what ended up happening was Beacon won the Caldicott Medal, and then I did a nine-book series with Dave Pilkey, and then I worked with Mo Willems, and suddenly six years go by, and meanwhile, you’re talking to all your other friends who had talked about doing memoirs before, after you had already said that you were planning on doing a memoir. And you’ve got, like, Jarrett J. Krosoczka, you’ve got Vera Brosgol, you’ve got Shannon Hale, who talked about it years after I expressed the idea, and then here they’ve done multiple ones, and I have my first one coming out. I’m just a late bloomer, but it’s been a fantastic experience. And here I am. Yeah.
So I initially had another idea, and it was going to be a story about this relationship I had with my parents during a period when my mom had breast cancer. And there was a lot of cultural headbutting about how I was being raised and how my parents wanted me to grow up and be raised with the kind of sacrifice this Thai cultural belief system. I was growing up so American, so Westernized, and I remember writing multiple drafts for a number of years, and it was just really painful because I had a lot of headbutting with my parents growing up. And so I remember my editor just saying to me, there are some feelings that need to be sorted out. I don’t know if you’re ready to write this book. Right? And I just kept trying.
And then my oldest son, yeah, he was 13 at the time. And he just came up to me, and I was really touched by this because this is not something I ever would have done with my own father. And he asked me, he said, dad, when was the first time you fell in love? And didn’t even realize it at the time until I spoke to some of the other mothers at the school. But it turned out that their daughters were at an age where they were like, hey, your son is kind of cute, and I’d like to just hang out with them a little bit more. And so that’s where this was coming from.
My son asked me, dad when was the first time you ever fell in love? And I had to stop, and I had to think about it. And that’s where this trip came up. You know, it was this three-week trip, and it was one of these things where it was kind of the stuff of legend, you know, where you would go to the school you go to high school, and all your friends who didn’t go on the trip would say, oh, my gosh, you were on that trip. You did that, and you did this, and they let you get away with that. And it was one of these things that were always just a really solid icebreaker, but I had never originally thought of it as a story.
And so I’m telling my kids a story, and their jaws are just dropped wide open because a lot of things have changed over those years where adults would just kind of let you run free. Just don’t come back until the sun’s down. That’s kind of the way we were raised. And it just blew my kids’ minds because that’s not how kids are these days. That’s not how most parents raise their kids. We want to know where you are at all times. That’s kind of the thing. Now the world’s dangerous. Go out and let me know. Call me every half hour, things like that. I remember telling my editor, Connie, this, and she stopped me, and she says, hey, wait. How come you’ve never told me this story before? And I said, oh, well, because we’re writing this story about my mom having breast cancer. She said, no, this story has everything. It has a beginning, middle, and end. It’s a summer romance. And the best part about it is that you actually lived it. And it took place in Europe. It took place in Paris and all these other places. This is your next book.
And she told me, Just stop what you’re doing right now and write this book. And this book will teach you how to write memoirs. Because I did have a very difficult time breaking up and bending the truth and, in this particular case, working on this story. In this story, I’m here to tell you that everything in the book actually happened, but not necessarily in the order or necessarily the way it was presented, but everything in the book happened, and so everything was a very therapeutic book. It’s the thing that got me through the pandemic. It really kind of disposed of my cynicism. Like, I’m not angry at the world anymore.
There’s just something wonderful about being able to reflect on that really beautiful moment of your childhood, and then also when you’re working on the book, realizing that those feelings that you had when you were 13 are still in there. Like, it was fresh as yesterday. It was just something beautiful about that. And I think the intent of the book was to let my kids know that the world is not as dangerous and as scary as the media and the news set it out to be. And we’re at a point now where I think we’ve all gone through a global pandemic. We’ve gone through just a divided country and things like that. And I feel like the world, social media, and the news is just constantly selling us bad news, right? And I think if people were to actually go out into the world and experience it for themselves, I think the truth is that the world is beautiful, and people are not friendlier than you would expect.
Bianca Schulze: When you said specifically the words that you’re not angry at the world anymore. That sentiment, for me, came across so beautifully in the book because everybody knows that those early teen years and middle school is awkward for kids. Everybody’s trying to just make it through. They can be really unkind to each other, whether it’s intentional or not. And so I love that you had these really awkward moments, and you deliver them with such humor, and then you also get this feeling as you get to the end that you are not angry at the world anymore. And those events while they happened, and you don’t sugarcoat them and be like, it doesn’t matter. They did matter, but they shaped you and who you are, and you’re not going to let them hold you down. And so I loved that element. And so when you say the words, you’re not angry at the world anymore. I just needed you to know that that came across really well.
Dan Santat: I’m not going to name names, but the last six years for us in this country have been a little tough. I’m not going to name names, right? But you kind of get to a point where the term that everyone was saying was doom-scrolling, right? Because they would just go through their Twitter feed and just read bad news, and everyone just kind of got into a rut. They were just looking for horrible things just to kind of confirm in their own minds that the world was just an awful place. And now I think part of the big reason why everybody is so divided in this country is that we’ve just deeply rooted ourselves into this cynical belief that the world is bad and that you paint the other person who disagrees with you as other.
And I’ll give you an example, okay, so I remember having to go to San Antonio, Texas, to go do an event, and oh God, I am guilty. I am guilty of those impressions because you hear all this stuff about Texas, and you’re thinking, oh, gosh, Texas. They don’t really, you know, I think the thing that your impression is, and everyone has an impression of everything initially, everyone’s guilty of it. And so the impression of Texas, whether Texans like it or not, is that they’re anti-abortion, they love their guns, and they’re all about banning books.
And then you go into San Antonio, and you fly in there, and you just have this impression like oh God, San Antonio. I’m just going to get there, and I’m going to do my thing, get my plane, and get out. And then you go there, and you meet the people, and you interact with them, and they’re beautiful people. And the town, the riverwalk, the Alamo, all these little places. Like, when you actually meet these people, and you interact with them, they’re lovely, lovely people. And that’s when I stopped, and I thought to myself, oh, I’m the jerk. I’m guilty of what everybody else is doing. I made an opinion about somebody or something without seeing for myself. And that’s a problem on my part.
It’s interesting because after these tumultuous years of politics, and this is a crazy thing, I’m able to dissociate myself from all the bad news in the world. Not to say that it’s not concerning, not to say that I don’t care, but there is a point in your mental health where you have to stop, and you have to think to yourself, how much can I affect change in this how much do I want to get involved in the drama of this? Because that might be the thing that ruins my entire day. So I kind of got to a point where I just said, the world will be the world, and I’m going to live in it the best that I can, and that is all I can do. I worry about my kids, I worry about my family, I worry about my friends and neighbors around me. But beyond all that, it’s out of my control, and I have to be okay with that.
And if it comes to things that make you angry, I think six years is a long time to be angry at the world, right? And so one of the beauties of exploring the world and seeing how beautiful it is, is that you realize that the thing that you’re inviting on social media and on TV and the media and the news, it’s the fodder that people feed you because they want you coming back for more. They want you to be afraid of the world. Everybody wants to break the bad news, and you fall victim to it, and you believe it.
As I said, I had a paper route when I was a kid, when I was 13 years old. Whether or not that’s a good idea, I don’t know. But when you think about it today, every parent would think that you were out of your mind to let your kid ride a bicycle at six in the morning delivering newspapers, right? That would never happen anymore. Back in the day, it was completely fine. But now it’s just like, no, no, no, don’t let your kid ride the bike alone in this neighborhood. It’s dangerous, you know? And so that’s just kind of how we shifted as a culture. I think we know too much because of the Internet and things like that. I could be totally wrong.
Maybe I’m being naive and have an optimistic outlook on the world, but I will say this: I think we’re coming along to one of the most empathetic and sincerely kind generations of kids. I think we’re doing something right. I think we’re going there is something about going through something awful so that the kids can see the awfulness and want to make a change, right? I think there’s something genuinely a light in the darkness if you will.
But growing up, when you’re a kid, I think other people’s pain tends to be their currency, right? You’re just trying to get through life, and if you don’t feel good about yourself, if you don’t feel great, but you see someone else who’s maybe down in the dumps, from my experience, it was like, well, at least I’m not that person. And if there’s anything that I can take solace in, it’s that I’m not as bad as that person. If I have to, I’ll step on that person’s throat just to make myself feel better. Like, cruelty was kind of a currency, right?
And then when you reflect on it, it was like when you think about the popular kids in school, I don’t think anybody can really explain why those kids were quote unquote cool. I don’t think a lot of those popular kids were even liked. It was just like I think the thing that was appealing was that it looked like they had it together. They were wearing cool clothes. They just knew what to say. They were exuding this confidence. But if you were to say, oh, so and so back in high school, remember the popular kid? And you’re like, yeah, I didn’t really like that guy. That’s kind of the truth about the popular kid. No one likes you. It just seemed like you had everything together.
And that’s the thing. It’s just like the currency because no one has any life experiences. No one knows how to feel. And so for me, growing up in a small town, you have this horrible incident where you have to do a speech in front of the entire junior high, and you end up choking. That was everyone’s currency against me. It was, oh, my gosh, maybe my life isn’t great, but at least I’m not Dan Santat—I didn’t choke in front of the entire school trying to do an A.A. Milne poem.
And as a result, it was like I was everyone’s spoil. Everyone was just like, at least I’m not banned. And I remember for years just harboring this resentment for A.A. Milne, thinking like, oh, man, that poem Spring Morning, that ruined my life. And I remember being nauseous. I would avoid A.A. Milne’s work. And I really had resentment for that poem. Thinking, like, that was the reason for my problems when I realized much later on that I was at the wrong place at the wrong time; anybody could have been thrown on that stage and been utterly destroyed.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah.
Dan Santat: You know? Yeah.
Bianca Schulze: The best thing that you’re saying right now about A. A. Milne is that this entire book starts with quotes at the beginning, and I don’t want to give anything away, but there are more A.A. Milne references. But it starts with a quote that we didn’t know. We were making memories. We were just having fun. So I love everything you just said, and then here we are, and your entire book starts with an A.A. Milne quote. So what do you want listeners to know about the significance of that particular quote?
Dan Santat: So this is funny because when my editor told me to write this story, I remember contacting some author friends of mine, like Raina Telgemeier, because she is a master of memoirs, right? And I remember reading her book drama. And in drama, there’s a particular character in the story that she mentions having affection. And so, in this particular case in this story, there is a girl. Her name was Amy, and she was the first girl I ever kissed, and it was the first time I ever truly fell in love. And I remember asking Raina; I said, my editor told me to write this story, and I’m just wondering if I should tell Amy.
And Raina said, well, obviously, yes, because you don’t want to publish a book and then have her find out the day that it comes out that you wrote a story about her. That would be the worst thing you could do. You have to tell her. And so I remember stopping and thinking, okay, well, how am I going to break this news to her? I don’t want to just go to her and be like, hey, remember that trip to Europe where you and I, we were kind of like boyfriend-girlfriend for a while? I’m writing a book about that, right?
So my subtle way of doing it was I just got everybody into a Facebook group, maybe about, like, six people who I remember from the trip. And I said, hey, guys, remember that crazy trip to Europe that we took? Everybody just started chiming in, like, oh, yeah. Everyone just had wonderful memories of the trip, and I had to say, I’m writing a book about that. And I remember Amy responding with, wait, whoa, really? And then I wrote to her on a separate thread saying, yes, so I don’t want you to feel uneasy about this. This isn’t me harboring old, deep feelings that I’ve been holding for 30 years. This is just a story that I think is a good story. And my editor agrees that this is something that I think a lot of kids would relate to. Right?
And so interviewing all the people that I remember from the trip, asking about their memories and things like that, it turned out like everyone has just beautifully fond memories of the trip, and it turned into, like, this trip down memory lane, and it was like this reunion that we all had. The beautiful part is that all of us, in some way, of our own circles, have told this story to our circle of friends. And so there is something about this experience that I think we were unaware of. It was just I think when people tell memories about their lives, I don’t think they’re aware that they’re telling a story.
The amazing part is that it brought us, I mean, in the process of making this book, you know, there were other events that I worked into the story because they would just reach out to me and say, hey, remember, like, remember this drawing that you drew of a dragon for my father? Like, I I went to my father’s house. He still has it hanging on his wall. And I remember thinking, oh, my gosh, that would be a great addition to the story because I need to have some relatability to your character.
And then I remember talking to my mother, and my mother asking me, like, oh, who’s in the book? And I said, oh, gosh, you know, so and so and so and so this girl Shelley. And my mom was like, Shelley? I remember Shelley. Do you remember that time when she had her period, and she was wearing a white dress? You came to me with her, and she was wearing your sweater. And I thought that was really weird. Why is Shelley wearing your sweater? And you asked her to give us if we could give her a ride home because she had her period and she was wearing a sweater to cover herself up.
And I remember, like, looking at my mom. Mom, what are you talking about? I don’t remember any of this. And my mom just spewed all the details, like, oh, yeah, this happened, and this happened, and this happened. And I was a very proud moment because you were such a gentleman to her. I remember reaching out to Shelley and DM-ing her and saying, okay, Shelley, I wrote the scene in this book that my editor loves and thinks she should be in there. I don’t want it in there without you knowing about it, and I want to know if it’s okay. And her first response was I remember her first response was, oh, God, was I totally mean to you? And I said, no, probably nothing that I didn’t deserve back then, but this is a little bit different.
This is about a time when you had your period, and I lent you my sweater. I don’t remember any of this, but my mother remembers every second of it. And so I don’t know if you remember it, but I wrote this scene, and I want your blessing, and I hope it’s okay. It’s not with any malicious intent. And she read it, and she got back to me, like, ten minutes later, and she said, I love this. This is totally honest and real, and I don’t remember this, but I would not be shocked if my mother, who I hate, sent me to school wearing a white dress while I was on my period. Right? We all have these amazing memories of this trip, and it just turned out that it makes a beautiful story collectively.
Bianca Schulze: I think it’s so funny to read some of the things that you got up to on this trip. And I really love the author’s note in the end, which obviously describes that it was a different era, but I love that you trust that the readers need to read this and can handle reading it, and it’s just done so well. And I’m wondering, is there a specific event that feels like a highlight to you in the book?
Dan Santat: Oh, gosh. Okay. Well, first of all, I want to preface by saying that I could be wrong. Here we are in a generation where I’ll be honest with you, I feel like parents do hover over their kids too much, and if they were to sit back and reflect on what they were like when they were kids, we didn’t have those kinds of restrictions. And guess what? We’re okay, relatively, maybe a little mentally scarred from our parents. But for the most part, I think kids learn a tremendous amount from the mistakes they make in life, right?
So I experienced so many first experiences on this trip that if I were to single one out, I think sneaking into Wimbledon was probably the most surreal thing. Now, in real life, in the book, it happens on the last day, but in real life, it happens on day two of this trip, right? So one of the first cities we went to was London. And I remember how mind-blowing it was because we would be on a bus touring around the city, and then we would have lunch, and then 1:00, 2:00 would come around, and then the tour guide would just say, all right, kids, enjoy the city. We’ll meet at this restaurant at 5:00 or 6:00 p.m.
And I remember all of us just kind of standing back and thinking, like, wait, what do you like? We can do whatever we want. We have the London Underground at our disposal, and we can just run off and do whatever we want. I mean, I think back in the time, we thought, okay, this is pretty awesome because London isn’t that far different from the United States. Everyone speaks English, so if we were to get lost, we could find our way. And I remember just thinking, Wimbledon is going on right now, and I want to go check it out. And everybody else was doing the real civil thing of like, oh, you want to see Big Ben? So and so wants to go see Buckingham Palace and all these other things.
And I was like, and I want to go to Wimbledon. Does anybody want to go to Wimbledon with me? And it was my one friend Darren who said, I’ll go to Wimbledon with you, right? And so we get on the Underground, and what ends up happening? And so this isn’t actually in the book, but we end up passing the Wimbledon stop, and then we end up in an abandoned train yard. Well, we end up in a train yard, right? And for, like, 40 minutes, the train didn’t move anywhere, and we’re just sitting two kids alone in this train yard.
No, we couldn’t find a soul. We’re just walking around trying to figure out how we get out of here and where we go. Do we just walk along the train tracks and get back to the city? And we’re sitting there, and we’re just walking around trying to find someone, and then we finally see a train that was moving, and I don’t know, just like some hobos out of an old black and white movie. We’re, like, running and trying to hop onto it. And we get back, and then we get into the Wimbledon stop, and we go off, right? And we get back, and we’re coming out to Wimbledon. And now my first impression is that if the stop is called Wimbledon, for some reason, it’s going to stop right in front of the tennis club, right?
And so I get off, and this is cute little neighborhood, and I’m thinking to myself, where’s the tennis? I’m starting to panic a little bit, and my friend is just saying, look, listen, this place called Wimbledon. I’m sure the tennis is somewhere around here. If we just walk around, I bet we’ll find it. So we’re just walking. We’re just walking, and it’s raining on and off throughout the day. And then I see this guy, I see this guy gardening in front of his beautiful, quaint little home, and I’m like, excuse me, sir, we’re looking for Wimbledon. And he looks at me like son; you’re in Wimbledon. And I’m like, oh, no, we’re looking for the tennis courts. And he’s like, oh, the tennis court. You go down this road a kilometer, and you make a left. You’ll see it on your left.
And so we walk down, we walk down a kilometer and then over to our left. It’s not Wimbledon. It’s a park with tennis courts. And I’m thinking to myself, why would he think that these two American kids who aren’t even holding tennis rackets would want to come to tennis courts in a park? Tennis, we want to go to Wimbledon. And I see this little kid coming along with his little school outfit in a backpack, and we say, we’re looking for the tennis tournament, right? And he’s like, oh, yeah, just follow the chain link fence. You’re going to come along to this golf course, and it’ll just be down there. You’ll be down there, like, in another kilometer, right?
And so we walk down there, and we get there, and, like, you could just feel the energy. And I remember thinking to myself, like, I didn’t plan any further beyond that. I was just thinking to myself, like, so this is Wimbledon. This is the outside of Wimbledon. Like, this is everything. This is what my hopes and dreams were, right? And then an announcer says, okay, we’re going to be letting people in the next 20 minutes. Get your £3 ready, and you can walk the ground. I’m thinking to myself, oh, my gosh, we can walk into Wimbledon.
Meanwhile, Darren knows nothing about tennis. He cares nothing about tennis, but he’s on this adventure with me, right? And I’m like, we’re going in, and so paid our £3. I’m walking around. I’m walking around the ground, and I’m thinking, well, if there’s a rain delay because it’s been raining on and off all day, and I think if there’s a rain delay, maybe I could go take pictures of Center Court, right? And so I just walk in, and no one stops us. Because I think the idea was, well, if these two kids are here, they must obviously be here with some supervising adult. They can’t just be in here without any supervision. So no one ever paid attention to why we were in there.
And we walked in, and I remember seeing Center Court, and it was just so electric because back in the day, you could only watch Wimbledon on HBO or NBC, and I never thought I’d be on the other side of the planet actually standing in center court, right? This passion for tennis came because, as I said, my father was grooming me to be a doctor someday, and tennis was like one of those doctor’s sports that you just had to play. That was one of those weird things. I was just one of these weird kids who are like, you like tennis. You don’t like basketball and football. You like tennis.
And so here I am in center court with Darren. We just sit down, and I’m just soaking up the energy, right? And then slowly they’re removing the rain tart, and the sideline judges are coming out, and the chair umpire is coming out, and they’re squeezing the grass. They’re drying off the grass, and the stands are starting to slowly fill up. And I’m sitting there, and I’m thinking, oh, my gosh, are they actually going to play? And then Stefan Edberg. Stefan Edberg and John McEnroe come out.
Bianca Schulze: No way.
Dan Santat: And they’re getting ready to play, and I’m like, oh, my gosh, we have to stay here and see them warm up. And they’re warming up, and then this couple, this lovely couple, they come up to us, and they’re like, excuse me, these aren’t your seats. And I’m just like, yeah, no, sorry, we just came in here. We want to take pictures of the center Court, and we didn’t know, but here they’re playing tennis, and we’re just, I don’t know. Are these your seats? Are we sitting in your seat? And they say, no, these aren’t our seats. These are our friend’s seats. But turns out that they had to leave because they had a very important dinner date that they had to go on, but they weren’t expecting, like, a three-and-a-half-hour rain delay.
So because they never turned their tickets into the ticket window—because the way it works is you’re supposed to turn in the tickets, and then they give the tickets to people who are waiting in line to have a seat—he said they never turned in their tickets, so since you’re already here, you might as well just stay and watch the match.
Bianca Schulze: That’s awesome.
Dan Santat: And we were just like, oh, my gosh, this is crazy. So we sat there, we were watching the last set of the 1989 men’s semifinal tennis match, and then it took about 45 minutes, and then by the time it was done, everyone jumped out of their seats. They’re starting to take pictures of this blond-haired woman, and everyone’s taller than us. We’re trying to look, and we’re thinking, it’s Princess Diana. We’re like, oh, my God. Princess Diana’s here. Princess Diana’s here. When 2019 came around, I found out that it wasn’t Princess Diana. It turns out that I actually sat a couple of rows behind John McEnroe’s wife, Tatum O’Neill. He was married to Tatum O’Neill at the time.
So anyway, the tennis match is done. 13 years old. We were supposed to meet at this restaurant at 7:00 p.m. But we didn’t get back to the hotel until 9:00 p.m. And we go back, and I’m talking to the teacher and Mrs. Bjork. I ran to the door and knocked. She opens the door. She has freaked out of her mind because it’s only day two of the trip, and she’s looking at me. She’s like, Where have you been? We’ve been looking for you everywhere. We had no idea where you were. And I’m sitting there wearing, like, this Wimbledon sweatband and wristbands and, like, a bootleg T-shirt. And I’m like; we snuck into Wimbledon when she’s mad. It was the most amazing thing ever. And she looks at me, and she’s like, Wait, what? I’m not even mad. That’s the most amazing story I’ve ever heard. Never let your parents know what happened.
It’s one of those cases where it’s just like it’s out of the movie. I have no business being there, and somehow I’m there. That’s usually, when I talk about this trip, I talk about that experience, but I kind of forget to tell everybody about the rest of the amazing trip.
Bianca Schulze: That’s awesome, though. And it’s one of those examples of when you weren’t doing anything wrong; you were just following your intuition and desires of being at Wimbledon and taking photos.
Dan Santat: Just by being curious. Right. That really is the thing that can lead you to life experiences. Just be curious.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, absolutely. Well, let’s talk about illustrations. This is why I love graphic novels because there are these little nuggets that get planted throughout that require zero words. So for me, just as an example, the era was set as a reader simply by seeing images like the original Smurfs on a TV screen or the 80s fanner can or walkmans and mix tapes. And I loved it with just two lines and some images. I knew instantly that you watched the movie Rain Man on an airplane flight without even mentioning the title of the movie. So is there something specific that you illustrated that makes you particularly happy about in the book?
Dan Santat: Every image in the book actually has some significance from the trip. So, in particular, Rain Man in the story because the trip ends and Amy and I go our separate ways. But in real life, Amy and I flew back together to St. Louis. That was the connecting flight before we went back to La. And so we sat together on the plane, and we watched Rain Man together. And so that was just kind of like a little nod to the memory I had from that movie.
And the whole thing is it’s just interlaced with, like, little details here and there, the moment about when Kelly was sleepwalking. So in that particular case, I actually was at the Tucson Book Festival last year, and she’s now a veterinarian, and she came to the festival so that we could have dinner. And I hadn’t seen her in 33 years. And what was amazing was we were talking to each other, and what was mind-blowing was that we realized that we hardly knew anything about each other. But the three weeks of that trip was just such a tremendous impact on our minds that we almost kind of think of her as like family, right? And that was something really beautiful about the experience.
And so I remember seeing her and then letting her she said, did you, by any chance, bring the manuscript? And I had a PDF of it on my computer, on my iPad, and I said, yeah, here. And she read it. And there’s that scene where she’s sleepwalking, and she’s laughing. And the funny thing was, I asked her, I said, so, do you still sleepwalk? And she said you know what? That was the only time in my life that I’ve ever had any sleepwalking. And she was just like, I don’t know why it happened, but it just happened that day, and now it exists in a book, and it’s like all these little things that I remember; she was expressing how it wasn’t embarrassing to her, but in the story, I kind of make it sound like she was embarrassed.
Another scene in the book that bends the truth a little bit that I think still works is the fondue scene. I remember eating the fondue. I remember talking about the tradition of having to kiss someone next to you if the bread falls into the bread book into the cheese. That was not what led up to the first kiss with Amy. What ended up happening was we were on a bus to Switzerland, and we were sitting together, and I remember politely asking her if I could give her a kiss, and she said yes. And then, by the time I was ready to give her a kiss, we went into a tunnel, and everything went black.
And so I kiss her, and it’s dark. I can’t see anything. And by the time we come out of the tunnel, she’s, like, holding her ear, and she’s looking at me, like, really weird, like, what was that? Right? And then, of course, my friend Brandon on the trip, he looks at me, and he’s just like, did you kiss her on the ear? The whole bus was like, oh, my God. Dan kissed her in the ear, and it was like this really funny, funny moment that we had.
So it’s just this is the thing. I draw all these landmarks like you draw Notre Dame Cathedral, you draw Buckingham Palace, but ultimately you don’t remember the facts. Like, if I stood in front of Notre Dame, I couldn’t tell you anything about the place. Right. But I can tell you the little things. I can tell you the little things that happen on the trip. Those are the things that stay with you, the ones that elicit feelings, the ones that give you emotion. And that’s what I mean about storytellers. It’s not about the places you go. It’s about the experiences you have to go see. You don’t have to see Notre Dame Cathedral to appreciate Paris. Go to Paris, and you’ll have experiences there. Those are the parts that matter.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah.
Dan Santat: All right.
Bianca Schulze: Well, I wanted to speak quickly about one particular character who, probably because I’m a mom, I absolutely loved how you portrayed your mom. This is the humor that you added with your mom, I just freaking loved her. So you mentioned a breast cancer story, and so I hope that she is well as I’m speaking. Good. I’m glad she’s well, and I just love her. So tell me about putting your mom in the book.
Dan Santat: The thing about my mom is that she’s not a very tall woman. She’s four foot eleven, but I feared her. She knew how to put me in place. And I’ll be honest, I reflect on my life. And I was a bit of a hyper kid. Right. So one of the things was that her lupus manifested after I was born. And there was a period where I felt a lot of guilt because I thought I thought that she got lupus because of me. There was a little bit of guilt. And no, they’re not related. It’s a separate genetic thing. But I remember feeling really bad about, gosh, I felt really bad about being born because I felt like I made her sick. Right.
And my mom came from a very large family. She was the oldest of seven, and she had expressed many times that she always wanted four kids, and because of lupus, she could only have me. And so there’s a thing about Asian culture where you kind of feel like you owe your parents a lot because they gave you life. And so there was a part of me that had this duty that felt like I needed to be a doctor. I need to be that perfect son for them because I’m all they have, right? They have one shot at this.
And I think that’s why; overall, I was just a straight-and-narrow kid because my mom went through so much. She had been in the hospital a few times. She had lupus; she had breast cancer and things like that. And I never wanted to complicate her life with anything more than that because she was already going through a tremendous amount. So I would go grocery shopping with her, where at a certain point, maybe kids are like, oh, I don’t want to go grocery shopping with you. It’s boring, right? I was still that kid. I was a mama’s boy. I would go out, and I would do groceries. I would do the yard work. She’d want me to cut a whole ficus tree down with, like, a little handsaw. And I’d be like, okay, Mom, I love you. I would just do all these things just to please her.
But another part about it was I always wanted to make her laugh because that was kind of my way of making sure that she was happy and she was enjoying life. Like, for example, I signed up for Little League soccer. But because sunlight can aggravate her body because of lupus, she would have to watch it from underneath the trees. But the trees were, like, super far out. So whenever she always took me to soccer practice, always watched all my games and stuff like that, but she had to watch it from the inconvenience of, like, from the far other ends of the field because of her condition. And it was like she always made compromises to make sure that I could have the life that I wanted, but it was added an inconvenience to her.
And so my relationship with my mom was always very special because my dad was very much about being a doctor and making money, and so I was home with her all the time, and she took me to karate lessons and soccer practice and baseball and basketball. She guided me through getting ready for college and things like that. And I remember her being really heartbroken about when I went to college because, in a weird way, I’m just left with your dad, and that kind of sucks. Funny thing. And so I was like, I was really my mom’s best friend.
I wanted to tell this story just to honor her because if it wasn’t for her ability to see what I really needed and I think that’s something beautiful about parents, and mothers, in particular, is that I think there’s this bond that you have coming from their womb that they just have, like, this 6th sense of knowing, oh, something else is up. Right? And she knew that I was being raised, and I was growing up in a very white, conservative, rural, Christian town, and I was just one of the handful of Asian kids that just stuck out like a sore thumb.
And she knew life would be a lot different if I lived someplace that had some semblance of a tighter Asian community. You can have an Asian community, but then those are broken up into subsets of Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Filipino, and what have you. But where I’m from, it’s a really rare case to find someone who’s Thai. If you find someone in that time and era, someone from Thailand, the thought is like, how did you end up here? Right?
And so that was another part of my identity that really became conflicted. Because as much as they wanted me to embrace my Asianness, the closest we could do was to go to the Chinese New Year Festival or something like that. And I would hang around other Asian kids that were embracing their Chinese heritage, but like, oh, yeah, Hi. I’m Thai. But I’m hanging out here because you’re also Asian kids. And there was just, like, this disconnect about not being Thai. And there was something that my mom felt like maybe she had let me down because it was something that was quickly given up because there was really no community to really embrace that.
And the other part was I couldn’t speak the language. And that’s always a sensitive thing, especially when you get older, like, oh, gosh, I really regret dropping the ball, not learning Thai, right? And even going through college, learning a foreign language… It was, like, always the hardest thing. And my mom watching me grow up, watching me kind of struggle at times. She knew how important a trip like this would probably be for me now.
I never told her about these awful things that happened in junior high. She never knew about me choking in front of the school. She never knew about me being laughed at by kids or whatever. There was just a part of her that just knew and understood that there was something lacking in terms of who I was. And she knew that getting out of that town and seeing how great the world was would be something that was such an invaluable experience for her. Because before she got sick, my father and my mother went and saw the world. And one of their favorite cities was Salzburg. This trip was coming up, and they looked at the brochure that I hid in my backpack and were like, oh, yeah, we went to Paris. We went to Salzburg. We love all these places. You should check it out. You probably see how beautiful the world is. Like, we see it.
It’s funny because there’s a scene at the beginning of the book where I’m at the airport, I’m wearing my Buddha necklace, and she finds it. She finds it. She’s like, Why are you wearing this? And I said, because I’m embracing my heritage, and she says if you wear it, someone’s going to cut your head off and take it. And I was thinking, like, mom, that’s a little extreme. Like, cut off my head, and there are no qualms. She’s like, take it off. Okay, jeez, you don’t have to yell at me. Right?
What I find adorable about my mom is that she can take things to such extremes. Like back in the day. If you remember, there would be hitchhikers, just, like, thumbing it. And just like sometimes they’d even entice you by holding wads of cash, being like, hey, if you give me a ride, I’ll give you this wad of cash. I remember one time we were entering the freeway in this large Chevrolet station wagon. We were getting on the freeway, probably going like 45, 50 miles an hour. And I remember my mom I remember mom saying, are the doors locked? And I said, yeah. Why? There’s a man hitchhiking, and I’m afraid he might jump into the car and steal a ride. And I’m just like, mom, we’re going 50 miles an hour. They would be completely out of their minds to try to do that. We’re going. And my mom would just take things to such extremes, and I just find it so adorably hysterical.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, well, I found your mom adorably hysterical. It was great. Well, Dan, I could keep asking you a gazillion questions, but I’m going to finish up with one last one, and that is, what impact do you hope this book has on readers?
Dan Santat: The impact I hope that this has on readers is that I hope—a few things I hope that kids see the entire world in different lights. Okay. I know that’s a tall order to ask. I want them to understand that the world is actually a lot lighter than you would think. Harboring your reservations about everything and being curious and willing to experience new things is going to change who you are as a person. And I think by understanding how big and vast the world is, you’re going to realize that no matter how lonely you feel or how out of place you are, there is a place for you in this world.
I think the best way to say it, and I think the best piece of advice or something that I want to leave kids with ultimately, is you will be okay. No matter what happens, you will be okay. Being a man here, 48 years of age, thinking about the painful moments that I experienced. The bizarre part is that despite how painful they were when I was younger, understanding that the world is so vast in the big picture of it, all those painful memories mean nothing because they’re so insignificant compared to the rest of the world.
And the weirdest part of it all, and the thing that I actually love the most, is that by the time you’re done with all this, and you’re done reading the book, you’re going to realize that you’re going to embrace those painful moments. They make you who you are. And the weird part is that as much as it haunted me, I’m now at a place where I realized I would never give it up. I would do it again. And that’s life. And you take it with the ups and downs, but it shapes you as a person, and I think with the help of understanding, you will be okay. This life is beautiful, and it should be lived. It shouldn’t be something that you’re doing over the phone or in your room, but you do it when you’re ready.
Bianca Schulze: Yes. Well, Dan, that was a beautiful response. So thank you so much. And I have to say it. You are a funny guy. But you’re not just a funny guy, right? And I’m so grateful for the contributions that you make to the world of children’s books. And everything that you put out there is just so incredibly done and, as I said, funny. So thank you for being you, thank you for your art, and thank you for being on the show today.
Dan Santat: Thank you. These are lovely questions. This is probably one of my favorite interviews that I’ve ever done. This was amazing. I was allowed to bear my soul. I wasn’t just talking about craft.
About the Book
Publisher’s Book Summary: A middle grade graphic memoir based on bestselling author and Caldecott Medalist Dan Santat’s awkward middle school years and the trip to Europe that changed his life.
Dan’s always been a good kid. The kind of kid who listens to his teachers, helps his mom with grocery shopping, and stays out of trouble. But being a good kid doesn’t stop him from being bullied and feeling like he’s invisible, which is why Dan has low expectations when his parents send him on a class trip to Europe.
At first, he’s right. He’s stuck with the same girls from his middle school who love to make fun of him, and he doesn’t know why his teacher insisted he come on this trip. But as he travels through France, Germany, Switzerland, and England, a series of first experiences begin to change him―first Fanta, first fondue, first time stealing a bike from German punk rockers… and first love.
Funny, heartwarming, and poignant, A First Time for Everything is a feel-good coming-of-age memoir based on New York Times bestselling author and Caldecott Medal winner Dan Santat’s awkward middle school years. It celebrates a time that is universally challenging for many of us, but also life-changing as well.
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- Creating 120+ children’s books and finding time to create more while also being Mr. Mom.
- The job Dan Santat would ‘probably’ have if he weren’t a children’s book author-illustrator.
- A love of reading, writing, and storytelling, and becoming a children’s book creator.
- The books that have made an impact on Dan.
- A discussion on becoming and sticking with creating books for kids.
- The seed of the idea for the graphic novel memoir A First Time for Everything.
- A.A. Milne and making memories.
- The mischievous and fantastic events from a European school trip.
- The impact Dan hopes that A First Time for Everything will have on readers.
Thank you for listening to the Growing Readers Podcast episode: Dan Santat Discusses ‘A First Time for Everything’. For the latest episodes from The Growing Readers Podcast, Follow Now on Spotify. For similar books and articles, you can check out all of our content tagged with Dan Santat, First Crush Books, Graphic Novels, Memoirs, Teenage Love, and Travel.