A podcast interview with Todd Parr
The Children’s Book Review
In this latest episode of The Growing Readers Podcast, Todd Parr shares his journey to becoming an author and illustrator, inspired by his struggles in school and desire to help kids feel better about themselves
Todd’s books have clear messages of inclusivity and kindness, and his new book, The Monster Mac and Cheese Party, adds humor while reinforcing the joys that come from sharing a meal together. This conversation emphasizes the importance of kindness, self-confidence, and creating memories for families through children’s books.
Listen to the Interview
Read the Interview
Bianca Schulze: Well, hello, Todd Parr. Welcome to The Growing Readers podcast.
Todd Parr: Hello. Thanks for inviting me.
Bianca Schulze: Are you in California right now?
Todd Parr: I am. I’m in planet Todd World, which, if you’ve been to Palm Springs, then you know where Todd World is.
Bianca Schulze: Perfect. Well, when I saw that you had a new book coming out and it was called The Monster Mac and Cheese Party, I knew I needed to use it as an excuse to have you on the show today. A huge fan of all of your books. And, of course, we’re mass consumers of mac and cheese in my house with three children, the first question I’m going to ask you is super, super tricky. What’s your favorite kind of mac and cheese?
Todd Parr: I’m not above anything. I will do the box. I will try anything. I have become somewhat of a pickier— I’m not going to waste the calories on seemingly trying to pretend like I really like this. So, I do experiment. I have two of my own favorite ones that I make. One that’s just when you’re having company over, and then the other one is a vegan one. So, I got really creative with that. So, I’m open to everything. I mean, I tried the world’s best macaroni and cheese. It was good, but I’m not convinced.
Bianca Schulze: There you go.
Todd Parr: If you’re a pizza snob. So, I’m becoming a mac and cheese.
Bianca Schulze: I prefer well, we often do the box mac and cheese if my kids are making it themselves. But our favorite right now is this Ina Garten recipe, the Barefoot Contessa. She does this, like, baked one with Gruyere cheese. And I thought maybe my kids would be like, not going to try it because the Gruyere has kind of a stronger taste, but they actually loved it. My son isn’t a fan of the baked breadcrumbs on top, though.
Todd Parr: Oh, I can see that’s not a requirement for me when people ask, aren’t you going to put something on top? I can, but no, it’s not a thing. And I have tried the Barefoot contestants one, and I agree, I do like it. And I just had box mac and cheese the other night, so I’m good.
Bianca Schulze: Okay, awesome. Well, so this is going to be the second most important question of the day. So, you’re the author and illustrator of more than 60 books for children, but you haven’t always created books for kids. You were a flight attendant before becoming a full-time author illustrator. So, I want to know what it was or who was it that inspired you to create your first book, which was the okay book. And I believe that was in 1999.
Todd Parr: Yeah. I don’t even know where to start. I think Snoopy inspired me in second grade. That’s when I really learned that I loved art because I traced Snoopy the black outline. I got so good I could actually draw snoopy art was really one of my only interests all through school. Becoming a flight attendant and flying around the world gave me a lot of self-confidence that I didn’t have. And I kept coming back to this, what do you really love to do? And I really love to draw and paint. And I thought, you know what? I’m just going to do it. I don’t care what anybody says. My art teacher didn’t think I was any good in high school. I said, I don’t care. I’m just going to start doing it.
So, I started putting my artwork on old furniture, canvases, and then I shifted into merchandise product. And then I needed an agent, somebody to represent my art so that it can free up more of my time and also bring in money, which I was struggling to do both being a flight attendant and have money to produce T shirts and different things. And we did the Licensing show in New York one year. I was in the artist section. I had all my original artwork, some product created, like, a mini-Todd Parr pop up, and someone was there said, I saw your artwork from the end of the aisle. I had to come and see what this was, and I love your greeting cards, and have you ever thought about writing a children’s book? I said, no, it never even entered my mind. And she said, I’m an editor, and I think you’re kind of already doing it. And so, it was her idea, and it’s still my same editor today.
So, 20 some years later, she’s the one that suggested it. I think the takeaway from that for me, I always tell kids is, there were so many times that I wanted to give up, and I struggled, and there was so much rejection, and everything that I did, it just wasn’t that easy. The galleries wouldn’t show my art. By not giving up, it led me into something that I wasn’t even thinking about. So, when you’ve lost all hope, try and hold on to some hope, because you can end up in a direction that you weren’t even in. And I’m also good at giving very long answers.
Bianca Schulze: You can give the answers as long as you want. Can we just say thank you to your editor for coming and spotting you down the end of the aisle? Do you want to give her a shout out?
Todd Parr: Yes. I don’t even have words. And when you and are an author, it’s not uncommon for you to have several different publishers, several different editors. And although we’ve had other editors that I’ve worked with, Megan has always overseen my work. And I think the biggest thing with her, she saw something in me that I did not see in myself. So, I’m grateful. But again, she went out of a traditional way of how you look for authors. She just was wandering a Licensing show filled with art and picked me out of it. So, yeah, I’m forever grateful for her, and we’ve become close friends over the years, and I’m really lucky. I’m really fortunate.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, well, we are too. A lot of your books have a common thread, which is things like inclusivity and kindness and a lot of self-love. So, I want to know what motivates you to continue creating books for kids with these themes.
Todd Parr: I think the premise when Megan said, well, what things would you write about? I think when I really thought about it, there weren’t a lot of guidelines, and I thought about my experiences when I was younger that immediately come to mind about, I want to write about things to help other kids feel better about who they are. I struggled so much when I was younger and in school, and I had dyslexia, which wasn’t even diagnosed or such a thing, I think, then. But I had trouble reading. I had to repeat second grade. Kids made fun of me. I was always in all the slower classes. I was shy, I was scared. I had a lot of problems in our home life, and I was lost. I don’t even know how I made it through. And I just remembered that I want to be able to offer strength and hope for kids to feel more positive about who they are and believe in themselves and know that you can talk about your feelings, and you can have someone help you.
So, I always think about that’s. What inspired the okay book and then later became It’s Okay to Be Different, a fuller version of truly what that was, was just about inspiring kids to feel good about yourself while learning about differences, reminding you to be kind in just a very matter of fact way. And that’s maybe one of the reasons that I thought I couldn’t write books is because I don’t have characters, I don’t have stories. I’m just talking about these messages. And in the beginning, people were like, what are these books? There’s no characters. There’s no pastel colors, there’s no bunnies, there’s no what are these? They’re like self-help books for kids. That It’s Okay to Be Different ended in the adult self-help section in Borders, if you remember Borders. No, it’s a picture book, but it just wasn’t yet perceived as a picture book.
Now, of course it is, but I’ve written about so many complicated things for young kids—my age group, four to six, about The Peace Book, taking care of the Earth, The Goodbye Book. All these things are really hard to understand. And I keep their attention because I draw like a six-year-old. They already think they can draw like me. The colors draw them in the bold lines, and there’s humor. But like, with Monster Mac and Cheese, it’s sort of like I wanted to take a break from what is the message? The message in Monster Mac and Cheese is just feel good. It’s just fun and feel good and laugh and, of course, comfort food.
So, it was a big thing for me to do because my editor had said we’ve had a lot of success targeting your books towards specific holidays. We don’t really have a Halloween book. And I’m like, okay, let me think about it. And I was like, I wasn’t feeling the Halloween idea. And I go, but this could come out around Halloween because it’s monsters, and they just happen to be bringing my favorite food, macaroni and cheese. And they loved it. And she’s like, we were expecting a Halloween book, and you did something even better. And so, for me, I’m excited because I feel like it gives the people that read my books a break. Like, okay, Todd, we get about its okay to be different and feelings and everything, and now it’s just, let’s have fun.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that’s what I enjoyed about it.
And on the whole, as a parent who reads your books with their kids and my oldest is 17 now, and when she knew I was interviewing you and she saw the stack of books, she was like, oh, that guy. I loved reading his books when I was a kid. But I think what’s great and I imagine that teachers feel the same way, is sometimes there’s these really sort of nuanced topics and subjects that kids ask you about, and they’ll come out with a point-blank question, and sometimes it’s hard on the spot to come up with an answer. And I feel as though your books a great way to articulate things like what is peace. What is joy? All these great things. What is a grandma? And everybody’s grandmas look different and sound different and do different, but the one thing is that they love their grandkids. I mean, you just have this really simple way of articulating.
I want to go on to just the fact that the simplicity of your text and the illustrations do work so well because they deliver such clear, intangible messages. And I think your artwork is so accessible. Like you said, kids can look at it and feel as though they could draw those pictures too. So, I’m curious to know if I know you said you struggled as a kid, but was making a difference in others’ lives something that you’ve grown into, or do you think that was always there for you, that you did always want to make a difference in others’ lives?
Todd Parr: Yeah, I think it was always there for me because it just came naturally. Like, I write from within. I write from the heart. It’s that simple of how do you want someone to make you feel. Maybe if I had had help in different ways with—maybe if I had something like a book that says, be who you are, maybe that would have registered with me early, to honor, it’s okay to be different. Maybe I would have related, like, oh, I’m different. Because I couldn’t read and I stuttered and I had to repeat second grade, and I felt like I was the only one in the world, and I was the only one that was different, and that wasn’t a good thing. So, I think for me, it was just naturally like, heart to heart, how can you help?
And I think that’s what’s so rewarding about what I get to do, is people say, oh, that’s such a cool job being a children’s author. It is, but it’s not just me writing books and collecting money and making appearances. It’s about knowing that I’m putting work out there in the world because I’ve seen it translated and it’s making a difference. And for me, that’s the real reward. That’s the give back for the good that’s come to me. It’s me extending it to others to try and make a difference in the world.
And in the beginning, everybody and they still say it is like, you were so far ahead of your time because no one was writing about these things like I was, and people didn’t know what to do with it. Or people would say, like, oh, we don’t need that book because my child doesn’t have social emotional issues. And look at the world today—how it’s changed just in 20 years. And look at the impact of social media and content, how kids hear things. And things are happening earlier and earlier, and you’ve got things that are heard at home and things that are heard at school, and it’s like, now people are like, well, we need to talk about these things, instead of, no, we don’t need to talk about it.
And I think it’s just giving kids better tools. They have to weather more. I was bullied in school, but how about being bullied on social media and school? I mean, how traumatic can that be?
And if you can instill a sense of confidence in kids early on and let them know that, like, believe in yourself and it’s okay to be who you are and love yourself and be strong. I think you need to arm them with as much as you can as soon as you can so that they can weather all that’s out there. I mean, it’s hard for me as an adult to weather what’s thrown at me. So, yeah.
I think I worried about will I run out of ideas? The fact is when you figure out your stride that I’m really writing to empower kids to feel good about themselves, I think the ideas are endless about in ways that you can do that. So, I no longer worry about running out of ideas, just speaking from the heart, staying true to who I am. But I do love being able to take a break from the message and do something fun like Monster Mac and Cheese Party.
Bianca Schulze: Even though it is a break, and it is just pure fun. And you could read this any time of year, or you could read it as a Halloween book with that Monster theme. And I mean, what kid isn’t going to connect over mac and cheese? Okay, there might be like a handful, but not very many, but it still has full Todd Par signature style all over it from the artwork. And then you always close out the books with your little sort of almost like a personal letter as the end page. And in that, that’s where I see opportunity to express to children that it’s okay to try new things. The idea sounds like it came directly from your editor, is that correct?
Todd Parr: The idea to do a Halloween book did—and I struggled because I did not know how to do a Halloween book. It just wasn’t coming to me. I have a book called the I’m Not Scared Book, and that was an orange cover sort of built around Halloween-ish, but not specifically Halloween. And I tried, but it wasn’t going anywhere. And what did take off was the idea was planted. You’ve got to do you should do a Halloween book. And I’m like, I don’t want to do a Halloween book, but what else will you do, Todd, if you don’t do a Halloween book? And this is what I offered.
And we encountered this for The Peace Book years ago, I was sitting with my editor in her office in New York, and she said, what about a holiday book? What about a Christmas book? And I thought, yeah, I mean, I celebrate Christmas, but that just doesn’t feel very Todd Par, because not everybody does celebrate Christmas. And even though I love Hanukkah and I’m not Jewish and there are other things, it’s like it just doesn’t feel like a Todd Par book to do a Christmas book yet. It’s too soon.
And then I thought, I never want to exclude anyone in my work, and now I would not do a specific Christmas book. But you need to say, well, if you’re not going to do it, what are you going to do? And I said, how about the peace book? Because it’s sort of in the same thing of celebrating a time of year and peace and embracing differences in what people believe and celebrate. It’s a loose thing, but that’s what I offered. And so, I think this is a good example of if you’re not doing a Halloween book Todd, what are you doing? And this is what happened.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, I love it. And I also noticed that same sort of concept of The Joyful Book, because that’s a beautiful celebration of so many different holidays. And I think I saw Kwanzaa in there. I love that because it’s like I said earlier, there’s a common thread in all of your books, and the first word I believe I said was inclusivity. To just focus on one holiday, you’d definitely be eliminating. So, I just love that you are being true to yourself and also to your readers. It’s what they expect from you. So, I love that.
I know this is a common question that author illustrators Get asked. What came first for you with this particular book, the words, or the pictures?
Todd Parr: I knew it was going to have monsters, and I knew it was going to have macaroni and cheese. It’s one of those things when you say, I’ve got to come up with something, and I’m looking at all the different monsters that I’ve drawn over the years, and I’m like, I really love these monsters and how could they celebrate Halloween? Well, I love Halloween parties. But wait, maybe this could be all about macaroni and cheese, because who doesn’t love macaroni and cheese? And so, for me, it was the premise was it was going to be monsters and it was going to be macaroni and cheese.
Then the hard part comes is the words. For me, that’s always the hardest thing. The art is the easiest. But I learned well, if you’re having a party, you get really excited because you’re waiting for everybody to come. So, it was an easier start for me in this book because I knew they were going to be waiting. And then there was going to be a ding-dong at the door because the first person’s here. And then it just flowed from there. So, I think this was one of the easier books for me. As far as words, that is not a strength of mine. I need a lot of help with my editor. And everybody involved is like, this just isn’t moving like it should. But the art is so they reposition a lot of things and then the words come in. But for me, this one, thinking back in the edits, there wasn’t as many edits because we knew it was going to be ding dong. Then who’s here? And then what? Mac and cheese and ding-dong. So, it was really fun for me to do.
And it’s getting exciting because this is done a year ago. And you’re on to the next thing. I’m already working on another book for next year. And then you’re like, wait, my author copies just showed up. This book is going to be out soon, and I’m really excited about this thing. So, it’s hard to remember a year out, like, how excited you were doing.
Bianca Schulze: This when you’ve created a book at least a year ago. And then somebody asks you on the day that your book is releasing, what’s your favorite spread? Do you get stuck? Or do you know what your favorite spread is in this one?
Todd Parr: I know what it is. And also, it came up in another interview or another podcast, something that had come up as what was your favorite page in this book. And it’s definitely the sea monster because it’s just like, everybody’s like, the sea monster is here. And it’s like, how does a sea monster eat macaroni and cheese? Well, in the bathtub, of course. And it’s the laughter moment of all the monsters. And it’s like, well, duh. A sea monster is in the bathtub eating macaroni and cheese.
And that’s also taken out of It’s Okay to Be Different because there was a page in there—it’s okay to eat macaroni and cheese in the bathtub. And people were like, Todd, what? And I was like, yeah, I just thought this book was getting too serious. So, I thought I better put something in that’s going to throw the reader off and go, what? And then make you laugh.
And then it caught on. And I was hearing from parents that were upset about, why did you do this? Because now my child wants to eat macaroni and cheese in the bathtub, and that’s not okay. And I was like, no, I didn’t mean to start this trend that’s happened. I know this isn’t a thing. I was just using humor. And so, it’s kind of come full circle now that the sea monster is in the bathtub.
Bianca Schulze: Yes, I was going to say that. That is my favorite spread, and totally because of what you just said, because I spotted it in It’s okay to Be Different. And the book nerd in me felt really proud that I had made that connection. So, yes, I love that, and it definitely elicits Chuckles which is always a nice thing in a book when you’re reading with children, to be able to laugh. So, I love that when everybody is done reading The Monster Mac and Cheese Party, what do you hope that they will take away?
Todd Parr: That it was a moment together with somebody that you love? I had many moments with my grandma reading Go Dog. Go! almost nightly. I spent a lot of time with her because of a lot of things in our family. And so, Go Dog was a moment where I had the book memorized, but we still would stop and talk about pages like, why do you like this dog so much? The blue dog. And even though I knew where all the dogs are going, it was like, what do you think that party is that they’re going to in this tree? It’s just the imagining.
And looking back for somebody that doesn’t love to read—the moment I had with my grandma. And I think that’s what I want this book—and that’s why I put in recipes in it—and it’s just a simple, fun book that you can read with someone. I should have put a warning in it. This is an afterthought warning. After you read this book, you will be very hungry for macaroni and cheese, so don’t do it late at night. But it’s like that. I hope that it inspires that after they’ve read the book, it’s like, let’s try one of Tod’s recipes that are in the book and let’s make macaroni and cheese together and eat it. And as a family that they come together. Because I think we all know that families that spend more time together eating are stronger, and I think it’s really important in busy lives to bring everybody together.
So, I’m hoping that it inspires beyond just the fun that it brings families closer together. And they made macaroni and cheese for dinner one night and they read the book and it was a special night.
Bianca Schulze: I love that, especially because my husband and I decided early on that dinner every night was going to be a family ordeal for every night possible. And obviously, sometimes things come up and you can’t all be together. But for the most part, we eat dinner all together as a family of five every night. Because I had read what you said. Is that that’s a statistic that’s proven that families that eat dinner together every night, they have stronger bonds and connections, and the kids typically flourish. So, we committed to that. But there are definitely nights where my husband and I will look at each other and roll out of eyes like, really? Did we really need this family dinner tonight? But I love the idea of everybody making the mac and cheese recipes in the back of this book together and eating it together.
And I sometimes think that children’s books, when you read them as a family together, they almost provide, like, an inside joke with you. So, when you were saying, Go Dog. Go!, that you read that with your grandma—so often when I’m out with my children and one of us is wearing a hat, we’ll look at each other and say, do you like my hat? Which is the classic line throughout Go Dog. Go! And I love the idea that there’s going to be kids wanting to eat mac and cheese in the bathtub, Todd. So any parent that tells you otherwise, that’s wrong, it’s okay to eat mac and cheese in the bathtub.
Todd Parr: It’s like, I’ve had hostile comments about that, and it’s serious, and I get it. But then I’ve seen the creative parent that says, no, we don’t do that. But we made a cardboard box into a pretend bathtub and served macaroni and cheese where the teacher did in the classroom. It was just finding other creative ways to do it. And then, of course, there’s all the parents that, look, they’re eating macaroni and cheese in the bathtub. And we did it. And again, it was not to inspire a trend. However, the Monster mac and cheese party is to inspire a trend. Just have fun and try new things and make food together and eat together and laugh together. So, I will say there is a goal in Monster, and that is have fun. Eat macaroni and cheese.
Bianca Schulze: Yes. Perfect. And if anybody does a book club with younger children, how fun would it be to read this book? And then everybody comes and does a potluck and brings their own style of mac and cheese. I love that idea.
Todd Parr: Yeah. Early on, of course, It’s Okay to Be Different was out. But I did a book signing at somewhere I can’t remember, in Minneapolis, and it was at nighttime, and they had macaroni and cheese for everybody at the bookstore. So, it just was like a no-brainer. It wasn’t a requirement of mine, but it’s like, oh, top hearts coming. Let’s have macaroni and cheese, or I’m going to a school for a visit. Guess what they’ve made in the lunchroom? Macaroni and cheese. And it’s one of those comforting things to build around that adds just, like, security, comfort, love. I mean, food does that anyway. So, food and reading, I mean, you can’t go wrong.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah. Both of those things can bring us together. Well, Todd, if there was one important thing that you would like to leave with our listeners today, what do you want that to be?
Todd Parr: I’ve touched upon so much of it also that I wrote the Kindness book, and I think that we’re all instinctively kind, but we all need reminders, even grown-ups. And I think that there’s so much need for reassurance and people need to know that it’s okay to be who they are and feel good about who they are. I think there’s so many struggles that we deal with in life, and if you don’t have confidence within yourself, I think it just makes it harder. So, it’s like, believe in yourself, be who you are. Be confident and be kind.
Bianca Schulze: I am so grateful to have you on the show today, a huge fan of your books, just because I love that common thread of those messages, the inclusivity, the kindness, like you just said, and self-love. And not just self-love, but the importance of loving others for who they are too. So, thank you very much and I am going to love you and leave you because now I am hungry, and I am going to go and make some mac and cheese.
Todd Parr: Me too. Thank you so much. The end. Love, Todd.
About the Book
Written and Illustrated by Todd Parr
Ages 4+ | 40 Pages
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers | ISBN-13: 9780316376426
Publisher’s Book Summary: Through his signature illustrations that explode with fun and flavor, New York Times bestselling author Todd Parr invites everyone to the funkiest, most unforgettable potluck on the block.
We all know kids love macaroni and cheese. But who knew monsters do too? In this story, the monsters hold a mac and cheese party (no humans allowed) and share all their creepy twists on this favorite food. What do zombies like? Mac and cheese with eyeballs! How do sea monsters eat their mac and cheese? In the bathtub, of course! The party is going fine until the monsters are surprised by the unexpected arrival of HUMANS at their party.
With interactive text that invites kids to join in with their own silly versions (mac and cheese with unicorns, anyone?) and bold, colorful illustrations, this is a wildly fun read-aloud with a positive message about the value of sharing meals with friends and trying new things. Perfect for Halloween storytime and all year round.
Buy the Book
Todd Parr has inspired and empowered millions of children around the world with his bold images and positive messages. He is the bestselling author of more than sixty books, including The Goodbye Book, The Family Book, The I Love You Book, and It’s Okay to be Different. He lives in California.
You can visit Todd Parr at https://www.toddparr.com/.
- Becoming an author and illustrator
- Being discovered by an editor at a licensing show in New York City
- Creating children’s books based on inclusivity and kindness
- How struggling in school with dyslexia and family issues has led to writing books that help kids feel better about themselves
- Creating self-help books for kids with clear messages rather than character-driven stories
- Addressing social-emotional issues with kids is more important now than ever
- Staying true to the idea of empowering kids leads to endless possibilities for future books
- The inspiration behind the picture book, The Monster Mac and Cheese Party, and how it fits into the overall approach of creating inclusive books
- The importance of kindness, self-confidence, and being who you are
Thank you for listening to the Growing Readers Podcast episode: Todd Parr Talks About ‘The Monster Mac and Cheese Party’ and Helping Kids Feel Better About Themselves. 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 Halloween Books, Humorous Books, and Todd Parr.