Author/illustrator Todd Parr is the poster child for perseverance. Growing up in Wyoming, he knew he wanted to be an artist, but he met with rejection at almost every turn. In school, his drawings and paintings were considered childish and simplistic. He even failed his high school art course for not meeting class standards. As a result, for many years he lacked the self-confidence to pursue his dreams. Then, when he finally mustered the resolve to begin painting in earnest, his work was turned down by dozens of galleries.
Yet, in spite of these roadblocks, Parr persisted. He arranged a small showing of his paintings at Wolfgang Puck's San Francisco restaurant Postrio. A buyer for Macy's West saw his canvases and encouraged him to design a line of merchandise for the store. Then, in 1998, Parr's bold, colorful style caught the eye of Little Brown agent Megan Tingley, who approached him to write children's books. The rest, as they say, is publishing history.
Unlike other children's authors, Parr is not a traditional storyteller; yet his books -- with their positive, reassuring messages about acceptance, self-confidence, and diversity -- have become enormously popular. In bestsellers like The Family Book, We Belong Together and It's Okay to Be Different, he encourage preschoolers to be themselves, to express their feelings, and to celebrate what makes each of them unique.
But it is his artwork -- cheerful stick figures rendered in bright, neon colors and outlined boldly in black -- that makes Parr one of the most recognized names in the world of children's literature. The same simplicity of technique that once drew criticism has proved to be his most bankable commodity. His work has been displayed in the windows of FAO Schwartz, his products are sold worldwide, and he has won awards for his books and for his preschool television show ToddWorld. Pretty good for a kid who was thrown out of high school art class!
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Not all of Parr's fans are eight and under -- teens in Japan reportedly swamped the author on his book tour, bringing rice cookers and surfboards for signing.
Before he began his career as a children's author, Parr was a flight attendant for United Airlines.
Parr's first job was working at Taco Time for $1 an hour at age 11. "I was going to own my own someday," he said in an interview with Barnes & Noble.com. "I still love tacos. :)"
Parr gives special credit to his family for their support: "I have a very special family," he told Barnes & Noble.com. "They never really understood me, but encouraged me to go after everything I wanted even when we did not agree. As I now realize -- this takes a lot of love to do."
Parr has no formal art training.
He was flabbergasted when he was approached to write children's books. "I can't even spell," he told us, "so the idea of being an 'author' never entered my mind!" Once he realized this would not be an obstacle, it cleared the way for him to focus on his artwork and the messages behind it.
When asked what kind of advice he would give to kids who want to be artists, here's what Parr told us:
Believe in yourself. Art is art even if no one else likes what you do. If it makes you happy, stay with it. Don't give up. And surround yourself with your work to remind yourself of what makes you feel good.
The message behind my work stemmed somewhat from my childhood because it was not okay for me to be who I was. I did not conform to the "norm" or want to be like everyone else. Things have not changed that much for kids today either; it seems harder for them. So in the process of doing what I'm doing in my work -- enjoying my life and being happy -- if I can help someone, especially kids, learn to believe in themselves, accept others, and learn not to hate, then maybe someone's life will be a little easier and maybe their dreams a little closer to coming true."
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In the summer of 2004, we asked authors featured in Meet the Writers to give us a list of their all-time favorite summer reads, and tell us what makes them just right for the season. Here's what Todd Parr had to recommend:
Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss -- Special memories at my Grandma's house.
Barefoot Contessa Family Style by Ina Garten -- I love to cook and have friends over and eat outdoors; plus, watching her makes you think of summer on the ocean in the Hamptons.
Life Doesn't Frighten Me at All by Maya Angelou -- The mix of art I love and Maya: it makes me feel inspired.
Tyler Florence's Real Kitchen by Tyler Florence -- Because he travels the world for different food.
Pumpkinhead by Eric Rohmann -- A great story about being different -- and his head (a pumpkin) falls in the ocean.
The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou -- The perfect way to have quality time with yourself, in the backyard or on the beach. Something about reading poems in the sun with the smell of the water....
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris -- Another book just fun to read outdoors.
Homecoming: The Art and Life of William H. Johnson by Richard J. Powell -- Inspiring. Plus, I always seem to be more creative in the summer.
How to Live with a Neurotic Dog by Stephen Baker -- Because I have one -- year round.
Dog is My Co-Pilot by the Editors of Bark magazine -- I love anything about animals.
Todd Parr answered some of our questions about his work and inspirations in 2002.
What was the book that most influenced your life, and why?
Green Eggs and Ham, because I was fascinated with: Did such a thing really exist? Which inspired me to make up a lot of my own crazy things. I really think this book taught me a lot about, "Things can be any way you want them to be." Oh, and the fact that my grandma always read this book to me.
What are your favorite books, and why?Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss
Are You My Mother by Philip D. Eastman
Go, Dog, Go! by Philip D. Eastman
Hop on Pop by Dr. Seuss
Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss (Can you see a trend here?)
All of these because I believed that everything in these books was possible and they empowered me to think. I loved the way things rhymed and repeated. I still look back at these today and think about how they made me feel. I can remember the bed I was in and the PJs I was wearing.
Favorite films?Benny and Joon
My Dog Skip
Favorite music?Sarah McLachlan
If you had a book club, what would it be reading, and why?Walter the Farting Dog by William Kotzwinkle and Glenn Murray
Amos: The Story of an Old Dog and His Couch by Howie Schneider (He drives his couch all over town)
Go, Dog, Go! by Philip D. Eastman
I would read all dog books in my book club, and we would read to dogs that need a home. :)
Who are your favorite writers, and what makes their writing special?
Dr. Seuss. I really admire him for being way ahead of his time -- and presenting something so simple but yet so unique. He really went down his own path in the world of writing for kids.
What other facts about you can you share, in terms of likes and dislikes, etc?
My favorite color is blue.
My favorite food is macaroni and cheese.
I like to take baths.
I like to rub my dog, Bully's, tummy. He likes macaroni and cheese too.
I like the fog.
I love the ocean.
I love sea lions.
I like to help people feel good about themselves.
I eat pizza almost every Friday night.
I like to paint.
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