Parr in the Park

Children's author and illustrator reminds us It's Okay To Be Different

Children's author Todd Parr has a way with words. Sometimes they come in the form of useful, timely do's and don'ts, like "Do wear underwear when you go trick-or-treating. Don't wear it over your costume." Sometimes it's just what a person needs to hear on an off day, like "No matter how your hair looks, always feel good about yourself."

And sometimes, they're words that are achingly sweet, and so simple you wonder how you didn't think of them yourself, as in his most recent book, Love the World: "Remember, you can always find something to love about everyone and everything. Love yourself and love the world."

In honor of the 20th anniversary of the library's LGBT Services Committee, Parr—a New York Times bestselling author who has crafted dozens of children's books—will be coming to town to share some of his wisdom with Tucson residents.

The committee hosts LGBT author talks annually—they've brought in Chaz Bono, Alison Bechdel and Dan Savage in the past—and as they met to figure out who to invite this year, they realized they'd never had a children's author.

The committee has, however, been hosting Rainbow Storytime three times a year, where kids and families can hear library staffers read books with LGBT themes, as well as family, friendship, being yourself and—of course—rainbows. Parr's books are favorites for the tri-annual event, because they're simple, colorful and all about acceptance. Toby Wehner, a library associate and member of the LGBT Services Committee, said the other Rainbow Storytime books pale in comparison to Parr's.

"We never received a single negative response to Rainbow Storytime," he said.

When someone suggested bringing Parr in for the series, Wehner, who is known among his colleagues for being a huge fan of the author, was ecstatic. He's already planning which book he wants to have Parr sign.

Although Parr's drawings of happily families and encouragements to "be yourself" might seem inarguably wholesome and sweet, Wehner explained that Parr is no stranger to controversy. His 2003 The Family Book describes different kinds of families. Some are big and some are small. Some are quiet and some are loud, and so on.

But one line: "Some families have two moms or two dads" saw the book banned in an Illinois school district. Parr said he didn't go into the book with an agenda—unless you count inclusivity as an agenda. He wanted kids with two moms or two dads to feel just as included as kids with step parents, or kids who live with their extended families.

"How do you write a book about family and purposely exclude somebody when you're writing about inclusivity?" he said.

His inclusivity is far-reaching: he receives messages and notes on his Facebook page all the time from grateful parents of kids with autism, spina bifida, dyslexia or even one mom whose son was born without a right hand. They're all thanking Parr for teaching kids that it's okay to be different.

Parr said most of his inspiration comes from his experiences as a kid. He was dyslexic, and was bullied when he had to repeat the second grade because he couldn't read. Today, he wants to help build a culture of acceptance and kindness for kids.

"People were just desperate to find something that was simple and fun and inclusive," he said. "I'm making a difference. I get to do something fun, and I can help."

Heather Severson, a library program instructor, has been a Todd Parr fan ever since she worked at a bookstore back in college. By the time she had kids, Parr's books were in the "read over and over again" pile, along with classics like Goodnight Moon.

When her two sons were still young, Severson and her husband divorced, and then she fell ill and was hospitalized for a period. The kids were having trouble coping, and acting out as a result. So Severson picked up a pack of Parr's Feelings Flash Cards at Antigone Books, and used them to teach her sons about feelings, one of the most complicated and confusing parts of being human. Her sons used to leave the cards on her pillow at night to show her how they were feeling.

"The fact that it had a label, or a name, meant that other people knew about it and it was acceptable to feel this way," Severson said. "It was really helpful. It really helped me."

Characteristically, Wehner feels the same way about Parr's books.

"He's simplifying all these big, big feelings," he said. "He's just such a good writer in that way."

Parr said that in 20 years of writing books, his message—and its relevance—hasn't changed. In the midst of bad news, bad attitudes and bad hair days, he offers a little bit of hope.

"Maybe you can compete with some of the negativity with simple, subtle positive things," he said. "You just want to make people feel good and have everybody treated with respect."

Todd Parr in the Park will be from 2 to 4 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 28 at the Himmel Park Amphitheater, 1000 N. Tucson Blvd. He'll be giving a talk, and there will be bubbles, crafts and a raffle to win Todd Parr books and plushies. See the Pima County Public Library website for more information.

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