I have always felt like a kid anyway - I have a firm grip on my inner child. I still remember reading in a self help book, long ago, that it's never too late to have a happy childhood, and I have taken that to heart. As a teacher and a father of 4, I have spent a lot of my time in the company of toddlers, grade schoolers, teenagers, and now millennials. I have learned a lot from all of them.
Being an illustrator and cartoonist taught me how to see the world but being a teacher of both my children and those of others has taught me how to listen. A valuable skill for men - I highly recommend it.
Kids speak about what they know, and if you listen carefully it becomes apparent that they know a bunch. Concepts mostly: how people are - really. What is going on around them and why people do the things that they do. I think people have to learn dishonesty, so the younger kids are the less conditioning they have in that dubious skill and the more blunt honesty they express.
I remember standing in the checkout at the grocery store with my 6 year old son, Luke. An older man was in front of us in line and he had an obvious disability - a prosthetic right forearm. Not one of the modern ones that are hardly noticeable but the double steel prong type that protrude from the sleeve. I used my time trying not to look at his handicap but not Lucas. He walked up and touched the man's shirt and said, "Hey mister, are you a pirate?"
I was a bit horrified and quickly formed an apology in my mind for the breach in social etiquette that my son had committed but it was not needed. The old guy turned and looked at Luke and without missing a beat held his hook up and said, "Aye, that be right, lad. Could you tell by my nice shiny hook?" My son just smiled and nodded and the man continued, "I left my parrot home today. He usually rides right up here." And he jabbed a thumb up toward his shoulder.
Luke looked up at me and said, "Cool." The gentleman and I exchanged looks and his was pure delight. Sometimes kids know exactly what to say to break the ice.
Talk about the awkward situation that's right in front of you, that's how to diffuse it. This is one of the many simple truths I have learned by interaction with kids. Didn't we learn anything from "The Emperor's New Clothes?"
When I decided to write and illustrate my first children's book, I dipped into those simple truths to tell a story with action, adventure, fun and a bit of deeper meaning. Why is it that differences are so often the cause of derision and fear? What's so scary about different color skin, unusual clothes, or accents? Nothing, inherently. My family and I live in rural Maine, and I remember the first time my daughter, Katie, saw a girl with brown skin in daycare. She ran up to me and said, "Daddy, look at that girl's pretty skin. She looks like chocolate!" I suggested she go tell that girl what she thought, and she did. Katie was very impressed and lamented later that night how she wished she had pretty skin like that. She wasn't afraid or put off by the girl's differences - no more so than my son had been by his pirate. They were curious and impressed. They liked different.
I think that is, mostly, the natural response of young children to differences between people. But children take all of their cues from adults. Not just from what we tell them, either, they watch us intently. They take their cues from what we do - how we act and react to things. That is a very large responsibility.
So I decided to write a book about a little penguin who was different than the rest; who had to deal with some discrimination and a little bullying because of his differences. I put him on a journey of self discovery where he had to decide if there really was something 'wrong' with him because he was different or if he just needed to use his differences to find his place in the world, which he does. He even makes friends with the bully in the end.
So how did I imagine this concept? I just listened to the wisdom of children and let my observations guide me. I am certain that every young person who reads or is read this book will already know the basic truth of it; that different isn't a bad thing. Different can be a very good thing, and sometimes it can be wonderful.