LTS Podcast Ep. 11: A Conversation with Children’s Book Author Jarrett Lerner

Jonathan Jones: [00:00:00] Good morning and welcome to the now 11th episode of DEMDACO's Lift the Spirit podcast. This is Jonathan Jones with my co host Aaron Heim. And we have a very special guest today. Actually a good friend of Aaron's. We have children's book author Jarrett Lerner. He's joining us from Boston this morning where they are experiencing that, that nor'easter that's gonna dump a bunch of snow on them, so he's all cozied up in his office. I just finished Jarrett's book, A Work in Progress, which is just an amazing, amazing, difficult book to read, really, because it just is a, a 14 year old boy's journal. of what it's like to experience life at that age and navigate the difficulties and challenges of, of kids who just are not kind to their, their fellow classmates and kids that are struggling with different things. We'll talk about A Work In Progress, but really we're gonna talk about really all of [00:01:00] Jarrett's work and reading and children's books. So welcome Jarrett, thank you for joining us.

Jarrett Lerner: Thank you so much for having me, I'm excited to be here.

Jonathan Jones: Aaron, I'm going to turn it over to you.

Aaron Heim: Jarrett, I am thrilled to get to talk to you again, my friend. Jarrett and I met online, I believe, back in 2017 or 2018, when he was part of a program called Kids Need Mentors, and Jarrett's going to talk about that a little bit today and then we officially got to meet, it was funny, Jonathan and I were talking this morning about where we actually met in person, and for some reason, Hutchison, not Hesston, Kansas, popped into my brain and I was showing him pictures of that house we got to go to for that reception. Remember the house? Oh yeah. And Jonathan kind of looks at me with this shocked look on his face and Well,

Jonathan Jones: I grew up in Hutchinson, Kansas for the most part from fourth grade through high school. Town of about 45, 000, but I'm always shocked that it's now [00:02:00] been multiple dozens of times where people have some connection. To Hutchinson, and then Aaron said, well it wasn't Hutchinson, it was Heston, Kansas. Which is even smaller, but I have delivered auto parts to an auto parts store in Heston, Kansas. So, that's, that's amazing that here we are in Kansas City, Aaron's from Wisconsin, you're from Boston, and Heston, Kansas was the connection.

Jarrett Lerner: Yeah. Small world.

Aaron Heim: , I'm thrilled you're here, my friend. It's been a long time. I have been a fan of yours for a long time and just the work that you've been doing, not only writing but dadding three girls as well, which I'm surprised you still have brown hair. I, mine went away a long time ago. But I'm looking forward to the conversation today and I just want to start by talking through we're going to start with you. Tell us about yourself. Tell us about your background, what you're what you're willing to share and, and who is Jarrett [00:03:00] Lerner?

Jarrett Lerner: Yeah, so I am just. I'm just a regular guy. I think I'm a dad, first and foremost, when I wake up and, and go to bed at night, and then when I've got time, when I can, when I can put the kids down, and I'm not changing diapers as it is with the ages they are I love to read, and I'm lucky that in fourth grade, I got turned into a reader by an incredible teacher, And soon after, I discovered all the amazing things that reading could give me. I got fascinated and excited by the challenge of crafting my own stories. But it really wasn't until I was an adult that I understood that I could actually do this thing as a job. That I could write and draw, create stories, and have a career in it. So Yeah. I feel like the luckiest person in the world. I get to do the thing I love most every day as a job. It's incredibly difficult. [00:04:00] But it's great. And when I'm not writing, when I'm not reading, I love all sorts of things. When my knees will allow me to, I love to skateboard. I love to cook and to eat. If you're familiar with my work, you know that Somehow or another, food ends up in just about every story, every book, every plot. And so, yeah, it's another big part of my life, but yeah, that's, that's me.

Jonathan Jones: How many kids do you have, jarrett?

Jarrett Lerner: I've got three kids. I've got three daughters. Okay, wow. It's wonderful. It's a noisy, chaotic house, but I thrive on it. And I know our podcast listeners can't see me, but I'm in a office right now and it's actually accessible from three sides by my children. So even when I'm working, there is often like, you know, a tornado of a game of kids blowing in and ripping through. And, yeah, [00:05:00] somehow I kind of, I kind of like the chaoticness of it. I think I'll miss it when it's less chaotic or even when I just want the quiet, I usually start freaking out a bit and, and wishing there was some shouting and yelling and running.

Jonathan Jones: I can't remember where I first read this term, but it's been a while, but someone was describing the same thing, but to, there was a music to the chaos and they described it as chaortic. So there was,

Jarrett Lerner: yeah, that's, that's how I feel it is. Yeah, I'm into it. And you know, or maybe I just have to be into it cause it is my life and I've grown to accept it, but either one, it's it's a good thing. I wake up excited about you know, the, the, the craziness of the day ahead of me. They keep me on my toes and keep every day exciting.

Aaron Heim: Yeah. I curious, I, I, you and I have talked a little bit about our author journeys in the past, but for you I was wondering when you had that, [00:06:00] that moment where the first thought of I'm going to try to get a, I'm going to research the children's book industry, I don't know how to break into it, I'm going to buy the books, I'm going to do the stuff, but when was that moment and what was that story? Because, again, I believe if Oh, what's, don't hit the table. Let's, I hit, so I hit the table . I I thought you said AI could fix that, Jonathan. Well, I can, but Yeah. . All right. I'll keep it off the keep my hands off the table. But what was the, what was the story? What was the moment where you thought, you know what, I'm gonna pursue this. I, I, I think I can do this. I know Ninja Nerds, I believe was the first book out of the gate, which I am a proud owner of, of the series. But talk to me about talk to us about the kind of that moment. 'cause I remember my moment. I'm, I'm curious about yours.

Jarrett Lerner: Well, I know you said at the top that we're going to talk about some of my work outside of books, and I, it, it, it all sort of relates, but the moment for me came in college towards the end of my college career I was studying English and doing as much creative writing as I [00:07:00] could taking all the electives and even though It was the thing I loved most. I still didn't quite understand or believe that I could really have a career in it. And it honestly wasn't until a couple of my professors They kind of assumed in, in, they had conversations with me towards the end of my time in college and they sort of assumed that I was going to try to be an author. They, because, you know, they had me in their classes, they knew what I was passionate about. They thought I was good and that maybe even more important than the fact that maybe I had some natural talent. I, I, I had the dedication. I think that persistence and resilience. You know, what sets the people apart in publishing from the people who don't make it is not the, not the natural talent. It's the persistence and resilience and, and, and maybe insanity of, of going for a yes, even when you get [00:08:00] a thousand no's. But they knew I had that. And I honestly don't think if they hadn't seen it in me and encouraged me and sort of, questioned why I wouldn't try to do it knowing me, I don't think I would have done it of my own volition. And then I was incredibly lucky, I think to find my way towards children's literature. I think I spent a long time writing the sorts of stories and, and books and doing the sort of work that I thought I was supposed to do as this graduate of you know, semi prestigious, Literature program in college, and it took me a long time to realize that children's literature was the right place for me. It is the most exciting and the most challenging and the most fulfilling sort of storytelling I think you can do. There, there's nothing like it. It's, it's the best. It took me a while to get there though, [00:09:00] and figure out that that's what I was, that's where I was supposed to be. And then honestly my wife if my wife hadn't been didn't believe in me more than I believed in me, I probably would have been one of those people who gave up before I got that first book deal or, or got an agent. So yeah, honestly, my moment was because I had a good, supportive, encouraging community around me. And it's still the thing that sustains me and keeps me going often when I'm struggling.

Jonathan Jones: Jer, what were you doing for work during this time? I'm curious about that. And when and when did you find time to write?

Jarrett Lerner: So I have never struggled to find a time to write. I have always been good about not being too precious about my routine. You know now as a working children's author who travels around and does school visits, often the most the most work I get done is in hotel rooms [00:10:00] or on planes. If I didn't make the most of whatever time I had to work I wouldn't have a career or it would be a much slower. Paced career with much fewer books out. So I was always, you know, whether it was five minutes or five hours, I would sit down and do it as much as I could. Not worrying about if I was in the right place with the right tools, with the right beverage and the right environment and the right music and all that stuff, I would just was desperate to do it. And then in terms of jobs I had a whole bunch of stuff. I worked at a restaurant for a while and then I found my way towards being a publications manager and editor at an academic lab at the college I went to. And that was sort of like academic publishing. So it was like book adjacent. There, it didn't really have anything to do with the skills because it taught me how to write some good emails. Yeah. It helped me learn how to write professional emails.

Jonathan Jones: [00:11:00] You know, it's interesting you said fourth grade is when you started reading. That's, I, I grew up in a house full of books. My mom especially was a reader . So my question in particular is talk about the importance of reading and more significantly the importance of parents, grandparents, caregivers, reading to children.

Jarrett Lerner: Yeah, I mean Reading. I think that every person, no matter what their job, no matter what their career, no matter what their life is like deserves to be given the tools and resources to, to become a reader and that everyone should be a reader. The things that books can bring to your life, whether you choose to read fiction or nonfiction or whatever, it doesn't matter what. But the act of reading and, and, and having a [00:12:00] life where books are a part of it, it improves and enriches things so dramatically. And it also, I think, just goes a long way towards making people better to each other to themselves, to their families, to the world at large. Increasing empathy You know, increasing access to information. There's a reason why when you know, go governments want to overstep and do bad things they so often limit access to books. . But I believe that everyone should be made a reader. And I think that the younger you can introduce kids to books and reading, and the the sooner you can sort of make that part of the fabric of their life. The better, the more they're going to be unable to live without it. The importance of modeling reading. So parents having a book that they read on their own, showing their kids that they read, and reading with them, and sort of providing kids the [00:13:00] scaffolding of this is what reading looks like. This is how stories work. Whether or not you realize it, when you're reading kids picture books and, and books at bedtime. There's a whole host of amazing things you're doing, but one of the things you're doing is you're just teaching them how books and stories and narratives work, and stories are really all we have as people. It's how we communicate. All we've done since we've started talking for the past half an hour is trade stories. That's how we make sense of each other and ourselves and the world, so it's, it's wildly important to give kids that. You are setting kids up for a. More fulfilling, rich and life, life that's full of more possibility if you arm them with, with access and the ability to find the books that are gonna, you know, do for them whatever they need and whatever they want,

Jonathan Jones: You know, I think one of the things you said just a little bit ago as you found yourself as a children's book author, and it reminded me [00:14:00] of how important important, the work that you and other and Aaron and other children's book authors do to have great books for kids. Because if there aren't great books for kids, then they're not going to become readers. So you, you and all the other children's authors really are at kind of the headwaters of another generation of readers and, and it's, it's just incredibly important work.

Jarrett Lerner: Yeah, that's you know, that goes back to why, how I feel so lucky I found children's literature. It's the most fulfilling and rewarding. And I think some of the most important work if kids are the most important people on the planet, you know, we got to raise them well and give them everything and give them the right worlds, turning them Yeah. Yeah. Into readers and giving them the sorts of books that are going to make them read and turn them into readers. That's an essential Part of the process of setting them up for you know a [00:15:00] better brighter future

Aaron Heim: Yeah, one of the things I talk to kids about when I present is the importance of Staying creative as you get older. Because we all are creative, kids have the most creative minds on the planet. There's a, there's a quote attributed to Pablo Picasso that says, The creative adult is the child who survived. And I love that quote. But books are oftentimes their first introduction to creativity. And it's the pictures they see, it's the rhythm and the cadence of what their parents are reading to them. You talked a little bit about you mentioned, I don't know if you posted this or someone else posted this, but it was about the modeling. Did you, were you the, the author friend on Instagram I'm friends with that posted the cartoon that had two park benches next to each other and there's a mom and a child on their tablets and in the bench next to them there's a mom and a child both reading their own individual books .And the mom on the tablet looks over at the mom reading the book and says, how do you get your kid to read? [00:16:00] And it's that, that modeling behavior, like, well, you're sitting there on your iPad with your kid. Of course they're going to be on their iPad. So. I think the modeling piece of it is a, is a huge, huge I'm, I'm glad you brought that up because I, I believe a lot in that as well. Question I have on the, on the kid front as well, so I know how I was inspired by my kids and what my kids taught me about writing for kids. My first two books were inspired by something my first daughter said and something my second daughter did. And for anybody wondering, my second book is called No Tooting at Tea. So that will tell you about the thing that my second daughter did. Talk to me a little bit about what having, because again, you had this, this dream before you had kids of writing books for kids. Talk about what having children, what having daughters has taught you about writing for kids.

Jarrett Lerner: Oh, man. So much. I mean, every day I one of the first things I do and one of the [00:17:00] last things I do and punctuating every hour of my day pretty much is you know, I'm having experiences that are reminding me of how kids work. How their brains work so often differently from ours often so much more creatively and interestingly and excitingly and also the things they want and the things they need. So I think my books have gotten better and, and better because I have such a now not just cerebral, but visceral. Connection to these individuals and knowing the sorts of books that are going to benefit them individually and on a deeper level than the kids I meet at a school visit for, you know, an hour at a time. It's just made me a more thoughtful and I think ambitious and capable creator. For instance, I've got a, I've got [00:18:00] a series called Giger the Robot, about a robot who goes to school and doesn't know anything about school. There's tons of books about kids going to school for the first time, but even when they you know, or kindergartners or preschoolers, and they come with some understanding of what's going to happen. They're prepared by their teachers. But I really liked this idea of taking a robot who like literally has no programming to know what goes on in school. And he has to figure all this stuff out about being a classmate and a student and a member of community and a friend. And someone who's responsible and kind and all that stuff. But a lot of that came from me thinking about my own kids going to school for the first times. And witnessing what they were nervous about. And what they struggled with. And what they liked the most. So, yeah. My kids and, you know. That's a more, like, abstract, philosophical way. Then on a smaller [00:19:00] level I just have these guinea pigs. So I will often read them my stuff, or try out jokes, or show them drawings. And get real time reactions. The other day, the other day, I was working on a new book cover. I illustrate too. So I was drawing a new book cover concept. And it was due that day and I wake up early, so I had finished it up and my, my oldest daughter woke up, she's six now. And she came downstairs and came into my little studio, and she said, what are you doing, and I said, oh, I'm working on this book cover, I'm about to turn it in check it out, let me know what you think, and she looks at it, and she just pauses for a few seconds, and she goes, Do you have any others? Like is this, like, is there an option B? Because option A is not doing it for me. Yeah,

Aaron Heim: none taken. None taken. So, yeah.

Jarrett Lerner: For better or worse, I've got an immediate audience in house. That's awesome. That's a beautiful [00:20:00] thing.

Jonathan Jones: So Jared, Aaron has mentioned to me about a mentoring program that you're a part of called Kids Need Mentors. And this is, I believe, across the country. Can you tell us more about that?

Jarrett Lerner: Yeah. So, We've been on hiatus. A lot of stuff. There's three of us. Who run this program. And some stuff that happened. In our, in our lives meant we had to go on hiatus, but we're hoping to kick it back into gear soon. It's actually beyond the country, because we've been able to connect virtually with schools internationally too. And creators who are international. But basically the idea was myself and two fifth grade educators who became friends. We were one time just discussing how incredible author visits can be. I never had an author visit as a kid. And I think if I had had one back in fourth grade, fifth grade, when I was discovering my love of reading and writing, it would have [00:21:00] changed my life. It would have helped me believe from then on that I could have done this thing instead of waiting, you know, another 20 years. And We started talking about some other projects we had seen of authors writing letters and being pen pals with classrooms for a whole year. And we just sort of said, what if we could connect authors and illustrators with a single classroom for a year long partnership? Maybe instead of doing one visit, maybe they do two or three. Maybe every month they send a note explaining sort of what they're doing in their careers. Maybe they pop in and help them with a writing project. Maybe they do whatever. What was especially amazing about it was that every pairing, an author and a classroom or a library, they were able to make it their own based on the time and energy they had to give and their own ideas. So we had some authors, you [00:22:00] know, who were more involved than others, but Regardless of how much time they were able to spend, these connections turned these authors into friends and mentors for these kids, where now they can go to a bookstore and see those books on a shelf and say, yeah, that's my friend Mr. Hine probably on a first name basis after the end of the year. But Aaron was One of our star mentors just going above and beyond to make these kids feel like you know, something I always say about my school visits. I always say that I don't want the kids to be left impressed by what I can do, but impressed by what they can do. And this program just brought reading and bookmaking to kids in a way that it was so accessible. And so exciting. I, I certainly think it's responsible for a lot of [00:23:00] kids saying I can do that. I want to do that. And I know how to do that, which is what stopped me from believing I could do it for years and years and years. But yeah, one of the most rewarding things I've been a part of.

Jonathan Jones: What's interesting, the power of our author visits and I'll just to demonstrate that. So yeah. Aaron has written a lot of books and and we have like lunch and learns here at the office and we had Aaron and a friend of his read one of Aaron's most recently published books that has a holiday theme to it on the third floor of our building here the best attended lunch and learn we had all year. I'm not kidding. I'm not kidding and people brought copies of the book for these are adults Some of them are grandparents brought books for Aaron to sign. So I think just the power of reading, seeing the author, which I, you know, it, it, it makes the, the book I think that much more significant. And I think you're right with [00:24:00] kids to, it's like, oh, this is the person who created this world that I love to be a part of. That's so, I think it's great.

Aaron Heim: It was an incredible program. I, I do hope you reengage with it. I, I know just the fulfillment I got out of it. Being able to work with teachers, and I did, I did a whole year of a challenge where at the end of the, end of the year they ended up writing and illustrating their own book. Oh wow. So it was kind of a multi step process over the course of the, of the six or eight months we were involved, but, and then I went into the school and each kid got to read their book out loud to the class. That's great. Oh my gosh. And the thing I told them was, go home and give this to your parents and tell them to save this because this is, this is your first book. Yeah. You can tell people you wrote your first book. And, and I'm just one story of a group of mentors who, and you know, it was an incredible program and I think it's important, especially for schools that can't necessarily don't have the funds to fund an author visit, because. That's, you want to, yeah, [00:25:00] and I know that's a component of it as well Jarrett, that you and I have talked about a little bit.

Jarrett Lerner: Children's, the children's literature world is, is a really wonderful place, you know, talking about lifting, lifting the spirit I I would say that 99 percent of the people in the children's literature world that I have met their, their primary goal with all of their work is To improve and enrich the lives of kids.

Jonathan Jones: I thought it was not to sell I thought it was to get rich Isn't that what it was? Yes, right.

Aaron Heim: You're in the wrong game for that.

Jarrett Lerner: It's not to sell their own book. It's not to promote themselves. It's not to stroke their ego. It's They know that their books are a tool To get the kids to go reach for the next book and the next book and the next book. It's not about celebrating and glorifying your own personal work. It's about the kids. And that that program and [00:26:00] everyone who joined it really put that belief into practice and proved that to me. Because, you know, they weren't you know, they were selling some books, I'm sure, through the program, but that was not anyone's primary purpose. It was to have a really rich and meaningful, fulfilling impact on a group of kids lives. And so many of the mentors reached out to me and said, I got more out of this than the kids. I love this program more than the kids do. Yeah, it's a beautiful thing. Thanks to the people who took part.

Aaron Heim: Jerrett, you've written a lot of books that, that kids love, that other authors love, that I love. Arguably though, your most personal book you've ever written is A Work In Progress. When I met you in person in June of 19 at Nerd Camp Kansas which is, you know, S four years before this book comes out, you were in the thick of writing it and you were gracious enough to tell me a little bit about it, and you said it's, it's tentatively titled A Work in Progress and it's about [00:27:00] this subject, which I, I kept close to the, close to the vest on that one. And I had been looking forward to it, coming out for a long time. And when it finally got announced, I was excited to read it. Talk, talk a little bit about the book, the story behind it, its inception. And what it represents for you, and what it now represents for your readers. It's a lot, I know.

Jarrett Lerner: Yeah, yeah, no, thank you. It's it's amazing to me that that long ago, I mean, publishing is slow, but I think this book was especially, it took a very long time. This fictionalization of my own experiences the hardest experiences of my life. Being bullied and body shamed developing disordered eating and an eating disorder and body dysmorphia. And it was stuff that I didn't ever think I would talk about publicly. I, for a while, I didn't ever think I would talk about it at all with anyone. It took me a very long time. But I always privately was writing about [00:28:00] it in some form or another, almost like exercising it. And I never intended to share it. And it wasn't until I was an adult already married that I started opening up to my wife about it and really started getting healthier. I was unhealthy, I feel like, for a very long time and battling these things and dealing with them on a daily basis. And only once I got healthy and sort of got a grip on all this stuff was the, did the writing that I was compelled to do about it actually feel productive and worthwhile and shareable. And I shared some with my wife. And she insisted I share it with my agent, who insisted I share it with my editor, who insisted she let me publish it. Every step of the way, and then for the two or three years it took to actually write it from the time that I sold it. And was fraught with you know periods in which I [00:29:00] didn't think I could do it. It was the most difficult thing I've done, I think, in my life probably seeing it to completion in this way that feels very, I did it the best job I could do and I told it right and authentically and true and in a way that I think will benefit readers and not accidentally cause harm. . So to me the book re represents me overcoming all of these difficulties with it and grappling with it and facing all of these difficult things. And to my readers. I think the best thing I, I've heard and the most rewarding thing I think I've heard, heard about the book. Might be from this librarian in Washington who read an early copy of the book. And said for years now, Jarrett Lerner has been giving readers the books that they want. And with A Work In Progress, he is now giving them a book that they need. [00:30:00] And I hope that's true, but she said it better than I could. This book, it's allowed me to connect with kids and readers in a more personal and vulnerable and intimate, and I hope useful and helpful way. I've been fortunate now to be all over the country in front of kids and adults and I think one of the most powerful things that I can do for kids. It's just get up on stage and for 45 minutes be incredible, incredibly vulnerable. You know, a successful grown man getting up on stage and being utterly vulnerable. I hope encourages them to be more empathetic with people around them and also to, you know, when they feel comfortable and cared for, be vulnerable to If I could go back and change one thing about my life, it would be that I would have opened up about this stuff sooner. And if my book does one thing, I hope it encourages people to share and [00:31:00] talk with people who they feel they can. So they don't let, you know, stuff that we all have something we're dealing with. But I hope that No Kid lets it really linger on into adulthood in a way that is you know, very destructive and hindering.

Jonathan Jones: Can I share my fresh thoughts? I just finished it yesterday. So I got the book a couple weeks ago and I'd read the 1st 30 pages, but I wanted to have it done before today's recording. And I finished it in one sitting yesterday. And for those who aren't familiar with the book, and I'm assuming you drew the illustrations. Is that correct? Yes. Amazing. And it's did I, am I right that it's a 14 year when you were 14?

Jarrett Lerner: Yeah. Seventh grader, 13, 14 years old. Yeah.

Jonathan Jones: And, and you are immediately immersed in what is, it looks like a thick hardback book, [00:32:00] but it's really the journal of a 13 and 14 year old boy. And I think the term that I would use is it gutted me. In, in all the ways that a good book should. And, I, I lost myself in your story. And, while I, I did not experience what you did at that age. The. The emotions that you were going through were visceral. And, you know, thinking back to times in my life when I was the one who was maybe making fun of or shaming and just the incredible struggle that kids have at that age. I mean, I, I, I think To me, this, I know this is a [00:33:00] children's literature book, but I think every adult, especially every parent, needs to read this book. I gave it to my wife last night, and you know, we have grandkids, and I said this is, this is an amazing book, and she's a reader. So, you, you captured, I think, something that is rare in, in the family. The fact that it's your story, I can't imagine How difficult it was for you to write that and relive that so yeah, I'm Kind of in awe of your ability to do that so thank thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you for writing this book.

Jarrett Lerner: Yeah Yeah, thank you That means a lot and It is interesting after, after I finished the book and it went to print and my editor and art director were like, stop sending us [00:34:00] edits they're not going in the book, it's printing. I was doing it down to the wire. My mother in law was at our house like a couple days later, and she said, Was that so cathartic to get all that out and to be done? And it was not. It was not cathartic. It was just horrible. But, the first batch of school visits I did for this book was out in Chicago. And after my first presentation it was with fourth graders. And a girl came up to me and just said, thank you and hugged me and then and then sort of hurried off. And I was like, well, that was, that was worth it. Everything was worth it. The catharsis came right then. Something wonderful. I have not met a single group of kids who has not been willing and even eager. To dig in and discuss this stuff. This generation of kids is so much more [00:35:00] comfortable talking about difficult things and sharing their feelings and emotions. It's really been one of the most hope giving experiences I've had to witness kids reactions to this. I feel like if I had been their age and a grown up had come to my school, You know, my generation would have treated them much worse and would have been scoffing at it or even, you know, much worse. And these kids, no matter where I go in the country, no matter what age they are, they're so much more open to it. It's been, it's been a beautiful, beautiful thing.

Jonathan Jones: That's great. I don't want to give you anything away from the book, but can you talk a little bit about Marcus and why everyone needs to have a Marcus in their life or to be a Marcus?

Jarrett Lerner: Yeah. Thank you. Yeah, Marcus is sort of an embodiment of my best friend. And who I'm lucky to have in my life. And [00:36:00] the way that I talk about Marcus with kids is I say, you know, he's someone who likes himself and is comfortable with himself and therefore doesn't need to put other people down. The bully in the book, who's just there sort of for a moment. But bullies are just people who typically don't feel great about themselves and so they make themselves feel momentarily better by putting other people down. Marcus doesn't need to do that. And he's someone who goes above and beyond by, i, I describe it as he, he tells Will, the, the narrator who's struggling in the book all sorts of positive stories about himself. I said earlier that all we really have is stories. And who we are as people, I think especially when we're kids it's made up of our identity is made up of the stories other people tell us. Will is someone who is constantly hearing stories in which he is cast as sort of negative. And Marcus [00:37:00] finally gives him a story of himself in which he's seen as positive. He's interesting. He's curious. He's cool. He's different in a good way. And all of that stuff is what Will needs to begin seeing himself differently. So as a kid. If you've got parents, neighbors, grandparents, aunts and uncles and coaches and friends who are constantly telling you how great and fun and funny and responsible and kind and caring and smart you are, the more you hear that, the more often, the more likely you're going to look at yourself in the mirror and believe it and tell yourself those stories. So Marcus is someone. Who is constantly giving other people positive stories of themselves, lifting them up. He's not afraid to say, you know, I love you, man. You're awesome. Like you're great at that. You know, and I have found, and I tell kids this too, that [00:38:00] having a Marcus is amazing and essential. I hope everyone has one or many. But I have found as an adult, being someone else's Marcus is even more rewarding. Being that sort of person for friends and for kids has been the most rewarding thing for me, I think. But, I'm grateful you picked that part out of it. Because he's, he's a very important part of the whole, the whole thing.

Jonathan Jones: It's interesting, Aaron and I always have these comments where we go, Okay, this is not going to be in the podcast, and it usually ends up being in the podcast. One of the things that I've been intentional about is the, especially the, the male friends in, in my life. I mean, actually telling them, I love you. Yeah. And, and that matters. It really does. So it's. It's this will not be in the podcast, but I remember one time our oldest son's 31 [00:39:00] now and I remember one time he was about three or four. I was reading the newspaper, so this is how old this is and he was playing on the floor. And so I, you know, new dad and we had two at the time we had our first, our first two were 15 months apart. And so I just folded the paper down and looked at him, and just started riffing, saying, Benjamin, man, you're so smart, and look at how you can build, I don't even know what, so I went on for about 30 seconds, just affirmation after affirmation. And this, this ended up being a seminal moment for me, and I, and he was just beaming. And so I put the paper back up, I was reading, and there was about a five second pause, and I hear, daddy? Can you talk about me again?

Jarrett Lerner: Oh, man. That's beautiful. Yeah. How great is that?

Jonathan Jones: Yeah, I know. That's not going to be in the podcast.

Aaron Heim: Well, something else that's not going to be in the podcast is I think you need to do a [00:40:00] little novella or something called Everybody Needs a Marcus.

Jonathan Jones: Absolutely. I was already thinking about that story.

Jarrett Lerner: I feel like often it's the, it's the difficult things that often make you who you are and often give you those traits or at least get those things out of you that are maybe lurking beneath the surface that would otherwise maybe lay dormant. So yeah, it's tricky saying you know, I think about it to, to sort of flip, flip it, thinking about your kids, like, of course, you don't want your kids to struggle and get difficulties and to fail, but also I know that the difficulties in the failure are, we're going to make them you know, stronger people. So it's like, of course, I don't want them to you know, on the playground you know, have trouble and. Have kids say they don't want to play with them, but you know, that, that breaks my heart. You know, those are the sorts of problems we're often dealing with it in this house with these, with these age kids, but helping them figure out how [00:41:00] to handle that and deal with that is making them more capable and better equipped humans. It's tricky. Yeah. It's a weird, it's a weird thing to, to, to think. If you would want all your same struggles and difficulties because you like where you landed,

Aaron Heim: We're so appreciative you agreed to talk to us here today, my friend, and I want to talk a little bit about I, I firmly believe it's every author's job to advocate for literacy and a child's access to books. You touched on it a little bit. Can you talk a little bit more about the work you're doing with advocacy to just get books to, to, you know, places that don't necessarily have the resources or just kind of in general. Talk about your advocacy a little bit if you could.

Jarrett Lerner: Yeah so learning certain facts about about reading and, and book ownership and the, the lack of access really motivated me to use my platform and resources for good. So. [00:42:00] There's all sorts of research that says kids are more likely to be readers and to identify as readers if they've got books, if they have access to them lots of different ones you know, hopefully more than they can even hope to read a whole library or a house full of books, and hopefully they have books that they can call their own if they have their own personal books, they're more likely to identify as readers. And self identification as a reader often leads, usually, to more reading. But there are so called book deserts throughout our country. Places where kids just do not have access to books. This could be for, you know, socio economic reasons. It could be underfunding of libraries. It could be a lack of bookstores in the area or You know, libraries shutting down or just more rural parts of the country, but these can be in rural or urban parts of the countries. They're, they're all over and I am someone who [00:43:00] loves books and I love acquiring books and I often get sent books by publishers and I just started thinking about this and knowing that lots of my friends did too, you know, we, we talk about going to a little free library and, and, and restocking it or going to a school visit with a bunch of books to give away. And I said, maybe if we all work together and sort of organized a little bit more, we could send both money and just actual books. To organizations and places where they could be distributed in a more thoughtful, beneficial way. Yeah, so I see my work as being a children's author. Not just providing the content through my books, but also advocating for kids and helping where I can. Especially in relation to books and reading. And if I want every kid to be a reader if, Giant chunks of our [00:44:00] country and pockets of our country kids are unable to become readers because they don't have books. Maybe there's something that can be done there. So yeah, that's, that's what inspired a lot of it. A lot of it is just giving away books or helping other people organize where to send their books. Not too long ago, a school burned down. And we decided to sort of like get a bunch of people to send what they could. I also create t shirts and raise money for different organizations. Yeah.

Jonathan Jones: Is there a website that people can go to? And also, I want to know where people can buy a A Work In Progress and we can put these links in the show notes.

Jarrett Lerner: So if you ever want any of my books signed and, or personalized and doodled in, I always try to doodle in them. You can order from my local independent bookstore, the Silver Unicorn Bookstore in Acton, Massachusetts. It's down the road from me. I'm there, pretty much every other day, whether they like it or not. And [00:45:00] my kids treat it like they're like their living room. But it's an awesome place full of awesome people. And I sign every single book of mine that is purchased through there, and they ship, they ship. That's great.

Jonathan Jones: So Jarrett, we all have days where the clouds kind of roll in a little heavier than usual. things can begin to pile up on us. What do you do during those times to try to climb up from underneath that and get a little bit more sunshine as it were?

Jarrett Lerner: Yeah. So I actually years ago, a couple of years ago now, in the middle of the pandemic, when it seemed like the clouds had rolled in and just like, you know, squatted and weren't going anywhere. I made a list of all the things that were capable of cheering me up and lifting my mood. And I refer to it sometimes and just will grab one at random and try to use it. But I do a lot of things for me, it's often [00:46:00] I get stuck in my head and I turn inward. And forget entirely to look outward. So for me, a lot of times it's talking to someone, the simple act of talking to someone to get out of my head. Another big one for me is music. Music I find can often like within seconds alter my mood. And often just doing activities that I don't do as much that I like being outside helps taking deep breaths help All sorts of stuff movement communication and just changing my scenery whether it's with music or literally leaving my house and Looking at something different can usually shake me up a bit and change Change my, my attitude or perspective.

Aaron Heim: Well, Jarrett, it's that time. I've gave you a heads up about this part of it here, [00:47:00] but as a fellow author and a friend, and speaking of vulnerability, right? I was wondering if you so one of the things I think there's a misconception about authors and illustrators out in the world, that everything we write or draw becomes a book, right? Mm hmm. I like to say, you know, I remember when I had four books out and people would ask me how many stories, how many books do I have? And I would say, I have four that are published and a hundred that aren't. Yes. And I think all writers have an archive of things that they've written that weren't right or they got you to the thing that ended up getting published. You had to write that to get to the next thing, if you will. I'm curious if you, and I will do it if you do it if, and if you would like me to go first, I'm happy to do it, but if you would be willing to read an unpublished manuscript. That you sent out and never really landed anywhere and you're confident probably won't land anywhere at the risk of it not becoming a book in the future or it becoming a book in the future. If you're, [00:48:00] are you comfortable with that, my friend?

Jarrett Lerner: Yes. Okay. I've got it here.

Jonathan Jones: I'm ready.

Aaron Heim: This is great. All right. This is, this is breaking news. Yeah. Everyone. Yeah.

Jarrett Lerner: So this is a book. Yeah. Do you want me to go for it? Yeah,

Aaron Heim: go for it. Yes.

Jarrett Lerner: Yeah. So this is a book. And I'm really I'm really being cruel to myself because this is a book I wrote. I don't even know how many years ago. I had to have my agent dig it up. It was something I showed her and we just sent to one editor and it was a friend, an editor who I was friendly with and she was just basically like, no. And I was like, okay, no, yeah, you're right. And it's especially crazy for me to read it because we have a rhyming master on the phone on the, on the call, and this was me attempting to rhyme and yeah, so this was a nonfiction picture book about what happens after you flush the toilet to the water. It was called Flush, Gush, Then [00:49:00] What?

Aaron Heim: Flush, flush, gush, then what? Right?

Jarrett Lerner: Flush, Gush, Then What?? I love it. And it was you're basically taken on a tour of a of what happens to your water after you flush the toilet. And, and your tour guide is, is a, is a little fish that gets flushed down the toilet. So you guys ready? I'm ready. And there's visuals. So there's, there's illustration notes I won't read, but you can imagine it and I'm sure it's going to paint a beautiful picture. All right. So, hello there, I'm Gabe, a pink tuxedo guppy. I'm here to discuss something you might find yucky, but it's not, I insist, I swear it and promise. Turn the page and see for yourself if I'm honest, whoops, I'm sorry. That may have been a bit much. You turn the page and see a toilet. I meant to warn you not to read this at lunch. But don't go now. You can't leave just yet. Our brave pooper just flushed la toilette. [00:50:00] Woosh goes the water and down swirls the poo. Where does it go? Most folks don't have a clue. But that's just plain silly. They're all missing out. So join me. Dive in. Come see what it's about. From the bowl your poo rushes down into some pipes. Where it joins other liquids of all different types. There's the water that drains from your shower and sink, plus what you pour down there, all the drinks you don't drink. Then it's into the sewers, under your street, beneath buses, cars, and moving feet. Deep in these tunnels, which are less than pristine, you'll find a catcher, basically a big screen. It stops the stuff people shouldn't have flush. Paper towels and toys and old hairbrush. This can cause clogs of the nastiest odor, worst of all, they must be cleaned by a worker. Oh man, that's a horrible rhyme. Now it gets exciting. This is my favorite part. The water goes to a plant. The fun can finally start. All of these structures are like one [00:51:00] machine, working together to turn sewage clean. Our first stop's the grit chamber. This is the spot where sand and stones settle. Gravity helps them drop. All this material is carted away and used to build something brand new someday. Next up it's the tanks for primary treatment. Here all your poo dives on down to the deep end. But what to do now with the sludge at the bottom? For years this was the most serious problem. Not anymore! We solved this conundrum. The answer, air. Who said it was humdrum? The oxygen in it attracts bacteria and they gobble the poo. It's a poo cafeteria. Once they're done eating, these feeders are wasted, leaving water safe enough to be tasted. So back into the world it pours into oceans, rivers, and homes, even yours. And what about all that's back in the tank, the poo drained of water, so dry and rank? There's one last round of bacterial feasting, and after this process, you're left with two things. The first is methane, a gas with no odors motor's [00:52:00] second fertilizer into the ground it goes. We're planting it up and then grow and grow. Remember way back when I called our pooper brave? Well now you can say, I know why, Gabe. It's because once you flush, you're not done with your poo. It goes on a journey, then comes back to you. In fruits and in veggies and the water you drink, which it's best not to consider while using the sink. Alright. Yeah.

Aaron Heim: . When did you, when did you write that? When did you write that?

Jarrett Lerner: Oh man, it's probably like, back when I first published something, it's probably like 7 years old or something like that now.

Jonathan Jones: You should revisit that.

Jarrett Lerner: Yeah. I don't know. I don't know.

Aaron Heim: Well, it's, it's, it's, it strikes me a little bit personally, my, my first job out of college I was in the marketing department for a, an industrial coatings company that made coatings for wastewater tanks. So I can't tell you how many wastewater treatment plants I had to tour. And that kind of thing. So it, [00:53:00] it, it, it, it hit me in the memories. Yeah. Very nicely done.

Jarrett Lerner: It's a fascinating, it's a fascinating process.

Jonathan Jones: Well, the great thing about that is that a children's book makes that accessible rather than you're, you're not watching some scientific documentary and it's a big, and it's questions kids have.

Jarrett Lerner: Yeah, I was hoping to get into the into some non fiction, some creative non fiction. And that was my first, that was my first stab at it. I think you

Jonathan Jones: should, I think you should go back and, and

Jarrett Lerner: maybe,

Jonathan Jones: maybe rethink some of those rhymes. But yeah, I got to

Jarrett Lerner: work on that.

Aaron Heim: I appreciate you sharing. That was great. I wrote this actually, I wrote this probably back in 2009 or 2010. And I forget, when I, when I printed this off, cause it's, it's one, this is very near and dear to my heart. It's one of the first things I, oh, am I too loud? Oh, I'm tapping again on the, I'm sorry. This story is tapping the table again. The story is pretty near and dear to my heart. It's one of the, one of the first stories I [00:54:00] finished. It's very easy to start a story. It's really hard to finish one. And I had forgotten, my wife reminded me of this, do you remember back in the day, Jarrett, Cheerios did a contest called Spoonfuls of Stories,

Jarrett Lerner: , I don't know, it sounds familiar.

Aaron Heim: So you would submit a story to Cheerios and General Mills, and they would pick a winner and two runner ups, two runners up, however you say that, and the winner would get their book published by Simon Schuster, and the paperback version would get stuffed into millions of boxes at Cheerios. Across the country. Oh my gosh. And I submitted it to it and I forgot, my wife told me this, this was before I had an agent, before I had really figured fully how to kind of pursue it, it won one of the runner up prizes. So I got a check for like a thousand bucks and I'm like, oh my gosh, I'm a published author, this is wonderful.

Jonathan Jones: At least you got a check and not like 500 boxes of Cheerios.

Aaron Heim: Yeah, that's true. So Yeah. [00:55:00] So this story it doesn't have any illustration notes It, it is It's called What Becomes of Cookie Crumbs. Okay, are we ready? For this one. Yeah. Alright, so this goes, When little Clara Callahan was three or maybe four, She asked her mother something she had never asked before. What becomes of cookie crumbs that fall upon the floor? Do cookie crumbs just disappear, or is there something more? Her mother answered, well my dear, that really does depend. Whoever finds them first can do whatever they intend. But mommy, Clara answered, I'm not sure I understand. Then walk with me, her mother said, and took her daughter's hand. When ants discover cookie crumbs, they load them on their backs. Her mother whispered, crumbs make most delicious autumn snacks. When mice discover cookie crumbs, they carry them away. Her mother pointed, crumbs help feed their babies for the day. When dogs discover cookie crumbs, they stop and lick them up. Her mother giggled, crumbs taste quite delicious to a pup. When I discover cookie crumbs, I sweep them with my broom. Her mother beamed, you know I like a neat [00:56:00] and tidy room. My dear, her mother asked, what made you wonder such a thing? Oh nothing, oh nothing, Clara answered. I was only wondering. Her mother said, you certainly are curious and bright. I'm sure this talk of cookie crumbs has whet your appetite. Her mother held the cookie jar and said, now take just one and clean up all those messy cookie crumbs when you get done. Oh thank you, mother, Clara cheered and made her cookie choice. You're welcome, said her mother in a soft and gentle voice. As Clara ate her macaroon, the crumbs began to fall. She held her hand below the crumbly bits and caught them all. When finished, she walked over to the kitchen's garbage bin, but something made her stop herself before she tossed them in. She thought of what her mother said of dogs and ants and mice. On second thought, she thought a little nibble might be nice. With that, she turned and sprinkled all the crumbs upon the floor, then hid her mother's wooden broom and smiled and closed the door.

Jarrett Lerner: Oh, that's great. So that's great. I understand why it, why it was a winner.

Aaron Heim: Oh, well. Thank, I, I read it, you know, you always [00:57:00] read those things that led to the things, and it's, you, you're like, oh, I shouldn't have read that line out loud. But I think you're, you're right. Stand on the stage and be a vulnerable adult. And kids. You're modeling that behavior like it's okay.

Jarrett Lerner: These are 100%.

Jonathan Jones: Yeah, this has been great, Jared. And we're kind of coming up on time. Actually, we're past time. You've been very generous. One final question before we end, though. What is a question that you've never been asked, but you'd like to answer?

Jarrett Lerner: Oh, my gosh. You know, I, I work with K through eight mostly, but a lot of times schools will ask me if the pre K kids can come. And I always say yes, cause I have pre K kids. And I think because of that, I have been asked every single question in the world. The other day I got asked how many wobbly teeth I had. So, yeah, I am asked a lot of stuff, but you know I, I [00:58:00] mentioned at the top that I love food and I write about food and I rarely get asked about food, but one of the most interesting, I, I once went to a book reading by an adult author and I got called on. Not because I was raising my hand, they just were passing around a microphone, and I didn't know what to ask, and I panicked, and I said, would you have for breakfast? And it actually led to a fascinating discussion about, like, this guy's routines, and it was, he was, like, getting very psychological, like, you know, I always eat the same thing, but I'm on the road, and I ate this other, and it really, and it was, like, So I kind of wish someone just said would you have for breakfast today? So

Jonathan Jones: what did you like? Yeah, what did you have for breakfast great introduction? Yeah, what did you have for breakfast?

Jarrett Lerner: I had I am a child and I love peanut butter like more than anything And so I made myself a little peanut butter and banana Sandwich this morning. I Have that many mornings It's my [00:59:00] favorite comfort food.

Aaron Heim: That's you and Elvis, you know, butter, banana sandwich, you and Elvis Presley. I think that was one of his favorites.

Jonathan Jones: Yes, it was. Jarrett, how many books have you written? I want to make sure we mentioned that.

Jarrett Lerner: Well, that it's, that's Aaron just said I've published whatever, but I've written hundreds in order to get those ones published. I think I have 16 out right now.

Jonathan Jones: Okay. Wow. 16. And again, we'll have your information and people want to follow you on instagram and different things. We'll have that in the show notes. Thank you, Jared. It's really been a privilege for me to get to know you and Aaron. Thank you for I remember it's been a couple months ago. You said, Hey, I've got this idea of a great, great guest. And you know what we're trying to do here on this podcast is just look for Amazing stories, amazing people, and, and this, this has captured it. I just thank you for the work that you're doing. Oh, thanks. Yeah, so this, this episode of DEMDACO's Lift the Spirit podcast, we've been [01:00:00] privileged to be joined by Jarrett Lerner, children's book author, friend of Aaron Heim. Aaron, again, thank you for setting this up.

Aaron Heim: My pleasure. Gave me a chance to hang out with a friend and reconnect with a friend. Yes, and

Jonathan Jones: thank you all, all for listening. Have a great rest of your day or week.

Aaron Heim: This podcast has been sponsored by Marcus. Marcus. Get more Marcus in your life.