Zibby: I'm thrilled today to be introducing Susan Verde. Susan is a yoga and mindfulness teacher and describes herself in this order as author, yogi, and mom. A native of Greenwich Village in New York City, she now lives in East Hampton with her three children and their dog. Welcome, Susan.
Susan: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Zibby: For listeners who aren’t familiar with your many children's books, can you share what some of them are about?
Susan: They cover a whole range of topics. They have kind of the same underlying messages. They range from books about exploring [indiscernible] or exploration to yoga to friendship and [indiscernible] and music. They cover a whole range. They all connect in that they're really about kids finding their voice and celebrating their own experience.
Zibby: How and why did you start writing children's books? When did that happen?
Susan: I've been writing forever. I wrote a lot of poetry as I was growing up. My parents always had me reading and had books everywhere. Books were a big part of my life. I was an elementary school teacher for many years and an avid collector of picture books. That started way before I had kids. Then of course I had the excuse to have them when I had my children. Really, they were for me. I started writing picture books once I had my kids. I had taken a step back from being in the classroom. I was fortunate enough to be able to stay home with them. As I was reading and as I was observing and as I was participating, there were a lot of things that I felt could be covered, a lot of experiences that I wanted to capture. I just was writing. Ultimately, I was lucky enough to be published.
Zibby: How did that happen? I feel like everyone has a children's book or two in them, and yet nothing ever seems to happen.
Susan: I was very fortunate. I had this stack of dust that I had written. I have a very dear friend who’s a picture book writer, Emma Walton Hamilton. She had a workshop or a conference every summer out in South Hampton where I lived. I approached her one day. I was like, “What am I going to do with all this stuff?” She said, “Come take my workshop. Maybe you'll be inspired. Maybe you'll learn something.” I went to her particular workshop. It definitely inspired me, but it was the following year when Peter Reynolds was teaching at the conference -- I was such a huge fan. I wanted to take his workshop. If fact, Emma had asked me to be his assistant because I'd been there the year before. I was the worst assistant ever.
Zibby: I'm sure that’s not true.
Susan: I showed up late. I left early. I don't think I got him a piece of paper. He was the same. He would show up late and hurry out. It was nice. We were kindred spirits. One of the perks was being able to show him my work. As he was going through the stack, he came upon The Museum, which was our first book together. He literally said, “Well, this is a book, and I’ll be very sad if someone else illustrates it.” I was like, “What?” We spent the next six months creating a dummy. He did sketches. I worked on the story. We met occasionally in New York City. We sent it out to his agent. Two weeks later, she had sold it to Abrams. That's how it began. Abrams then asked that we continue our partnership, which was funny because I already had a couple of things that I'd written that, after that, he also wanted to illustrate. We had this great package to share. His agent signed me. I was with her for a while and then ultimately moved to another agency. That's how it began. It was really that wonderful, serendipitous experience.
Zibby: I read The Museum book to my kids last night. I was flipping the pages and showing them. I was like, “This is Picasso. This is a painting by Van Gogh.” They're like, “How do you know that?” [laughs] I'm like, “They're really famous. This is from a real museum.” When you had the blank canvas, the kids were like, “I bet they're going to paint it in the book!” I was like, “Let's see!” They loved it.
Susan: I'm so glad. I turned to my experience with my own kids for that book, but also remembering my experiences growing up in the city and having the good fortune to have all those museums and pieces of art in front of me and how nice it would have been to romp through the museum with no shoes on and dance with all the paintings.
Zibby: I love this idea you carry through your books of the blank canvas, like the wall from the book that you have forthcoming about how the whole community gets together and paints the mural and brightens up the whole neighborhood. I love with your books that people can bring their own ideas to life. Was that intentional, this theme of yours?
Susan: Yes and no. It was certainly for The Museum and I guess also for Hey, Wall, now that you've brought it to light. The idea is that kids are so smart. They're the ones who are going to come up with ideas and ways to fix and change and conquer the world. That infuses its way into the books. Even with The Water Princess, although it was someone's else story, I wanted it to be hopeful so that when kids read it, they can come up with solutions. They are, at that point, not as jaded as we are and certainly open to creativity and all of that and all they can offer. It’s purposeful and accidental at the same time.
Zibby: Your books also have this very soulful, calming element. Instead of me crazily reading to the kids at the end of the night when sometimes I'm just trying to get through books, like, “Okay, three books and then they're going to go to bed,” yours I read so slowly to them. They all get into it. Your words, I’ll read some that you have from I Am Yoga. It really works. Whatever secret sauce you're putting your books, it really impacts us as a family.
In I Am Yoga you wrote, “When I feel small in a world so big, when I wonder how I fit in, when the world is spinning so fast, I tell my wiggling body, ‘Be still.’ I tell my thinking mind, ‘Be quiet.’ I tell my racing breath, ‘Be slow.’ I close my eyes and make room in my mind, in my heart, to create and imagine I am yoga.” That’s so beautiful. It’s beautiful. It’s therapeutic. I need it. The kids need it.
I know you have training in mindfulness and yoga, teaching for children. How do you combine what you've learned there to put the words in the books to have just the right tenor to be impactful?
Susan: Oh, my gosh. I'm totally honored by what you said. In my teaching and working with children, I try to observe how they feel and how these practices make them feel. Also again, I'm a little bit stuck in my own kid and what I wished I had growing up, that ability to make space and be calm. I try to put all of that into the books, letting them know that they have the tools within them that are really accessible and simple. I hope that it comes out the way you're saying it comes out. It’s really through observation and looking into my own self and knowing what I need too. That’s where I start.
Zibby: I'm going to read another passage from I Am Peace to further hammer home this peaceful writing style you have.
In I Am Peace you write, “There are times when I worry about what might happen next and what happened before. The thoughts in my head are like rushing water. I feel like a boat with no anchor being carried away. I give myself a moment. I take a breath, and then I tell myself, ‘It’s all right.’ I feel the ground beneath my feet and steady myself and start to notice the here and the now. My thoughts begin to settle. My mind begins to clear. I am peace.”
Beautiful. I thought this one in particular was also a very mature concept. Do you find that kids of all ages relate to this? I read it to my two little guys last night. I think they liked the pace of it and everything. I'm not sure they totally got it, my three-year-old. Who knows? Maybe they did. What do you think? Do you think it’s more for older kids? Younger kids?
Susan: There's some parts of it that all ages can get. The concrete images of a boat with no anchor, little kids will understand an anchor holds a boat still and if you're like a boat with no anchor, you're floating around. That’s all they need to grasp. It’s not necessary that they get the entire thing. If they're getting little bits and pieces of, “I can say nice things to myself. It’s all right. I'm all right. I can feel my feet on the ground.” Those simple, concrete actions are what the littlest ones can relate to. As they get older, they do have this -- when you talk to kids in schools, they say the most amazing things. You're like, “Wow. That is deep. I didn't even think of that.” Sometimes, surprisingly, they grasp the bigger message. Even just those little bits and pieces and concrete images or little things that they can practice saying to themselves, that's enough. That's enough of a start. I try to infuse the bigger message, the headier message, with the smaller, accessible practices or activities or thoughts that I hope that the youngest ones can get ahold of.
Zibby: When you go and teach mindfulness and yoga, but mindfulness in particular, at schools -- do you do people's homes? I'm not sure. Just individuals? Just schools?
Susan: Mostly, I do schools or the library or whatever. Mostly, I'm in the schools. I've done classes in studios. I've done a couple of privates and things like that. I really like going into the schools. That seems to be the place where I'm most requested and most comfortable. It’s exactly where they need it. There's so much going on in school. Whenever I do go and work with kids in schools, I always try to infuse some small things that teachers can do. The idea of mindfulness can feel really big and difficult and time consuming. Really, it’s not. I like being able to share in that context so that the educators and the kids can see how simple these practices can be and how they can use them wherever they are.
I remember I was teaching in a school. One of the parents stopped me a few weeks into the class. We ran into each other outside of school. She said, “I was in the grocery store with my daughter. We were running around. All of a sudden, I turned around. She's standing in the frozen food section with her eyes closed and her hands on her belly. I was like, ‘What are you doing?’ She said, ‘Susan told me if I was overwhelmed, I could stop and take a breath.’” There you go. That's the reason we do this is, is so they feel a little empowered when things are overwhelming. Mostly, it’s schools. That was a long answer.
Zibby: It’s good. That’s the point. I like to hear what you have to say. I'm not a teacher or anything, but as a parent and for any parents hopefully listening, what are some mindfulness tips? If you had three strategies that we could have in our back pockets.
Susan: Parents, it’s tough. Here I am teaching all these things and talking about all these things. I have the same challenges with my now three teens that anybody else has and moments when my kids will say, “You're not being very mindful.” I need that reminder. First and foremost, forgive yourself for everything. You're not doing anything wrong. If you lose it, if you have trouble, if you need to step away, all of that is okay and actually really good self-care. “I need a minute. Give me a break. I'm going to go sit.” Being able to do that, being able to understand where you're coming from, what's rising up in you when there's conflict or stress, all of those things, that's first and foremost. Realizing if you're upset, where's that coming from? Is that your stuff? Is that your kid’s stuff? Then, being able to give yourself what you need. It’s that whole putting your own oxygen mask on first.
Then, breath, breathing. If you can get your kids to take three deep, slow breaths in through their noses during any time of crisis, that is a great tool. It instantly changes what's going on in your nervous system from that fight or flight to that parasympathetic, calming, grounding state. There's research behind it. It’s really simple and easy. Have your kids observe what is going on with them. Sometimes my kids, if they're having some kind of anxiety, they’ll come to me and say, “This is what I'm thinking. What's wrong with me? This is what's happening.” I’ll say, “Is that a fact or a feeling?” If it’s a feeling, it passes. If it’s a fact, then it’s something concrete that we can deal with.
Zibby: I'm scribbling this down. I have to use this later today. Is that a fact or a feeling? I like it.
Susan: I find that to be super helpful in a lot of situations. Your brain does tell you a lot of things that aren’t really serving you and aren’t really accurate. As adults, it’s good too. Wait a minute. Is this really happening or is this just a feeling? That would be my advice.
Zibby: Love it. Like many of the things you've put in your books, I feel like they could all be pillows. I could embroider all the sayings and scatter them around, one in each room.
Tell me about Rock ‘n’ Roll Soul. That's another one of the books. That's the first book of yours I actually bought. We call one of my daughters Rock Star. Perfect book for her. You use a different voice, I feel like, for that book. Tell me a little bit about that one.
Susan: That book is a little dancier and a little more energetic. It was kind of inspired by my editor. She edits a lot of music. She loves music. She's very musical. One day we were sitting and having a conversation. I think I said to her, “Wow. You have such a rock and roll soul. You're so cool.” That got me thinking. I personally love music. Music is a huge part of my life and always has been. I don't play an instrument. I sang in my high school chorus. My parents always had music playing. My mother had a record company for a while. There was always music. One of my first jobs was working for Vibe magazine. I was very infused in all of that hip-hop culture. My daughter is extraordinarily musical. It’s just been there. I wanted to celebrate that. The voice, I hope, is more that musical, dancey, rock and roll-y kind of voice as opposed to the more lyrical, calming. I wanted to explore and appreciate all the genres and then go back to that blank canvas idea. You're the best instrument. You can apply it however you feel good. Everything has a sound.
Zibby: You should start selling -- you know those rolled up papers that come in a box? You can stretch them out and draw on them. You should brand it with your I Am Yoga type imagery and have the kids fill it out. They can have their own canvases.
Susan: I think we’re going to have to have a merchandise conversation after this. Pillows and canvases. We’re ready. [laughs]
Zibby: Sorry, I don't know why I'm saying… [laughs]
Susan: I love it.
Zibby: Another book that I read of yours last night -- the other ones I had for a long time, but some are more recent -- I think it’s called Me and You or You and Me. What's it called?
Susan: You and Me.
Zibby: Maybe I was really tired or something, but as I read it out loud, I was literally crying. It’s all about it’s so close that you can miss paths with someone. I wasn’t expecting it to be a book like a Sliding Doors, Gwyneth Paltrow theme. I think about that all the time. It would be so easy to have not met my husband or not become really close friends with someone because we would've not been in that same class. What if I hadn’t sat in that seat? Your book was an ode to chance and how huge a role it plays in our lives. It’s such a nice book to give to anyone you have that great relationship with. That one really got me last night as well.
Susan: Thanks for telling me that. I remember when my kids were really little. I used to think about, and even now when I look at them lovingly as opposed to, “You're driving me crazy,” I think it started with them. If I had sneezed on that day or if I had taken a wrong step on that day, they might not be here. How sad, how unfortunate that I would have missed out on these incredible children who have come into my life or like you said, the friends I made or the way I met Peter Reynolds. If I had decided not to take that workshop, this whole trajectory would've been different. That was actually the project that I already had in line to share with him, our second book together. If just one little thing had been different, it could've been another great journey. You think about the people in your lives now and how maybe you wouldn't have known them and how lucky we are to know them. I'm sorry you were crying, but I'm kind of glad. [laughs]
Zibby: It was a happy cry. It’s gratitude too for all the random events that have led to the way life is now.
Susan: It makes you wonder, is everything so random or is it really that we were supposed to connect with each other?
Zibby: Just a little meaning-of-life thoughts at that time.
What are you going to do next? Are you going to keep doing the children's books? Focus more on the teaching, aside from all the merchandise plans we've come up with?
Susan: [laughs] Our new project. My intention is to keep writing. I have some more things in the pipeline that are going to be coming out. That’s great. Some of them will be a little bit different. Others will continue in the messaging that I'm doing now. I hope to keep it going for a long time. I'd love to explore writing for a little bit older audience. Whether that's teens or adults, I'm figuring that one out. I have a lot of stuff I'd like to say and talk about.
Continue with the teaching for sure. I love doing that. It’s a way to keep me connected to kids. As mine get older, I get to still stay with younger ones, which is really lovely. It keeps me youthful and connected to what's happening. I also get to teach teachers, which has been great. I'm doing a lot of professional development to teach teachers how to practice self-care and what is mindfulness really all about? These are big terms that people hear over and over and can seem like, “What does that really mean? How can I possibly bring that to my own life?” Those are my thoughts. I'm certainly open to whatever is ahead. You never know.
Zibby: If there are any aspiring children's book authors or people who maybe want to try getting on that path and publishing, what would you say to them? Any advice? Should they get an illustrator right away? Should they do it on their own?
Susan: Peter and I were quite unique in the way we met and that we came together as a little package. Typically, editors and publishers do not want you, unless you are an author and illustrator, if you are the writer, they do not want you to bring in an illustrator. They really do want to take that process on themselves. In fact, once they do choose an illustrator, you don't have any contact with them at all. I didn't speak to Matthew Cordell or John Parra, who did Hey, Wall, until after the books were completed. I get to see preliminary sketches. I can give a little feedback to my editor, but there's no direct contact. Even Peter and I were instructed initially not to speak to one another during the process. We kind of broke that rule. That's one piece of advice. Even though you have a vision when you're writing -- I always do as well -- don't attach an illustrator to your work.
The other thing is just keep writing and keep showing your work to as many people as you can. Keep sharing it. Keep putting it out there. Don't give up. I get a lot of rejections. As much as I get things accepted and bought, I also get things that will never make it to the public eye. Don't give up. Keep going. Keep talking and sharing and doing the work.
Zibby: My daughter last night -- actually, it was this morning. These days are so long. We were watching the sunrise. She goes, “For a second I thought that was the sun still setting.” I said, “That might make a great children's book. We could write a book about the night the sun never set and all the kids stayed up all night and played. How fun would that be?” In case she decides to become a children's book author…
Susan: There are ideas everywhere. The cool thing is noticing them and then writing them down. You never know. They're worth at least putting down so you don't forget.
Zibby: Good advice. Susan, thank you. Thank you for dealing with all my technical difficulties today at the beginning of this call. Thank you. Thanks for sharing all of your advice and your words and making bedtime for my family a lot more peaceful.
Susan: It was really wonderful talking. I could've kept going forever. I'm very grateful. Thank you.
Zibby: I hope to see you for real in person, not just on video, very soon.
Susan: Thank you.
Zibby: Thanks, Susan. Take care.