Yesterday, John Seven and Jana Christy released a A Rule is to Break: A Child’s Guide to Anarchy ($9.99) Unlike recent parent-focused kid books like Go the F to Sleep, this quirky, remarkable and empowering book celebrates what it is to be a kid in a world that sometimes makes up some pretty silly rules. I talked to John Seven about the project and why they decided to independently publish after developing a nice track record with traditional publishers.
JH: What first prompted you two to develop The Child’s Guide to Anarchy? Where did the original idea come from?
JS: It started with Jana’s drawings of Wild Child, who was initially intended to be part of our Happy Punks web comic and recently – finally – made her first appearance. Jana also came up with the title “A Child’s Guide To Anarchy,” which later we added “A Rule Is To Break,” which is nod to one of our favorite children’s books, “A Hole Is To Dig.”
It seems to us that in the marketing side of children’s books there is a lot of effort to please the parents, who are obviously the ones buying the books. But we had this idea of making books for aunts and uncles to buy the kids. Not always, but often enough in the family dynamic, the aunt or uncle are the “cool” ones, the ones the kid daydreams is really the parent, the ones who can be a bit subversive in their gifts or activities. It seemed to us that a lot of our book ideas were more of interest to that person than the parent, necessarily!
Also there’s the reality of alternative families of all kinds — they exist, but unless they can be pigeonholed and covered in a “how to deal with the fact my family isn’t like other families” type of book, they aren’t really sought out as readers by mainstream publishing. We wanted to make something for those families.
JH: There have been a lot of titles in the past couple of years geared toward counter culture parents which are clearly written for grown ups. But this is for kids. Why did you decide to go in that direction?
JS: We’re not interested in making fun of kids or making fun of the things that kids like or treating kids like they’re in the way, so we clearly weren’t going to jump on that ironic bandwagon. Also, adults have had their chance. Once you have a kid, it’s no longer about you, it’s about the kid. A good deal of your effort should go into helping that kid be a better person than you were.
We like kids with some pluck and wanted to encourage that. Our kids have pluck. Every kid should — especially these days, when kids’ lives have become so regimented, so mapped out, so devoid of individual goals. A little rebellion is a good thing, a lot of rebellion is a great thing, and that’s what we encourage in our stories.
JH: What is your creative process like as a husband and wife team? Do you have other similar projects in the works?
JS: It works different ways.
Sometimes it’s pretty traditional – John writes a manuscript for an idea he has and Jana illustrates it. If that’s the dynamic, Jana will add levels through the drawing and the text might change to suit the illustration, if that seems like the right thing to do.
Sometimes Jana comes up with the initial idea and brings it to John, and if it’s something he can actually write, it moves forward.
Other times, Jana will draw things with no intention of a story project and John will take it and run — Happy Punks started that way. In the cases of web comics, Jana will sometimes write them and just run them past John.
Still others, we’ll sit down together and map out the story, page by page, coming up with the actual story as we do. It all changes from project to project.
JH: You’ve had traditional publishers in the past. Why did you decide to independently publish this project?
JS: Sending a children’s book to a traditional publisher just seemed against the principles of the book itself. It’s a very DIY ethic, so the subject matter dictated the method of getting it out there. Also, we wanted a faster turnaround and the process of traditional publishing really demands a snail’s pace.
Plus, we had no desire to compromise on the content. We say in the book exactly what we mean to say in it and understand that some of it might not sit well with a traditional publishing house, or survive the committee process of editors and marketing guys. We just weren’t interesting in submitting Wild Child to that mob scene!
JH: In addition to the fun tips and narrative of the book, what are some other ways that parents can help kids be awesome?
JS: Play to your kids’ strengths. Schools too often play to weaknesses — got to get math scores up, for instance — and spend so much time doing so that the kid’s talents aren’t always addressed in any serious way until college. At that point, the pressure is to have an education for the sake of a job, and after years of focusing on everything but what you’re good at, you tend to not choose to study your passion. So if a kid is good at music or science or numbers or history or sewing or gardening or sports or whatever, nurture that all their life — and make if fun! Don’t turn it into school. Let the kid lead and you can supplement that with some suggestions of things that they might not notice on their own. Kids are natural learners until school programs that out of them.
Also, we’d stress creating some actual cultural literacy and not leaving it to the wider popular culture to shape taste in arts and entertainment – especially if you are giving the kid up to daycare. It all starts at an early age and parents have to work harder in that scenario and not abdicate responsibility. Turn off the radio, the television, play the music you love, watch silent movies, read books together, talk about real things, travel everywhere often — help nurture the importance of experience and culture beyond the fishbowl of their peers.
Check out their supercool book trailer with original music by The Atom, made up of their rock star twin teenage boys Harry and Hugo.