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Author Showcase

Please Welcome Dr. John Hutton

RT: Welcome to the Reading Tub, John! I have to say I laughed out loud when I opened the box holding the Baby Unplugged books you sent us for our “research.” Where did you get the idea for making the box part of the “purchase”?

John: First, I have to say that I’m glad that you noticed and enjoyed the box. We often worry that the concept is easy to miss and our efforts end up in the recycling bin or worse. During our initial launch - before we became wise to the perils of prohibitive customs and shipping fees - we sent a sample box to a blogger in Amsterdam. A couple weeks later she sent us a email saying that the books were lovely, but she didn’t see what was particularly special about them. We asked what she thought of the box, and she said, “Oh, were we supposed to look at the box? We threw it away.” Ironically, this was a blog marketed to moms with a cutting edge eye, and on the heels of a novella I sent detailing the wonders of this cardboard icon. *sigh*

Anyway, thank you! Back to your question. Our inspiration for the boxes was part ecological, part developmental. At blue manatee (our bookstore), we frequently receive requests for gift baskets for new babies, birthdays, and gifts for family and friends out of town. The baskets were notoriously cumbersome and hard to ship. It also struck me that the recipient has a mess to deal with Styrofoam, cellophane nesting that scatters everywhere, and cellophane wrap, which is hazardous to young children. And it all goes into the trash. We have always considered ourselves a sustainable, Eco-friendly business, and longed for a better way. Then came that aha moment: kids are the world’s best re-users and recyclers!

Give them a gift - any gift - and what do they usually end up playing with? The box! So why not make the box part of the gift? No more waste, lots more fun! Plus, 100% of the packing materials are non-toxic (even the packing noodles are edible, though don’t taste like much), compost-able, and designed to be played with. That's a "bowt" (boat) by the way!

The gift enclosures feature a personal message from a menu of original illustrations made for us by notable children’s authors & illustrators, including Loren Long, Lois Ehlert, and David A. Carter. We even have a poem by Jane Yolen showcasing how one might transform a cardboard box. Added bonuses are a “User’s Guide” to boxy play organized by developmental stage, a small sponge to moisten the noodles (they stick together without glue) and a chunky crayon. The rest is up to the child. We're starting a gallery of ideas on our blue manatee boxes YouTube channel.

From a developmental perspective (as a pediatrician, I'm prone to thinking like this!), such open-ended, creative play is incredibly robust and healthy. Like reading books, open-ended play is a very effective way to unite grown-ups, children, and imagination, which is exactly what children need. It is said that the best toy is 90% child, 10% toy. It's one reason that thelowly cardboard box was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2005. Did you know that those numbers are reversed when you introduce electronic toys?

blue manatee boxes combine our passion for great books and reading, with our passion for hands-on, unplugged way. They help us differentiate ourselves in the all-important world of e-commerce: a unique, healthy, and fun gift for analog kids 3 and under, easy to order by digital grownups. It’s totally custom and can’t be Amazoned. Best of all is the spark of excitement in customers’ eyes as they recall reading and playing with boxes when they were children, back when this was high-tech.

RT: I don't think I'll ever think of the box as "lowly" again! You've mentioned your bookstore, blue manatee. Now blue manatee publishing is an extension of that ... which seems far, far different than being a pediatrician … could you tell us more about your journey into children’s books, both as a bookseller and an award-winning author?

John: Well, once upon a time, I was a child. I was one of those backyard kids who would disappear into the neighborhood wilderness dawn to dusk, weather permitting. On inside days, I was either playing with blocks or reading. Once a week, my mom and I would visit the library or our local bookstore, The Owl and the Pussycat, owned by a nice British lady. My parents were and are huge readers, so reading and writing have always been an important part of my life.

My wife is an artist trained as a Montessori teacher, and we have continued this tradition with our own daughters. My oldest were born before/during medical school in Cincinnati, with books all over the place. In 1999, I did all of my pediatric rotations at Cincinnati Children’s, a.k.a. “The Mother Ship,” and started my residency with a plan to be an ER specialist. At the same time, I was working - or I should say I wanted to keep working - on a novel and short story collection. Long story short, I took a leap of faith and left my residency to pursue this long-time, if naive dream. I wrote diligently every day, and quickly learned that writing was the easy part.

Then, one snowy December night in 1999 I saw a sign in a store window. Blue Marble, our favorite bookstore, was going out of business ... in just three days. Stunned and saddened, we stopped in. We wanted to know what would happen to The Wall, with its illustrations by such notables as Tomie DePaola, Patricia Polacco, Marc Brown, even Captain Kangaroo. With a sigh, Miss Katie, the Story Time lady, predicted it would be painted over, then added “I don’t know what will happen to my story time orphans...” Besieged by visions of weeping preschoolers wandering the streets in search of a Very Hungry Caterpillar fix, we took another leap.

We arranged a meeting with the owner, and within two days, signed a contract in green crayon. She would teach, we would revive. Within a month and many gallons of paint, we reopened, and decided on a new name: blue manatee, a riff on “humanity,” inspired by our favorite marine mammal. Fast forward 12 years ... we now have a decafe (2005) and a publishing company (2011).

During this span, though I was still writing, submitting, and being rejected. But I never lost touch with my passions as a physician. I kept coming back to a single concept: increasing virtualization and “un-wilding” of childhood. Reading Richard Louv’s now-classic “Last Child in the Woods,” renewed my passion for pediatrics, a mission to unite my love of books, wildness, reading, and writing, with that of child health and development.

Voila! Leap of faith #3 - back into residency! I had to start over, and spent the requisite three years of oft-80-hour days completing my training while keeping the store afloat, with a clear clinical focus as “the book doctor.” The timing was perfect, given the rise of epidemic obesity, sleep dysfunction, ADHD, and other pediatric epidemics, each with screen time as a major risk factor, and with reading and play as healthy alternatives. Cincinnati Children’s was also showing increasing interest in many facets of literacy. I piloted a reading program for children in the hospital called Read, Rest, Recover (3 Rs), encouraging books and shared reading as a therapeutic adjutant and opportunity to encourage reading after discharge.

I currently work part-time, 1 to 2 days each week, in a mostly low-income primary care clinic, and speak to pediatric, school, parent, and other groups about media, reading, and child health. The Baby Unplugged books were a natural extension of this. Each one is a celebration of an “old-school,” hands-on, multi-sensorial experience or icon of childhood; a developmentally-appropriate, screen-free answer to Baby Einstein et al, if you will.

RT: Each of the board books in your Baby Unplugged series focuses on a specific “thing.” The first three books are Blanket, Pets, and Yard. There are more coming this summer, too. How did you decide the themes for your books? and how did you prioritize which ones to publish first?

John: Some of this I've touched on, but the overarching theme is a celebration of hands-on, multisensorial, screen-free experiences and icons of childhood which are educational as a happy byproduct of a child’s natural instinct to play, bond, and explore, rather than an overt goal or marketing claim. The “smart baby” electronic media industry is a multi-billion dollar business with major companies and funding behind it. Despite any evidence of efficacy for young children - and no requirement for any to back “educational” claims - technology wears a halo of sorts, promising a better, faster way for children to learn and develop. Unfortunately, the cardinal rule of child development, especially for children under three, is that in general, things that help bring grownups and them together for quality time tend to be healthy and nurturing, things that interfere tend not to be. No matter how well-intentioned or well-designed, technology mostly gets in the way.

As for the titles, there is a bit of jazz to it, and definitely a lot of fun, but I mostly look to my own childhood and children for inspiration. Each subject needs to have a multi-sensorial component, is generally inexpensive and readily available, and nurturing.

Blanket was first, because I was a devoted blanket child, as were my daughters. Blankets represent security and nurturing for a child. They are comfort items. And one of the fundamental, if overlooked, developmental tasks of childhood is to learn to self-soothe. To sit calmly with one’s thoughts. To gaze out of a window, snuggle, and sniff... There is a misperception that children need to be entertained all the time, that boredom is toxic. It’s not. It’s a prelude to dreams and invention. Thus, instead of handing over an iPhone, hand over the blanket. And since they come in all shapes, sizes, and condition, they are a fun topic.

Yard was next. The health benefits of going outside - not to mention fun - are boundless. I was and am an avid backyard person. I love wilderness, but am not much of a camper. What I did do was explore my mud hole under the big tree in our backyard, turn over loads of rocks, and chase fireflies. I now continue this with my daughters. Some of our fondest memories are outside in this way, e.g. the first Spring after my youngest could walk, turning over rock after rock and marveling at all of the “pedes” - her word for all creepy crawlies.

Pets was inspired by not only our love of our own menagerie, but my youngest child’s insistence on getting a ZhuZhu pet for her 4th birthday. I refused of course, but then driven by guilt and research interest, caved in. This fueled more research, and I was quickly amazed by the extent to which pets of all kids are challenged by virtual variants. Lets just say I could go on for days about the electronic "educational" opportunities that come with these pets. Raising an animal and caring for them is such a critical and wonderful opportunity for a child, not only for fun and play (which are terrific), but to learn empathy, responsibility, kindness, and cycles of life and death. That’s why the book says “the best are real pets.” There’s just no substitute. Pets didn’t used to have to be educational, but they are!

Next up are the four B's: Book, Ball, Box, and Beach.

RT: I noticed on the blue manatee bookstore website, that you also host authors at the store. Is there an author that you’re anxious to have visit the store? [Who and why]

John: Mo Willems. He is so incredibly prolific and consistent, it never ceases to amaze us. His work is also wildly popular with our customers, especially the preschool set that is our bread and butter. His sense of humor and pitch-perfect moods and experiences of his characters are wonderful. I also think he would enjoy our store, as blue manatee’s sense of humor and whimsy tend towards the Willemsesque. I’d love to see how Elephant and Piggie might transform a box!

Runners up include Oliver Jeffers and Lane Smith, because they are both edgy, funny, and cool.

RT: Confession: I'm not a preschooler, but I am pretty wild about Gerald and Piggie! Can you share a little more about your life in the wilderness as a boy and the books you read? What kinds of books did you like? What kind of books “hooked” you?

John: Where to start?! There are some obvious favorites: Dr. Seuss (loved his gadgets) and Richard Scarry, Chronicles of Narnia, Encyclopedia Brown, Harold and the Purple Crayon, Where the Wild Things Are/In the Night Kitchen, and Frederick/Swimmy. Then there was Christina Katerina and the Box (more box inspiration) and comic books. I recall picking classic, floppy comics (before they got all highbrow as “graphic novels”) from drugstores and gas stations. Favorites were Richie Rich, Iron Man, and most other superheroes. I was hooked by books that were either funny, adventurous, or had cool pictures, esp of vehicles, animals, or inventions.

I should add, though, that I was primarily an outdoor creature, prone to get dirty. I loved playing in my mud pit (there is a great archival photo on my blog), searching for all manner of creatures, riding my bike, and inventing/playing games with neighbor kids. I also loved all sports, especially baseball. I was a reader on (really) rainy days, sick days, car trips, and at night. That said, since 100% of my day was “unplugged,” with nothing else to do; so by today’s standard I was probably a big reader. Despite my best teenage rebellion to not be like my parents, I gravitated more and more towards books through and after college, and most certainly with my own children, where it is especially fun to rediscover these old favorites. I still have many of them, with original tears and crayon marks.

RT: blue manatee’s mantra is “keeping babies unplugged until age three.” Could you tell us why that’s so important?

John: This is actually the mantra of the blog for Baby Unplugged (“screen-free until three”), though we’ve certainly adopted it in the bookstore. Baby Unplugged advocates for the first three years as screen-free sanctuary. Not in a wholly restrictive sense, but something to embrace, for reasons ranging from nostalgia, to the fleeting nature of this period, to physiology and brain science. From a pediatric perspective, children are simply not developmentally ready for electronic media under three years old - similar to how they are not ready to drive cars or get married.

We are analog mammals, evolved over millennia. So it only makes sense that when you think about a developing brain, that it must first process the real world experiences. It is well documented that the brain does not process screen-based media in a contructive way until it is between two and three years old. Children learn language via practicing with real people. Excessive / early screen time, on the other hand, has been shown to delay language development. E-media is very absorbing for young children, akin to anesthesia. When you combine the sedative effect with “educational” marketing claims, you create the illusion of learning, when the only real learning going on is learning to use more media.

A common counter to this is that the world has changed. Technology is here to stay, and kids need to learn to use it, lest they fall behind. This is a false argument, I believe. Most technology is incredibly easy to use, with no advantage to starting before age three. If early technology was required to be adept at technology, Steve Jobs could have never founded Apple. The real risk of falling behind is in “old-school” skills, such as social, empathy, focus, the ability to cope with boredom and create from it, risk assessment, connection with nature. These don’t just happen. They must be practiced, with critical periods during the first few years.

RT: Now that you’ve got an award-winning book series for toddlers, do you see yourself creating books for other audiences (e.g., preschool, elementary readers, et al)?

John: Have I mentioned that I am the most prolific, under-published authors working today? Well, at least in Southwest Ohio! I have written grown-up novels (each progressively less terrible), a middle grade novel, many picture books, phonics readers, and board books. I have lots of ideas, lots of plans. I also have quite a collection of wonderful, almost-love letters from all manner of editors and agents.

This is probably karma, because as the owner and principal buyer at blue manatee, I am very discriminating and turn down much of what sales reps from these same publishers offer. Unfortunately, the publishing industry is changing incredibly fast with many serious challenges, and so for the most part publishers are “circling the wagons” and not taking on a ton of new projects or authors, unless said authors are celebrities and/or have a cooking show.

There is also an unfortunate bias towards copycat work, e.g. wizard books, vampire books, princess-y books with glittery covers, and now dystopian thrillers, taking up much of the editorial and marketing focus. When unplugged books become all the rage, however - watch out!

RT: If you were building a children’s library, what would be your five must-have books … one each for the first five years?

John: 0-1: the Baby Unplugged series - all of them glued together to make one!
1-2: I Am A Bunny by Richard Scarry. A perfect, mellow board book, introducing the seasons.
2-3: Hippos Go Berzerk by Sandra Boynton - hard to pick just one of hers, but I am especially partial to her early work (and this was her first). A great and funny counting book, also incorporating hippo-empathy.
3-4: Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak - too easy, perhaps, but often classics are classics for good reason. A romp of imagination, and not a little wildness, which is increasingly important to instill!
4-5: The Lorax by Dr. Seuss - another easy one, but I would be remiss to not include Dr. Seuss, for the same reasons as Maurice Sendak. He’s wonderfully subversive, as are children, and the Lorax message is as critical as it gets given the many ecological issues future generations face.

RT: What are your kids’ favorite stories to read? Is there an author (or illustrator) they beg you to bring to the store?

John: My oldest was a Boynton nut, especially But Not the Hippopotamus, Blue Hat, Green Hat, and Barnyard Dance. We were fortunate to host Sandra Boynton twice, for Philadelphia Chickens and Dog Train. She was, and is, wonderful - down to earth, funny, and kind. She is incredibly genuine and passionate, which is reassuring. Our oldest also was/is a Harry Potter fanatic, so if JK Rowling isn’t busy...

Our middle daughter was more princess-y, and loved (and loves) Robert Munsch, especially The Paper Bag Princess. She moved on to Junie B. Jones, Roald Dahl (could we resurrect him?), lots of classics, and the Princess Diaries. We were fortunate to host Meg Cabot for book #1. Now that she’s 14, my daughter would freak out (as would we) if we could ever land Stephanie Meyer or Suzanne Collins. Our youngest reads literally everything (including all of the above), and loves to write and illustrate her own books. She rendered the Baby Unplugged logo as a newly minted 5 year-old after weeks of pleading by her dad, handing over a perfect sun with power cord. Past favorites we’d love to meet/host include Skippyjon Jones’ Judy Schachner, Very Grouchy Ladybug’s Eric Carle, Captain Underpants’ Dav Pilkey, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid’s Jeff Kinney. Current favorites include the Magic Tree House (starting to read on her own, too), and we would love to host Mary Pope Osborne. We did host the MTH bus tour with Jack and Annie recently at our local zoo, which was fun.

RT: Oh, I think I'd find a way to get to Cincinnati if you hosted Judy Schachner. Just sayin'

John, thank you so much for joining us here in the Reading Tub. If you'd like to learn more about John's ideas for raising a bookworm, what he thinks of book Apps and other reading devices, and his struggle as a dad to deal with three girls and the desire for e-stuff, then head on over to the Family Bookshelf!

John: Thanks for having me, Terry ... it was fun chatting with a kindred spirit!

Website: http://babyunplugged.com


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