Meet my mom friend: Erin Parekh, writer and editor, founder of Shakespeare for Babies
Can you share a little more about yourself and your little ones?
I’m a writer, editor and book person across the board. My kids are three and four and when they’re not filling the day’s chaos quota we read a ton of books. I keep a blog of book recommendations at drivelanddrool.com to tell other parents about the ones I’m still happy to see the ten thousandth time.
Can you share a little more about the genesis story?
The idea started to take shape when my first kid got big enough to communicate opinions on what we should be reading. He also had ideas about how many times in a row we should read his favorites. Before long I’d memorized the whole text of maybe twenty or so board books. I used to recite them for him when he had a meltdown in the car. It worked pretty well! It got me thinking about how much of a board book’s appeal is in the words and rhythm, and about words that I would love to have stored away in my permanent memory—poems and quotations and little snippets of literature. I wondered if there was a way to turn text that would be fun for me to engage with on an adult level into a book that would entertain a baby or a toddler.
I’ve spent my whole career in publishing, so I had a good idea of the technical requirements and the budget. What I didn’t know was whether anyone else would want such a thing. Luckily I was able to convince the extremely talented Mehrdokht Amini to bring the story to life in illustrations, and with her artwork the concept attracted enough interest to fund publication of the first book via Kickstarter. The response has been incredible--The Wild Waves Whist was just named to Kirkus Reviews’ 2019 Best Indie Books list, and I’m finally realizing that I will always want to be friends with every single person who likes these books.
Why Shakespeare? (I mean, I get it, why not?)
Shakespeare has a unique appeal in that there’s something in his work for so many different kinds of people. More than any other writer I’ve read, he decants the world into a little bottle and then describes it with the most interesting, exciting, precise words.
Especially because I wanted something that would appeal to babies and toddlers, Shakespeare’s work seemed like a perfect match: These words are meant to be performed aloud. They’re meant to hold the attention of a whole room, to be full of drama and wonder and expression. They sound good! And they’re fun to perform. Who doesn’t want to be a Shakespearean star for an audience that’s going to laugh and clap and demand an encore?
Have you read most of his work? How did you go about picking the passages?
I’ve read a good bit, although definitely not everything! I chose well-known passages that I thought had a lot of loveliness in themselves, even if you didn’t know the play at all. I wanted words that rhyme, which most of Shakespeare’s work doesn’t, of course, and I wanted a text that was the right length to read to a small child. Then I picked the quotes that I felt could support a little story all by themselves, so kids can watch a whole narrative play out over just the few pages of a board book. We adults know the selections are from a longer play, but the kids don’t, so the books need to hold together for someone who’s never heard of A Midsummer Night’s Dream or The Tempest.
You don’t change any of the wording, correct? Do you mash different passages from different plays together?
The wording is all exactly the same as in the original. Each book is made up of two speeches by the same character in the same play, and you can tell when one starts and the other begins, but it should feel reasonably smooth.
Can you share a little more about the illustrations?
The illustrations are by Mehrdokht Amini, who has the most amazing imagination and vision and has created gorgeous worlds around these little stories. Aside from being just stunning, the illustrations are doing a LOT of work! First, obviously, they tell the whole stories that are original to the books, or it would just be the same as reciting from Shakespeare. Then, for the kids’ sake, it’s important that we have as many literal parallels as possible between what’s shown in the artwork and what’s said in the poetry, but that creates a lot of challenges in what you depict and how. We also wanted to create echoes between the broader plays themselves and the details of the artwork, because it’s just fun to be able to notice something and think, oh, I see, that connects. And then Mehrdokht has added all sorts of little surprises that are just there to be beautiful and interesting, because no one pays such close attention to what’s happening in the artwork as a small child who can’t read. I’m truly grateful to have had a chance to see how someone so talented and thoughtful approaches her work, and I can recommend pretty much every single one of her other books too—my kids’ favorite is Chicken in the Kitchen.
How many books are in the series? Any more in the works?
I have two books out right now, Behowl the Moon and The Wild Waves Whist, borrowing from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest respectively. I do have a couple more in development! Nothing with a pub date attached as yet, though.
I read in an interview that you recommend reading the books out loud and having fun with it! I love that! Can you share a little more?
Yes! To me, the most important thing about reading with a child is to demonstrate the pure enjoyment that can come from books and language. And the best way to do that is to actually have fun. Really embody the role of the Shakespearean actor and emote the heck out of it. Do your very best rooster crows. Get your kid to do the bow wows or the roars so you’re performing together, or make up a special frolic dance. Sharing something I really like with my kids in a way that means they’re loving it right along with me—that’s an amazing feeling.
What do your kids think about the books? They must be so proud to be reading books created by their mom! Are they more familiar with Shakespeare now, through your books?
Yes, they like them! They’ve both gone through phases of being besotted with the books and phases of not wanting to read them, the same as any other books we like. They come out with random bits of Shakespearean mischief every once in a while, though, both distinctive quotable parts and just playing with the cadence of the words and the animal noises. As they’ve gotten older they’ve asked more questions about unfamiliar vocabulary and the context behind different parts of the story. I think it’s given them a little more tolerance for uncertainty and difference in language, although on that one they might also be humoring me because they don’t think I know how to write regular words.
Where can readers buy the books? Do you ship internationally?
The books are available through a selection of indie bookstores, Barnes and Noble, and of course at Amazon and on my website, drivelanddrool.com. Readers who want to order at Drivel and Drool can take a 20% discount with the code LOVEMISHKA (and yes, it’s ok to tell your friends). Shipping is free in the U.S. and I ship internationally at cost.