Bob Odenkirk Shows Us What Happens When Parents Take Their Kids’ Ideas Seriously
When Bob Odenkirk’s children were small, he didn’t make them write sketch comedy with him and he didn’t force them into improv theater. But, he did teach them the value and sheer joy of creativity. As part of their regular family traditions, Bob and his two children, Nate and Erin, would write poems together. Or, perhaps more accurately, the kids would dictate poems and Bob would write those down as faithfully as possible.
“I want to tell everyone, any parent who’s thinking of trying this, and I hope you are, that I really did let the kids write the poems,” Bob Odenkirk tells Fatherly. “I would write a line, then they would write a line and I would write down the line that they said. I wouldn’t fix it.”
This month, along with his daughter, the illustrator Erin Odenkirk, Bob has dropped a new book of children’s poetry called Zilot & Other Important Rhymes. For those looking for the angst of Odenkirk’s Saul Goodman from Better Call Saul, this book is probably more in the vein of Mr. Show for kids, rather than Breaking Bad. Through the book, Bob wants parents to know what happens when you take the creativity that comes from their children and turn it into real things. “You gotta have playfulness with language,” Odenkirk says. “But the key is unafraid playfulness. You gotta let kids make things up.”
Like many families, the Odenkirks were forced to hang out with each other a lot more during the lockdowns of 2020 than they had in previous years. But, in that forced closeness, the family re-discovered pages and pages of poetry written when Erin and Nate were still small kids. Erin is 22 years old and an accomplished visual artist in her own right, so, for her, revisiting the poems she dictated to her father as a child was both odd but strangely life-affirming.
“Bob kept them all in a journal that he called Old Time Rhymes, and we kept it on our bookshelf for 20 years,” Erin Odenkirk tells Fatherly. “I always knew they existed and I was there when they were written and I was there when they were rewritten, 20 years later.”
The tradition started when the Odenkirk kids were children, in which, as part of a bedtime routine, Bob and the kids would write poems together. And, when Bob realized his daughter could illustrate a book version of the poems, the project became clear in his mind.
“Yeah, honestly, that Erin could illustrate it. That was the main impetus to do it. But listen I think this is important for parents to hear,” Odenkirk gets serious now, so serious you think he might kidding a little bit. He’s a bit like one of his very intense characters on Mr. Show, but the gentle version. “I really wouldn’t change the poem. If they got stuck on trying to rhyme a word, I might pitch a thing or two, but I really would write whatever they said the way they said it. So, then, the kids really had a sense that they had written that piece of paper, the words on that paper.”
For Odenkirk, there’s a much bigger philosophical point, and the existence of Zilot illustrates that point. The poems don’t actually have an ethical point of view and don’t present any kind of life lessons. And that’s because they come from the innocence of a child’s worldview, and as such, feel fresher and more alive than a lot of kids’ books with big messaging.
Though, Bob admits that in filling out a few new poems for the book, he did, briefly, go down the path of trying to slip in a few poems with a bigger point or message. “I very quickly realized after writing five or seven of ones with messages, that like, no, this is not it. Whatever ethical point of view or sort of encouragement or whatever, the hidden message has to be really hidden. It can’t really be the purpose. It can’t be the purpose of the poem.”
One poem in the book that Bob brings up to illustrate this is called “I Flubbed It.” He explains that the aim of the poem is to point out that that are are “a hundred ways to say I failed today, but I’m going to do it again tomorrow.” It’s a poem that it’s in “the spirit of learning” but not preachy. And, when it comes to making things with your kids, Odenkirk thinks there’s a very practical he learned from writing these poems that could apply to a wide variety of parenting styles. And he illustrates the point by revealing his time as a kids’ soccer coach:
“I coached the kids when they were in soccer in their first years, and I never played soccer, but I was going to coach. So I watched a couple videos on YouTube about how to coach kids in soccer. And the one video that really resonated with me was a guy who said all that matters is getting their feet to hit the ball. Feet on the ball as much as possible! Don’t try to work on strategy, which is to say with writing or whether it’s art or singing or music, it doesn’t matter. Don’t try to perfect anything.”
Stylistically, the poems in Zilot may remind many parents and kids of Shel Silverstein, though Odenkirk says he “consciously avoided reading Shel’s books” While he and Erin and Nate worked on the edited and final versions of the poems that made it into Zilot. Similarly, Erin tried to avoid embracing any one existing children’s illustration style, though she did admit to loving the immortal art of Edward Gorey. But, for Erin, the most challenging thing wasn’t really the illustrations, but instead, getting back in touch with her younger self. “The only embarrass embarrassing thing I did was trying to write them again when I was 19,” she says. “And I failed! Because the stuff we wrote as kids was great. I mean, even when it was horrible, it was great.”
This touches again on Odenkirk’s belief that parents should pay closer attention to every single thing kids do and say because it’s all valid. When I share a pun-tastic joke my 6-year-old invented herself, Odenkirk suggests having it stitched and framed. After my call with Bob and Erin, my wife and I created a joke book and began populating it with things our kid says every single day.
“Originally, when they were kids, I did this because I wanted my kids to read books and then make something that’s like that book,” Odenkirk says firmly. “I think that gives kids a sense that the things that they see in the world, they can make, too. They can write poems, make music, be an actor, movies, whatever. Be an engineer. The world that kids see was built by people who were once kids.”