Every parent has struggled finding ways to connect the family, but as Salt Lake City author Jean Reagan explains, there’s one simple approach to that otherwise difficult task.
“Reading a book is like the shortcut easiest way to do it. It’s like the cheating way to get an easy, comfortable, magical moment together,” she says.
As Jean explains, expensive trips or an elaborate craft project aren’t essential to experience a moment of family togetherness, or to communicate.
“[Reading] gives you a basis for commenting on other things that are happening in your life, good things and difficult things,” she says. “It builds a culture of communication.”
The moment Jean recognized reading’s influence in her own family is when she knew she wanted to start writing children’s literature. Ten years later, Jean has created a new generation of captivating children’s books in her How to Babysit a Grandpa and How to Babysit a Grandma series, which now includes her recent release How to Surprise a Dad. Something about the books captures the essence of caretaker-child relationships in a delightful way, and the series is quickly securing its spot as a family essential across the nation.
But this is ten years and 300 rejected manuscripts later, as Jean explains. In fact, she went five years without essentially zero fruits from her labors; it was like banging her head against a wall, she says.
In many ways Jean wasn’t a likely candidate be a successful children’s author. Her parents were Presbyterian missionaries in Japan, and Jean grew up speaking both Japanese and English in a predominantly Japanese environment. At an early age, she struggled to read, and recalls vividly the frustration and shame of not being on pace with her peers. When she does visits schools to share her books, she often describes her struggle with learning to read, because she wants to acknowledge the pain many children feel at being slow to catch on. Empathy is a big part of her books as well.
“Tapping into that empathy for the children in the world is what I hope keeps my books true to form,” she says.
Perhaps this is what kept her going through the years of failure and what makes Jean such an excellent children’s author: what she writes isn’t the result of some hobby, but more an extension of self and her valuable experiences, expressed in childlike simplicity.
One central source of inspiration is her son John, who died of a drug overdose at age 19. He was naturally full of humor, heart and connection, Jean explains, the same elements she’s found make a good children’s book.
“Naturally, a lot of the memories I have with him fit into what my books are trying to be,” she says.
One book explains that the grandchild needs to show grandma how to feed the shy ducks. This is taken directly from a memory Jean has with her son, who would pick out the ducks that didn’t push to the front of the crowd to get bread.
Jean wrote a book called Always My Brother, published in 2009, about a girl whose brother dies. She wrote the book so her daughter would understand “that at some level I comprehend the utter devastation of her loss,” Jean says. As one reviewer explained, Jean’s writing is a profound guide to a child trying to let go and yet still remember.
Beautiful simplicity is something children absorb and parents enjoy, yet few possess that talent of expression. Jean Reagan is one of those few.
4 Things About Jean Reagan
1. She walks around Liberty Park in Salt Lake City every day.
2. Every year she and her husband are backcountry volunteers in Grand Teton National Park In Wyoming. They live three miles from the nearest road in a cabin without electricity or running water, and patrol three lakes.
3. Her favorite children’s author is Mo Willems.
4. Whenever she has to attend a fancy shindig, a friend loans her clothes and jewelry and writes instructions on what to wear with what. “On my own, without her cheat sheet, I’m totally clueless,” she explains.