Take A Look

Adam Rubin's Books Have Taken On A Life Of Their Own

But that’s pretty much why the Dragons Love Tacos author wrote them.

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In all of my dreams about motherhood (and I had a lot), there were books. Picture books to read to my babies, chapter books to reach each night to my big girls, classic books to buy them on their birthdays. I was such an avid reader as a kid, and so many of my favorites were still on my bookshelf to pass onto my girls. Everything from Goodnight Moon, Caps for Sale, When I Was Young in the Mountains to my American Girl series, my Baby-Sitters Club collection, my ancient falling-apart Winnie-the-Pooh book. I honestly focused so much on stocking my girls’ nurseries with the classics that I didn’t think much about buying them “new” books.

Until someone gifted my oldest daughter, then just 2, a copy of Dragons Love Tacos by Adam Rubin.

We fell in love quickly with the book, as anybody who has ever read can tell you. We still quote parts of it out loud (“pantloads of tacos” is a common phrase in our house), bought the sequel and prequel, and with two more daughters added into our family, it’s still read at least once a week. I’m realizing now that Adam Rubin — an author with a dozen children’s books under his belt, several of them on my own kids’ bookshelves — is going to be to my kids what Patricia Polacco and Ann M. Martin and R.L. Stine were to me. His books are pillars for my children’s memories, as well as my own experience of motherhood — so many sweet moments of raising my girls are intertwined with his words.

And his latest book, The Truth About the Couch, is sure to be another favorite in our house. Out this past spring, the book has the same kind of interactive storytelling quality as Dragons Love Tacos, but this time, you’re learning all about a couch — and all the many conspiracy theories that go into it. It’s equal parts a book about how misinformation is spread and just a fun, silly book about a piece of furniture that, like Rubin’s books, is a major cornerstone of every family. I got to ask Rubin some questions about his new book, the work he’s done, and what it feels like to write stories that my daughters might share with their own kids some day.

What does that feel like to have created something that people will mention in 20 years as like, “Aw remember how much we read that book?”

Gosh, that’s sweet and also a bit of a head spinner. It’s strange because the books go off and have all those adventures without me. I’m flattered and overjoyed that so many families and teachers have connected with these strange little objects I’ve helped to create. But it also feels kind of surreal. Words I wrote became magic spells that unlock special memories for people I’ve never met. It’s a deep honor. It’s also oddly disconnected from my day-to-day life. Sometimes, I feel like I didn’t really have anything to do with it. These books are all over the place out there, and I’m just sitting here at my desk eating snacks.

I still get a thrill every time I see my books out in the wild. I feel like a proud mama bird watching her offspring build a new nest. They’re out there on their own now. Meanwhile, I’m taking care of some new thing. Maybe this half-finished manuscript I just hatched. Will it ever fly as high as the one that came before? Maybe if I stuff it full of worms.

I’m obsessed with your dedication in The Truth About the Couch. My husband has a story from one college year where someone donated a white pleather couch to his fraternity house and that summer, the A/C went out — in Georgia. He said the couch was yellow by September, and I’m so grossed out every time we talk about it. But the part of the dedication that says "the mischief you inspired when grown-ups were not around," was that your inspiration for this book?

Ha! Is there anything grosser than a frat house couch? You couldn’t pay me to look under those cushions. Animal House is an extreme example of the mischief kids get into when grown ups aren’t around. When you’re little, the shenanigans are more innocent but they’re actually way less innocent than what most grown-ups would like to admit. Our most beloved children’s stories all contain an element of genuine mischief. Stuff that feels dangerous to a young reader, which is exactly what makes those books exciting to read. The best stories don’t settle for “kid-friendly” versions of what’s scary or funny or sad.

At some point, you realize it’s impossible to protect kids from ideas that upset them, but luckily, a book is the safest place for a young reader to experience the emotional and intellectual extremes of the world. And if a book makes them cry, or laugh, or cower under the covers, that kid is gonna be a reader for life.

A few years back, I got targeted by some political fringe whackos. It was a bizarre experience. But weirdly, that was the real inspiration for The Truth About the Couch. I wanted to turn that ugly kind of thinking on its head and present it in a way that makes it obvious how silly the logic is. How easy it is to get carried away when it feels like you’re on the inside of a conspiracy — you’re smart and anyone who disagrees is dumb.

I really love the inspiration here for parents, too. And I can share that I felt the same way with Dragons Love Tacos. There’s one line in particular about why dragons love parties, and it’s “or the comforting sound of a good friend’s laughter” that has always just touched me. Like, OMG yes this is why we love having people over! This is what it’s all about! And I feel that way with The Truth About the Couch. “Most people think couches are for sitting on, but also…” it just really taps into my own brain of what our furniture is like for our kids. Like this really is their safe space! Was there a spot in your house like that for you as a child?

Yes! The same couch I mentioned in the dedication. It lived in the basement where we could escape from watchful eyes. That couch became a jumbo bed for sleepovers, an obstacle course, a fort, and all the necessary equipment for pillow sliding. I thought me and my friends were the only ones who came up with this but after The Truth About the Couch came out, I was surprised to learn it’s a fairly common childhood adventure sport. Basically, you lay the biggest couch cushions on the stairs and use the littlest cushion to slide down like a toboggan.

While reading The Truth About the Couch, I was struck at how much it reminded me of The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, which was one of my favorites as a kid, and then I saw your Instagram post about it in regards to media literacy. Kids are having a tougher time deciphering the truth these days than we did — what kind of conversations do you hope The Truth About the Couch sparks? I feel like so many different ages can gain from this.

Jon Scieszcka is a big part of why I make picture books. He visited Dan Salmieri’s school when Dan was a kid. That presentation encouraged Dan to illustrate children’s books, and the opportunity to collaborate with him is what encouraged me to write Those Darn Squirrels, the first book I ever had published. So endless gratitude to Ambassador Scieszka.

As for the conversations I hope to spark with the couch book, I think it’s the kind of gentle exploration of what is “true.” The terrifying new reality is that videos can be entirely fabricated and many people are tricked into sharing false information. I was convinced the pope wore a puffy coat. Imagine how hard it must be for a kid on YouTube to distinguish fact from fiction.

“How can we tell what is true?” “Who can be trusted?” “Is reality subjective?” These are difficult questions to answer in the context of a fractured culture. But in the context of a dapper fox and a skeptical opossum, those kinds of discussions become much easier. Algorithms feed biases, and conspiratorial thinking is contagious. Media literacy is absolutely crucial for kids if we expect them to successfully navigate the world of the future.

What was your favorite book as a child?

The books I pored over again and again were the Calvin and Hobbes and Far Side anthologies. I had those strips memorized and they were fundamental in shaping my view of the world as an absurd and beautiful place to live.

What's your favorite thing about reading your books out loud?

Unlike novels, picture books are written to be performed. It’s very rare to read The Very Hungry Caterpillar silently to yourself. In the best case scenario, the picture book functions as a tiny little stage, the pages are curtains, and the reader becomes an actor. My favorite kind of picture books are the ones that give you the opportunity to go way over the top. Some people do voices, some people add melodies — the personal interpretation is what makes it fun and the more times you read a particular story, the more you can make it your own. That’s why I feel weird about recording the audio versions sometimes. There’s no right way to read the story. It’s all up for interpretation. Pointing out details in the illustrations, adding physicality, side commentary, props, call and response…

My proudest accomplishment is helping millions of adults act ridiculous to make children giggle uncontrollably. It’s a very special bonding moment when people laugh together. If you can bridge a generation gap (or two) to get the whole family genuinely laughing over the same jokes, that makes a treasured memory. Then maybe 20 years later, you say, “Aw remember how much we read that book?”