Jean Reagan pulls out a small red notebook, revealing lists of scribbled writing that, to the untrained eye, are meaningless words. But to Reagan, it’s the research to the companion book of her picture book “How to Babysit a Grandpa,” which was a New York Times best-seller.
Words such as “girl,” “makeover” and “dog,” and suggestions from young readers, jotted down in Reagan’s hurried script, would soon become clever illustrations and adorable directions in Reagan’s latest book, “How to Babysit a Grandma” (Knopf Books for Young Readers, $16.99).
“A lot of times when I go to the schools (to read my book to children), this is my motivation,” she said. “I ask the kids ideas for the next book. And so when I took ‘Grandpa’ out, I asked them, ‘What do you think?’ ”
Though many of the ideas in the Utah author’s humorous babysitting books come through her “research” at elementary schools, the initial idea for the first book came when a friend of Reagan’s adopted a little girl nearly 13 years ago.
“She had to figure out the daycare arrangement unexpectedly,” Reagan said. “And so she had her grandfather be the every-Tuesday babysitter, and I thought ‘That is cool, grandpas don’t necessarily do that.’ I thought that was a cool story.”
Reagan initially wrote the book about what a day with a grandpa as a babysitter would be like, and then, with sudden inspiration, she flipped the idea to the child babysitting the grandpa. But despite the clever storyline, Reagan’s story wasn’t very popular with publishers.
“I got rejected a bunch of times, so I went and got real books on how to babysit, and I used that to see that I was missing the goodbye scene,” Reagan said. “That was a big deal. I got two or three scenes that were obvious that should have been in there.”
With the addition of the crucial missing scenes, “Grandpa” was published. Soon after its publication, “How to Babysit a Grandpa” became an Indie Best Seller. A year later, it rocketed onto the New York Times Best Seller "Children's Picture Books List," and it now boasts five additional awards.
It was during the summer that Reagan, who spends each summer cut off from running water, electricity and almost all technology as a seasonal backcountry volunteer in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, got the exciting call from her publisher. Luckily, she was in a place with cellphone reception.
“She said, ‘ “Grandpa” made the New York Times best-seller list!’ I was flabbergasted,” Reagan said. “It was so ... I was just shouting.”
It was only a few years earlier that Reagan was considering quitting writing. She had become discouraged because publishers weren’t accepting anything she wrote.
“You kind of want to get published because you want the joy and to share your art,” Reagan said. “I remember telling my husband, ‘It’s like winning the lottery,’ and he said, ‘Or like not winning the lottery.’ ”
So Reagan’s husband, who didn’t want her to put herself through that torture for several more years, told her to take the next two years and see if anything worked out. After that, if nothing had, she’d move on to different pursuits — such as knitting, Reagan joked. Reagan recalled that the time frame was a big motivator for her and forced her to take advantage of every opportunity.
It was during that time that Reagan had her first book published. It was a children’s book about dealing with sibling loss, inspired by the unexpected death of her son, John, and called “Always My Brother.”
“I had been trying to write kids books all along, so I had all these ideas, and I kind of got a little sidetracked (by 'Always My Brother'),” she said. “So then I was kind of back to my regular path of writing fun books and sending out a lot of stuff. ‘How to Babysit a Grandpa’ just happened to sell.”
Reagan made sure to include a little shout-out to her son and daughter in “How to Babysit a Grandpa” and “How to Babysit a Grandma” by incorporating things they did in the house or with their grandpa. Things that will appear in “Grandma” — such as making sure the shy ducks get food or playing shoe shop — were regular happenings with the Reagan children and a way to honor the memory of her son.
“How to Babysit a Grandma” also mentions the “tallest slide of all,” which is actually a reference to the tall, “scary” slide Reagan’s children played on in Liberty Park before it was taken out. Also mentioned are Utah music group Heart and Soul and the song “You Are My Sunshine.”
Since Reagan isn’t a “girly girl,” she wanted to make sure the “Grandma” and “Grandpa” books were accessible to both boys and girls.
“A girl with grandma, it’s a little harder to do that because the girls want girly stuff, and I’m not girly,” Reagan said. So she kept things such as fingernail painting and makeup out of the book, but she included things such as dress up with ribbons and stickers to acknowledge that there are some girly things that are just part of being a little girl and a grandma.
Reagan made sure to write things such as “If your grandma likes fancy things ...” to acknowledge there are grandmas who might not. It was her way of saying that it’s OK to like and do different things.
Despite the success of “How to Babysit a Grandpa,” in terms of its awards and recognition, Reagan finds her happiest moments have come from hearing stories about children consulting her book as a “reference guide” when their grandparents are visiting, or in instances such as when she accidentally overheard a teacher in a bookstore telling someone how much his students enjoyed her book.
“How cool is that?” Reagan said. “It just warms your heart.”
If you go ...
What: Jean Reagan book signing and storytime
When: Saturday, March 29, 11 a.m. to noon
Where: The King's English, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City
Note: Places in the signing line are reserved for those who purchase a copy of the featured book from The King's English. Reagan will donate $5 per book (up to $500) to Heart and Soul, a local non-profit that brings music and performing arts to isolated people in nursing homes, senior centers, hospitals, prisons, etc. The group’s website is heartsoul.org.
Hikari Loftus graduated from the University of Utah.