Odenkirk gathered these creations — poems with titles such as “Enough About the Baby,” “The Perfect Scribble” and “I Flubbed It” — into a scrapbook he labeled “Olde Time Rhymes.” The book was still on a bookshelf long after the kids left the house. During the pandemic, Odenkirk and his family decided to bring the project back to life, editing the poems and creating a few new ones. The result is “Zilot & Other Important Rhymes,” a charmingly witty book — a little Seuss, a little Silverstein, a lot Odenkirk — that’s illustrated by Erin, 22.
In a video interview from their homes in California and New York, Bob and Erin Odenkirk discussed the project, their favorite kids’ books and how to make parenting (and being a kid) fun.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How did these poems come about?
Bob Odenkirk: I really wanted the kids to feel effective. So, I would say a line, and they would say a line, and I wouldn’t fix it. I would just write it down and commit to it. So there are a lot of poems with repetitive lines or nonsense. Like: “Dad has to go out./ It won’t help to beg or to pout./ He must see a friend to whom he did lend his pig/ and he wants back the snout.”
I wanted my kids from a young age to understand that they are a part of the club, that they can be anything in this world. And one way to show them that was to let them do it — write it down and put it in a book and on a bookshelf.
Q: What books did you read that influenced these poems?
Erin Odenkirk: We read a lot of Dr. Seuss — as households should. I really like “The Butter Battle Book” and “Horton Hears a Who!” And “Mutts” and “Peanuts.” Once I got a little older, I got into Shel Silverstein, reading that independently. We also had books like “Eeny, Meeny, Miney Mole,” by Jane Yolen, and Mark Alan Stamaty’s “Who Needs Donuts?” Also Tony Millionaire and Calef Brown — so much Calef Brown.
Bob: I think Calef Brown is the one who most inspired these — his silliness, his willingness to have a less structured rhyme. I guess Shel does that really well, too. I mean, Dr. Seuss is so perfectly rhymed that it’s almost intimidating. I think I like things that have a little more of a stumble in them, because it wakes you up in the poem.
Q: Speaking of stumbling, why is “Zilot” pronounced to rhyme with “skillet” rather than “pilot”? How did that happen?
Bob: That’s called a mistake on the dad’s part. Nate said “Zilot” (zih-lit) to describe a blanket and fort. He didn’t know how to spell it, or if I’d asked him, he wouldn’t have known. This is what popped into my head: zih-lit. That’s the only explanation. So it rhymes with spill it.
We all thought it was a great word, and then that was one of the poems we wrote back then: “Don’t clutter or overfill it./ Be cool and mellow,/ and you won’t compromise/ the integrity of the zilot!” And that’s the way I talk to my kids. I would say to them: “Calm down! Don’t get too rambunctious or you’ll compromise the integrity of the Zilot!” So that became a part of the poetry we wrote, using complicated words that maybe you wouldn’t instinctually use with a kid.
Q: One of my favorite poems is “Lollygagging.” I especially liked the message of it: that we don’t lollygag enough.
Bob: Well, we didn’t want to make a book about lecturing kids about how to be or how to behave. But you can’t help it if you’re a parent to try to put little messages in. I think the book is very often about not taking the dings and the travails of life too hard.
But lollygagging — kids nowadays, their lives are as jammed with scheduling as adults’ are. Lollygagging is about daydreaming and just letting your mind wander, which has been such a big part of everything good that I’ve ever made.
Q: What do you hope readers take from this book?
Bob: I hope people read these a little at a time every night before bed with their storybooks. And then I hope people grab a slip of paper, write a poem on it, then write another one on the back. And I hope especially that when the kid gives them a line, they write it down exactly the way the kid said it and that they don’t try to fix it yet. And just let the poem be a mess. But let the kid feel like: “I made that — and it’s in a book now.”
Q: Erin, are there any poems that bring back a particular childhood memory that’s special to you?
Erin: A lot. Mr. Rue D. Behaviour is the real character that my dad used to do or used to call us. He would tell us that we’re being Rue D. Behaviour, the person, when we were being goofily rude. And it would always make us laugh — and stop being rude.
Bob: My own approach to life is always trying to go to the silliness. I think as a kid, you know, my dad was an alcoholic. There was a strange tension in my house. I had a lot of brothers and sisters, seven kids all together. We got along great, and we were very silly together, but a lot of that silliness came from not knowing where to put that anxiety about what the hell was going on. And we didn’t know and couldn’t answer the question, so we just got goofy. So the message I think we can sign off with is: Get goofy.
Illustrated by Erin Odenkirk
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. 160 pp. $19.99
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