NO FAIR! How Parenting and Patience Inspired a Picture Book

by Jacob Grant

As parents of a 4-year-old girl and a 7-year-old boy, my wife and I devote much of our lives to arbitrating fairness in the house.
“Who had it first?”
“Who poked who?”
“Who didn’t flush?”
Parenting is work. The good news is that there are times when I’m lucky enough to turn this work into another — and for me, that’s making children’s books.

When the pandemic kicked off, I had just finished writing and illustrating my book, No Pants!, the story of a boy named Pablo, his Dad, and their debate about the importance of wearing pants. (Surprisingly appropriate for everyone working from home.) I knew that my next story would also feature Pablo and his Pops, and the idea for this one came about in those early days of being stuck in the house with two energetic kids. This would become my latest book, No Fair!.

To entertain our trapped wildlings, my wife and I thought up various games we could play in the house, and the undisputed favorite was “Beach Ball.” We played the game like volleyball, using various stacked objects and furniture as a net and, of course, a beach ball. We went through many beach balls.

As our 5-year-old became more skilled at the art of “Beach Ball,” we began to keep score. A mistake? Maybe. The problem with keeping score is that we now had a defined winner and loser, and our son did not take losing well. (At one point, there was vomit.) His reaction to losing was visceral and dramatic, and I could not wrap my head around how quickly our game could transform from joy to utter devastation.

And so, I did what I often do when faced with a parenting dilemma — I wrote a story about it. My goal wasn’t to solve the mysteries of parenting but to explore what occurs because our kids’ feelings are powerful, real, and deserving of our attention.

Thinking more about the games we played, the idea that hooked me was how unfair life can be when you’re a kid. Whether that’s not having a say in where you go, what you eat, when to go to bed, or even losing a game to a full-grown adult who should probably know better and let you win more. To state the obvious, the relationship between parent and child is inherently unfair because adults and children are not equals. But now and then, there might be a chance to make things a little fairer. And with that, I had a story.

The funny thing about making a story pulled directly from life is how easy it is to mix up the characters’ names with those of my family members. My editor at Viking, Tracy Gates, was very patient every time she had to point out that I’d replaced the main character’s name with my son’s. (A daily occurrence.) When I eventually got the names right, we ended up with a book that does its best to be fair to parents and children alike.

Did I learn anything from making it?
I want to think I found a little more empathy and patience for our kids’ experiences.

Do I let my kids win more games?
Nope! But I always play fair.