Too much pride won’t get you anywhere. Ask for assistance if you need it, and make sure you absorb the lessons you need to learn.
As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jodi Meltzer.
Jodi Meltzer is a multi-award-winning children’s book author who has also written extensively about grief for various publications, including HuffPost, The Mighty, Scary Mommy, and Thrive Global. Before motherhood, she was an accomplished anchor/ reporter who covered everyone from Hillary Clinton to The Goo Goo Dolls. She transitioned to mommy blogger in 2010―the year her baby boy swallowed her whole. She escapes his grips with sarcasm, bold coffee, and ’80s music/movie binges with her rescue dog curled up on her lap. A Boston native, she recently relocated to Tampa in search of more sunshine, literally and figuratively. To learn more about Jodi and her books, Goodnight Star, Whoever You Are and When You Lived in My Belly, visit jodimeltzer.com.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I will date myself with this reference, but I grew up in a Footloose type of town; if you blink while driving through the center, you will miss it altogether. It’s a quintessential suburban oasis anchored by a pristine lake that offers stunning sunsets, ideally situated a half-hour away from both Boston and Providence.
I was a stereotypical ’80s girl straight out of a Bon Jovi video — impossibly big hair shellacked by copious amounts of Aqua Net, electric blue eyeliner, head-to-toe neon. My best friend from kindergarten, Jody King Camarra, was always by my side for all my antics, and that continues to this day. She lent her illustrative prowess to both of my books, When You Lived in My Belly and Goodnight Star, Whoever You Are.
Despite a somewhat idyllic childhood — two healthy (and hilarious) parents who divorced after high school, a supportive brother who helped me stay out past curfew — the too-small town made me want to hightail it to the greater New York City area for college.
When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?
Choosing books is like choosing children. There are so many titles that have reshaped my worldview, propelled me to act, and inspired self-reflection. But if I must choose just one, I’d say I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou.
I was in serious Judy Blume mode when I first opened Maya Angelou’s raw and unapologetic masterpiece. It poignantly and poetically introduced me to issues that filled me with rage, from racism to rape. A budding tween, I related to her struggles towards self-acceptance in an intrinsic way. It was the first autobiography I recall reading, and it proved to be prophetic.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings stuck with me. The unabashed truths she shared, which must have been both excruciating and cathartic to recount, inspired me to write in the first person.
I immediately purchased a red notebook adorned with hearts at the mall, and quickly filled it with poems I wrote while sitting on a large rock in my front yard. When I visit my hometown, I sometimes do a nostalgic drive by that rock as it served as my tween version of a coffee house.
As an adult, I have tackled grief, divorce, and parenting woes for many publications and websites. I have been told I can make people laugh and cry in less than 500 words. This comes from putting my authentic self out there, and the courage to do that is rooted in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
I was living in New York City when I received a fateful call on a Friday from a television station in Burlington, Vermont. The news station was in the middle of a multimillion-dollar makeover, and management needed someone desperate enough to accept an unenviable contract.
After putting in my behind-the-scenes dues working on two films/for the syndicated news magazine Inside Edition, my I-need-my-first-on-air-job clock was ticking loudly. The station manager offered me a six-month anchor/reporter position with a pathetic salary to match — plus one additional caveat: I had to start on Monday.
I had two days to pack my belongings and move, sight unseen, to an area I had never visited. I didn’t know a soul. It was an intoxicating proposition for a free spirit who did not have any attachments. And it was ripe with bloopers.
The first day, I arrived to work at 2:30 a.m. I had to write my scripts, tape them together for the teleprompter (I swear!), and edit video for the broadcast. I was beyond amped up sitting in the anchor chair under the unforgiving white lights. I was literally shaking. Fittingly, I could not stop tripping over my words. A viewer called the station and asked a producer, “Is there something wrong with the new anchor?”
When I walked off set, my boss asked me to come into his office. Stat. I was certain I was going to be fired.
“You need to cut your hair,” he said matter-of-factly. “An appointment will be made for you today. It can’t be below your shoulders.”
That’s all he said. He did not critique my excruciatingly painful performance; he criticized my appearance. It was one of the first times in my young career that I felt objectified, and it motivated me to find my voice.
I had countless other mistakes on-air — forgetting my microphone, flubbing live shots, an earpiece flying out of my ear, you name it — but I made sure I was good enough to be judged by my performance from that point on.
Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?
I am on a quest to normalize grief. Even though it’s a great equalizer — we will all experience it at some point in life — adults and children alike are afraid to talk about it. That needs to change.
When my son’s father died, he understandably missed more than one week of school to mourn. He was only 8 at the time, and he insisted on contributing to his dad’s funeral in every way: helping with arrangements, shoveling dirt on his grave, delivering a beautiful eulogy. I can honestly say I could not have done the same when I was in elementary school, as I struggled to do it all when I lost my mom as an adult. He’s just a remarkably resilient old soul who is wise beyond his years, an indomitable spirit who will always get up after life throws deeply unfair gut punches.
When he went back to class, he was surprised when his friends and classmates did not acknowledge his dad’s passing. No one said a word. I later found out the kids were instructed to ignore the topic.
Mind you, this was a highly ranked elementary school with compassionate educators. Three of them attended my son’s father’s funeral unannounced in a show of support and solidarity. But the classroom snub upset my child.
I was informed that one of the school leaders told the kids they should not mention my son’s father’s death when he returned. It was precisely the wrong thing to do — my son’s foundation was forever cracked, and no one acknowledged the seismic shift in his young life.
Yes, death makes people uncomfortable, but no one is more uncomfortable than a child grieving the death of his father. Collectively, we need to do better.
Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
My book highlights a shared phenomenon both of my kids experienced more than one decade apart.
I took an atypical path to motherhood. Unexpectedly, I met and later married a widower at age 32. The proverbial stork dropped a sweet 8-year-old girl on my doorstep first — one who had lost her beautiful mother at age 4.
I distinctly remember long car rides with her where she would look out the window and think a star was following her on the way home. “That’s my mom checking up on me, reminding me that she loves me,” she’d say.
Fast forward 12 years later. I am driving in the car with my son after a long day at the beach. “Mom, there’s a star that looks like it’s following me,” he said.
A tear sprang to my eye.
He associated the star with his dad who passed after a heartbreakingly cruel battle with kidney cancer (and then expanded the possibility of it representing our sweet cat, Orangina, or one of his three grandparents who died). Two grieving kids, more than one decade apart, saw the same thing. They saw what they needed to see to self-soothe, to feel a connection, to believe that love transcends physical distance.
I had to share their story with other children who might need to see the star, too.
What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?
I decided to write Goodnight Star, Whoever You Are after a frenemy cruelly mocked my son for having a dead father.
The unprompted jab happened while my son was working with a group of kids in music class. Just four students in a back part of the room, out of the teacher’s earshot. My son saw an unattended recorder and wondered if someone was missing it. “Does anyone know whose recorder that is?” he wondered aloud. The kids shrugged…all except for one of them.
“It must be your father’s recorder,” a student responded, in a snide tone. “Oh, wait, I forgot. You don’t have a father.”
My son swallowed hard choked back tears and steadied himself. This despicable comment dug deep, but he didn’t want to give the student the satisfaction of shedding a tear.
When I heard the story, I did all the crying for him.
That child seared an indelible mark of pain and humiliation into my young son’s impressionable brain. He had just buried his beloved dad one year earlier; now an insensitive kid was picking on him for being a fatherless son. It was too much.
I decided then and there that I had to write a children’s book about grief, to give kids like mine an outlet for understanding and support, and for kids like his tormentor who need to be enlightened about a subject that’s not discussed nearly enough.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
I must say, having a president who has endured unimaginable tragedy and loss — and doesn’t shy away from describing how it truly gutted him — has elevated our collective consciousness about grief.
“I know how it feels to lose someone you love,” President Joe Biden once said. “I know that deep black hole that opens up in your chest — that you feel your whole being is sucked into it. I know how mean and cruel and unfair life can be sometimes.”
We need more of that.
We need more validation that grief not only exists but is also extraordinarily hard to grapple with for anyone in the throes of it (and never goes away).
We need more support, services, and resources. Everywhere. There’s a tremendous void in schools, in homes, in the workplace.
We need to acknowledge that many children must learn how to persevere through unspeakable heartbreak, especially now. More than 40,000 children have lost parents to COVID-19 in the US alone. Families come in all variations, including ones where one or both parents have died. Let’s talk about it.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leaders show people how they fulfill their own dreams and help others achieve theirs. They are bold but gentle, confident but teachable, humble but accomplished.
Above all, leaders never forget where they come from, and pride themselves on helping people become more successful than they are. I always aim to hire people who will eventually run circles around me. I may show them the way, but they have the talent and drive to take it to the next level.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. When someone shows you their true colors, believe them the first time. Don’t try to paint them differently. You’re not Picasso.
2. Check your past baggage before you take flight with someone new. This holds true in your personal and professional life.
3. Too much pride won’t get you anywhere. Ask for assistance if you need it, and make sure you absorb the lessons you need to learn.
4. Give yourself time to transform. The soul of a butterfly is a caterpillar.
5. Show people why they should believe in you. You are your own brand of magic.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If you’re going through hell, keep going.” This Winston Churchill quote has got me through so many trying times in my life.
Grief is an emotional vampire that can suck you dry of your resolve. You’re not going to outrun the pinnacle of pain; it walks alongside you. But you won’t always feel like you’d rather curl up in the fetal position, I promise. If you keep going, you will eventually figure out a way to go on.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Taye Diggs comes to mind, and it’s not simply because I just binge-watched season 3 of All American. He actually follows me on Twitter, the social media platform I am least active on. I have no idea how or why that happened, but I am not complaining.
I just love his whole vibe.
Taye Diggs has authored several children’s books, including my personal favorites I Love You More Than…,Mixed Me!, and Chocolate Me. He’s all about supporting his son by giving the world books it needs to read, much like I am. I’d sit across the table from him any day.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
My website: http://jodimeltzer.com/
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!