For PJ Library, Berkeley artist has simple message: I Love Camp!

Todd Parr has been working as an artist for around two decades, with more than 40 books for kids under his belt. The main entrance and storefront of New York City’s toy mecca FAO Schwartz was, for a period, dedicated to the Berkeley-based author’s art.

Todd Parr with his dogs, Pete and Tater Tot photo/jerry giovanini

But even Parr has been surprised by the level of interest that’s been generated by his most recent book, “I Love Camp!,” a celebration of the Jewish summer camp experience. Like several of Parr’s most recent books, it was commissioned by the PJ Library, a national book program that sends out free, Jewish-themed kids’ books and music to Jewish children on a monthly basis.

What’s so unique about this book? For one, Parr’s not Jewish. Also, he’s never been to a summer camp in his life. Also, he doesn’t have kids. But the good-natured author said that when the people from the

PJ Library came to him with the idea, he had no qualms about tackling the project.

“I figured it was something I could educate myself about,” the author said. “And when it came down to it, I figured it would have the same central message as all my work, which is about finding fun, engaging ways to learn about our differences.”

A program of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation — a philanthropic organization founded by Massachu-setts-based real estate tycoon Harold Grinspoon in 1993 — the PJ Library sends books to more than 70,000 families in roughly 135 communities in the U.S. and Canada. In the Bay Area, the S.F.-based, East Bay and Silicon Valley federations are partnered with the program.

Participating families sign up, tell the Library their children’s ages, and receive an age-appropriate book or CD each month that helps educate kids on Judaism’s core values and cultural traditions. Some books help explain holidays, and some cover traditional biblical territory; others simply celebrate Jewish heroes or culture.

The PJ Library was aware of Parr before asking him to write “I Love Camp!”; his kids’ tome “The Peace Book” had been the PJ Library’s first selection that wasn’t explicitly Jewish.

Parr, a Wyoming native who grew up in a fairly non-religious Christian household (aside from occasionally being “dragged to church on Easter,” as he recently told the New York Times), said the work he’s drawn to creating naturally fell in step with what the PJ Library was looking for. In books such as “It’s Okay to Be Different” and “The Feelings Book,” Parr aims to help kids navigate the slights and insecurities of childhood, and help them be more accepting of differences in others.

“I strive in all of my work to make everything matter-of-fact, to make everyone feel unique and special for who they are,” he said. “Without being preachy, I just want to make everyone feel included — especially kids.”

Though Parr doesn’t have children of his own, he does have nieces and great-nieces, as well as “very vivid memories of childhood,” including an early love of books passed on from his grandmother.

“My incredible grandma, who played a huge role in raising me, read all the time to me,” he said. “And that was just very powerful — whether it was Rumpelstiltsken or, you know, ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ … I still relate back to so many things that inspired me then.”

Parr has quickly become of one of the PJ Library’s favored authors. When it came time to create a book for Grinspoon’s 80th birthday, Parr wrote and illustrated “The Harold Book” in his classic style — and received a call from Grinspoon himself thanking him for his beautiful work.

And while Parr did research on Jewish camp traditions for this book, he said religion has never needed to be the focal point of his work for the PJ Library.

“I did my best to educate myself, but I also focused on making it simple and fun,” he said, also noting that he found himself catching on to Jewish themes and values pretty quickly.

“Who knows?” he added with a laugh. “Maybe I was Jewish in another life.”

To sign up for the PJ Library, go to


Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.