You’d know the sound of Bob Odenkirk’s voice anywhere: its punchy, dexterous cadence has captivated audiences for decades, from his earlier days hosting the sketch comedy series “Mr. Show” to his legendary turn as smarmy yet sympathetic criminal lawyer Saul Goodman on “Breaking Bad” and its prequel, “Better Call Saul.” It turns out that same voice is also perfectly suited for reading children’s poems, which Odenkirk demonstrates on a video call from his Manhattan apartment by launching into an effortless impression of a nasally, feeble-voiced doctor character he once used to entertain his daughter, illustrator Erin Odenkirk, and her brother, Nate Odenkirk. “Has the child had enough hot fudge?” he croaks, running his words together in a manner that would delight any kid.
Erin, joining the call from Brooklyn, says it was “the silliest thing you’ve ever heard when you’re 6.” Dr. Bluestone, who thinks kids need to eat more sweets—“Have you administered any sprinkles lately? / They should be ingested daily”—is part of a cast of memorable characters that populate Zilot & Other Important Rhymes, an illustrated poetry collection that Bob and his children started around 20 years ago as part of a family activity that began with bedtime reading.
“We read to our kids every night as part of our nighttime ritual, starting when they were 2 months old.” Together with his wife, Naomi Odenkirk, Bob introduced his children to the likes of Dr. Seuss and Caleb Brown (Dutch Sneakers and Flea Keepers), and the family went through at least four or five picture books—sometimes more—each night.
A few years into this tradition, Bob considered how to further help his children feel empowered as creators. “One of the things that I feel held me back in my journey was just believing that writing or being a director or being an actor was allowed—that it was a possibility for me. You may look at my career and say, ‘Well, I don’t think you were held back very much.’” (Understandable, considering Bob was a “Saturday Night Live” writer at 25). “But even after I was working professionally, I still had years of going, ‘Can I do this? Is this okay? . . . Am I allowed?’ And I just think that mentality is worthless. It’s one thing to perceive writing or acting or being in the arts as challenging . . . But it’s not helpful to believe that you don’t belong, that you shouldn’t be allowed to do this, that you’re not worthy of it.”
“So I thought, right from when they were little, why don’t I write a poem with the kids after we read five books.” The family—including Naomi, who came up with a few of the poems in Zilot—did this about twice a week and ended up with around 80-100 poems: “I wouldn’t always fix things. I would let them write a silly line or pure nonsense.” Bob made sure that his children saw that he wrote each poem down—regardless of quality—in a book that he called Old Time Rhymes, which he stuck on a shelf.
“It’s one thing to perceive writing or acting or being in the arts as challenging . . . But it’s not helpful to believe that you don’t belong.”
Erin would grow up to obtain a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Critical and Visual Studies, from Pratt Institute in New York, and Old Time Rhymes always remained in the back of her mind. She considered what to do with the book, taking inspiration from illustrator and family friend Travis Millard, who often creates art based on his old journals.
Bob was also interested in making something from the poems in Old Time Rhymes, but any plans were far off: “I actually thought: When I’m a grandpa, I’ll sit down and rewrite these.”
But along came COVID-19. “I had to come home from college during the pandemic, as a lot of people did,” Erin says. “I was just sitting around in my room. . . . So my dad took initiative and pulled [Old Time Rhymes] out.”
“Everybody was wondering what to do with their time during the pandemic,” Bob says. “Erin had spent all her life becoming an artist. She’d gone to college and done lots of work developing her style. I thought: Now’s the time. And we got to work.”
For Erin, illustrating Zilot meant returning to the poems with an adult perspective: “I was surprised to find just how unabashedly silly and creative they were. I feel like I am a creative and silly-at-times person, but you lose some of that as you get older, and you start to believe you never were that way. It was really sweet to go back and find that sort of childhood rawness—to have things that you totally forgot about be triggered in memory.” She cites one of the earliest poems in the book,”A Trip to the 99-Cent Store” as an example. “It was something that we would do: go to the 99-cent store. Each of us would get $2 to buy whatever we wanted. That was a genuine joy. To be reminded of both that experience and what was fun to me about it at the time was wonderful.”
“Working together as adults was also wonderful and interesting,” Erin says. “I think a lot about how glad and honored I am that Bob trusted me to do this with him. . . . He was willing to work with me on something back when I was 19, which meant a lot to me.” Every day, Erin would share her her illustration drafts with Bob, even those on which she felt stuck. “Every single time he would go, ‘Oh, I have an idea.’ And the kid in his idea would always have the same facial expression: an ‘I’m up to no good’ kind of smirk. It’s so funny to think of this world in that way—it was our sort of ‘I’m up to no good’ world. I grew up with that, and now we’ve translated it to give to everyone.”
Read our starred review of ‘Zilot & Other Important Rhymes’ by Bob Odenkirk and Erin Odenkirk.
From a parent’s perspective, Bob couldn’t help but think of the Monty Python sketch where John Cleese plays a lawyer who visits his mom—except she can’t stop cooing over him and squeezing his cheek as if he’s a baby. “Having a kid is just where some part of your brain is broken. You just see that person as a child, even though they’re an adult now, and it’s hard to shake it. That’s why Erin calls me Bob; I think she’s constantly trying to reset the energy: ‘I’m an adult too now.’“
“I remember trying to call you Bob once when I was 10 or 11,” Erin adds. “Just to see what would happen. And you were like, ‘No, we’re not there.’”
Before she began illustrating for Zilot, Erin’s art was a lot more “conceptual and darker” than what would be fitting for children’s audiences: “I had to let go of a lot of the rules I typically follow or maybe the intentions I typically have, and it takes a lot of work to let go.” Luckily, she was in her childhood home, and could look through all her old books for inspiration—Shel Silverstein, MUTTS by Patrick McDonnell, Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes. ”I started to really try to figure out what I liked about those things. What I thought I liked was that they were pen and ink, but I realized I also really liked the energy they had and their detail within simplicity.”
The end result was illustrations befitting bedtime poems. “I like Erin’s colors,” Bob says. They’re calm and warm.”
Working on children’s poems was also a sharp deviation for Bob who—once lockdowns were lifted—was busy portraying the consequences of Jimmy McGill’s moral corrosion for the ruminative final season of “Better Call Saul.” “It was really hard,” he says. “I mean, I need to be sort of singularly focused. I think a lot of guys are that way. I’m that way for sure. So I wasn’t so able to work on “Saul” and then just go home and write Zilot poems. I needed to have these breaks where I was able to refocus myself. . . . I would then go do Saul and lose myself in that role and in that energy. Then I would come back to this.”
About half of the book came directly from the poems Bob wrote with his children years ago, but the other 40-or-so poems were written the second time around with Erin and Nate as adults. “You don’t have a little kid there to ask ‘What happened to you today? What are you thinking about? . . . So I had to do another acting exercise of imagining I was talking with a little kid or seeing the world as kids do, from a lower height—the things that are such an important part of their day, you know: food, things that scare them, things they’re unsure of, bugs, cleaning up.”
Acting contributed to Zilot, but Bob is also fundamentally a writer, and he sees similarities between the poems and the “Saturday Night Live” and “Mr. Show” comedy sketches that got him started in show business: “They’re short pieces; they have a comedy concept. They have a journey. If you do them right, there’s a bit of an arc to them.”
Zilot was not picked up immediately by publishers. One even asked if Bob and Erin could make the tone “louder” and “more abrasive.” Although they considered it, Erin says they realized “it would have been phony.”
“I think that we differ from Shel Silverstein in a way, in the gentleness of our stuff,” Bob says. These poems “come from a sweeter place. They come from a kid’s point of view.” After all, the titular poem, “Zilot,” comes from a word Nate invented to describe a blanket fort. “We have no idea where he got this. This is like a brain fart [from] a 6-year-old. But we liked the word.”
According to Erin, “Giving kids the context and the permission to use big words, or pick a big word that’s theirs, or invent a new word even, is part of the goal of this book.” Bob encouraged his children to be free with words such as felicitations, undaunted, rambunctious or fulsome (as in “fulsome logs,” to describe dog poop).
The perspective of Zilot is “half grown-up, half six-year-old thinking. Hopefully combined, like in a blender,” Bob says. “‘Grandma’s Skin’ is me talking to my aunt Leona . . . who used to share all of her doctors, pains and medical problems with us. As a kid, you hear that stuff and you go . . . ‘I’m five, I don’t know any doctors,’” Bob says. “I wanted to write a poem to other adults saying, ‘Hey, calm down with your medical problems. Kids can’t help you. Leave them be.’”
“It was really sweet to go back and find that sort of childhood rawness—to have things that you totally forgot about be triggered in memory.”
Some of the poems grapple with serious themes: “A Cat Named Larry” is about a cat who outlives his pet mouse. “It’s a touchy, difficult thing to share feelings of loss with kids,” Bob says. So he wanted to write a poem about death. “In the course of their lives, most kids—if they have pets—will have to say goodbye to a pet. This is one pet saying goodbye to its pet.”
“Those sorts of poems were important to us to write,” Erin says. “But they were a bit tricky to find the way to say it [as] you might if there was a kid in the room.”
For example, “The Theory of Incrementalism” is “definitely engineered by a dad,” according to Bob. “It’s telling your kid you can do big things, but they all start with small steps.” The poem was inspired by a parkour documentary: “A guy looks into the camera, and he goes, ‘It’s called the Theory of Incrementalism.’ He talks about how, when you do parkour, you just do a little jump, then a bigger jump. . . . Every day you do a little bit, you push it a little further. . . . It’s really an approach to life that you want to share with kids.”
Of course, “The Theory of Incrementalism” doesn’t lose the playfulness that runs through Zilot: “Silliness can help if you have a lesson you want to share,” Bob says. “You still get to talk about the subject matter, but it undercuts some of the pedantic quality.”
Ultimately, for Bob, “all our messages are in this book.” He and Erin would like readers to know: “Please have a laugh. We wrote it for you to laugh at it and smile. We hope you will try things: write your own poems, invent your own words and draw your own drawings.”
Headshot of Bob Odenkirk by Naomi Odenkirk.