Mister Romain's Tough Neighborhood

(Amber Novak)
By Spike Gillespie
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 6, 2006

AUSTIN

Trevor Romain is a children's author, performer and animator who also hires himself out as a sort of master motivational speaker for the pre- and post-Wiggles set, unafraid to break the worst news to even the most fragile kid: We all die. You'll die. Cliques happen, bullies are waiting to get you. And don't forget about divorce.

His rapport with kids is a stunning thing to watch -- onstage, or in a hospital, or on a DVD. He lets the kids be the skeptical, snarky ones (the animated kids in his DVDs provide the sarcasm), while he mesmerizes with a high-energy, earnest compassion that makes him seem like a caring, hip older brother instead of a preachy dad.

Critics have noted that the animation in a Romain production is cheap and candy-coated, but the sentiment isn't. You don't get platitudes so much as you pick up on his sense of fun -- even when it comes to addressing the concerns of terminally ill children. (Yes, fun and death: Kids ask Romain, "Is it okay if I laugh?" he says. "I always say the person who has died would love you to laugh and love you to smile. The funniness is really warmth; there's a comfort in the laughter."

"He hangs out with kids who are dying. What he does is amazing," says Jean-Pierre Forage, an Austin surgeon and friend who often jogs with him. Forage recalls when Romain befriended a terminally ill teenager who wanted to wear his AC/DC T-shirt at his funeral. "It's hard to imagine a cheery conversation about clothes to wear in a casket," Forage says. "Tylor was like, 'I think I'm going to wear these,' and Trevor said, 'No, dude, you can't wear those. You have to be a little more formal.' " (More formal won out. "They had a good time that day," says Forage. "He gives people that comfort zone.")

Romain wouldn't be semi-famous and overbooked if he didn't have a knack for making life's tough stuff seem natural and even bad things seem okay. Since 2003 he's written several books and starred in a series of DVDs in which he and some animated friends not only get in touch with their feelings but make sense of them, too. As saccharine as that might sound, he's won over some cynical adults in the process, people who have allergic reactions to the hugs, Barneys and rainbows that form a child's early pop-culture diet.

"I like to see the child in adults and I like to see the child in children," Romain says. "Every one of us has a child inside that wants to jump up and down and shriek, but during our growth we've been told we can't do this." His online bio (at http://www.comicalsense.com/ , where he markets his DVDs and books), says that Romain sees himself as "Monty Python meets Dr. Seuss at Jerry Seinfeld's house in Mr. Rogers' neighborhood." Clearly he's trying to cover all the pop culture bases, but it's not a half-bad description of what he does.

A typical Romain approach to life's big bummers is seen in one of his DVDs, "What on Earth Do You Do When Someone Dies?": A little girl named Skye, one of Romain's two main animated characters, is distressed over the death of her grandmother. Skye's big questions include wondering if it was somehow her fault, not being clear on what happens to people when they die and wondering about a person's corpse. Romain explains to her -- and the kids watching at home -- that life leaves your body and then you're like a shell, and they attend a funeral where Romain gently talks about cremation and the scattering of ashes. And they discuss how cultures have different ideas about what happens after death.

A chat with the author features one tale after another about children he's known and loved and who died early, and all the joy they managed to show despite facing terminal diagnoses. "When an adult is terminally ill they look at the end date and that's all they focus on," says Romain. "When a child is diagnosed, they want to enjoy the moment: If something happens tomorrow, that's cool, right now I'm living this moment to the absolute max. "

Painful Memories

It's a Saturday afternoon and Romain, 48, stands on the set of his next DVD feature, "Cliques, Phonies and Other Baloney," and ad-libs for the camera. Dressed in a yellow shirt so bright he'd be conspicuous in a bunch of ripe bananas, the wiry, compact Romain laughs when he flubs his lines and tries again.

The message he is trying to convey -- which will be spelled out at the end of the DVD -- is that changing ourselves to please others and casting off true friends to join "cooler" groups is plain old wrong. To illustrate the point, he tells of his own youth in South Africa: Once at a middle school dance (or "dahnts," as he says in his still-heavy accent), he was amazed when a popular girl asked him to bust some moves with her on the dance floor. He was more amazed still when her friends invited him out for pizza afterward.

Accepting the invitation -- which he did -- meant abandoning the basement card game he'd promised his real friends. On the way to eat, the clique was approached by high schoolers who made fun of Romain's shirt (apparently just as loud as the one he's wearing). His "new" friends abandoned him, leaving him to be bullied by the older kids. Later he found out that the invitation had all been part of a dare -- and he was the butt of the joke.


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