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
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 MemoriesIt'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.
This is just one in a series of painful memories Romain has mined to inspire his work.
As a child, he says he was held back by dyslexia, attended special education classes until fourth grade, was spanked by teachers for his tendency to daydream, and was told that he would never amount to anything, especially not the writer and artist he aspired to be. Often bullied courtesy of his small stature, he learned to run fast to escape his tormentors.
Running kept him fit, eventually enabling him to qualify for paratrooper training when, at 18, he was called to two years of mandatory service in the South African army. It was the late '70s, apartheid, and his company was building field hospitals. Early on, he encountered a small child who begged to be held and a sergeant major who forbade him to get emotionally involved.
Disobeying orders, Romain says he picked the child up. "Both his legs had been blown off" by a land mine. "Something happened in my soul. I bent down and picked [him] up and I've never been held so tightly in my life. He put his head against my neck and he started to cry and his tears ran down inside my shirt, and that's when I felt that that's what I wanted to do. I actually felt a physical shock in my system."
After the army, Romain's attempts to publish a children's book were met with a deluge of "four hundred" rejection slips. He eventually found work in a South African advertising agency, but his desire to make a career of working with children drove him to the United States, where he felt he had a better shot at getting published, and eventually to Austin, where he met his wife of 17 years, a psychotherapist. (Asked if they plan to have children, he answers, "We haven't been blessed with kids.")
His True PassionKids, of course, are a tough audience: fidgety, distracted, impatient. (Romain mostly works with ages 6 through teens.) But some people are like Christmas trees, it seems -- being in a room with them fills you with a holiday-morning anticipation, an instant sense of security, an odd familiarity. Romain is one of those. You get this weird feeling of wanting to sit right next to him and put your head on his shoulder and listen to him tell stories all day long. And you're certain you could tell him anything -- your biggest mistake, your greatest fear -- and he will handle the information with utter respect and thoughtfulness.
"When I was 14 I stopped growing mentally," Romain says. "I'm just a kid. One of the gifts I've been blessed with is to have kids see me for who I really am."
In 2003, after traveling the country for years to schools and hospitals, delivering stand-up comedy with self-help messages to tens of thousands of schoolchildren, Romain was exhausted. A friend suggested he try putting his messages into DVDs -- bigger audience, less travel.
Romain teamed up with Austin filmmaker Fred Miller, a couple of investors came on board, and the Comical Sense company was born, with the idea that Romain would distill his 30 children's books and countless speeches into a series of cartoons that would tackle difficult subjects including phobias, homework aversion, bullies, divorce, death and fitting in.
There are over 1 million copies of Romain's books in print in 14 languages, according to Free Spirit Publishing, a company specializing in self-help books for young people. (Romain's camp wouldn't provide DVD and video sales figures.) He often speaks at education conferences about the use of humor in the classroom. His work with dying children -- for years Romain has hung out on cancer wards in a white jacket emblazoned "Doctor of Mischief," "doing rounds," and he sits on the board of the National Candlelighters Childhood Cancer Foundation -- has garnered him invites to talk to doctors about end-of-life issues.
But it's working with kids that is Romain's true passion, and he is fearless when it comes to difficult, even taboo, topics and experiences. Romain worked with a 5-year-old girl who was dying. "She was a bag of bones hanging onto life by a thread -- she did not want to go," he recalls. With her mother's permission, he whispered to the little girl that she should imagine she was a beautiful butterfly and that it was okay for her fly away. "Within an hour, she passed away."
And he's not afraid of telling stories that might come across as corny or sappy.
When one young patient died, Romain kept a promise he'd made to her: He'd read aloud his latest book -- which he'd dedicated to her but had not completed before her death -- on a rooftop so she could hear it up in the heavens. The mother asked to bring some family and friends. Romain agreed. She called back then and asked to bring her daughter's whole class, and then the principal called and asked if the entire school could attend. They had to move the event from Romain's house to the roof of a local Austin art museum, where the author read the book to a perfectly silent audience of hundreds.
"I read as loud as I could," Romain recalls. And then, when he was finished, all those gathered spontaneously burst into singing "Wind Beneath My Wings." That can either strike you as too much or just right, but it's the kind of moment in which Trevor Romain thrives.