Children’s books and sports have a long history together. For decades, authors like Matt Christopher and Jake Maddox have written books about every sport imaginable, painting literary pictures that any little leaguer can relate to. But when it comes to skateboarding, most authors tend to describe things in broad, easily digestible strokes that feel stilted to anyone who’s ever actually stepped on a skateboard. Every 11-year-old can seamlessly ollie a 12-stair and if Timmy can stick the Indy 360 at the big competition the bullies won’t beat him up. But unlike youth soccer, where one accidental kick can transform a benchwarmer into class hero, skateboarding takes pain, dedication, and a willingness to literally bleed before you can even make it out of the driveway.
Karl Watson knows exactly how hard skateboarding is. The 40-year-old San Franciscan has been bombing hills and innovating on ledges since the early 90s, making a name for himself with incredible on-board style and the skateboard industry’s biggest smile. After more than 20 years as a pro for storied companies like Mad Circle, IPath, and Organika, he’s now a father to four kids of his own, and is ready to share that knowledge with the next generation. Karl teamed up with cartoonist Henry Jones for My First Skateboard, an illustrated children’s book about falling down, getting up, and finding community in our favorite useless wooden toy. By rooting the book in their own childhood experiences, Watson and Jones were able to capture the joy and wonder of picking a board and learning to skate, without one competition, sponsor, or bully in sight.
With the book now available to order online, I got on the phone with Watson and Jones to find out more about My First Skateboard, how learning to skate is different for today’s generation, and to hear some stories that could never run in a kid’s book.
VICE: Karl, what made you decide to write a skate-themed children’s book? And why did you choose Henry to do the illustrations?
Karl Watson: To be honest I was at a turning point in my life and career and was thinking of ways to try and continue making my impact on skateboarding. I wanted to focus on the positive attributes that skateboarding has to offer and it was like, hey, I might as well try to inject our youth with as much information as possible about how amazing skateboarding is.
And of course thinking about Henry Jones I was so stoked to reach out because he’s one of my favorite artists, and when it comes to showing movement and expression in a subtle way, he’s the best. Having Henry involved was a no brainer.
Henry, what was your initial reaction to the idea of drawing a kids’ book?
Henry Jones: I had always thought of doing something like a kids’ book, but never got around to it. So it was cool to have someone, and especially Karl, hit me up to draw it because it made it a lot less work to do for something that I really wanted to do [ laughs].
My First Skateboard keys in on the community and cultural aspects of skating. Why was that so important for you to convey to a wider audience?
Karl: We wanted to focus on trial and error, getting back up after you fall, and basically how skateboarding can save the world. What I mean by that is that skating breaks down the race, language, gender, and age barriers. It’s the best activity known to mankind, straight up and down. I’m being biased, but I’m proud of that. The proof is in the pudding; go to any skatepark and you’ll see all the colors of the rainbow.
For me, skating was the first activity that I did entirely on my own, with no adult help or supervision. Do you think the intrusion of helicopter parents and hyper-intense skate dads has taken away some of the freedoms that made learning to skate so fun and rewarding?
That was a big catalyst for writing the book. Skating’s something that I care so much about and I can see it slipping away. It makes a big difference to not have someone barking at you. “You gotta hit it this way! Stand this way! Hold it this way!” Nah, we do our kickflips the way we wanna do it and we do our ollies the way we want to do them. It’s an individual form of expression, and that’s the beauty of skating.
Karl, you’re a parent. What have been your favorite parts about helping kids learn to
My oldest son pushed [with his front foot] when he started skating at like three years old, and I didn’t want to stress it, but I always showed him the way you’re supposed to push with the back foot, not the front. Still, it went on for years until he became a teenager, and at that point his friends had to let him know. Even though I had told him his whole life, very nicely, as both a parent and pro skater, it took his friends telling him to change it.
Are there any adult characters in the book?
Henry: [The main character] Jonas’s mom is in the book, but in a lot of frames we did try to keep it rooted in the kids’ world. Even in the skate shop, there’s no older dudes there helping him pick his board or anything. We definitely wanted to give the characters a lot of independence.
Do you remember your own first skateboards?
Karl: My first was an all-white Zorlac board with green Tracker trucks and orange Sims wheels that I got from the original FTC skate shop in San Francisco in 1987.
Henry: I had a Blind board called “The Switchblade,” and I know that because I look for it on Ebay all the time. I got it from Gordon’s, a hunting and fishing store right next to my house. But I only had enough money for the deck, so I had put my toy store trucks on it and drill in new bolts because the pattern was wrong.
Ouch. The book takes place mostly at street spots instead of skateparks and there’s at least one page in the story dedicated to San Francisco’s legendary EMB. Is it sad to you that most kids will grow up meeting their friends at skateparks instead of plazas like Embarcadero?
Karl: I think the biggest difference between skate plazas and skateparks is not having to run from the cops. When we were at EMB or Love, we were always on guard, and we appreciated the time we got to skate, because we knew it could end at any moment.
The skatepark kids nowadays, it’s almost like everything is just given to them. And don’t get me wrong, I’m glad they don’t have to deal with it. But still, that was a fun element of that scene; being 13 and getting away because you’re on your skateboard and the cops can’t keep up.
It definitely forced kids to grow up a little faster.
No doubt. At EMB there was this guy we called the banana man who would ride around on his bike sucking on a banana and pay skaters to pee on him or watch him pee on himself, and I’m 12 or 13 years old seeing this. Or another guy with a mirror on his shoe that used to go up to businesswomen on their lunch break and look up their skirts.
We would learn from those people, and know, I don’t wanna be like that and I don’t wanna be like that. So in a messed up way it was beneficial.
I’m guessing the police chases and banana man didn’t make it into the book?
[Laughs] No, no, no. No banana man.
Henry: Karl didn’t tell me about that before I drew the book, so I didn’t have a chance to include it even if I wanted to.
Karl, You’ve been through a lot of shifts and changes over your 20 years in pro skating. What does it mean to you to be able to branch out of the core skateboard industry?
Karl: Life is more than just skateboarding. I had blinders on for a long time, tunnel vision of just skateboarding, skateboarding, skateboarding. But as you get older it’s important to branch out to other aspects of life. And if I can incorporate what I love so much into other people’s way of thinking, and make them consider, Oh, skateboarding is actually something that’s really positive, I feel like that’s my way of giving back.
Skateboarders are notoriously critical of their portrayal in popular culture. What’s the reception to the book been like from the skate community?
I’ve definitely got some flack. I will say it’s been 99 percent positive, but that one percent is people tripping on the helmets.
Henry: Are you serious?
Karl: Yeah, some hardcore heads have said “C’mon Karl, there were no helmets at EMB, what the hell?” [ laughs]. Everyone’s allowed to have their opinions, but we’re trying to reach the masses, and I think it’s best to be as PC as possible in that regard. Also Henry nailed it with the helmets, so thanks, Henry.
Buy My First Skateboard here.