Alison McGhee’s children’s book Tell Me a Tattoo Story follows a nightly ritual in which a little boy asks about his father’s body art before bed. The vignettes of these two characters interacting are not just heartwarming, they show how much love goes into a tattoo. It’s illustrated by Eliza Wheeler, who brings the endearing emotion of the text to life through her sharp linework and use of a warm color palette. “It is one of the few picture books centered around a parent’s tattoos and the stories behind them. Each one has tremendous meaning,” says McGhee, “It’s a story of family love, and it becomes a life story, too, because the dad’s tattoos express major passages of his own life.”
The idea for Tell Me a Tattoo Story first came to McGhee when an acquaintance mentioned the lack of kids books about tattooed parents. But it wasn't until her 18 year old son wanted a tattoo of his own that McGhee seriously considered the project. “I hadn’t really thought of tattoos. I don’t have any myself, and I thought, ‘It’s his decision.’ I’ve always been kind of a hands-off mother,” McGhee explains. “So I jokingly texted him back, ‘Well, not as long as it’s a heart with the word ‘Mom’ in the middle.’”
The tattoo that McGhee’s son returned with couldn’t have been less cliche. It was a depiction of the protagonist from his favorite children’s book — The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf — about a Spanish bull who’d rather smell flowers than fight. “It was just a tiny image of Ferdinand right between his shoulder blades. It moved me so much. I started to cry actually,” McGhee recalls. “It was my own child who first opened my eyes to the meaning of tattoos. They’re works of art, and most of the time, there’s very personal meaning behind them, and I’m fascinated with those stories.”
In McGhee’s book, it’s the parent who opens the eyes of the child to the joys of body art. Throughout Tell Me a Tattoo Story, the reader sees the dad showing his son tattoos next to scenes of the memories that inspired them. Without spoiling too much of the book, a few of the father’s pieces include a dragon based on a children’s book that his mother read to him when he was a child, a Ferris Wheel to represent the day he first met his wife, and a miniature heart with the boy’s birth date (the same year as McGhee’s son) in the middle.
Wheeler spent hours researching the art form in order to design the father’s collection based on what McGhee wrote. “I like the traditional style from the early 1900s — ships, skulls, and that sort of stuff — but I also wanted to give the tattoos in the book a modern feel,” Wheeler explains. “It’s about a modern family as well as memories inspired by previous generations, so I wanted to bring the past and present together.”
Even though many parents still discourage their children from getting body art today, the book has been widely praised, especially by tattooed moms and dads. “Sometimes I get letters from parents who write me and tell me how much their children love the book,” McGhee says. “They’re usually heavily tattooed, and they haven’t been able to share that with their children in a book form. I think it’s been really meaningful to parents and that makes me happy.”
Tell Me a Tattoo Story illustrates the importance of that families place on body art. It is more that just a heartwarming tale about a boy and his farther bonding. It captures how we color our dearest memories, just like our bodies, with emotion.
Here’s a link to where you can pick up a copy of Tell Me a Tattoo Story. Also, McGhee has a novel called Never Coming Back coming out in October. It also features a tattooed protagonist whose body art has deep personal meaning behind it. If you want to find out how tattoos play a role in this story of a young woman finding her way in life, make sure to pre-order the hardcover.