How Not to Calm a Child on a Plane

by Dr. Jessie Voigts /
Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture
Jul 09, 2014 / 0 comments

Have you ever held treasure in your hands? You know, those books that make you laugh out loud throughout the entire book, nod your head in agreement, text best friends great lines, and induce a flurry of both written and oral recommendations on book sites and in person? I bet you can count these rare treasures on your fingers (maybe the fingers on just one of your hands). I now have three fingers held up (for my favorite funny writers: David Sedaris, Jenny Lawson, and Johanna Stein)…because another great book has been added to this joyful treasure chest of goodness – comedian and writer Johanna Stein’s How Not to Calm a Child on a Plane (And Other Lessons in Parenting from a Highly Questionable Source). It’s hilarious, honest, wry, life-affirming, and a great way to laugh about the vicissitudes of parenting.


How Not to Calm a Child on a Plane


This book is comprised of essays on such parenting topics as birth, travel, playgrounds, pink princesses, haircuts, and ER visits. But I have to be honest - reading these everyday topics from SUCH a hilarious point of view somehow makes parenting, well, more joyful. It’s the kind of book we need when we’re up at 3am with a sick child; sitting on a bench in the park wondering who all these other parents are; while our darling daughter uses the ultra expensive perfume and cornstarch to make a magic “potion"; or when we’re so filled with love for our child that our hearts almost explode, and then they say something so crazy you just question all of life - including your child, who just insulted you in a backhanded way with a whole lot of love. Stein writes so well of these sorts of crazy yet normal occurrences that we laugh, smile, and devour more of her words. Set aside a chunk of time to read this book, and forgo your exercise for the day – you’ll get plenty of ab work from laughing so hard.


Author Johanna Stein, of How Not to Calm a Child on a Plane


How Not to Calm a Child on a Plane rings true in all sorts of ways, but my favorite chapters were A Pregnant Pause, How Not to Calm a Child on a Plane, Ways in Which My Preschooler Has Insulted Me, and Lies I Have Told My Daughter.


True story: I was sitting lakeside, reading this book, and was laughing so hard that a passing group of kayakers stopped to ask the name of the book. One woman even pulled up to shore, got out of her kayak, and wrote it down! Laughter is powerful persuasion, indeed.


How Not to Calm a Child on a Plane is not a parenting book (for which I am thankful). Instead, this book is a relatable compendium of those funny, quirky, odd, and completely foreign things that happen when you have a kid. It makes you laugh about life’s best and most difficult moments – and that’s truly a treasure.


We were lucky enough to catch up with author Johanna Stein, about memory, writing, Chicago, parenting, and more. Here’s what she had to say…


Do you have a fantastic memory, or do you hurry and jot things that your daughter and H say, to work into your book later? I think every parent thinks they will remember all the funny things, and 10 minutes later, poof - gone.

If I relied solely on my memory this book would be a 10 page looseleaf pamphlet filled with cat doodles. Coming from a comedy background, I was already an obsessive note taker, so from the moment I peed on my first stick (deliberately, anyway) I’ve been recording the moments, events, and absolutely-bananas experiences that have happened to me since becoming a parent.


What was your inspiration to write this book?

The big picture is that in 2008 we moved from Los Angeles to Chicago for my husband’s work. So there I was, mom to a 1-year-old, in a huge new city, away from my friends, my support system, and my creative community. It’s obvious to me now that I turned to writing these first-person humor pieces to keep from eating my own arm out of panic, frustration and boredom. Luckily for me, Chicago was the perfect place to be, because at the time Chicago was - and still is, really - undergoing an explosion in live storytelling events, so I had great outlets to work out and hone these pieces. That’s where the overall inspiration came from.

More specifically - the book grew out of a bizarre experience I had while traveling with my family.  We were boarding a plane to visit grandparents when our then two-year-old started to have one of those airplane freak-outs that all travelers fear…. shrieking, howling, throwing herself around — pure demonic-type tantrum stuff. Not wanting to be “that” nightmare family on the plane, I tried everything I could to make her stop, until finally I came up with the ingenious idea of scrawling a cute puppet face onto an airplane barfbag. It worked perfectly, and my little angel asked for another (“MO PUPPA MOMMA!”)  So I grabbed another barfbag, drew another puppet, and stuck my hand inside — only to realize in a nanosecond that this barfbag had been used in the VERY RECENT PAST. By this point, though, the plane doors were about to close, and I had to deal with the fact that I was suddenly wearing a glove made of the puke of a stranger….

I wrote that story, and sent it to Lisa Belkin - who, at the time, was editor of the NYTimes’ ‘Motherlode’ column. She ran the piece in her column and it got a terrific response. One of the folks who emailed me about it was a literary agent named Doug Abrams, who normally works with people like Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu (just to drop a couple of names that I am not worthy of dropping). Doug encouraged me to think about putting together a collection of my stories — and because he is one of the nicest, smartest, most honest people I have ever met (as far as agents go, he’s practically a unicorn), with his help, that’s exactly what I did. 


I have to ask... was it hard to narrow down stories for this book?

The first twelve to fifteen pieces - those were obvious…. After they were finished I was faced with an unruly mass of 30-40 stories vying for inclusion. And the publisher had me on a somewhat tight production schedule for the book, so I would work on several of those stories at a time, that way if I got stuck on one, rather than getting slowed down I could take a quick left turn and get to work on another. Then as the book began to take shape it started to become obvious which stories were needed. I really leaned on my editor Renee Sedliar to tell me which stories fit, which ones were redundant, and which weren’t funny enough (my words, not hers, btw — one of the many things that made Renee so lovely to work with is that she knows how to say those things without actually saying those things).


I imagine everyone reading your book feels the same - that we can TOTALLY relate to what you're writing. Do you get requests all the time for women wanting to be your best friend? How do you handle that?

When that happens I just have them submit a 20 page questionnaire with a S.A.S.E. Applications take about 6-8 weeks to process.

KIDDING! Actually, that might be the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me about this book. But I absolutely and completely relate to that feeling, of reading a book and wanting to chase down, stalk, and demand of the writer that we get matching BFF tattoos. So far no-one has done that to me… but if and when that does happen, I just may get that tattoo, to show my support and solidarity (just as long as it’s a tasteful tattoo and doesn’t end up on my face).


It must have been very difficult to leave Chicago - what do you miss (besides Cubbies & stadium food)?

Okay, don’t hit me but I really do miss the seasons. NOT THE EXTREMES, mind you. I can do without melting in a pile of my own humidity… and if I never have to wear another Arctic parka again, that’s okay with me. But I really miss the fall, and the first few days of winter. And spring! Living near Wrigley Field in the spring was kind of magical. My daughter and I would pass the stadium on our walk to her pre-school, and at least once a week we would find a piece of sparkly jewelry under the melting sidewalk snow. Evidently Chicago Cubs + Drunk Girls + Slushy Snow = Buried Treasure!
Of course I miss my friends, and the writing community that I found there. It’s such a creative and supportive community — L.A. is too, but it’s very different because of the way it revolves around the entertainment business. In Chicago I found it much easier to focus on doing the work because there’s a lot less hustle noise there… In Los Angeles it’s very easy for the “business” part of “show business” to take over your creative mind.

I also miss The El… and the lake… the big fountains in Millennium Park… and Summer Dance… and yes, the Cubbies.

One thing I don’t miss is Deep Dish Pizza, which is just a gut-bomb that will try to claw its way out of you at 4:00 in the morning. Or maybe that’s just me.


Author Johanna Stein, of How Not to Calm a Child on a Plane


What is your best advice for parents to keep a sense of humor about the craziness that is parenting?

Remember that millions of idiots have done this job before you - and even they were able to keep the species going. So trust that you’re going to do an okay job too.


What's up next for you? (PLEASE SAY ANOTHER BOOK!)

Well… I’m in negotiations as we speak with a fancy-pants producer who wants to adapt the book for tee-vee (insert cautiously optimistic squeal here). It’s completely surreal. Even though I’ve written for t.v., I’ve never worked on anything that was quite so personal. So it’s exciting and daunting and makes me want to vomit but mostly in a good way (and when I do vomit I plan to do it into a barfbag which I will then toss into a trashcan. Because THAT’S how it’s done.)

Aside from that — and because I know how showbiz works (and doesn’t work, which is often) — I do have another book idea that’s burning a hole in my brain. I’m putting together the proposal for that right now… I won’t say too much about it, other than to say that it’s every bit as personal, revealing and questionable as How Not to Calm a Child on a Plane — but with 30% less vomit. 



Thank you, Johanna, for writing such a funny book – and for making the difficult job of parenting a little bit easier.

Learn more at:

Be sure to watch the videos at:

especially the eponymous video:

Be sure to watch the book trailer:

And get your copy at the Amazon page:









All photos courtesy and copyright Johanna Stein

Note: We received a review copy of this book from the publisher, Da Capo Lifelong, Perseus. Thank you!







Comedian and writer Johanna Stein on parenting, Chicago, inspiration, and her new book, How Not to Calm a Child on a Plane

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