From April 29 to May 5, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood celebrates its annual Screen-Free Week, when kids, families, and communities are encouraged to turn off the TV, video and mobile games, and other electronic entertainment, and “turn on life.” Reading, exploring nature, and enjoying family and friends are some of the activities the CCFC recommends in lieu of watching a screen. To support this initiative, Random House Children’s Books this week launches Random House Unplugs, a promotional campaign and national tour that will bring four picture-book authors (in various combinations) to stores, schools, and museums in 14 cities.

In the spirit of Screen-Free Week, the touring authors will tap into the themes of their books to encourage kids to unplug, read, and engage in creative play. Participants and their recent releases are Dan Yaccarino (Doug Unplugged, Knopf), Chris Raschka (Everyone Can Learn to Ride a Bicycle, Schwartz & Wade), Bob Staake (Bluebird, Schwartz & Wade), and Tad Hills (Duck & Goose: Goose Needs a Hug, Schwartz & Wade).

Each author has created a promotional poster with original art; these will be distributed for Random House Unplugs school events. On selected stops, the authors will put their artistic skills to work and, with their young fans’ help, create indoor or outdoor murals in schools and public spaces. The four kicked off the campaign with a pre-tour visit to Teunis G. Bergen Elementary School in Brooklyn, where they talked up Screen-Free Week and teamed up with students to create art to beautify the school.

Yaccarino’s Doug Unplugged, in which a young robot rebels against his daily routine of downloading information and unplugs himself to explore the city first-hand, initially inspired Random House Unplugs, says John Adamo, senior v-p of marketing for RHCB. “We’d been talking about finding a way to tie into the Screen-Free campaign for some time, and we realized that Dan’s book gave us a great opportunity to raise some awareness of it,” he says. “We had these great new picture books that encourage getting outside, adventure, friendship, and discovery, and we realized that the authors are all sort of speaking the same language, though coming at the message from different angles. We felt that this tour could help that message resonate.”

Yaccarino, a digital artist and self-described tech nerd, says he was partially inspired to write Doug Unplugged by the reliance of his own two children – one in high school, one in middle school – on computers for information-gathering. “I see how computers are becoming increasingly necessary in their schoolwork, and it bothers me that sometimes they, and all kids, take the info they find online as the absolute be all and end all of information,” he says. “I always tell them to learn by experience and seek out other opinions and sources. That, and the fact that I love robots, led me to think of a story about a robot tethered to a giant computer who decides to unplug and go out into the world, where he becomes more of a human being. ”

Spreading the Message to Unplug

Tad Hills, whose book credits also include How Rocket Learned to Read and Rocket Writes a Story, is also an advocate of unplugged creativity. “I would not be doing what I’m doing now were it not for people in my past who inspired me and encouraged me to make things,” he says. “I hope that I can, in some way, pass on an enthusiasm for making art, reading, and having fun without a screen to as many of the kids we meet as possible.”

Reflecting on how the theme of his Everyone Can Learn to Ride a Bicycle fits snugly with that of Random House Unplugs, Chris Raschka says, “You cannot feel the wind in your face and the earth bumping pleasantly along beneath you when you sit in front of a rectangular screen, no matter how great the video you’re looking at is. You’ve got to get outside and climb onto a bike for some real fun. Much as I’m told that my career might depend on my cyber life and as much as I’d like to have a fantastic Web site, maybe I’m selfish, lazy, or in denial, but I’d just rather read a book in an armchair.”

Bob Staake weighs in with high enthusiasm for the tour, noting that he will himself unplug while on the road – for the most part: “I will go about it as a vegetarian when it comes to the screen, but I won’t be a vegan.” He is eager to work on art projects with children during tour events. “When we visited the Brooklyn school, it was so rewarding to see the pride on the kids’ faces as they created the art,” he says. “I realized that those of them who are fortunate enough to become artists are going to remember that experience. It’s always wonderful to give back something to kids.”

To support the Random House Unplugs initiative, RHCB has created a video featuring interviews with the four artists, with footage from their visit to the Brooklyn school. The video can be viewed on the campaign’s Web site, where additional information about Screen-Free Week, links to a blog tour counting down to that week, a parent guide, and downloadable activities are available. The publisher also plans online advertising, a social media campaign, and outreach to teachers and librarians. A merchandising kit for retailers includes an easel, parent guide, and a poster featuring activities.

“I’m looking forward to the hands-on creativity with kids, and to spreading the word that computers have their creative uses, but it’s really about balance,” says Yaccarino. “Doug uses the computer to acquire information, which helps him when he goes out into the world. But don’t be satisfied with information you acquire using two senses. Switch the computer off, go out, interact with the world, and use all five senses to learn more. That’s really what the message is.”