“I totally forgot my book release date — which is the most ADHD thing ever,” said author Peter Shankman as we caught up over lunch at the Westway Diner to discuss his new children’s book, The Boy with the Faster Brain.
Peter — a Hell’s Kitchen local who somehow simultaneously functions as an entrepreneur, a sought-after marketing expert and keynote speaker, a dad, a startup veteran, a licensed skydiver, a neurodivergent advocate and of course, a six-time best-selling author — is here to tell me about his latest project, an illustrated children’s book based on his own experiences growing up with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Already topping the charts on Amazon in Children and Young Adult Nonfiction after less than a week, The Boy with the Faster Brain follows his five other successful nonfiction titles, including Faster Than Normal, his guide for adults on how to function — and flourish — with ADHD. In The Boy with the Faster Brain, his first children’s book, we follow 10-year old Peter and his parents as they navigate a school where he is consistently punished for being disruptive due to his ADHD symptoms.
“Every day, he comes home with a note from school that he’s interrupted the class,” said Peter. “He’s made a joke that he shouldn’t have and the kids laughed — and what he doesn’t realize, and what it took me nearly 40 years to realize, is that making the other kids laugh gave me dopamine.”
When Peter was growing up in New York City, “ADHD didn’t exist,” he said. “It was called, ‘Sit down, you’re disrupting the class.’” For the real-life boy with the faster brain, the phenomenon was difficult to process without today’s resources or understanding of neurodivergence, said Peter. “The best way to describe me as a child is the cartoon Calvin and Hobbes — I was like Calvin without the tiger.”
Like the hyperactive Calvin, Peter bounced around, collecting teacher’s notes and demerits throughout his education — until he attended New York’s legendary Fiorello H LaGuardia High School of Music & Art & Performing Arts, where he majored in vocal performance and first experienced a new dopamine high from public speaking and singing. “LGA saved my life — no question about it,” he said. “They understood me and were like, ‘yeah, he’s weird, but so is every one of these kids!’”
After graduating from LaGuardia, Peter took a leap and applied to Boston University’s College of Basic Studies. “It was a two-year core curriculum for fuck-ups in high school,” he laughed. “And even though I spent two years as a D-minus student, somehow they saw something in me.” Peter eventually transferred into and graduated from BU’s College of Communications, where he learned that the key to dramatically bringing up his grades was simply “doing the shit I liked.”
And he was also slowly learning more about how his brain worked, “I still attributed it to pure luck,” said Peter. That luck would once again come into play when the recent college graduate, hanging out in a Melrose Place-themed AOL chat room, received a job offer from a fellow member to help found the brand-new newsroom at America Online. “I had the time of my life,” said Peter, who added that the fast-paced, early-internet chaos of a digital newsroom was conducive to his faster than normal brain. “I started that newsroom with three other people, and we had no idea what we were doing — but we made things run and they didn’t care as long as we got it done. I could come in at two in the morning and work until 10am, because I realized I was really productive at two in the morning.”
The satisfaction would be short-lived — after two-and-a-half- years at AOL, Peter was victim of a mass tech layoff, and found himself rudderless once more in the summer of 1998. He tried a traditional print magazine but found the structure stifling — “It was like Russia in there, and I lasted one week,” he mused — and before he knew it, Peter was unemployed in a Hell’s Kitchen studio “the size of a table” where he paid $1,600 a month in rent.
“I wanted to start a PR firm, but I had no money,” said Peter. “I had $1,880 in the bank and still needed to pay rent the next month.” It was then that he had his aha-moment. “Everything I’ve ever done in my life started with the question: ‘I wonder what would happen if…’” he said. This time, Peter wondered what would happen if he took a late-90s popular cultural touchstone — the recent blockbuster Titanic — and made some irreverent merchandise to go with it?
Armed with T-shirts that read “It Sank, Get Over It,” Peter marched over to Times Square and took a big swing. “I figured if I could sell 180 shirts at $10 a piece, I could make back the $1,800 I had just spent making these shirts,” he said. In under six hours, he had sold 500 shirts and made $5,000. Calls from Good Morning America and USA Today followed. An early e-commerce website that he built to sell his T-shirts nearly broke the hosting server. Peter Shankman, the boy with the faster brain, had finally found his ADHD-fueled superpowers.
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Years later, Peter has used his unique capacity for “what if” to found several successful companies, including the journalism research resource Help A Reporter Out (HARO), which he sold in 2010 — and now spends his time working with and speaking to major corporations like Google and Morgan Stanley on how they can best hire and retain neurodivergent talent.
Having produced his first five books through traditional publishers, Peter decided to take another leap and publish The Boy with the Faster Brain on his own — another “why not” moment, he said. He hopes that the story is able to reach kids not unlike himself who may not quite know how or why their brains work the way they do.
“I never want another kid to feel the way that I did growing up,” Peter said, adding that even after “years of therapy” and society’s more advanced understanding of ADHD, navigating his own mind is still an ongoing process. “Every day I wake up thinking that today is the day the New York Times is going to write a piece on what a fraud I am,” said Peter. “That’s how the ADHD brain works — the second you lose respect for how your brain works is the second you’re going off the cliff at 120 miles an hour.”
More than anything, “I want kids to know that they’re good — that having a neurodivergent brain is a gift, not a curse,” he said. “If I hadn’t gone through all of this shit, I wouldn’t have been able to write this book. But I look at all of it as a gift. I love this brain — it’s given me the lowest lows and the greatest highs, and it’s about figuring out the balance between the two.”
But despite the challenges, he firmly believes and wants to tell other kids like him that “you are not broken.” Peter added, “It’s about understanding the tools in your brain. There’s a line in the book where Peter’s dad explains what happens if someone gives you a brand new sports car that you’ve never driven before, and you press the gas all the way down without knowing how to drive — what’s going to happen? You’re going to crash, boom. But what happens if you learn how to drive — you become a great race car driver. I’ve learned how to drive.”
The Boy with the Faster Brain is available now wherever books are sold.