Longtime stand-up comedian and Tonight Show host Jay Leno is no stranger to telling stories. In fact, he collected some of his anecdotes in the book Leading with My Chin (HarperCollins, 1996). "It wasn't really an autobiography, but more a book of road stories," Leno told PW. "Silly things that happened in the clubs." Here Leno speaks about his new book, If Roast Beef Could Fly, illustrated by S.B. Whitehead (S&S), a story from his childhood.
PW: What inspired you to write a children's book?
JL: I've told stories about my family for years. I do a lot of charity events and fundraisers where you have everyone from kids to grandmas in the audience. Whenever I've told this story, kids seemed to think it was hilarious; they loved that there was a dog in it and that a roast beef goes flying. I happened to tell that same story to someone at Simon & Schuster and he asked, "Did you ever think about writing any of these down?" and I told him, "No, not until you mentioned it."
PW: How true to life is the incident in the book?
JL: Oh, it definitely happened. My dad was a prizefighter when he was a kid and he had a bit of a temper—not a bad temper—but he could get worked up. When he saw the comb in that roast beef and then threw the meat out the door, everyone was stunned. But after that everybody ate everything else—plates and plates of all kinds of food—and it was still a good time.
PW: Did you have some input into the artwork? There seems to be a likeness there.
JL: I gave the illustrator some pictures of my family, and he already knew me a bit from TV. One of the expressions in the book, he really got exactly right. It's one of me as a kid where I'm scowling at a scone. That's how it was in my family, the scone vs. the meatball—my Scottish and Italian sides.
The adults in my family were always trying to win my favor—I was the center of attention a lot of the time. Someone was always whispering in my ear, things like, "Just eat what your aunt gives you, Jamie; don't say anything to hurt her feelings" from the Italian side. Or from my thrifty Scottish relatives, "Just look at all that food on the table, Jamie, the waste!"
PW: What do your relatives think of the book?
JL: Well, it's pretty much just me and my wife so far. My aunts and uncles back East have not seen it, but that's the next step. I can already hear them saying "Is that supposed to be me?" It's always great to see my family. And now that I've been able to do things like put a new roof on my uncle's house or buy my aunt a new Buick, they say things like, "Give Jay the extra meatball, he's taking care of the family." They still remember the story and seem to get a kick out of it: "Where were you when the roast beef got tossed?"
PW: What do you hope kids will take away from your book?
JL: I was never alone when I was a kid. There was always someone there, preparing some kind of snack. If Mom wasn't home (and I can't remember my mom ever not being there), you went to your aunt's house and hung out with your uncles and cousins, too. It's a kind of protection that you just don't see anymore. Today you have latchkey kids who don't have a big family and big family meals; they are growing up on those processed "Lunchables." I realize now that I grew up in a very safe environment.
With this story, I tried to get at that sense of community. When I was a kid, parents held you as they read a book. This story doesn't have any moral. It's just a day in the life of a kid.
PW: Do you have plans to write any more children's books?
JL: I'd like to, if this one does well. The whole experience has been a good one. I remember that when I was a kid, the people next door had a coal chute (I'm dating myself here), and they had coal delivered. I used to sit on that pile of coal and read Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. There's a line that goes something like, the more people watched, Mike and Mary Anne dug a little faster and a little better. I think that's true in my case. The more people that watch, the more you show off.
I know the whole celebrity angle is why a lot of people will be interested. But I hope people see this as a silly story to read with a kid. The characters seem very real to me. And I hope it's refreshing to have a kids' book where nobody is preaching at you.