Usually, it’s the book that spawns the movie. But in Gary Ross’s case, it was a 1996 movie that spawned his children’s book, Bartholomew Biddle and the Very Big Wind (Candlewick) illustrated by Matthew Myers, which will be released with a 50,000 initial print run. While Bartholomew Biddle and the Very Big Wind is Ross’s first foray into the book publishing world, his previous work is quite familiar to booksellers: Ross wrote the screenplay for the blockbuster movies Big and Dave, and was the screenwriter as well as the director of two other blockbuster movies: Pleasantville and Seabiscuit. He also wrote the screenplay with Suzanne Collins and directed The Hunger Games, the first of three movies based on Collins’s bestselling YA dystopian trilogy.
“A friend [director David Koepp] was doing a movie [The Trigger Effect],” Ross explained when Children’s Bookshelf asked what inspired him to write Bartholomew Biddle. “He needed a character to read a bedtime story for a child.”
Koepp’s dilemma was compounded by the fact that he’d run out of funds for the movie, so that he had to use an unpublished work in the scene. “I told him I’d write something for him, but only if I could write it in rhyme,” Ross recalled, laughing at the memory. After Koepp agreed to his terms, Ross wrote a few stanzas of a tale about a boy who wants to fly so badly that, when a huge wind blows past his window one night, he grabs his bedsheet and soars off into the night sky.
“[Actress] Elisabeth Shue read it in the movie,” Ross recalled. Ever since the movie’s release 15 years ago, fans have inquired in various forums how they could purchase the book Shue had read from.
“But the book did not exist,” Ross noted, even though he continued to tweak and expand upon the narrative over the years, reading the story to his two young children (who are now teenagers). But there were no plans for him to complete the manuscript, much less submit it for publication—until about five years ago, when he started filming The Tale of Despereaux and met Candlewick’s publisher, Karen Lotz.
“I showed it to Karen,” Ross says. “She said she’d love to publish it.” So Ross wrote the 96-page book about Bartholomew Biddle’s series of three adventures – on an island with pirates, at a prep school where students have the blues, and in a mysterious cove – completely in verse. Writing the narrative in verse comes naturally to him, Ross says, because he’s always liked reading and writing poetry. He cites T.S. Eliot as one of his favorite poets, and enjoys reading William Shakespeare. In fact, he says, even though it “didn’t happen all the time,” there were some days when he forgot he was writing in verse, the narrative flowed so naturally.
Ross has no plans to quit his day job in the film industry and is, in fact, in pre-production mode for the movie adaptation of Peter and the Starcatchers, based on the series by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. But, he says, he greatly enjoyed writing Bartholomew Biddle and describes the writing process as “rich and satisfying,” even more satisfying, in some ways, than screenwriting. “In screenwriting, you are building the foundation for the movie,” he says. “Writing a book, you are speaking directly to the reader.”