Children's Features

Celebrity Storytellers
Staff -- 9/11/00
A collection of interviews with this fall's crop of big-name authors

Julie Andrews Edwards | John Lithgow
Katie Couric | Jamie Lee Curtis

Julie Andrews Edwards

No stranger to children, Julie Andrews Edwards is known to millions as Mary Poppins and Maria Von Trapp. But she has also gained her share of young fans through her books for children. Little Bo: The Story of Bonnie Boadicea (Hyperion, 1999) may be her most recent bestseller, but it is by no means her first.
Edwards says that she always wrote as a child but never thought to do it professionally--until she lost a bet with her eldest stepdaughter. "When I asked her what my forfeit should be, she said, 'Write me a story,'" Edwards recalls. That story grew into Mandy (HarperCollins, 1971). Edwards found the experience so pleasurable that she wrote a second novel, The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles (HarperCollins, 1974). Over the years, sales of Mandy have reached nearly half a million copies, and Whangdoodles roughly 200,000.
It has been more than 25 years between Whangdoodles and Little Bo, a fact that Edwards attributes to an "enforced hiatus" from her writing, due in part to her involvement in Victor/Victoria on screen and stage. But Little Bo had been on her mind ever since she took a journey by sea many years ago on a boat with a feline mascot. She has now finished writing roughly two-thirds of the second adventure, tentatively titled Little Bo G s to France, and at least two more are planned.
The author's latest title, Dumpy the Dump Truck (Hyperion, Sept.) is the first in a new series. The books are geared to an even younger audience--preschoolers. Edwards had asked her daughter (and Sam's mother), Emma Walton Hamilton, what kinds of books might interest Sam, and Hamilton responded, "There's only one thing he's interested in: trucks--especially dump trucks." Sam thus provided the seed for the series of adventures starring a dump truck and a boy named Charlie, who both live on Merryhill Farm. Edwards is co-writing the series with Hamilton.

The transition from writing novels to picture books has been a challenge for Edwards, especially since the Dumpy books have so few words per page: "The younger the audience gets, the harder it gets," she says. "You condense and condense until you create a form of haiku in a way, boiling [the story] down to its essence." Edwards adds that with so little text, if there's "a tiny message, a tiny moral," it has to be simple.

On the other hand, she says that writing with her daughter posed no challenges at all. "I wish I was doing it all the time. We finish each other's sentences," she says. Together, they cull from family memories and stories. "The more we do it, the more we create a little village, a little world for Dumpy." They both come up with ideas, jot down plot lines and mull over such questions as whether or not dump trucks should talk--or talk to each other. Edwards believes that books three and four, tentatively called Dumpy and the Big Storm and Dumpy Saves Christmas, are even better than the first two because each book reveals more details about Dumpy's world.

Between chronicling Little Bo's and Dumpy's adventures, Edwards is also jotting down notes for her own story, which is under contract with Hyperion's adult division. The autobiography, she estimates, is likely two years from completion, and will follow Edwards's childhood and teen years up through her return to Broadway to perform in My Fair Lady. She credits Moss Hart as the inspiration for the book: "Twice in my life Moss Hart had tremendous influence on me--as director of My Fair Lady, and when I read his autobiography [Act One]." She feels that with his book, Hart "created a piece of Broadway history. You're there, you feel what it was like." In a similar way, the actress-cum-author would like to capture in her memoir a sense of what Britain's Vaudeville was like when she was performing there as a teenager.

Edwards truly is a writer for readers of all ages--from Dumpy's prospective preschool truckers to Little Bo's followers to armchair Whangdoodle travelers and her imminent autobiography's readers. Edwards points out a theme that threads its way among all her books: "I'm aware of writing about things under our very noses that are miraculous and beautiful." She cites Mandy planting her garden, the children when they return from the Land of the Whangdoodles, and Little Bo discovering the world by sea. The theme circles back to Maria's hills, alive with music, and Mary Poppins's supercalifragilisticexpialidocious take on life. It seems that Julie Andrews Edwards has never lost touch with the magic of childhood.
--Jennifer M. Brown

John Lithgow

Talking about the genesis of his debut children's book, The Remarkable Farkle McBride (Simon & Schuster, Sept.), John Lithgow, Harvard-educated actor of stage, film and television, notes that he never actually set out to write a book but, calling upon a phrase that he repeatedly works into the conversation: "One thing led to another." Just off press, his tale introduces a musical prodigy who masters numerous instruments, but isn't satisfied with the sound of any of them until he finally hears their music come together when he conducts a symphony orchestra at the age of 10.
A lifelong lover of music, Lithgow did not play an instrument as a child, yet took up guitar in his 20s. When his own children (now 16, 18 and 28) were young, he often went into school to entertain them and their classmates with songs. "It was great--just me, my guitar and the kids," he reminisces. "And one thing led to another, and I was invited to do a home music video of children's songs in 1990, which eventually led to a children's CD from Sony called Singin' in the Bathtub."

Many of the songs on the CD are backed by an orchestra, explains Lithgow, which sowed the seeds for his next venture. In his words, "I think it's a wonderful thing to have children experience a big orchestra in a concert hall, but with music education dwindling these days, it is very hard to cultivate a young audience for classical music. I decided I wanted to put together concerts for kids, but all the organizations I approached said, 'But where is the educational component of your program?' Well, there really wasn't one, so I decided to invent one. I devised a piece of music using various instruments and wrote a story about a boy to go along with it--kind of along the lines of 'Peter and the Wolf'--that demonstrates everything that an orchestra can do."
After writing the story over a weekend, Lithgow recalls, "I suddenly said to myself, 'My goodness, I've written a children's book!' " His first reaction was to send the text of the story off to C.F. Payne, an artist whose work appears regularly in the New York Times Book Review, Atlantic Monthly and Time. "I'd seen a lot of Chris's art and admired his work long before I'd dreamed we would be collaborating on anything," the author notes. "When I was producing the CD with Sony, I tracked him down to ask if he would be interested in doing the art for the album cover, which he was. When he received the text of my book, he agreed to illustrate it, and by the time we sent the book proposal in to Simon & Schuster, Chris was part of the package. The whole deal came together in about five days."
And one book has led to others. "My publisher asked me to think creatively about writing other books, which I did," says Lithgow. He has two more picture books signed up with S&S: Marsupial Sue, due out in fall 2001, a tale of a kangaroo who hates to hop, illustrated by Jack E. Davis; and a yet untitled story about a squirrel who paints with his tail, for which Payne is creating the art.

Given his demanding taping schedule for the NBC-TV comedy series 3rd Rock from the Sun, how did this actor (whose accolades include four Emmys, a Tony and two Academy Award nominations) find the time to pen his children's books? "I have two dogs and I walk them every morning for 45 minutes or so," says Lithgow. "And that's when I write my books. I'm at the point that once I hit on a project and see the story in my head, I can knock off one stanza per dog walk. It's almost like doing the daily crossword puzzle, since dealing with meter and rhyme is a kind of puzzle solving. I love doing it."

This fall, Lithgow will have a chance to do something else he loves: perform in a trio of family concerts entitled "Farkle and Friends." Staged at symphony orchestra halls in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, the concerts feature Lithgow along with Bill Elliott's 60-piece swing orchestra and a chorus of children. A highlight of the program is a 14-minute orchestral piece based on Farkle, composed and conducted by Elliott. Lithgow looks forward to adding a musical piece based on Marsupial Sue--this one with a Viennese waltz tempo--to his future concert repertoires.

To celebrate the publication of The Remarkable Farkle McBride, S&S has donated $5,000 to the VH1 Save the Music Foundation, a nonprofit organization that restores music education to public schools across the country and raises public awareness about the importance of kids' participation in music programs. This ties into what the author calls "a hidden agenda of the book: to get kids at a very young age interested in the orchestra as one big organic animal. With the drastic cuts in music and arts education funding, we have to figure out new ways to inspire them."

A firm believer that one thing leads to another, Lithgow is hopeful that his picture book will do just that.
--Sally Lodge

Katie Couric

As cohost of NBC's Today show, Katie Couric knows well the rhythms of rising before the sun each day--even when she d sn't have to be at work. In fact, it was during the quiet hours of the morning that Couric often found herself jotting down the ideas that would become her first picture book, The Brand New Kid (Doubleday, Oct.), illustrated by Marjorie Priceman. "I started to write this book in my spare time," Couric recalls. "I would write bits and pieces on Saturday mornings before my children were awake, because my body clock is such that I get up early."
Though Couric wasn't exactly sure how her snippets of verse and her characters would evolve, she knew they were partly inspired by her responsibility as mother to young daughters Ellie and Carrie, as well as by her reaction to recent tragic incidents of school violence committed by alienated students. In The Brand New Kid, two second-grade girls (named Ellie and Carrie) befriend a new classmate who has arrived from Hungary, even though the other kids make fun of him.

Through her book, Couric says, "I hope the message gets out that it's hard to be an outcast, hard to be ostracized, hard not to be in the in-crowd. I don't think I can change the world and have all kids holding hands and singing 'Kumbayah.' But I'm hoping that kids will become more aware and that they may reach out to those who are different from them."

Couric hopes that her work will have a positive influence in other ways as well. A portion of the proceeds from the book will be earmarked for colon cancer research and prevention. Couric's husband, Jay Monahan, died of the disease in 1998 and The Brand New Kid is dedicated to his memory.
The move from idea to publication "just sort of happened," Couric says. "I had been represented by ICM and knew [literary agent] Esther Newberg there. I told her that I had been writing this book in my spare time and that I didn't know if anyone would find it interesting or not. She told me to fax it over and she really liked it. Esther then approached Doubleday with it."
As the project began to take shape under editor Deb Futter, Couric envisioned how The Brand New Kid could fit into the bigger picture. "Since I have children, I have read a lot of children's books and was familiar with the market," she says. "I knew there were books containing lessons and morals out there, but that many of them were preachy. There weren't enough jazzy, contemporary books that could serve as a springboard for discussion. I saw that I could possibly fill a gap."

Fitting in time to work on the book may have required some extra planning, but Couric found it doable. "We made appointments sometimes here [at NBC] and sometimes over there [at Doubleday]," she says. "Doubleday was mindful that my schedule is a little insane, so we scheduled lots of lunch meetings where we would eat and talk and look at artwork." The editing process also gave Couric new perspective on the publishing industry. "I interview authors a lot," she says, "but did not really know all that went into putting a book together. It's been an interesting and fun experience learning about this side of the business."

Now Couric enters the phase of publishing with which she is most familiar: publicity and promotion. "I'll be doing a few book signings, but mostly here in New York," she says. "Traveling is something that's hard for me to do because of my girls. I know I'll be appearing on the Rosie O'Donnell Show and Larry King Live. And I've been trying to get booked on the Today show, but it's tough," she quipped.

Clearly bitten by the publishing bug, Couric says that The Brand New Kid is only the beginning of her new sideline. "I'm doing two more books for Doubleday," she notes. "I want to look at other difficult issues facing children, like peer pressure and different kinds of rejection. I don't know when Doubleday wants to schedule them, but it'll be before I'm finished writing them, I'm sure!"
--Shannon Maughan

Jamie Lee Curtis

By now, Jamie Lee Curtis has gracefully mastered the roles of both celebrity and author. We all know the bona fide celebrity part--daughter of actors Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, a successful film and television career in her own right, spanning more than 20 years. And the publication this month of her fourth picture book, a thought-provoking fantasy entitled Where Do Balloons Go?: An Uplifting Mystery, illustrated by Laura Cornell (HarperCollins/Cotler), is merely the latest proof that Curtis also fits the bill as a children's book scribe.
Curtis's first project, When I Was Little: A Four-Year-Old's Memoir of Her Youth (HarperCollins/Cotler), was published back in 1993 to positive reviews and healthy sales. Her two subsequent picture books have each built on her following; 1998's Today I Feel Silly: And Other Moods That Make My Day spent nine weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and has sold over 750,000 copies.

While Curtis takes both her celebrity and author roles in stride, she finds the actual title of celebrity-author a bit strange. "It's an interesting dilemma," she says. "There's no question that being a celebrity helps you get the book out; you are afforded media opportunities--magazine covers and TV appearances, for example--that other authors aren't, which is a big benefit. But when you have that hyphenate career, 'celebrity-author,' the assumption is that your book is not good. I have great confidence that these books have not only that immediate 'celebrity' value, but lasting value as well."

Curtis's latest book, like her earlier titles, was inspired by personal experience. "A couple of years ago I was at an outdoor birthday party at a park in Idaho with my son, Tom [now 4]," Curtis explains. "A storm suddenly rolled in and the whole group of us took shelter under a gazebo. One of the children happened to untie a bunch of the party balloons, setting them free into the charcoal gray sky. It was really an amazing sight--the crayon-colored balloons, the dark sky, the wind blowing. Just then, a little girl turned to her mother and asked, 'Mommy, where do balloons go?' It was just one of those moments; I felt like I had been struck by lightning. I had to get home and immediately write down this story idea."

That flash of creativity resulted in the rhyming Where Do Balloons Go?, which imagines the high-flying adventures of balloons on the loose. Curtis is quick to credit "amazing" editor Joanna Cotler and "brilliant" illustrator Cornell with helping to clarify her vision for the book and allowing her to discover new levels of meaning in it. "My style is emotional and Laura's style is irreverent. I think that partnership is what makes these books special," Curtis observes. "There's something for adults and children to appreciate. On one level, parents see the book as being about letting their children go to travel life's bumpy road--sometimes you get burned, sometimes you get lost, sometimes you get married, sometimes you don't. I also think the book speaks to loss. It's about the connection you have to someone forever, even when you can't physically see that person. For me it became about my friend Rick, who died of AIDS [the book is dedicated to him and to Curtis's son, Tom]. People have told me that as a family they have sent notes to loved ones in heaven by putting the notes in balloons they let go. That's a beautiful tradition I knew nothing about. And for kids, this book is about imagination and discovering how the world works."

In fact, Curtis is so passionate about these themes that she sees this as the first of several explorations of "life's little mysteries" as questioned by a child. To further encourage imaginative play, the book features laminated endpapers and Colorforms-like, reusable vinyl stickers that allow children to create their own interpretations of the story.
Looking ahead, Curtis d s not know which of two book ideas contracted to HarperCollins she will develop first, but she d s know that she wants to continue in this career that has "become a very significant part of my life in every way. I never knew eight years ago that I would ever write a children's book. I'm sitting back and debating what to do next, because at this point I have a choice. My film and TV work is really scaled back to accommodate the very real life I want to live, raising two kids who are 10 years apart. Whatever I do next, I want to do it right, not trying to fill a release schedule. I will keep writing children's books until the ideas no longer come to me organically. Once my children are grown I may not hear the same point of view that turns into a book anymore."
For now, however, Curtis is ready to swing into celebrity mode for Balloons, with scheduled appearances on the Today show, Larry King Live, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The View and Lifetime Live as well as satellite TV and radio tours and stories in People and Parents. "I will do probably 20 to 30 book signings," Curtis adds, "but we try to work them in to other travel plans so that I'm not away from my family for very long." Fans can surely appreciate Curtis's desire to be in her favorite place--and close to her favorite source of material--home.
--Shannon Maughan