Natalie Portman, an Academy Award-winning actor (for Black Swan), director, and producer, adds picture book author to her list of credits this month, when Feiwel and Friends publishes Natalie Portman’s Fables, which compiles retellings of three classic animal tales with a more contemporary sensibility reflecting present-day values and the importance of empathizing with various points of view. Hence, in “The Tortoise and the Hare,” slick and confident Hare learns that bragging about one’s abilities does not translate into winning, a truth exemplified by patient and focused Tortoise. Two of the title characters of “The Three Little Pigs” build their ill-fated houses out of disposable plastic, but the third pig, whose house is made with Earth-friendly materials, survives the hungry Wolf. And after sampling one another’s lifestyles in “Country Mouse and City Mouse,” two mouse cousins conclude that there is no “right” way to live. Featuring art by debut illustrator Janna Mattia, Natalie Portman’s Fables will be released on October 20 with an announced 250,000-copy first printing. PW spoke with the author about the genesis of and writing her first book for children.
Did your inspiration for creating a book reimagining and refocusing classic stories come from a personal place?
Yes. When I first began reading books to my son, who is now nine, and when I now read books to my younger daughter, I realized that while all the feminist books are aimed unilaterally toward girls, the “normal” books that are considered gender-neutral—the “classics”—are largely weighted toward male characters. I think it’s just as important, if not more important, to reach boys as well as girls with the ability to empathize with characters of all genders. So, after changing pronouns for long enough as I read our copies of classic tales to my children, I decided to write my own versions.
What were your criteria for selecting these three tales to retell in a manner that, as you wrote in a pre-publication letter, is “gender safe”?
I wanted to use stories with animals as characters, because I thought kids from all backgrounds could equally have access points to empathizing with animals. Of the stories with animals, these were the ones I felt had most relevant messages for today. “The Tortoise and the Hare” felt very pertinent with all our technology, and how it can make us feel fast, but too often we actually stop paying attention. Sometimes being slow gives us an ability to take things in in a profound way and experience them more fully. To me, “The Three Little Pigs” felt very much about having to be conscious of the environment when choosing how to build—we need to think what might “blow our house down” and plan accordingly. “Country Mouse and City Mouse” has an appreciation of friendship over superficiality, which also seems relevant today. And I hope that simply having these classic stories populated in a way that actually reflects the world feels meaningful to readers.
You have said that storytelling encourages young readers to practice empathy. In what ways?
I believe that reading stories is one of the first ways we start practicing empathy. We feel for characters in stories as we might for ourselves or our own friends. Whenever we imagine someone else’s life—their hopes and fears, their feelings and thoughts—we are practicing empathy. Whether you’re reading a book or seeing a movie, when you are relating to a character you are caring about what is happening in their life and imagining how they feel. That is the core of empathy. For children to empathize largely with male characters has a huge influence on how they grow up.
What were the most enjoyable—and the most challenging—parts of writing this book?
I loved coming up with rhymes that I thought might make my kids smile, and then reading it to them and testing it out. The most challenging thing was that so much of the making of this book had to be done during the pandemic. So, the work that I had hoped would be done face-to-face with the people I was working on the book with, and whom I admire so much, had to be done remotely.
Were you pleased when you first saw Janna Mattia’s art, and did you feel as though she shared your vision of the characters and stories?
Jean Feiwel sent me samples of a few illustrators’ work when we started the process, and as soon as I saw Janna’s art, I knew she was the one. She has such a classic line and gorgeous talent, but she also has a great sense of humor and she brings so much character to the animals. I was so excited—she came up with so much more than I ever could have dreamed of.
Have you considered writing a sequel to Fables—or a book in another children’s book genre?
Since my son is older than he was when I began my first book, and he’s really into graphic novels, I am thinking I may have to write a book that’s more age-appropriate for him now!
Natalie Portman’s Fables by Natalie Portman. Feiwel and Friends, $19.99 Oct. 20 ISBN 978-1-2502-4686-8.