Actor, producer, and director Bob Balaban has appeared on stage, on TV, and in nearly 100 movies, including Midnight Cowboy, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Gosford Park, which he also produced. In 2002, he added “author” to his impressive list of credits when Scholastic began publishing his six-book McGrowl series for middle-graders, spotlighting the adventures of a boy and his bionic superhero dog. Now Balaban makes a new foray into fiction with Boy or Beast, the launch title of the Creature from the Seventh Grade series from Viking. The novel introduces smart, geeky, bullied Charlie Drinkwater, who morphs into a giant, mutant dinosaur – but his change of external identity may not be the answer to his seventh-grade miseries. Balaban muses on his inspiration for this series, as well as his path from self-conscious seventh grader to actor to children’s author.
How early in your childhood did the acting bug bite?
As a kid, I don’t remember thinking about becoming a real or professional actor, but I was a puppeteer beginning at the age of three. Very early on, I acted out plays with puppets. I insisted all of my relatives and friends come. I’d charge them money and make them watch!
That’s an admirably early start to your stage work.
Well, my mother was an actress on Broadway when she was 20. But my father lived in Chicago, and told her she had to quit being in plays and marry him, because he couldn’t very well live in Chicago and have a wife who is a New York actress. But she was quite wonderful and would have been successful. Both of my parents’ families had ties to show business. My father was in the movie theatre business. One of my grandfathers developed musicals for MGM – starring Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. And I had an uncle who was president of Paramount for years. So I guess you could say I had it in my blood.
How was it that you made your way onstage?
I was in all the plays in high school I could find. I studied improv with Second City in Chicago when I was 16. I came to New York when I was a junior in college and my wife-to-be read in the paper that they were making a musical out of Charlie Brown. She told me I should audition, so I did and became the original Linus in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown when it opened off-Broadway in 1967. And in my senior year I got cast in Plaza Suite, a Neil Simon play on Broadway that Mike Nichols was directing. He asked me to be in the movie Catch-22, which came out in 1970. I never imagined that it would be possible for me to be an actor, since I was too short and funny-looking. But I guess the world had changed, and actors no longer had to have cookie-cutter looks.
Obviously many other acting and directing and producing stints followed. What made you decide to take on the role of children’s book author?
Well, I had been developing and producing movies, and I was attempting to develop a movie about a little girl and her bionic dog. I sent a treatment to Scholastic, because they had a media division. They told me they didn’t want to do a movie, but thought my idea would make a great book series. They asked me to change the girl to a boy and to make the dog a Golden Retriever. I did, and wrote six books in the McGrowl series, which sold about two million copies.
And what then inspired the Creature from the Seventh Grade almost a decade later?
As an actor, I do have some spare time as I sit in hotel rooms. And I started to think that doing another series would be fun. I first thought of the title, and then I pictured a dinosaur on the cover.
Why a dinosaur?
Well, girls will buy whatever books are out there, but it’s harder to get boys to buy books. I thought they just might want to read a book with a dinosaur on the cover. Once I had my title and cover idea, I thought of the plot – I sort of worked backwards.
When I was a kid, I was completely absorbed by monster movies – and entirely terrified by them. I would sit in my room watching them, but then end up sleeping in my parents’ bed because I was so scared a monster would get me. And I started thinking about, what if a kid who loved monster movies turned into one? Then I thought about seventh grade and how it is such a tumultuous year for lots of reasons. Everything seems to change in a matter of weeks – even days. Kids are, literally, physically transforming every day.
It sounds as though you have vivid memories of your own seventh-grade metamorphosis.
I do. I seemed to get hair in new places every time I looked! I knew I had hair growing under my arms – and I have memories of it being seven feet long. [But] in my case, I never grew tall. My mother told me I’d probably be six feet tall, and I kept waiting, but it never happened. I was the shortest, skinniest kid in the class.
Sounds quite a bit like Charlie Drinkwater.
Almost everything that happened to Charlie happened to me in seventh grade. The novel is somewhat of a metaphor for adolescence, and I tried to make it true to the inner life of a preteen, with all that happens emotionally. Charlie wasn’t a monster; he just happened to look like one. Like Charlie, I was a really smart 12-year-old, but that didn’t count. The kid who everyone looks up to, invites to parties, and wants to date is the tall, good-looking person who’s great at sports. Charlie did excel at all the things that stand you in good stead as a 24-year-old looking for a job. They just don’t count in seventh grade.
And another semi-autobiographical element is that I grew up in Chicago in a kinder and gentler time, but still my parents took great pains to shield me from difficult things, and urged me to move on when they did happen. That’s the position Charlie’s parents and friends take with him – and it works out well.
Given your own similar experiences, did Charlie’s voice come easily to you?
It took me a while to get it right. I knew what I wanted his voice to be, but had to massage it a bit and figure out how to include all the real issues – of popularity, growing up, changing – and do it with this character that was completely unreal physically.
What do you hope readers will take away from Boy to Beast?
I hope there won’t be an obvious message as they read, but one that they absorb subliminally: that it’s OK to be different. Charlie and his friends are social misfits – they’re too smart and too interested in school. Charlie is unpopular for all the wrong reasons, and ultimately he has to learn that himself. If there is a lesson here, it is: be who you are, and don’t be anyone you aren’t.
That’s surely a lesson that serves us well throughout life – not just in seventh grade.
Yes, indeed. It’s a message I cope with every day of my life. I think sometimes kids think that just because you’re a grownup, you are in on a special secret. But the truth is that we all have issues, and the more we understand them the easier we can cope with them. To this day, I have anxieties speaking in public – and I’m an actor! I make my living speaking in front of hundreds of people when I’m on stage and perhaps millions if I’m in a movie. That’s what I do. So I find that writing these books is a little bit of therapy for myself.
The second book in the series, Sink or Swim, is due out next summer, with two additional installments to follow. Any idea what your next writing endeavor after that will be?
This series has been a growth experience for me, since it took me a while before I figured out my audience. The McGrowl novels were for younger kids, and with them I got used to writing broad, physical humor. With this new series, there’s a subtle difference, since I’m addressing readers who are not young children, but not yet YA. In my next series or novel, I might do something more YA that could be read by adults too. The thought of learning about writing for a new audience is appealing to me. It might be fun to stretch my wings again.
The Creature from the Seventh Grade: Boy or Beast by Bob Balaban, illus. by Andy Rash. Viking, $15.99 Sept. ISBN 978-0-670-01271-8