R.L. Stine is the creator of the bestselling Goosebumps series, which launched in 1992 and has more than 400 million copies in print worldwide. Goosebumps is one of the bestselling children’s series of all time and inspired a popular TV show, as well as a feature film. Stine’s other books include the series Fear Street, Mostly Ghostly, The Nightmare Room, and Rotten School, and two picture books with Marc Brown, The Little Shop of Monsters and Mary McScary. Marc Brown is the creator of the bestselling Arthur Adventure books and creative producer of PBS’s Peabody and Emmy Award-winning television series Arthur, the longest-running children’s animated show in history. He also has illustrated many other books for children, including Wild About Books and In New York. We asked the two to discuss their third collaboration, Why Did the Monster Cross the Road?, their publishing journeys, and how they engage young readers through humor and horror (and humorous horror).
R.L. Stine: You and I are kind of an unlikely duo for children’s books.
Marc Brown: Yes, let’s talk about how we got to work together—our third picture book is coming out this summer.
Stine: We were having dinner with our wives. We had known each other for a number of years at that point. And you said to me at dinner, “You and I should do a book together.” And I said, “Marc, you have such a good reputation in children’s books. Why would you want to work with me?” And that’s how it got started. We got to work on a book called Little Shop of Monsters, and we had a great time.
Brown: And now we’ve got three books together. How did you decide to write Why Did the Monster Cross the Road?
Stine: I wanted to do another book with you, Marc, and I was trying to think of a book idea. And actually Liza Baker, who is a picture book editor at Scholastic, came up to me at the Scholastic Halloween party. She said, “I have an idea for a book for you and Marc: a monster joke book.” And that was the start; it was not my idea. I went home and started thinking... a monster joke book, that would be a great third book for us. And then I sat down and wrote, “Why did the monster cross the road? To bite someone on the other side?” Then I tried to think of some nice characters for you to draw. And how would we work the jokes in? That’s how the book got started. We loved doing it and I love working with you, Marc.
Brown: It’s mutual. We have a really good time. So, I might be the only one who knows you have pizza in your freezer from Columbus, Ohio.
Stine: Yes, that’s true.
Brown: What’s the story with that?
Stine: Well, there’s this place called Rubino’s pizza in Columbus. It was my high school hangout. Every town has to have something great. And what Columbus has is great pizza. They’re really nice to me, and they overnight it to me, here in New York. They send it to me half-cooked, and then I put it in the freezer. I throw it in the oven for five minutes and I have Rubino’s pizza!
Brown: Pizza is my favorite food. I could live on it every day.
Stine: I’m going to ask you a question you’ve probably been asked a million times. But I’ve never asked. Why an aardvark? Was Arthur maybe a mouse when you started?
Brown: No. I was asked by my son to tell him a bedtime story about an animal. So, I thought alphabetically, and I stopped at aardvark. And they’re very underserved in the world of children’s literature, you know?
Stine: So true.
Brown: Give the aardvark a break.
Stine: And so that was it? It was just Arthur the Aardvark right from the start?
Brown: Right from the start.
Stine: You told these stories, and you thought, “Well, I’m an artist, I’m a writer, I should maybe use the aardvark”?
Brown: Yes. I took it to an editor in Boston, Emilie McLeod at the Atlantic Monthly Press, and she looked it over and she said, “Hmm, it’s got promise, but it needs a lot of work.” And she was right. I was using a paragraph when a good sentence would do. She taught me a lot about how to balance words and pictures because that’s how I tell my stories. You want the pictures to do what the words can’t do, and the words, what the pictures can’t do. That’s my rule of thumb.
Now I’ve got a question for you, Bob. So, you’re right up there in the Productivity Hall of Fame with James Patterson. What’s your work day like? Do you sleep?
Stine: That’s actually quite a compliment. You know, at Little, Brown, there’s a James Patterson department. I have great hours, Marc, I work from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. every day. I write 2,000 words a day and then I quit. It’s like factory work. I keep track, and when I hit 2,000 on the computer, I stop, no matter where I am. Stop. I’ve done 2,000 words and I go out and walk the dog. Those are good hours, right?
Brown: Excellent hours.
Bob, do you play golf?
Stine: No, I don’t play anything.
Brown: See, that’s the secret to our success. We don’t play golf.
Stine: Most of your work is very civilized. Arthur is a very civilized character and kind of quiet. Everyone’s nice. So, is this fun for you, doing monsters in these books?
Brown: I had no idea that this was something within me that I needed to get out. And I must thank you. You released something in me that’s kind of dangerous, actually. I was thinking about this new book, Bob, and how the very first time I encountered your work was at FAO Schwarz in Boston. I bought my new son his first book, and it was Jovial Bob Stine’s joke book. I can’t find it, but I wish I had it here.
Stine: Oh, Marc, I made like 40 joke books. That’s how I made a living for a long time.
Brown: You’ve circled back here with the monsters.
Stine: 101 School Cafeteria Jokes. 101 Dog Jokes. 101 Creepy Creature Jokes. And they all had the same jokes. They were all identical. And you know how you write a joke book?
Brown: I’m afraid to ask, but I will.
Stine: You get a whole bunch of joke books, and you compile. Once in a while, I would write 10 or 12 original jokes, and then I would see them pop up in other people’s joke books. That was fun. Here’s my best kids’ joke. You’ll groan.
Stine: What do you get when you cross a dog with a frog?
Brown: I don’t know.
Stine: You get a dog that can lick himself from across the room.
Brown: I hear a rimshot.
Stine: That’s my best joke.
Brown: Another question: when you dislike someone, do you imagine sinister endings for them?
Stine: Never. That’s your job. You say a lot of the characters in Arthur are based on people, you knew. How about the monsters in our books?
Brown: Yes, they were all people I knew.
Stine: Are you kidding?
Brown: I have no imagination. I go into my past and I dig.
Stine: Can you think of anything specific in Why Did the Monster Cross the Road? Those are all hilarious monsters, by the way.
Brown: I was remembering comics from my childhood. Abbott and Costello. Don Rickles.
Stine: When did you know you could draw? When I was in fourth grade, all I wanted to be was a comic book illustrator. I started doing these little superhero comic books. I would draw, staple it together, and I would bring it in and pass it around to my friends at school. And they would all say, “Bob, your drawings are terrible. You can’t can’t draw, Bob.” And they were absolutely right. I looked around at what everyone else could do. I really had no artistic talent. It’s that mysterious thing between your brain and your hand, which I didn’t have.
Brown: In first grade I used to draw jet planes and race cars for my friend who sat next to me, but I was sent to the principal’s office. I was supposed to be doing my math.
Stine: We have the same story. Everyone always asks me, “Did a teacher encourage you with your writing?” And I have to say the truth—they begged me to stop. “Bob, please stop bringing this stuff in. Bob, please stop doing this.”
Brown: You didn’t stop.
Stine: Well, if they hadn’t asked me to stop, I might have stopped!
Brown: When you have spare time, do you ever think about the state of the children’s publishing world right now? How it’s changed since you began.
Stine: Marc, when I began in ’68, ’69, the children’s department was like three women at the back of the office. And that was it.
Brown: The Jurassic Period. All the smart women in publishing were assigned to the children’s department, all these brilliant editors.
Stine: Right. Now people say, “Oh, kids don’t read... the kids are glued to their screens... you can’t get kids to read.” Children’s books are a billion-dollar industry. It’s billions of dollars! So, someone is buying these children books. I’m very optimistic about children and reading. The industry is 5,000 times bigger than when I started.
Brown: I agree. There’s such a renaissance going on right now with all of these young illustrators who are coming onto the scene. I’m really excited to watch their careers. My granddaughter just got accepted to RISD, and she’s toying with the idea of becoming an illustrator. It’s such an exciting school. So many wonderful illustrators have come out of that illustration department.
Stine: Oh, that’s great. That’s really nice. I am always amazed that when you started out, Arthur was your first project. You never struggled. You really shouldn’t be allowed to talk to young authors—you never had a rejection. Did you have artists you really admired when you were starting and figuring out Arthur?
Brown: No, I didn’t know what I was doing!
Stine: That’s the wrong answer!
Brown: I really loved the idea of doing children’s books, but I was right out of art school. I really hadn’t done my homework. I hadn’t researched who was doing what. My very first assignment to illustrate a book for someone else was Isaac Asimov.
Brown: He had written a book called What Makes the Sun Shine? I struggled through it, and I remember asking him, “Why are you so prolific? You’ve done so many books and now this book.” And he said he just loved the feel of the typewriter keys. I thought that was interesting. He just happened to have a thought while he was hitting the keys.
Stine: Isaac Asimov wrote 550 books. I’ll never catch him. He lived in my neighborhood. Back in the day, when you had to mail off your manuscripts, I would go to the post office with my manuscript to send to the publisher. And Asimov would be ahead of me in line. He’d be there with two or three under his arm. They were big books, too, they weren’t little tiny Goosebumps books
Brown: They were five pounders.
Stine: I was a real sci-fi nut when I was a kid. I started with Ray Bradbury, and then Isaac Asimov, and Robert Sheckley. So, it was kind of cool to see him at the post office all the time.
Brown: The first autographing session I had when my first book Arthur’s Nose was published was in Boston’s Beacon Hill. I was paired with Jim Marshall, who just exploded on the scene. He was on the Today Show with George and Martha. He had this long line out the door. I had no one. And after we were finished, we were walking through Boston Common, and he said, “Marc, don’t ever tell anyone how easy it is, what we do.” And I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “You know, I’ve got like three ideas and I just keep recycling them.” I mean, it really worked for him.
Stine: It sure did. Marc, my first book signing, seriously, no one came. It was at the big Doubleday store on Fifth Avenue. My first book was called How to Be Funny. So, I wore bunny ears in the author photo, and I wore bunny ears to Doubleday. And no one would come near me. The kids were terrified. Why would anyone go over to a man in bunny ears? And no one came.
Brown: I can believe this. And isn’t this one of the most important things that we’ve learned over the years about being an author? When you go to these signings, you have to leave your ego at home. You never know. I can remember Maurice Sendak at Neiman Marcus with this little table, and nobody was there wanting his autograph. So, you never know who’s going to show up.
Brown: But that’s not true for you anymore. I’ve been to your signings.
Stine: I don't know. Sometimes you get 12 people and sometimes 1,000. You never know. You should talk about Hop.
Brown: I had no idea that this was going to pop into my life. I did this little doodle of a little frog, and it kind of stuck with me. One leg was shorter than the other. And I started to wonder about who his friends might be. And it turned into this little world. I’m even more involved in the process of making this show than I was with Arthur. I enjoy being on Zoom calls with the actors while they’re recording the scripts. I can change a line if they’re struggling with it, if it doesn’t sound quite right. You can change the line right there, which is really exciting.
Stine: So where does it take place, in a swamp or something? Where does the frog live?
Brown: It’s a little village where it’s a world of children, and they see what the power of friendship can do for one another. Kindness is involved—all the things that we’re lacking in today’s world. I like to see the characters struggle with trying to solve problems, and how they do that. Imagination plays a big part in the world where they are. And we’re doing something that we tiptoed around with Arthur, where we had characters with different disabilities, but they never became central figures in the show.
But in Hop, they are the main characters. One character is autistic. She is one of the most creative characters. She loves to draw and invent things, but she doesn’t like her food touching on her plate. Hop’s sister Penny is nonbinary. Hop himself is voiced by an actor who is a double amputee from the knees down. He also happens to be a choreographer. He’s the first amputee to dance on Broadway. And we have another character who is blind. We’re trying to represent characters for children who are not often seen on television.
Stine: And where is this going to be shown?
Brown: It’s going to be on HBO, which is now called Max. It will air next spring. What is next for you?
Stine: We’re starting a new Goosebumps series in the fall. We’re calling it Goosebumps House of Shivers, and it has a new cover artist—a whole new look. The first one’s called Scariest Book Ever. I don’t know if it lives up to that or not, but that’s the title. It’s nice to be starting a new series.
Brown: And isn’t there a movie in the works?
Stine: I have a movie coming out this Halloween with Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd called Zombie Town, based on one of my older books.
Brown: Oh, that’s going to be good.
Stine: And there’s a new Goosebumps TV series starting in the fall on Disney+. But I loved doing this monster joke book, Why Did the Monster Cross the Road? The art is just hilarious and wonderful. You chose to do collage for this book. Is that just because you wanted to make it as hard for yourself as you possibly could?
Brown: I did. When I work with other authors, it gives me an opportunity to create visuals that channel their ideas and their vision for the story. Collage came naturally to that story. I can see Hunny and Funny animated very easily with two-dimensional collage. Sort of like South Park.
Stine: But not! I can see Hunny and Funny doing a lot of things together. You’ve got this cute little monster, Hunny. And then this big blustery Funny.
Brown: I was wondering if you were imagining them in other adventures.
Stine: Yes, definitely. I think that would be a lot of fun.
Marc Brown: Me, too.
Why Did the Monster Cross the Road? by R.L. Stine, illus. by Marc Brown. Orchard, $18.99 July 4 ISBN 978-1-3388-1525-2