Back in 1994, Paula Danziger introduced a plucky, pun-prone heroine in Amber Brown Is Not a Crayon, and went on to write seven more Amber Brown chapter books and six easy-to-reads before her death in 2004. With more than eight million copies of Amber Brown novels in print, the character’s voice and real-life trials – her parents divorce, her best friend moves away – clearly spoke to young readers. In September, Putnam will bring back Amber Brown in a new chapter book, Amber Brown Is Tickled Pink, written by Danziger’s two best friends, Bruce Coville and Elizabeth Levy. The novel, which will feature cover and interior art by Tony Ross, who provided the same for all of the earlier Amber Brown books, will be followed by two additional chapter books, in fall 2013 and fall 2014.
The idea of reviving Amber Brown originated with Danziger’s agent, Amy Berkower of Writers House, says Susan Kochan, associate editorial director of Putnam Children’s, who began working on the series with its editor, Margaret Frith, after arriving at the company in 1994. “When Paula passed away, we all knew she had wanted to continue the series, and it was sad that Amber was in the middle of so many life changes and we didn’t know how things worked out,” Kochan says. “Paula had always gotten a lot of fan mail from kids whose families are going through divorce. They really relate to Amber and they wanted to know what happened to her. And the fan mail continues to come. After quite a bit of discussion in-house and with Berkower and her colleague Jodi Reamer, we decided we wanted to keep the series going if at all possible. Paula had created such a great character.”
Yet hiring someone to write about Amber Brown did not feel right, Kochan adds, until Berkower thought about Elizabeth Levy as a possibility. “Amy represents Elizabeth also, and knowing that she and Danziger had been very close friends, she approached her to ask if she’d be interested in continuing the series,” she explains. Levy had a quick response. “Right away I said, ‘Not without Bruce,’ ” recalls the author. “Bruce and I had been good friends, but we became closer when Paula became sick and we were both helping her family out. That cemented our friendship. I didn’t want writing this novel to feel like work, and I knew that it wouldn’t if he and I did it together. Bruce is one of the funniest people in the world.”
When Levy approached Coville with the idea of co-writing an Amber Brown novel, he was somewhat wary. “At first I was uncertain about the prospect, since I didn’t want it to look like I was taking advantage of my friendship with Paula,” he explains. “But Liz and I both felt that doing this together would somehow take that onus away. And as it turned out, for another reason, writing the novel together was a perfect solution: as the two of us channeled Paula together, we brought different things into it and were able to catch her voice.
Amber Springs Back to Life
Coville’s long history with Amber Brown facilitated finding the character’s voice as well. He explains that he and Danziger had been “reading partners” since 1992. “We’d always call each other and read what we were working on,” he says. “I heard every word of every Amber Brown book even before it went to an editor, so I knew the character very well. At one point Paula read me a passage and I said, ‘That doesn’t sound like Amber. She’s whining and Amber doesn’t whine. You whine, Paula!’ ”
Coville and Levy worked side-by-side – literally – as they wrote Amber Brown Is Tickled Pink, in which Amber plays the role of “Best Child” when her mother and Max finally get married. Coville periodically traveled from his upstate New York home to Levy’s New York City apartment, where they would write simultaneously on their laptops. “Every now and then, I’d say, ‘You do that part,’ or I’d say, ‘Now I’ll take this segment,’ ” says Coville. “And of course we’d pass it back and forth and revise. We worked very closely together in order to submerge our voices into Paula’s voice.”
Revisiting Amber Brown was a wonderful experience, say the coauthors, but was not without some sadness. “This is exactly the kind of thing that ‘bittersweet’ was made for,” remarks Coville. “It was truly fun, but we missed Paula every day. At the best times, we felt as though she was in the room with us. And we were fairly convinced that she’s delighted we’re doing this – but pissed off that she’s not here to do it herself.”
Both authors tell what they call “the dumpling story.” One day, as the two paid their bill after lunching at a dumpling restaurant, the cashier asked if they’d like “a frequent dumpling card,” which tickled the authors’ funny bones. “Paula was always putting her own experiences into her novels, and we knew immediately she would have wanted to use that line,” says Levy. And within two hours the frequent dumpling card was in Amber Brown Is Tickled Pink.
One Amber Brown fan who is exceedingly pleased to see the return of this character is Paula Danziger’s niece, Carrie Danziger, who was the original inspiration for Amber. Now 28, Carrie recalls badgering her aunt as a child to write a book for younger readers, as Danziger at the timewas only writing young adult novels. And perhaps the seed for Amber Brown was planted the day that Carrie, sobbing, phoned her aunt with the dreadful news that her two best friends were moving away. In Amber Brown Is Not a Crayon, Amber suffers the same pain when her best friend Justin announces he is moving.
An early reader of Amber Brown Is Tickled Pink, Carrie gives the co-authors high marks. “Paula’s two best friends have lovingly written this novel, and since they both knew Paula so well, they were able to capture her voice as if they were having a three-way collaboration,” she says. “They have masterfully preserved the same warm and punny style that Paula was so well known for.”
See a tribute to Danziger, with contributors that include Coville and Levy, here.
Amber Brown Is Tickled Pink by Bruce Coville and Elizabeth Levy, illus. by Tony Ross. Putnam, $14.99 (Sept.) ISBN 978-0-399-25656-1