An endearing, overall-clad toy bear in a department store searches for his missing button in Corduroy, written and illustrated by Don Freeman (1908–1978) and published by Viking five decades ago. Ten years later, Corduroy and his human pal Lisa reappeared in1978’s A Pocket for Corduroy, and they now make an encore performance in Corduroy Takes a Bow, penned by Emmy-, Tony-, and Oscar-winning actress Viola Davis. In the book, released this month, Lisa takes the curious bear to a Broadway play, where he witnesses the behind-the-scenes and on-stage workings of the theater. Jody Wheeler illustrated the story using the same scratchboard technique Freeman used in his two original Corduroy adventures.
Broadway is an apropos setting for Corduroy’s latest outing, as the theater scene was very dear to Freeman. After venturing from his native California to study at the Art Students League of New York and before embarking on his children’s book career, he became entranced by the drama world, and frequently slipped into Broadway theaters to sketch backstage and on-stage goings-on. Eventually, the artist’s theater renderings were published in the drama sections of a number of periodicals, including the Herald Tribune, the New York Times, and the Christian Science Monitor.
(A heads-up for fans of Freeman, the theater, and Corduroy: “A City for Corduroy: Don Freeman’s New York,” an exhibit of Freeman’s 1930s drawings of the streets of the city, Broadway illustrations, and original picture book studies and sketches, opens at the Museum of the City of New York on November 21.)
Kismet played a key role in the conception of Corduroy Takes a Bow—and Davis’s involvement in the project. Three years ago, with Corduroy’s 50th anniversary on the horizon, Viking senior editor Leila Sales decided to find “a public figure with a significant following” to write a new Corduroy story. “I had no clue who that person might be, but I mentioned the idea to all of team Corduroy at a brand meeting, and everyone agreed to give it some thought,” she explained. “A few months later, I got an email from Kim Ryan, our subsidiary rights director, who had seen Viola posing with a copy of Corduroy in an Entertainment Weekly photo essay showing celebrities with their favorite kids’ books. Kim said, ‘Viola Davis, of course!’ and it was so ‘of course.’ Viola was exactly the author I’d been imagining—and I didn’t even know it.”
Davis, who wrote the story with Barbara (B.G.) Hennessy (who authored previous titles based on Freeman’s characters, including Corduroy Lost and Found) was eager to step into Corduroy’s world, with which she was very familiar, and had little difficulty reviving the character. “I think Corduroy’s personality is so unique that all I had to do was be invited in,” she said. “I’ve read the Corduroy books to my daughter, Genesis, since she was a baby. The stories feature an African-American little girl, and Genesis always loved them. Every night, when I began reading to her, she would say, ‘Mommy, put me in the story!’ ”
Sales noted that the collaboration between Davis and Hennessy proved smooth going, and the editor was pleased with the creative direction they took. “We had all agreed, before they even started writing, that the concept would be about Corduroy and Lisa going to the theater,” she recalled. “Obviously Viola is a Tony Award winner, and since Don Freeman was so intrinsically linked to the Broadway scene, the premise was self-evident. I loved the story that Viola and Barbara worked out, and I actually did not have any big structural edits for them. The plot that they came up with is classic Corduroy—he heads off on his own adventure, has lovable misinterpretations and lots of wonder for what he sees, and is ultimately reunited with his best friend Lisa.”
Davis and Sales are both sanguine that Corduroy Takes a Bow will ignite young readers’ curiosity about theater. “It is my hope that the story sparks an interest in kids in the arts,” said the author. “What the theater gave me was empathy. It was a great place where I explored myself, and it was a great connection to others. And at the end of the day, it was simply fun.” Sales, who has since left Viking and is now focusing on her own writing and freelance editing, added that she hopes the book “will encourage kids to bring the imaginativeness and playfulness of the theater into their own lives, even if going to see professional shows isn’t an option for them. And I hope it will give them a lifelong love of Corduroy, just like the 50 years of children before them.”
And how does Davis feel about adding children’s book author to her long list of artistic credits? “It makes me very proud,” she replied. “I believe that children are the best audience. They come locked and loaded, and they are open to receive whatever you give them. They are loving critics, and ultimately whatever you give them can change the course of their lives—and that is a great power to have.”
Corduroy Takes a Bow by Viola Davis, based on the character by Don Freeman, illus. by Jody Wheeler. Viking, $17.99 Sept. ISBN 978-0-425-29147-4