No stranger to the spotlight, Marc Brown’s Arthur is having a particularly luminous moment in the sun. The affable aardvark’s eponymous book series from Little, Brown is celebrating 45 years in print this year, and PBS and WGBH-TV in Boston will air the 25th and final season of its animated Arthur series in spring 2022. In celebration of these milestones, and to share some nuggets of wisdom and wit that Arthur and his pals have dispensed over the decades, Brown has compiled Believe in Yourself: What We Learned from Arthur, due out from LBYR on January 25.
Arthur was born one evening in 1975 when Brown’s then young son, Tolon (who has been a producer for the Arthur TV series for 22 years), asked his father for a bedtime story. Brown wasn’t feeling very upbeat, since the Boston college where he was teaching had that day announced it was closing its doors. But he complied with the request, and together he and Tolon conjured up an aardvark (“which in the pantheon of children’s literature is not very well represented,” the author observed).
For the sake of alliteration, Brown named the animal Arthur. And then Tolon asked his father what Arthur looked like. “I realized there was some fun to be had—so Arthur became an aardvark whose nose always got in the way,” Brown said. “When I look back on the night, I remember that Arthur and I were both worried about something,” he recalled. “Arthur was concerned about his nose, and I had just lost my job. That bedtime story eventually became Arthur’s Nose, the very first book in the Arthur Adventure series. And that is how Arthur sprang out of a very difficult moment in my life. I was literally rescued by Arthur.”
Yet Brown had no idea that the protagonist of Arthur’s Nose, released in 1976 by Atlantic Monthly Press (later acquired by Little, Brown), would go on to headline a series of more than 100 picture books, which have sold 65 million copies in the U.S. alone, as well as the longest-running animated children’s series in television history. “When I wrote Arthur’s Nose, I could never have imagined how many Arthur books would follow,” he recalled. “Though when I was working on Believe in Yourself, I went back and read that first book, and the last line gave me goosebumps: ‘There is a lot more to Arthur than his nose.’ Little did I know when I wrote that line just how true it would really be.”
The Phenomenon That Is Arthur
Brown credited several book professionals in his life for seeing his aardvark’s potential as an enduring protagonist. In Arthur’s early years, Brown remembers making promotional visits to schools and librarians—reluctantly. “I was terrified of talking to groups of people in public, though it was something that my publisher encouraged me to do, to let teachers and librarians know what I was working on,” he said.
On one such visit, to a Dallas library, Brown was discussing an early Arthur book with “a wonderful librarian,” Mary Lankford. “We had a conversation that truly was a life-changing moment,” he explained. “She asked me, ‘Marc, do you want to make a living with this? If so, you need to make a series out of Arthur.’ Mary suggested I do some Arthur holiday stories. With that, she gave me a road map, and that got the series started.”
Another early proponent of Arthur was Emilie McLeod, Brown’s first editor at Little, Brown. “I’d been working on a book idea about a character who needed glasses, because Tolon had just gotten his first pair of glasses,” Brown recalled. “The character was a rabbit, and Emily casually mentioned, ‘Why don’t you use that Arthur character in this book?’ ” And thus Arthur’s Eyes, the aardvark’s second adventure, came to be, and has been a linchpin of the series since 1979.
Arthur’s career took a dramatic turn at the bidding of WGBH executive producer Carol Greenwald, who recognized his promise as a small-screen star when she saw Brown at an author event at her local library in Medford, Mass. Her toddler son had taken a fancy to Arthur’s Tooth—as had she. “After he received a copy of the book for his third birthday, my son asked me to read it to him over and over,” Greenwald said. “But unlike other books that were on constant repeat, I never had the inclination to hide it, because I really enjoyed reading it. It was funny, the characters were so compelling, and it did not talk down to kids, which I really appreciated.”
When she arrived at the library event, Greenwald said, “It was a mob scene. Clearly there was something very special about these Arthur books. At the time I had been actively looking for a book series to adapt to television, so I picked up the phone the following week and called Marc and asked if he’d be interested in collaborating with us to create a TV series.”
Brown received Greenwald’s call, he remembered, on a sunny April day in 1993, as he was finishing the art for his 23rd book in the series, Arthur’s New Puppy, and was thrilled when the producer proposed an animated series starring Arthur, aimed at inspiring children to read. “My first thought,” Brown said, “was, ‘What a great idea!’ ” The show went on to win numerous awards, including four Daytime Emmys, catapulted book sales from five million copies sold to 50 million within a year of Arthur’s TV debut in October 1996, and has taught generations of young viewers the value of kindness, empathy, inclusion—and humor.
Although WGBH is not currently producing any new episodes in the series, Brown emphasized that Arthur is not retiring from the screen. “More than 600 Arthur stories exist that will air on PBS for many years to come—stories that are not going to go out of fashion,” he said. “And we have a whole new playground at our disposal with new and emerging technology, so we’re exploring new ways to extend and expand Arthur’s scope to reach children and families,” he said. “We are not closing any doors.”
Paying Tribute to Arthur
As the dual anniversaries of Arthur’s life in books and on-screen approached, brainstorming among Brown and the Arthur team at Little, Brown led to the idea of creating Believe in Yourself, compiled with obvious affection by the author, v-p and editorial director Andrea Spooner (who has worked with Brown for almost two decades), and the editorial and art and design teams. “Marc instinctively knew all the ‘greatest hits’—what the fans most often write or ask about,” Spooner said. “Multiple generations have engaged with Arthur via books or television or both—as children, and as parents—so there’s a great level of comfort and nostalgia associated with Arthur-and-friends’ words and experiences. The quotes span close to half a century and still resonate today, which I think is a clear indicator of the evergreen appeal of Arthur.”
Spooner added that the book includes “more than 60 pieces of all-new art, which Marc drew and painted traditionally, beautifully and expertly unifying decades of work from different media. This is a carefully curated and lovingly rendered package true to the essence of Arthur in every way.”
Brown, who talks about Believe in Yourself in a video created by Little, Brown, said the book is “the closest I will get to writing a memoir.” He noted that the project enabled him to ponder and celebrate what he has learned from his eight-year-old aardvark character over the decades and to bring “the moments from the books or the television show that are important to me back to the page—reclaim them, in a sense. I had no agenda for what this book would be, but it did occur to me that I was writing for two generations—young readers and those who first heard these stories as children and are now parents. It is really fun to walk the tightrope between this dual audience.”
Looking back on close to 50 years with Arthur and his menagerie of friends, Brown points to the paramount role that genuineness plays in the Arthur chronicles. “Because all the characters in Arthur’s world were inspired by my classmates, family, and teachers, kids feel they’re authentic and sometimes completely real,” he said. “I once got a letter from a young reader asking for Francine’s phone number—that’s a moment when you feel that you’re doing a good job!”
Yet offering life advice “comes with a big helping of responsibility,” Brown continued. “I hear so many families talk about how the Arthur books or television episodes have impacted their lives, and it is so important to make sure you get it right. I am always looking for ways to reflect real life in Arthur’s stories and to honor the dignity of childhood. I like to think that one of the best things that Arthur has accomplished all these many years is telling children the truth—and we’ve had a lot of fun along the way.”
Believe in Yourself: What We Learned from Arthur by Marc Brown. Little, Brown, $15.99 Jan. 11 ISBN 978-0-7595-5456-6