FROM HIS humble beginning as a bedtime story, over 30 years later Arthur the aardvark has gone on to be one of the most popular series of children’s books in the world, as well as one of the Public Broadcasting System’s most popular shows.
Author, illustrator, and Arthur creator Marc Brown will be in town this weekend as a featured guest of the Savannah Children’s Book Festival, which is turning into one of the city’s most beloved and well-attended free events.
We spoke to Brown last week about his characters and his work.
How did you become a children’s book writer, and why Arthur specifically?
Marc Brown: What probably gave me confidence to write books originally was growing up with wonderful storytellers in my family. My grandmother and great-grandmother were always there to tell us really wonderful stories whenever we wanted them.
I started out as an illustrator at about the same time my son was born, and he liked having bedtime stories. So I told him this story about an aardvark, and he liked it, and it turned into Arthur’s Nose back in 1976, which I never imagined would turn into more than one story. Certainly I never imagined a TV show that’s in over 100 countries.
Arthur is a unique character, in that you can feel sorry for him, like Charlie Brown, but kids also want to be like him. He’s a great role model.
Marc Brown: All the characters in the Arthur series are based on real people. I think that’s maybe what gives them some kind of a believable foundation for kids. Kids really believe that they exist! I get letters from kids, and I got one the other day from a little girl in Texas who wanted Francine’s phone number. I know I’m doing my job well when I get letters like that.
You mention getting into this business because of the importance of storytelling as a child. Is it ironic that your character has his own TV show, which is much more passive than live storytelling?
Marc Brown: Well, I never intended Arthur to be on TV. I had turned down three offers for him to be on TV. PBS and their agenda to use TV and animation, these two very powerful elements put them together to make kids want to read. I thought that was one of the best uses for TV I’d heard of.
I also had a wonderful friend in Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, who was such a great role model and teacher of how to use media well and in helpful ways for kids and families.
I said to Fred once, “How did you get involved in television?,” and he said, “I got involved in it because I hated it so much.” (laughs) I thought, that’s a good reason to get involved.
A lot of kids’ shows now deliberately feature humor directed at adults. Is that a good evolution, or should more shows be like Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood: directed just to kids regardless of whether adults will watch it?
Marc Brown: I know what you’re saying about adult content, and I do think it’s a little bit selfish. But I have to say that the good thing that comes out of this is that parents have an opportunity to watch together with their child.
And you’re not just watching a show together, you have an opportunity to share your values with your child. You have a chance to talk to them. Like, “That’s kind of strange, I wonder why he did that.”
I would see some of those moments as opportunities for parents. We care about engaging parents and adults with Arthur, so there are different moments and levels of humor that might be more adult. We want parents to watch with their children.
How have you resisted corporate influence for so long?
Marc Brown: In the beginning I trusted agents, and people who were in business. I felt like it got out of control. I wasn’t able to monitor what was happening closely enough. My interests focused on the creative element. I wanted to make really good shows. So I no longer have agents doing that. At a certain point I just got fed up.
Now I have a very small licensing component, using Arthur with things that are helpful to kids. We’re working on a license with a firm that manufactures food for kids with allergies.
There are so many kids with nut allergies now. They really have to navigate just being in school with other kids in a way I don’t remember having to do. It’s something that’s really changed in our culture.
We did a show actually about this, where Binky has a nut allergy. I have so many kids and parents come up to me when I’m out on the road and thank me for that show, because it not only helps people understand what they’re going through, but helps educates children that their friends have this situation, and this is how we deal with it.
There are a lot of shows today that care more about selling related products than about the amount of energy that goes into the content or the programming. That’s one of my big problems with children’s television today.
Any advice for budding children’s book writers?
Marc Brown: If they’re serious, they should read as many children’s books as they can. I’ve had friends who’ve had books turned down 31 times and the 32nd time it was accepted, and they went on to win National Book Awards.
Perseverance is really important. If you believe what you’re doing is good and making a contribution, you have to keep doing it. Going to the library and finding books you have an affinity with will help you find a publisher that will be a good match for you.
What’s the question you get most often?
Marc Brown: Why did Arthur’s nose get smaller? (laughs) Over 30 years of drawing this character, a sort of unconscious side effect of getting to know him was his face got rounder and rounder. A friend at one point said, “He’s starting to look human and it’s kind of scary.”
The best answer I can come up with is, it’s kind of like the Michael Jackson story: His nose keeps getting smaller and smaller, but he says he hasn’t had any work done on it (laughs). cs
The Savannah Children’s Book Festival"Arthur" creator Marc Brown is one of many authors and illustrators at this year's event, which will also feature arts and crafts, food, costumed characters, a coastal writers' circle, a teen area and more. When: Sat. Nov. 15, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Where: Forsyth Park, 501 Whitaker St. Cost: Free