For some Hollywood screenwriters, an unlikely diversion: children's books
As the writers' strike enters its fourth month, six scribes explore a different medium.
In the fall, Robert Kurtz approached David N. Weiss – a screenwriter whose credits include "Shrek 2," episodes of the TV series "Rugrats," and both "Rugrats" movies – about writing a children's book. In response, Mr. Weiss swiveled his computer screen to reveal notes on a young amphibian with the unfortunate habit of eating his friends. Weiss had invented "Carl the Frog" as a bedtime story for his own kids.
"I loved it. It was exactly what we wanted," says Mr. Kurtz, creative director and vice president of the newly formed Worthwhile Books, and a screenwriter himself. "That was our first book. And it was already in his computer."
Whether every Hollywood screenwriter has a children's book draft tucked in a drawer remains to be seen. (The Los Angeles Times recently reported that two picketing screenwriters are collaborating on a young-adult trilogy.) But for the six whose debut efforts will be released by Worthwhile this year, the writers' strike has meant some extra time and space to explore a different creative medium. As disgruntled scribes enter their fourth month without a contract (or a paycheck), threatening awards season and leaving hapless viewers bereft of favorite shows, it may be one of the strike's few upsides.
The children's book has been a perennial favorite of celebrities. Madonna and her "English Roses" repopularized a trend that dates back at least to the '70s, when Julie Andrews channeled her inner Mary Poppins to write "Mandy." In October, redhead Julianne Moore penned "Freckleface Strawberry," about a little girl who must learn to love her own flame-colored locks and freckles.
Writing for kids is tough, says Jerry Griswold, director of the National Center for the Study of Children's Literature in San Diego, Calif. It took Maurice Sendak 8 years to draft the 300-word classic "Where the Wild Things Are."
"I'm reassured to learn that this publisher was interested in approaching writers to do writing," says Mr. Griswold. As for how they'll turn out? "I think the proof will be in the pudding," he says.
Hollywood screenwriters, known for big budgets and clamoring writers' rooms, admittedly a world more centered on entertainment than erudition, may not be the first group children's publishers turn to when searching for a new book concept. But Hollywood is awash in creative ideas that never make it onto the screen.
It's a place where pilots are constantly killed and spec scripts scrapped, says Kurtz, who counts "The Cosby Show" and "Boy Meets World" among his credits. This got him thinking: "What if we mined some great children's writers from Hollywood who are already writing for kids, but on a much bigger screen?"
In July, Kurtz ran the idea of tapping screenwriting talent past Ted Adams, president of Worthwhile's parent company IDW – a publisher better known for graphic novels. Mr. Adams liked the idea.
Among the first crop of books is "Vigfus the Viking" by David Sacks ("The Simpsons," "Malcolm in the Middle") and Brian Ross. The premise centers on a Viking ship that sails into port with the other tall ships during New York City Fleet Week. On board are young Vigfus and his parents, who must learn to fit into the city without losing their essential Viking-ness. "It's an immigrant story, but the immigrants are Vikings," says Kurtz.
Of his work on "Vigfus," Mr. Sacks says, "A writer writes, so it's hard not to write during the strike.... It's wonderful to be given an outlet where you can write in an unfettered way."
Other Worthwhile authors include Dava Savel ("That's So Raven") and David Steinberg ("Meet the Robinsons") whose book, "Maximillian," is about a tiny dog not unlike Paris Hilton's Tinkerbell, who believes that he is the celebrity. Maximillian must discover he is not, in fact, the center of the world.
In September, "Carl the Frog" will be among the first of the screenwriter-authored books to hit store shelves. It opens with Carl as a tadpole who is eager to use his frog tongue. But soon he finds himself devouring the creatures who are also his friends. Eventually, says Weiss, "Carl learns that with a little self-control, you can have your friends and eat, too."
As vice president of the Writers Guild, West, Weiss has found himself as busy as ever with the strike. Compared to his bread and butter Hollywood gigs, he says the book pay is a pittance. But the project has been a welcome respite with other rewards.
"It was a real pleasure to sit and smile and think about Carl," says Weiss, "just to sit in a coffee shop and doodle about what Carl might do today. And who he might eat."
As for "Carl the Frog's" original audience, Weiss's kids are pretty excited to see their bedtime story translated into a picture book. They're also hoping for a movie version. This is Hollywood, after all. Sacks says he's already been approached by movie companies who hear about Vikings trampling through modern-day New York City and think feature film. "Ultimately, it would be wonderful for these to be feature films and TV series," says Kurtz, adding that of course the screenwriters retain ownership of their characters, along with Worthwhile.