Like many parents, Marc Brown likes to tell his children bedtime stories. One night, his oldest son asked Mr. Brown to tell him a story about animals. Brown thought he'd start alphabetically, so he told his son a story about an aardvark named Arthur. He never got past the letter "A." Twenty years later, Brown has written 30 books about Arthur and company, which have sold more than 10 million copies, and he has the highest-rated children's show on PBS.
Even though Brown has been writing about Arthur and his friends for more than 20 years, he says he isn't tired of them. "By now, I consider them more family and friends. And, as with a relative or good friend, the more you're with someone, the more you get to know and like them."
Brown says the TV show, which debuted last year, recharged his batteries. "I have kids who call my house wanting to know if Arthur is there. He's really real to them. If I can do something that gives both me and them pleasure, what a wonderful way to make a living."
Brown didn't always want to be a writer. Before he wrote his first book, "Arthur's Nose," in 1976, he tried his hand at being a short-order cook, a truck driver, a chicken farmer, and a college professor.
The first time he thought about writing children's stories was when he was a senior in high school. One day, he read "Where the Wild Things Are," by Maurice Sendak, and he says he was just blown away. "The words were so simple and powerful. I was awed by what Sendak had done," he says.
Then he went to art school to learn painting and put the idea of writing out of his head. When he went to the Cleveland Art School in the 1960s, being a children's illustrator was considered the low rung on the career ladder. In fact, a judge once told him he lost a school competition because he included some children's pen-and-ink drawings along with his "serious" paintings.
But while it may have taken Brown a while to discover he was a storyteller, his Grandma Thora taught him to value his art early on. He says the first time he thought he might have some talent was when he was visiting his grandmother when he was about 6. "She opened a bottom drawer, and in it were all the drawings I had given her over the years. I thought, 'They must be valuable. She's keeping them.' "
His grandmother was also responsible for getting Brown into art school. "She wasn't rich ... but for each grandchild she saved enough money to get their feet in the college door. Then, it was up to me. It was another way of her saying, 'I believe in what you're doing.' "
FANS will recognize Grandma Thora as Arthur's grandmother. And she's not the only character Brown drew from real life. Arthur's friend Francine is based on his youngest sister, Bonnie, who is now a kindergarten teacher in upstate New York. D.W., Arthur's little sister, is a combination of all three of Brown's younger sisters, "so she's triply lethal."
And, about 10 years ago, when Brown's daughter, Eliza, was born, Arthur got a new sister: Baby Kate. "I thought, if I have to change diapers, so should Arthur."
As for Arthur's parents, the unflappable Mr. and Mrs. Read, Brown says they are "a combination of myself and Laurie [his wife] and the parents I would like to have in an ideal world. One of the wonderful things about writing books is that you can change things to the way you wish they were."
In addition to writing about things that happened to him when he was growing up, Brown also gets ideas from looking at the world around him. And he keeps heaps of them in his idea drawers: white, flat shelves with tags on them that he had built into his walls. "When I have a dry spell, it's reassuring to open the drawers and see all these ideas," he says. For example, one idea came when Brown was at the post office. There were two kids waiting with their mom in a really long line. The boy had a pair of knitted mittens on a string, and his sister was pulling on them. The string kept getting longer and longer, stretching across the post office. 'What a wonderful image,' Brown thought, so he did a sketch and filed it away for safekeeping in one of his drawers.
While Arthur and his pals may be aardvarks, rabbits, chimpanzees, and the like, Brown's plots are always things that could happen to regular children - like getting lost in a store, having a friend stay for the weekend, or starting a new school.
"I try to tell the story as I see it," Brown says. "Hopefully, I'm a good observer. I want whatever I talk about to seem as real as possible." Getting back to his bedtime-story roots, Brown says he always reads his drafts out loud. "I want the story to sound believable when it's read aloud; I want it to sound very natural. [Reading aloud] works as a tool to find out where the trouble spots are."
Over the last 20 years, Brown says he sees children being asked to become more and more independent. "I like to think books are like friends - they give information that can help kids be more successful," he says. He hopes that the problems Arthur has to solve in the books can help children deal with situations in real life.
Whatever the future holds, Brown promises two things: "Arthur will never have a weapon. And he will never take his SATs. He'll always be in the third grade."
Try These Out For a Laugh
Heard any good jokes lately? Monitor reporter David Holmstrom recently attended the 12th Annual Humor Conference in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. One of his assignments was to bring back some good jokes. Here's what he found. See if you agree.
* * *
A motorcycle policeman saw a woman driving a car at the same time she was knitting. He turned on his siren, roared up alongside her, and yelled, "Pull over!"
"No," the lady called back. "It's a pair of socks."
* * *
Q.: What is very large, blue all over, and has a big trunk?
A.: An elephant holding its breath.
* * *
A chess convention met at a hotel, and many of the players were bragging about their skills and memorable games. It went on for hours until a non-chess player observed, "What we have here is chess nuts boasting in an open foyer."
* * *
On a college football team, a player named Bubba was suddenly ineligible because he was failing his classes. But he was such a popular player that the dean of students said, "OK. If Bubba can answer one question correctly, he can play."
The whole school turned out to hear Bubba answer the question. The dean said, "What is six plus seven?" Bubba started to sweat. Finally, he answered, "13."
And the whole crowd yelled, "Give him another chance!"
* * *
A man went to the butcher shop to buy a lamb roast late in the afternoon. The butcher pulled one out, weighed it, and said, "Only $14.50."
The man replied, "Do you have a larger one?" The butcher didn't, but he had an idea. He excused himself and took the roast into the back room. He waited a few minutes, then returned with the same roast. "This one is better," he said, "and it's $15.75."
The man looked at it. "Fine," he said. "I'll take both."
* * *
Q.: How do fleas travel?
A.: They itch hike.
* * *
A farmer had a mule named George, and every time he would tell the mule to get going he said, "C'mon, George, Sam, Ed, and Pete, get going." One day a visitor asked why the farmer used all the names. The farmer said, "Well, if George knew he was doing all the work by himself, he would have quit long ago."
* * *
Sitting on a branch in the sun, two caterpillars looked up and saw a beautiful green-and-blue butterfly floating by. "What's that?" asked one of the caterpillars. "I don't know," said the other one, "but you'll never get me up in one of those things."
Have You Read These?
Here's a list of Arthur books by Marc Brown, in the order they were written. (Parents: The publisher is Little, Brown unless otherwise indicated.)
Arthur Goes to Camp
Arthur's April Fool
Arthur's Teacher Trouble
Arthur's Birthday (Joy Street Books)
Arthur's Pet Business (JSB)
Arthur Meets the President (JSB)
Arthur Babysits (JSB)
Arthur's Family Vacation
Arthur's New Puppy
Arthur's Chicken Pox
Arthur's First Sleepover
Arthur's TV Trouble
Arthur's Reading Race (Random House)
Arthur Writes a Story
Arthur Goes to School (RH)
Arthur's Neighborhood (RH)
Arthur's Computer Disaster
COURTESY OF WGBH BOSTON
Hey Ewe, Happy Mother's Day!
She's your mother, and you're her baby, but if you were a turkey, what would you call your mom? And what would she call you?
Match the mother/baby pair on the left with the correct animal on the right.
1. vixen/cub A. turkey
2. sow/cub B. kangaroo
3. doe/leveret C. giraffe
4. ewe/kid D. sea lion
5. pen/cygnet E. goat
6. cow/pup F. fox
7. doe/joey G. hare
8. hen/poult H. badger
9. cow/calf I. llama
10. doe/kid J. swan
Answers: 1/F; 2/H; 3/G; 4/I; 5/J; 6/D; 7/B; 8/A; 9/C; 10/E.