After I finished my interview with Arthur creator, Marc Brown, I hung up the phone and did what I expect many children do when the young aardvark, Arthur, comes on PBS; or now, when the characters of Arthur Live! take the stage. I jumped up and down. I clapped my hands. I was absolutely delighted.
And it’s not just because Marc Brown is about the most famous children’s book author out there, with a long list of New York Time’s bestsellers and millions of books published. It’s not because his Emmy-award winning PBS series is number one with children six to eight years old. It’s not even because he told me I had good questions.
There was just something about his voice – this wonder and joy in every word. And every time Brown finishes a book, signs off on a television show, okays a song for the new Arthur Live! production, he’s binding, packaging, and transporting that excitement to children (and adults) across the world.
“It’s mind boggling,” he says on the tail end of lunch in his Martha’s Vineyard studio. “I couldn’t have even imagined it when I told the first story to my son. One story turned into a book series that turned into a TV series that’s now a musical.”
But it wasn’t instant success. The storyline before Arthur was born starred Brown as a truck-driver, short-order cook, soda jerk, assistant college professor at Garland Junior College, television art director, actor, and costume set designer for WICU-TV (an NBC network). He didn’t begin illustrating books for authors until 1969, and only on a freelance basis. When one night his young son requested a story about a “funny animal,”
a tale of an aardvark who didn’t like his nose played through Brown’s brain. And so Arthur came to life. After some guidance from the publishers, Little, Brown, and Company, a year later – 1976 – “Arthur’s Nose” rolled off the press.
“I remember getting my first book in the mail,” the now 61-year-old says. “That was the most exciting thing that ever happened to me. Then I got my first royalty check for $89 and I thought, ‘Now how am I going to make a living at this?’”
But Brown didn’t give up. Slowly more and more people were hearing and reading about this little aardvark. It was the second book, “Arthur’s Eyes,” that really sold the deal.
“It really connected with teachers and librarians. There was this amazing word-of-mouth. But even so, Arthur was a pretty well-kept secret until PBS discovered him,” Brown says.
The scout was a PBS-employed mother and the discovery was made at a library in Boston, where Brown was speaking.
“She liked what I said about illustration and writing and she must have filed that away,” he says.
A couple of years later, he got a call: PBS, wanting to turn Arthur into a television series. Brown’s immediate reaction was not what you’d expect.
“No! No, no, no. I had already turned down three other offers. They wanted me to give up control of my characters and I couldn’t do that. I had worked for 15 years to develop a trust factor with kids. These days television wants to take something from kids and sell something. I despise that. They could put a machine gun in his backpack if they wanted,” Brown says passionately.
But PBS was different; they had a different agenda.
“They said they were going to use Arthur to help kids want to read,” he says. “And I thought that was a wonderful agenda.”
It also helped that PBS agreed to give him authorization over pretty much everything.
“PBS was wonderful and understanding,” Brown says. “But I had a lot of approvals to do, and I soon realized that meant a lot of work.”
He adds even more to that work load with two-month-old Arthur Live!, the musical production set to hit Luther College’s Center for Faith and Life Stage in February. Brown edited the script and even had final say on the sound of the characters’ voices. If they didn’t sound right, the enchantment would be gone.
“Nothing’s more magical than live theatre. For a lot of kids, this will be their first live theatre experience. I want it to be good for the kids and the parents. I want “Arthur Tricks the Tooth Fairy” to not feel like a root canal for the parents,” Brown says as though he was just waiting to drop that line.
His favorite song in the production is “Loose Tooth Wiggle.”
“It’s just one of those that you can’t get out of your head,” he says.
Neither can the audience. Kids love the show.
“I most enjoy seeing kids watch the characters come out,” he says. “It’s like their best friend or Santa has come. They light up! They’re just filled with excitement and joy! I’m sitting by myself, in my studio and, you know, I like to see what’s happening.”
His studio is situated above a re-worked old sheep and cow barn near his home, one of the oldest on Martha’s Vineyard. It sounds like a story itself: the 100+ acres of conservation land right nearby, the view out the window of cattle that look “like Oreos with legs” and a stream running past with wild turkeys and 35 ducks and their two goats, Hannah and Hillary.
“Hillary’s the smart one,” Brown says. His wife, Laurie, named her after the famous Clinton vying for presidential candidacy.
Brown and Laurie work together on another book series called “Dino Life Guides.” It covers hard-to-brooch topics such as divorce and death and being a good friend.
“Laurie’s so good at giving a little bit of information that starts a conversation between a parent and child,” Brown says of his life and work partner.
Although they seem quite close in their partnership, the two chose to have separate out-buildings to work – Laurie’s studio is in a renovated old chicken coop on their property. And despite both artists’ farm-centric surroundings, it’s still aardvarks and dinosaurs that highlight their illustrations and children’s books. But who knows – a hen that didn’t like her beak just might not have captured the children like Arthur the aardvark and his hated nose.
But I go back to my original thought – there’s something about him that can instill magic, wonder and excitement into even a 30-minute phone conversation.
He scoffs at this, slightly, joking about his fame. “Does that mean I don’t have to take the trash to the dump today?”
It’s a reminder – everyone has garbage. So maybe we can all make magic.