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Transcript from an interview with Marc Brown

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Marc Brown. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Marc Brown

Real life characters

When I think back to third grade in Miss Kingston's class at Lakewood Elementary in Erie, Pennsylvania, I think about how my whole life, my destiny, was cast and I didn't realize it, because I have gone back to third grade for so much of my story material for Arthur: the teachers that I use in my book; my principal, Mr. Haney, is Arthur's principal; and problems that I had on the playground with bullies. I can't tell you the real name of Binky Barnes, but he looked exactly like that in third grade.

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The night Arthur was born

When my son asked me to tell him a bedtime story one night when he was about five, he said, "Tell me a story about a weird animal." I don't know why I thought of an aardvark. I guess I was feeling that bunnies and bears and cats and dogs were taken, and the aardvarks hadn't really had their moment at bedtime.

So, Arthur was born that night, and I made this connection after telling the story. He wanted me to draw him a little picture of what this aardvark looked like. I thought, "Now, this would be a great job. I love working with kids. I love drawing. I love telling stories – but how do I make a living doing this?"

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Shirley and the mechanical squirrel

I would probably be a TV art director somewhere, maybe. I don't know. I tried that for a while, actually, but I got fired. My boss was not amused that I wanted to dress up our weather lady as a fairy and fly her on to the set on a large swing, dressed as a fairy, and land in front of a little wishing well. She would tiptoe over and say, "Well, what's happening today with our weather?"

And I would be in the well. I guess I've got a little bit of ham in me. And I would answer her. I would say, "It's snowing today, Shirley. Get out your galoshes."

And then I told him how there would be a little, mechanical squirrel that would hand her markers to do weather maps and how we would change her costume with the seasons. He stopped asking me questions at one point. I don't remember how soon, but I did find a pink slip in my mailbox the next morning, and it entitled me to a free Christmas ham. And I lived on ham for a long time.

I did have many jobs. Kids think I just sort of woke up one day and became an author-illustrator, but it was a series of being fired from many jobs that led me here. Each thing had something to offer and I brought it to what I do now. I think of kids as my boss and I really take my job seriously. I don't want to be fired, because I really like what I do.

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Making mistakes and asking questions

They relate to Arthur because he makes mistakes, and he's not afraid to ask difficult questions. He's sort of an average kid. He has the same kinds of problems that most kids have and he's dealing with the same issues that they're dealing with in their lives. And I was a little surprised to hear that kids watch the show who are sort of older – out of our demographic zone, beyond eight, nine, or ten. I think it's because the stories do deal with issues like bullies. They're still dealing with bullies in junior high school and high school, and so a lot of the issues translate to many different age groups.

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Arthur on TV

I didn't want some network executive deciding that Arthur should have a machine gun in his backpack. They couldn't give me the kind of approval that I wanted, so I didn't do any television with Arthur, and I was very happy not to do that.

But when PBS had the idea of using television – this very powerful medium, which can be wonderful when it's used well – combining that with the seductive element of animation with an objective of using those two things to make kids want to read, I thought that was a very exciting idea and concept; and I wanted to be a part of that.

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Thirty drafts

Kids are very interested about how I write my books, and one thing they want to know is: do I get it right the first time? I explain to them that I don't. I make mistakes just like they do, and I do each book probably thirty times. I do about thirty drafts before I'll show it to my editor. And then my editor will tell me where more work needs to be done, usually.

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A great adventure

I never imagined Arthur being more than one book; and I never imagined this whole process – this great adventure that Arthur has taken me on, lasting for almost thirty years now; and all the stories that would emerge from Arthur; and, because of the transition to television, how intimate his world would become, and how complex.

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Head lice and peanut allergies

What makes it work for me and makes it a little bit easier is finding the right subject matter. It's always coming back to real life. It's coming back to something that happens in real life – something that I know kids are interested in, or that kids are bothered by. Or, it could be helpful to their families.

Head lice – there aren't many shows that will deal with head lice in a humorous and educational and entertaining way for children and families. But I like taking on subject matter like that. We're working on a show right now for next season about peanut allergies. It may sound like small thing, but it's something that a lot of parents are very concerned about and a lot of kids have to deal with in their lives every day. I get these things suggested to me. You hear it often enough, and you understand that there is a real need for this subject to be dealt with in a helpful way.

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"A book is like a garden, carried in the pocket." — Chinese Proverb