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Transcript from an interview with Bill Martin Jr.

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Bill Martin Jr. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Bill Martin Jr.

A bird egg in his pocket

I wasn't the best in the class, but I was a bright kid. But that was through the ears, not through the eyes. I listened, and I enjoyed being able to put things together in my own way.

I never learned to read. I faked it. I went all the way to college and couldn't read. Now, I could read – pour over a title of a book and maybe read the initial sentence, but I had no staying power. I was so hyperactive that it was difficult for me to concentrate. If you can't concentrate, you can't read.

And it became exceedingly difficult when I got to college; sort of like walking around with a bird egg in your pants pocket, hoping not to break it. I went to college in order to probably learn to read – that was my number-one goal – and secondly, to change the odds in my life that I would remain locked to a garden in Hiawatha, Kansas.

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Jazzy writing

I think there isn't any difference at all between stories and songs and poetry. A poem, a song, and a story all have a structure.

I don't know whether I told you or not, but I always imagine that someday I'm going to write something, and somebody says, "That's a great piece of jazz!"

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If you're going to be a writer, you've got to be a reader

If anyone had told me that I was going to be a writer of children's books when I was a child, I would have said, "You're badly mistaken. I can't even read."

I had a professor who one day came to me carrying six books – adult novels. And he said, "Bill, I want you to read these books. If you're going to be a writer, you've got to be a reader."

And, first of all, I was very excited – number one, that he cared that much about me as a person; and, number two, that he didn't realize I couldn't read. He brought me adult fare. One of the books was Northwest Passage by Kenneth Roberts. And I figured if Mr. Rowan thought enough of me to bring me six of his books, if he really wanted me to be a writer – which had never occurred to me – that I would read one book. So, I started on Northwest Passage and read week after week after week after week after week. And one night, I was reading, still, at midnight. I was getting near the end of the book. Maybe it wasn't so much the story that I was trying to ingest; it was the fact that I was about to complete my first book.

At four o'clock in the morning, I remember, I finished reading the book. I was so overjoyed, I couldn't sleep and was up early. I went to school to tell Mr. Rowan that I had read the book.

From that time on, reading books became easier. I knew it could be done. I still am a very slow reader, but I'm an avid reader. I'm reading all the time.

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Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?

Ideas for books come in many ways. Most of them are just sudden insights. I remember when I wrote Brown Bear, I was riding on a train. I heard, "Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see?" And I grabbed my pen. I didn't have anything to write on, but I did have a newspaper. I folded the newspaper and wrote crosswise, "Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see?" I thought for a minute, and I either heard or imagined, "I see a red bird looking at me. Red bird, red bird, what do you see? I see a yellow duck looking at me." The pattern is there. The book was broken. All I had to do was write it out. It was finished in 15 minutes.

(In the video clip, Bill Martin Jr also sings the words for Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?.)

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Giving order to chaos

Well, my favorite things in life? Friendships are number one. I'm sure that that's number one. Number two, I love to read. Number three, I love to be working on a story or a manuscript of some kind or other. I very seldom am bored. The thing that makes me ultimately happy is finishing a manuscript and knowing that it's good. I like that.

I suppose the satisfaction of writing is that it deals with the chaos of the world and gives it order. And that's all a paragraph does. That's all a story does. The reason that I keep writing year after year after year is because I believe in children. It's a wonderful thing to observe how children cope, how children deal with the realities, how children develop selfhood. I would like to think that these books help kids know who they are. That's a pretty big order, but that's what I hope for.

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"Today a reader, tomorrow a leader." — Margaret Fuller