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Transcript from an interview with Julianne Moore

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

Julianne Moore, children's author

Hello. I'm Julianne Moore and I am the author of the Freckleface Strawberry series. The first book is called Freckleface Strawberry. The second, Freckleface Strawberry and the Dodgeball Bully. And the third book, Freckleface Strawberry, Best Friends Forever. And I'm very happy to be here at Reading Rockets to talk about them.

Library time

When I was growing up we were huge readers. We moved a lot because my father was in the military. And our first stop when we got to a town was to the local library. And we would go every week and we would check out books and we'd read those books, return them the next week, and that was a major pastime for us. And for me in particular it was something that I loved and that was really my constant friend and companion. These books were, you know, what I turned to. I wouldn't know anybody in a town, but I could always go to the library and check out as many books as I wanted to.

So that was really what sustained me as a kid through all these moves. And, you know, I can remember my mother teaching me to read. You know, when I grew up, we didn't go to preschool. You know, so you spent all those years at home with your mom and she was the one that, you know, went through everything with us. And I remember the first sentence that I read in this little children's science textbook that said, "Mother, mother said Bob. I see a robin." And sitting next to her and saying the sentence and feeling so accomplished and thinking the book was so difficult. So reading was a big, big part of my life.

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Strong heroines

Interestingly enough, and I mean in terms of storytelling, my mother was a psychiatric social worker and my father was a judge in the military. After Vietnam he became an attorney and then a judge. So, a lot of dinner table conversation was really about behavior and which, of course, was really storytelling. So my mother would talk about the family she was treating and, you know, what was going on in that family. My father would talk about the cases that he'd seen. And we'd go around the room and talk about what, you know, what happened at school that day. But all of it was very much personal narrative. And that's what interested me in novels as well too.

Really, I didn't like… I wasn't much of like an adventure story reader or a fantasy story reader. I really liked stories about kids, children, young women, you know, and what they were trying to learn or accomplish or do. You know, books like the Little House books or Anne of Green Gables or Wrinkle in Time. And they all had, you know, very kind of interesting, strong, self-determined young heroines in them.

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Great teachers

I had a teacher in the fifth grade in Alaska. His name was Mr. Jennis and it was his first year of teaching. And I actually even mentioned him in an interview years and years ago. It was just something about, you know, how much I had loved being in his class and got a letter back from him, and he didn't remember me. I was very embarrassed and I said, "Listen…" I wrote him back and it was his very first year teaching. It was Juneau, Alaska. He's now a principal of a school I think in Anchorage or Fairbanks I believe he said. But he had a great passion for teaching. He was very young. He was probably 23 or 24 years old. You know, we thought he was so grown up, but he was just a kid.

And he read A Wrinkle in Time to us that year. I remember he would read it chapter-by-chapter and we could do quiet work while he read. I chose to knit a scarf that I still have. And I loved the book. It was such a beautiful story and so emotional and so much about a possibility that a child has within themselves to save the world really. And it was such a… It was a great year in school because fifth grade is — you're sort of starting to become a real student.

He encouraged us to think for ourselves. He asked us what we wanted to, you know, what problems we wanted to solve in the world. What did we want to know about? How we would go about doing it. He allowed us to argue. I can remember arguing with him that the Burlington-Bristol Bridge was directly across from Philadelphia because that was how I remembered it because my grandparents lived in New Jersey and I thought that bridge went straight to Philadelphia and I was adamant about it. And he kept arguing that no, in fact, it didn't go there.

But I still remember the argument and I mean he took me very seriously. Maybe because he was very close to my age. But anyway, he was really a remarkable teacher and he was probably my first male teacher as well so I'm sure that was pretty influential. But I had so… I mean, there were so many. I can remember Mrs. Neitenstein in the second grade and Mrs. Bevins in the third grade and Mr. Bruney in the sixth grade, the first person who asked us to write a term paper. You know, I'm sure the teachers… I hope the teachers know how influential they are and how much we remember them years later, you know.

And I see it now with my children's teachers how meaningful they are to them and how much they have to do with their personal and intellectual growth. But it really is kind of amazing what a difference it makes.

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Leveling the playing field

School was interesting growing up because the kind of school you were in really depended on the county. You know, certainly if you were in a military school, it had to do with what was going on in that base. But in the American — United States school system, whether or not your school was a good one or a bad one had to do with what the tax bracket was of that particular county you lived in. So because we moved around, sometimes we'd be in a really terrific school system like in Fairfax County or Westchester County. And there were other times we'd be in places where they, you know, weren't quite keeping up just because of the population.

I mean, it's an interesting thing for me because I work with Save the Children's U.S. Programs, which really is about trying to fix the disparity in U.S. education. In fact, there's a huge… You know, we're all promised the same education, but we don't receive it. And it's something that I saw firsthand growing up. You know, going from a school where everybody was excelling and thriving to a school where maybe there wasn't quite enough money for supplies. There weren't as many teachers. There was overcrowding. And so this is happening when I was growing up. So you can imagine, you know, what's happening now in our school system.

Basically what Save the Children does in the U.S. is go into areas where there's not enough support economically and offer support to the area in terms of employment and preschool programs and after-school programs and literacy enrichment and book donation. And often, too, at some of these very rural communities, the school system is the major source of employment as well. So you're also giving people jobs within that community.

And then I founded a Valentine's Day program a few years ago that was really about — I was very influenced by UNICEF actually, the Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF that's about kids helping kids here in the United States to raise awareness of poverty and that disparity in education right here. And, you know, by talking about poverty and having these Valentine's Day cards and then also by, you know, kids all… It's a huge kids' holiday. You always have to buy the valentines. You may as well buy something where the money is going to help other children in the United States.

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Freckleface

You know, writing was something that I never even ever imagined that I'd do. And I mean I had a friend who worked in the book business actually who said to me, "You know what you should do? You should write a children's book about your own childhood, something that happened to you. Your kids would love that." And at the time he didn't have children and I laughed at him and I said, "Children don't care about anything that happened to you!" You know, they care about what's happening with them. And so I kind of dismissed the idea.

But my son was seven at the time. He's now 13. That's sort of the moment when children first start noticing their physicality and that they're different from people around them. And he was very worried about his teeth. His teeth were coming in and he thought they were too big for his face. And he didn't like his haircut. And he didn't like his school picture. And it just — it broke my heart. You know, I just couldn't believe it because he was the most beautiful boy. But then I…

And I remembered when I was seven, the same age. That was really when I first noticed my freckles and started hating them. Before they just didn't matter to me. And then there were kids in the neighborhood who called me Freckleface Strawberry because that was the name of a powdered drink mix like Kool-Aid. So there was like Rootin' Tootin' Raspberry and Blueberry Blast and Freckleface Strawberry. So I sort of started with that idea just about not liking something about yourself. And I think that in a lot of children's literature, especially the classics, there's something that a child doesn't like but then they grow up and they're transformed and they're beautiful and they no longer resemble the lump that they were.

But, of course, that's not how it goes in real life. Really what happens is that, you know, you have these freckles and stuff and you grow up and you still have the freckles and you still don't like them, but it doesn't matter so much. So I wanted to write a story about how the things that loom large in childhood are less important when you grow up.

There were a lot of places that I lived where there were no redheads and there were no freckled people and people were like, "What are you? And why do you look that way?"

So and it wasn't really until I spent time in areas where there were lots of Scottish and Irish people and to be able to see like, oh, there are lots of people who look like me. But it was very… all the kids would be tan. They had dark hair or blonde hair. And to look like I did was to look super-different in some areas of the country.

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Magical imagination

The thing that I wanted to communicate most is the literalness of childhood, that idea, the magical sense that if you put a hat on your head, you believe yourself to have disappeared. If you're playing a monster, you think you are scary, you've become a monster. The idea in Dodgeball that Freckleface can turn herself into a monster and, therefore, protect herself and then inadvertently scare another child, scare a child that seems impervious to fear of any kind, who seems like a tough kid.

You know, so… I like that exchange too that he's able to say to her, "Hey, you're scary." And she has to say, "Hey, I'm not scary, I'm pretending." You know, so that's the idea that once again it's about the largeness of it all, of the things that we might dismiss as grownups saying, "Oh, please it's, you know, that's just pretend. Don't worry about it." And yet everything in their world is pretend. It's meaningful to them. So that's kind of…

Yeah, so it was really about for me growing up and being someone who read constantly and couldn't — sometimes wouldn't be able to tell the difference between what was happening in my book and what was happening in my life because I'd get too wrapped up in it and start to feel upset and anxious because whatever, you know, Laura Ingalls Wilder was going through in her book, you know. That they're in the middle of a long winter and they're twisting hay or whatever. And then I'd be like put the book down and be like, "Why am I so upset?" you know? So kids can… that kind of emotional influence I think is really interesting to me.

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My mom is a foreigner

My mother was from Scotland and I couldn't hear it because I heard her voice every day, but she had an accent. So when I was little and I'd bring people home, you know, they'd say, "Why does your mom talk so funny?" You know, there was all this sort of like general… My mother would open her mouth and they'd all look at each other and then they'd say, "Why? Why? What is that?" You know, no one had heard a Scottish accent. And, of course, I would get really infuriated and embarrassed and say, "It's an accent," and, "No, she doesn't have an accent."

Because like I said, we couldn't… I couldn't quite hear it. That was the thing that was interesting about it. That was just how my mother spoke. And then later on when I was in speech class when I was in college, I have a pretty flat neutral accent except for some of my — there were a few sounds that the teacher was trying to figure out. And she was like, "I don't understand why you're making these sounds," and, "Where are you from?" And I told her. And then I said, "My mother was from Scotland, but she had lost her accent." And she said, "That's what it is. You've based your speech on someone who had an accent — " As she got older, she lost the accent — "had an accent and lost it."

So we're so, you know… Even though we're sort of we try — we model ourselves apart from another culture, we're so heavily influenced by that culture simply because we're living with it. And, you know, in the case that I was actually modeled on my mother's changed speech, that was what was really kind of complicated about it.

I actually have a book with Chronicle right now called My Mom Is a Foreigner basically about, you know, I grew up with a mother who's from Scotland, who came to this country when she was ten years old. And one of the things that… I mean I know lots of other women too who have mothers from Poland or Russia or, you know, Puerto Rico or, you know, somewhere that was considered different. And that idea of like, what's it like to be first generation in a country that's all about that?

And when we think it's our past, but in the United States, it's always evolving. There are people coming all the time. So sometimes I'll even talk to an adult woman now and I think, "There's something about her. I can't put my finger on it." And she'll say, "Oh, here's my…" And she introduces me to her mother who's Hungarian. I'm like, "Oh. Your mom's a foreigner. That's what it is." So it's really about children talking about what it is to have a parent from another country and all of the things that you grow up with and things that you like and the things that are difficult for you and language differences. And so that idea of your mom being somehow strange to everybody else, but to you, she's just your mother. So that's the next thing I'm working on.

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From reader to actor

It still happens to me when I read where I lose myself in it and I don't know what the reality is, whether it's my reality or their reality. And, frankly, that's what actors do. I mean and I always tell everybody this that I didn't know… Just like I didn't intend to be a writer, I didn't intend to be an actor and was just a kid who read a lot, a lot, a lot and then, you know, when you're asked to read a lot in class, I just have a facility for it. I felt like I could hear it and I could hear the voices in the book and it was just there on the page. And I thought everybody was that way.

And so when I started doing, you know, after-school plays, it was just like reading a book. So for me even now, I'm working on a movie. You know, acting is the closest thing I could find to being in a story. So I consider myself… I don't consider myself a performer at all. I don't actually enjoy it. I don't like public speaking. I don't like anything that's performance-oriented. I like acting because I want to be in the book. So I want to, you know, I still want to pretend and be in here.

In performing there's an acknowledgement that there's a reality outside of what you're doing. There's an audience watching. And in a lot of the acting that I do, I don't want to acknowledge it. I only want to acknowledge the story.

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Encouraging young writers

I worked with the playwright David Hare on a couple of things in a movie and on a play. And he doesn't carry a cell phone with him or, you know, iPhone or any kind of device because he said that he uses the time to wander around just walking from place to place to dream about things and think about his work and he said that's where he finds his ideas. And I kind of loved it because I thought, "Huh." That's, you know… I'll do that too working on a movie or working on a book that I'll go for a long walk or a hike or something and try to just not let any other thoughts come in and see, you know, see what I come up with.

Because it is difficult, I see that with my children too. You know, they come home with a homework assignment and they have to… My son had to write a story and he did it beautifully where he had to use all his vocabulary words. He had to use foreshadowing. He had to use a simile. He had all these things that he had to put into a creative story that was only supposed to be 300 words. So I was like, "Wow!" He accomplished it. But it was a big task that we don't ask grownups to do very often. I'm certainly never asked to do something like that.

My daughter had a homework assignment over the summer where they were supposed to read two books. They choose one book and write a book jacket. And, you know, do an illustration on the front. Do a plot summary, write about the author. You know, she was very daunted by this. She's going into fourth grade. And we, after arguing — going back and forth, I said, you know, I said, "Well, let's learn about the author. What do you know about the author?" And she's like, "I don't know anything about the author." I said, "Okay. Well, let's look her up on the internet," because, of course, every author these days has a webpage. And there was a great, very entertaining description of this author's life and we read it together.

And I said, "Okay. What do you remember?" And she's like, "Well, she's from New York City." And I said, "Yeah." And she started writing and she was, you know, a little kid. Yeah. She stopped when she had kids… So she had basically heard the story and then was able to do it and she was like, "Is that it?" I'm like, "That's it. That's what you did. You did research and then you wrote about what you learned not using their words."

So, it's interesting, we think, "Well, how do you find a way to simplify it for children so that it doesn't seem like these words all come from heaven or something?" You know, they just come from people and that they can do it.

I talk about that when I talk to little kids about… I said, you know, "You can write a book yourself. You can do your own pictures or you can do what I did. You can do, you know, the words and have a friend do the pictures and then you put them into…" You know, and I said, "That's it. That's all it is."

At home it's just, you know, no one's interested in their parents' work. Nobody cares. But I do think that they — they're influenced by the fact that I've written these and their father is a writer and they both like to write things. They'll both… You know, Liv sometimes says, she goes, "Sometimes I sit down to write and I can't stop." And I'm like, "That's such a great thing to hear." Well, especially with computers these days. I think kids feel sort of like, well I could just keep going and going and going. And it's a nice thing to see.

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Julianne Moore reads Freckleface Strawberry, Best Friends Forever

I'm Julianne Moore. This is my new book, Freckleface Strawberry, Best Friends Forever. It's the third book in the Freckleface Strawberry series and I'm going to read a little bit of it.

"Once Freckleface Strawberry had a best friend. They were very much alike. That's why they were friends. They were both unusual sizes, too big, too little. They both had nicknames at school. My name is Helen, but they call me Freckleface Strawberry because of my hair and all these freckles.

"Oh. My name is Windy Pants because of the wind in my… nevermind. They both have families. I have a mom and a dad and a sister and a brother. I have two moms and a little brother and a dog. They both loved to read."

You'll notice one… Freckleface Strawberry is reading Girls Rock Out and Windy Pants Patrick is reading Rockets.

"They both like lunch, only not in the cafeteria. 'I'll have a hotdog please.' 'I'll have a falafel.' They both love to play and they both love trips to the museum. Freckleface likes the dinosaur and Windy Pants likes art. They stuck up for each other. They were best friends forever all the time. Hey, watch out for my friend, she's little. Make way for the big guy. He needs some room. Until one day, who is that girl? Why do you play with her? She's a girl and girls can't play with us.

"'Aw. She's alright. She's just not good at sports, but she can play other things.' 'Exactly. Why would you want to play other things?' Windy Pants Patrick did not think the boy was right, but he didn't play with Freckleface Strawberry at recess. So Freckleface Strawberry watched Windy Pants play ball with the boys. She played jungle gym monkeys with the rest of the girls. 'Boys stink. I don't know why you play with Patrick. You know why they call him Windy Pants, don't you? Besides, he only loves to play ball.' 'That's not true. He loves to read and eat lunch and we both have nicknames.'

"But Freckleface did not wait for Windy Pants after school that day. The next day Windy Pants played with the boys and Freckleface played with the girls. 'It's not so bad. There are girls who like lunch and like to read. Besides Windy and I are too different.' 'This is so much better. I don't have to bend down to talk to a short person. I don't have to play scary monster ever again. Those other kids are right.' And so they did all the regular stuff that kids do.

"Freckleface Strawberry kept going to the museum. She's looking at art like Windy Pants likes. Windy Pants Patrick kept reading books and he's reading Girls Rock Out. 'This book is so good. It's about this girl who's really funny and talks kind of crazy.' And they both kept eating lunch. 'What's the matter, honey? Why aren't you eating?' But it wasn't the same. Until one day Freckleface Strawberry was on the playground looking for a game of ball. She couldn't find any kids. Just one big kid playing monster.

"'Hey, kid. Wanna play some ball?' 'No thanks. I'm pretending to be a monster.' 'I have an idea. We could be monsters playing ball.' 'Ball-playing monsters? I would play that all day. Do you want to have lunch?'

"And that's when they realized it didn't matter how different they were because they were a lot alike too. They both liked lunch. They both liked reading. They both had hair. They both had feet. They both had eyes and skin and teeth, but mostly they both liked each other, which is why they were best friends forever."

The end.

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"There is no substitute for books in the life of a child." — May Ellen Chase