Between books and a television series, generations have followed the lives of the 8-year-old aardvark, Arthur, and his friends. Marc Brown created the children’s books and the long-running PBS series. He will be speaking this weekend at the West Virginia Book Festival in Charleston.
News Director Eric Douglas spoke with Brown to learn more about his career — and Arthur.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Douglas: Tell me who Marc Brown is.
Brown: Marc Brown is most often thought of as the creator of Arthur. And I have to admit that this little bedtime story I told my son years ago turned into a book, Arthur’s Nose, and then turned into more books about Arthur. And I never imagined a television series or kids in different countries around the world watching Arthur.
Douglas: But that’s literally where it started, as a bedtime story for your son?
Brown: Yes, it was.
Douglas: How did you come up with an aardvark?
Brown: I guess thinking alphabetically. And then, alliteration. He asked for a name of the character and Arthur popped into my head. And so we were off to the races. And he wanted a little drawing. And so I did this little doodle of an aardvark who had a long nose. At the time, I had a problem. I had just lost my teaching job in Boston, the school closed. And so the story was about Arthur having a problem. And I find that often, in some of these stories, I’m working out my own personal issues and problems. It’s the most inexpensive form of therapy.
Douglas: Your most recent book is Believe in Yourself: What We Learned from Arthur. What did we learn from Arthur?
Brown: Well, I think we learned a lot about what an average 8-year-old aardvark is capable of showing children by example. He’s navigating the mud puddles of life. And he doesn’t always get things right. But what 8-year-old does, right? And I think kids see themselves in Arthur and his friends. And my wonderful friend, Fred Rogers, taught me so much about how to use television in helpful ways for children. And he was a great example. So, you know, between my idea and things that I learned from Fred, I have to credit Fred for a lot of the things that are good about Arthur.
Douglas: I know child literacy is a big issue for you. Let’s talk about that for a second.
Brown: It’s important for every child to love reading, because no matter what they want to do in life, reading is the foundation for everything. And kids will ask me, “What can I do if I want to be an author?” The most important and helpful thing that anyone can do is read and understand what you read. Because it’s like playing basketball or playing the piano, you have to practice.
Douglas: You don’t often find writers who are also illustrators of children’s books. Normally, those are two separate human beings. I’m sure, in the later years, you were using illustrators and that sort of thing. But you started out as the illustrator and writer for Arthur.
Brown: I think of myself as an illustrator, who had to write to be able to produce books. It’s the hardest part, for me, of making the book is writing that story, building that foundation on which I can elaborate and have fun with the pictures. And I have to credit growing up with two wonderful storytellers, my great-grandmother and my grandmother who told us stories whenever we wanted them, and they were always wonderful. I think that’s what gave me the confidence to think I could make a story.
Douglas: Just for the record, why bring it to an end?
Brown: Why did we stop? Well, it was a considered decision that we made several years before the 25th year. We had done all of these stories, and we felt like we should pull the plug at a moment when everything was really wonderful. PBS will continue to air the shows for a long time. And Arthur never stops. We’re doing podcasts right now. We’re doing public service spots for kids about various issues that we think Arthur and his friends can be helpful with. And there could be a feature film in the works. Just saying there could be maybe.
Douglas: So, Arthur is not going away anytime soon.
Brown: I am lucky that Arthur has been around to see more than one generation. I’m now talking to parents who are reading Arthur books to their kids. And how often does that happen? A mom came up to me at a book signing not too long ago, and she said, “My kids are in college now, but I still watch Arthur. Is there something wrong with me?” No.
Douglas: So what’s next for you, Marc?
Brown: I am working on the most exciting project right now. I always wanted to develop an animated series for younger kids, younger than Arthur’s audience was. It’s called Hop. It’s about a little frog, and one leg is a little shorter than the other, and his friends who have different things that they’re dealing with, but we really don’t focus on what those are or how they don’t impact what those kids can accomplish. It’s about friendship, working together. What can you accomplish with the power of friendship, staying with a problem, even though you may not solve it. And just having a great time.
And I’m working with two of my favorite people, Peter Hirsch, who was the head writer on Arthur for many years and who was a producer on Arthur for many years. I did this little doodle of a frog about five years ago, and I took it to a meeting we were having, and it just took over the meeting. It just unleashed all of these ideas. And that’s how Hop was born.
Douglas: Is there anything else we haven’t talked about?
Brown: Gosh, I can’t think of anything. I’m looking forward to being in West Virginia this weekend. I put together a talk that I think will be a lot of fun. It’s based on what kids most often asked me, and kids have the best questions. I’ll give you an example. A second grader in Dallas, Texas. I was at a school and asked for questions. And he raises his hand like he really has this urgent question. And I said “Yes, you, what’s your question?” He said, “Mr. Brown, if you’re a famous author, how come you’re not dead?”
Brown will be speaking at 11 a.m. on Saturday as part of the West Virginia Book Festival.