Author Judith Viorst is a staggeringly busy person. She not only writes books for both children and adults, she is also a poet, newspaper journalist, psychoanalytic researcher, playwright and probably lots more that I'm missing. For this reason, I’m amazed and grateful that I could take 30 minutes of her time to chat with her about what she’s up to these days.
Viorst, who in 1972 penned the classic and much beloved picture book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, just saw the release earlier this month of her second chapter book about Lulu, a very spoiled and petulant little girl who knows exactly what she wants and knows how to throw a fit to get it. Lulu Walks the Dogs—the very funny story of Lulu’s attempts to earn some cash, which introduces the hilarious character Fleischman—is the follow-up to 2010’s well-received Lulu and the Brontosaurus, both illustrated by Lane Smith.
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In October, Judith will visit my stompin’ grounds to speak at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, Tenn. This wonderful festival, scheduled October 12 to 14 this year, celebrates books and the joy of reading and is free to the public. For those who live in and around Nashville, here is the lineup for children’s and YA authors. I look forward to meeting Judith in person then.
Will your visit to the Southern Festival of Books in October be your first visit to Nashville?
I've visited Nashville before (and seen the movie Nashville at least five times—does that count?), but I've never been to the Southern Festival of Books, so this will be an exciting first for me.
I'll be reading from my second Lulu book, Lulu Walks the Dogs, and talking a bit about my vast admiration for writers like Sendak and Silverstein, who appreciate and give voice to children's nonsweetie-pie selves—to their wicked thoughts, wild dreams and untamed feelings.
I, too, like to write about fresh, fierce kids, who maybe, probably, bear some resemblance to my own three sons and seven grandchildren—and to the little girl I once was.
Tell me how the character Lulu came to you. Will there be more Lulu books?
Lulu arrived one rainy morning in Maine when I was desperately trying to entertain two of my grandsons with stories, and this ferocious, difficult girl captured my heart.
Yes, she is spoiled and stubborn, and she wants what she wants when she wants it. And, as her dog-walking partner Fleischman points out, she certainly isn't the nicest girl in the world (which is fine with Lulu, who thinks that nice is boring.)
Anyway, just because she isn't all that easy to like doesn't mean, I hope, that kids won't learn to like her. I certainly can't let go of her and have, as a matter of fact, just this minute finished writing a third Lulu book.
I would also like to talk worshipfully about Lane Smith, whose illustrations for the two Lulu books are beyond perfect. The girl leaps off the page in all her peevishness and outrageousness; the dinosaur is a model of elegant dignity; and the impossibly goody-good Fleischman [pictured at left] and the three dogs in the second Lulu just crack me up.
Children’s book writers sometimes wish that they knew how to draw, so the pictures on the page could look exactly, exactly, how they wished they would look. Lane's glorious drawings are beyond anything I was even capable of wishing for, and I am awash with gratitude.
Many people have great love for Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. The book is undoubtedly a classic of children's literature, and the phrase "terrible, horrible, no good, very bad..." even has its own Internet meme. Does any of this surprise you?
Since Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible... was turned down by the first publisher I sent it to, all the good things that have subsequently happened to this book have been a huge surprise and delight.
I am still getting letters—delicious, hilarious and sometimes quite touching letters—from kids who want to tell me or Alexander about their own terrible times: "Dear Alex: In my life, EVERY day is a bad day.” Or to offer advice on how to handle these terrible times: "Dear Alexander: Blame your brothers."
I also have a fat file folder of clippings about the various people—from presidents to tennis stars, from Hedda Gabler to Hillary Clinton—who have been said to have had a "terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day." And I must confess to being tickled that this phrase has become so popular.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on adapting Lulu and the Brontosaurus for Imagination Stage, a beautiful state-of-the-art children's theater in Bethesda, Md. I've been writing the script and the lyrics, and my wonderful collaborator, Shelly Markham, is writing the music, as we've done together for two other children's musicals, both of them about Alexander. We're expecting to see it performed during the 2013-2014 season, complete with a tantrum-throwing Lulu and a dancing dinosaur.
Julie "Jules" Danielson has, in her own words, conducted approximately "eleventy billion" interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
Author photo courtesy of Milton Viorst.
Illustration of Fleischman is © 2012 and used by permission of Lane Smith.