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Acclaimed creator of ‘Arthur’ tells children about his life

Author Marc Brown of the beloved "Arthur" children's books, right, signs a photo for Catherine Harris of East Brunswick during his appearance at the East Brunswick Library on March 1 for Read Across America.

EAST BRUNSWICK – What began as curiosity about an aardvark’s nose turned into author and illustrator Marc Brown’s creation of the iconic “Arthur” character.

Almost 100 residents attended a meet-and-greet with Brown on March 1 at the East Brunswick Library, sponsored by the East Brunswick Public Library Foundation in honor of Read Across America.

Before he became a writer and illustrator, Brown said, “I got this job because I got fired from a lot of other jobs. It’s true. I was a cook in a restaurant and I didn’t figure out what they wanted me to make. … Then I was a truck driver and I kept getting lost, that was not good. Then I had a couple of other jobs. I was a teacher which I loved and one day I went to school, I was teaching at a little college, and they said ‘We are sorry to tell you that the college is closing’ and it was a sad day.”

However, Brown said the day he lost his job as a teacher turned out to be the best day of his life.

“I went home that night and I didn’t know what I was going to do, because I didn’t have a job and I needed to buy diapers for my son and shoes and food and stuff. I go home and my son Tolon said, ‘Daddy will you tell me a bedtime story?’ and I was depressed and I said, ‘Oh, I’m depressed, I’m tired [and] I just lost my job.’ He said, ‘Oh dad, maybe it will make you feel better.’ He was right,” Brown said.

Tolon asked him to tell him a story about a weird animal and after thinking alphabetically he thought of an aardvark named Arthur, according to Brown.

After drawing a picture of Arthur the aardvark for Tolon, Brown said, “This little aardvark with the long nose … I thought maybe if I was an aardvark that nose would get in my way and cause me problems. So that was the very first book I ever wrote and I never imagined it would turn into a series of books or a TV shows all over the world now.”

Brown said his first Arthur book, “Arthur’s Nose,” came out in 1976.

With PowerPoint slides and the help of volunteer reader Iniya Karthik, Brown talked about his childhood and his early passion for stories.

When his baby sister was born, Brown said he discovered that he could get her to stop crying by reading her books such as “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak.

“Sendak tells his story with words and pictures and that somehow made a big impression on me that people could do that, so I filed it away,” Brown said.

Brown said growing up he liked to ride his bike, play with his friends, make up stories and draw.

“I remember drawing in first grade and getting in trouble for it, because I was supposed to be doing my other work. I was drawing race cars and jet planes for my friend Suzette. Those were early memories. I’d love drawing and then I was lucky enough to go to the Cleveland Institute of Art and study art there. It was a wonderful art school,” Brown said.

Despite his family not being able to afford a lot of books, Brown said, “I had something almost as good: I had storytellers. My great-grandmother and my grandmother would tell us stories whenever we wanted them. My great-grandmother would tell us stories about coming to America and she had 13 brothers and sisters. … All of her stories had great details. Grandma Thora would tell us spooky stories.”

Showing a photo of his third grade class, Brown said he based many of the characters from Arthur off of his classmates and based the character Nigel Ratburn off of his seventh grade teacher Gary Rattabun.

Having three little sisters, Brown said, “I turned all three of them into one character, D.W. [Read].”

According to Brown, he based the character of Arthur off of his experiences, as well as, his children’s experiences.

Brown said he has been lucky with television and at first he jumped into it without really having a lot of respect for what television does for children.

“I had turned down two offers for TV shows for ‘Arthur,’ but PBS had an idea: they wanted to use television and animation to make kids want to read. I thought that was an excellent use of television. I had a good friend, Fred Rogers, who we all loved [and] he was the real deal. … I miss him everyday,” Brown said.

Seeing how Rogers was good at educating children with television, Brown said, “I think with television you can do things like talk about asthma, you can talk about different illnesses that kids have and try to make other children understand what their friends are going through and empathize with them. Television for me has been a big surprise, it has been a tool that I didn’t realize was as powerful as it is to help children.”

The “Arthur” television show on PBS is now the longest running animated children’s show in history, according to Brown.

Brown said he is currently working on a new preschool TV series called “Hop,” which is based on a frog named Hop and an owl named Hoot.

Brown said he has the best job in the world, because he gets to do what he loves most.

“I would watch my dad everyday when I was growing up. He went to work on the railroads and he hated his job. I said when I was six years old, I am going to get a job that I love. Now I get to write stories and I get to draw pictures and work with kids,” Brown said.

Today, Brown said he lives in a house that was built in 1730 in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Brown’s property is also a farm where he has two cats, chickens, cattle, two ponies, two pigs, wild turkeys, one peacock and two goats named Hanna and Hillary Clinton.

Brown said he works in an old barn that he fixed up and goes to work every morning.

“I wanted you kids to know that I don’t just sit down and these stories happen magically. I have a lot of trouble writing and I write these stories at least 30 times before they become a book. The whole idea of writing a story is very messy. You make a lot of mistakes,” Brown said.

For people who want to begin writing or drawing, Brown said, “Keep a diary, keep a sketchbook and try to discipline yourself to put something in there everyday. Really train yourself to be a good observer. Really look at things that are happening around you, because I think there are stories around us every single day, we just have to find them. Also be a good listener, listen to dialogue. … When you hear something that is interesting, funny [or] sad, write it down and think about it and draw.”

After his presentation, Brown signed books for the residents who came to the event.

Contact Vashti Harris at
vharris@newspapermediagroup.com.

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