On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Catch up with Judith Viorst on 88.5 FM in the Washington D.C. region or listen to the livestream at kojoshow.org at 12:30 on Monday June 15. Kid callers only please: 800-433-8850 or email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
“Alexander And The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” is an iconic book for children, having sold more than 7 million copies since its 1972 publication. It was written by Judith Viorst, a Washingtonian who is joining Kojo to give us the scoop on the real Alexander (her youngest son) and the other characters in her universe of kids’ books.
There’s Lulu, who wants a Brontosaurus for a pet, Sophie, who is “super-completely and totally the messiest” and the unnamed girl who tells her parents that a gift of earrings would do wonders for her posture.
What’s your favorite Judith Viorst book? What do you want to ask her about writing? Do you have any suggestions for her next book?
This show is part of the “Kojo For Kids” series, a Kojo Nnamdi Show segment featuring guests of special interest to young listeners. Though Kojo has been on WAMU 88.5 for 20 years, this is the first time he has had the opportunity to reach out to an audience of kids, most of whom until recently had been in school during our live broadcast. We’re excited to hear from our youngest listeners! Join us!
Produced by Lauren Markoe
- Judith Viorst Author, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day and many other books
KOJO NNAMDI"I went to sleep with gum in my mouth, and now there's gum in my hair. And when I got out of bed this morning, I tripped on the skateboard, and by mistake I dropped my sweater in the sink while the water was running. And I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day." That, of course, is the beginning of the very famous children's book, "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day," by Judith Viorst.
KOJO NNAMDIPeople like it so much, they've been reading it for nearly 50 years. It's sold more than 7 million copies, been translated into many languages, and Disney made a movie out of it. But the Alexander books are hardly the only books that Judith Viorst has written. There's "Lulu and the Brontosaurus," "Just in Case" and dozens of others, including books of poetry.
KOJO NNAMDIJudith Viorst is here today to talk about reading, writing, and to answer your questions. Adults, you are welcome to listen, because today's show is part of the Kojo for Kids series. Judith Viorst, welcome to the program.
JUDITH VIORSTWell, thank you. And, Kojo, you made a wonderful Alexander.
NNAMDI(laugh) Thank you very much. What were you like as a kid? Where did you grow up, and what did you like to do?
VIORSTWell, I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey. And what I really liked to do, beyond anything else, was read and write. I started writing and sending out pretty terrible poems when I was seven or eight years old. And I always thought that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up, but never dreamed it would actually happen.
NNAMDIWhat were your favorite books as a kid?
VIORSTWell, I started out -- I certainly loved fairy tales. And then I move on to a book by Frances Hodgson Burnett called "The Secret Garden," which I loved and which has really influenced all my writing. Because the heroin is a really unpleasant and deeply imperfect person.
NNAMDIThe kind of heroes and heroines that you like, apparently.
VIORSTAbsolutely, because, I mean, I used to think bad thoughts and do some naughty things. And I used to worry that I was the only person in the world who as a wretched human being. And then when I read about Mary and “The Secret Garden,” here was somebody who was a serious pain in the butt, but, ultimately, redeemable, and even likeable. So, I like those kinds of heroes and heroines.
NNAMDIHow and when did you decide to become a writer? And do you remember some of the first things you wrote?
VIORST(laugh) Oh, you're asking a dangerous question. I'm going to recite to you the first poem I ever wrote, because it was an ode to my dead mother and father, both of them alive, and very irritated that I was bumping them off in verse. So, here goes. “I wonder how the angels look and what they do and say. They took my mom and daddy and carried them away. They took them up the golden stairs, far away from me. I wonder if ever again my parents I will see.” You can dry your tears now.
NNAMDII can just see your parents right -- did you just see what Judith wrote? We're still here, Judith. We're still here.
VIORST(laugh) I know. And, you know, they said, why do you want to be a writer? Why don't you want to be Shirley Temple? Go out and roller skate. Do something wholesome. Stop writing poems. Every poem I wrote, Kojo, when I was little, there was death in it. Dead soldiers, dead dogs, an entire family. My mother's favorite poem was "Annabel Lee," which is a poem about a young maiden who dies in a sepulcher down by the sea. And I think I really believed, when I was little, that a poem wasn't a poem unless there was a corpse in it.
NNAMDI(laugh) Here's 11-year-old Cora in Washington, D.C. Cora, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CORAHi. My question is, what was your inspiration for the Lulu series?
VIORSTOh, have you been reading the Lulu series?
CORAYes. I have one of the books. It's called "Lulu is Getting a Sister."
VIORSTYes. "Who Wants Her, Who Needs Her" is the rest of the title. The inspiration for those Lulu series was the Mary that I talked to you about from "The Secret Garden," and sort of me. I mean, the inspiration was every difficult, bratty child who you, kind of, against your better judgment, liked, anyway. So, Lulu was an extreme case. Do you like her or not?
CORAI like her, yeah. I like her personality.
VIORSTWhy do you -- tell me why you like her, because she is such a brat.
CORAWell, she's just, like, interesting. Like, I like the way she handles things. Like, she doesn't handle things typically the way other people would. And it's nice.
VIORSTI like that. I mean, I think she's very bold. This girl has tantrums, she falls down and shrieks so hard the light bulb bursts. She very rude, but she's very brave. And when she wants something she really goes for it, doesn't she?
NNAMDICora, thank you very much for your call. Judith Viorst, you also like to write poetry, as we heard from the first poem you ever wrote. Would you now read one of your poems for us, perhaps the one called "If I Were In Charge of the World"?
VIORSTOh, I'd love to. Let me find it in my book. "If I were in charge of the world, I'd cancel oatmeal, Monday mornings, allergy shots and also Sarah Steinberg. If I were in charge of the world there'd be brighter nightlights, healthier hamsters and basketball baskets 48 inches lower. If I were in charge of the world, you wouldn't have lonely, you wouldn't have clean, you wouldn't have bedtimes or don't punch your sister. You wouldn't even have sisters. If I were in charge of the world a chocolate sundae with whipped cream and nuts would be a vegetable. And all 007 movies would be G. And a person who sometimes forgot to brush and sometimes forgot to flush would still be allowed to be in charge of the world."
NNAMDIThat's Judith Viorst reading her poem "If I Were In Charge of the World." Two questions. One has to do with your sister. It's my understanding that when you were growing up, you and your sister used to go to the movies a lot, and that your sister could watch all kinds of mayhem on the screen if it happened to humans, but if it happened to an animal like a dog, she would get up and leave.
VIORSTWell, what (laugh) -- it was my sister Lois, who was, I mean, cold and heartless as millions of people got slain. And a dog's paw got stepped on, she'd leave -- because I was in charge of her, but I had to take her out in the lobby while her sobs and tears calmed down, so she didn't disrupt the rest of the audience and I could bring her back in. She was absolutely a fool for love on the subject of animals.
NNAMDIIt also sounds as if, at one point, you might've had a problem with oatmeal.
VIORST(laugh) Yes. I thought that something sweet, preferably with whipped cream, was an ideal breakfast. I never understood oatmeal.
NNAMDIYou said that you got a lot of rejections before you became a published author. What happened, and how did you keep going when you kept hearing no?
VIORSTWell, it was very -- it wasn't even a choice. I always wrote, and I really didn't know how to not write. So, I just kept on writing and writing. And you think, at some point, it's going to get much easier, but it actually doesn't. After having two children's books published, Alexander was rejected. And, you know, it went on to be a very successful book, and so I had this very immature reaction to the rejection, which went like, nya, nya, nya, nya, nya.
NNAMDI(laugh) What a mature response.
VIORSTI know. I know.
NNAMDII sit in admiration of that response. (laugh) Let's talk about your Alexander books for a bit. Alexander -- who had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day -- is based on a real person, yourself. Can you talk about how it came about? Why did you write it?
VIORSTYes. Well, Alexander -- who's my youngest son, and is a very terrific athlete and biker and skier and everything -- was not such a great athlete when he was a kid. He seemed to trip and bump and crash, and disaster seemed to follow him. He was kind of a clumsy kid. I always tell the story about him limping home from preschool one day. "My knee, my knee. I killed my knee. I killed my knee." And I said, "Oh, poor baby, at soccer?" And he said, "No, story time. "
VIORSTThis kid was such a wriggly, impatient kid that he fell off his chair during story time and got a knee injury. So, Alexander had more than his share of bad days. And I wrote "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible" to cheer him up. And I read it to him before it was a published book. And I was stunned that he just got furious with me. He didn't like the book. He hated the book. And he was so mad at me, because he said, "Why are you giving me this bad day? Why don't you give it to Nicky. Why don't you give it to Tony? Why are you picking on me?" And that's when I said I could change it to another name, Stanley or Walter, but then his name wouldn't be on the front of the book in great, big letters. And so he decided I could keep it Alexander.
NNAMDIJust so he could have his name on the book in great, big letters...
NNAMDI...regardless of how disastrous his day had been.
VIORST(laugh) That's right. And he eventually forgave me.
NNAMDIAnd now he is a responsible parent, living in the Washington area.
VIORSTYes, he is.
NNAMDI(overlapping) We heard from 14-year-old Ella, in Washington: My question is, did you get to meet Steve Carell, who starred in the Alexander movie? And if so, what was he like in person?
VIORSTI didn't really get to meet anybody. I mean, I met everybody to say hello, because we did get invited to the premier, which was very glamorous. We flew to Los Angeles. We went to the big, fancy theater, and there was a red carpet. And I came with my husband and with Alexander and his wife, and we walked down the red carpet.
VIORSTMy husband and I are sort of not majorly outgoing people. So, Alexander and his wife ran around the party afterwards and met everybody. And they would say, you know, come and meet this one and come and meet that one. And we met the kid who played Alexander, but we really didn't get to know him very well. We thought he was excellent. We thought that the movie, you know, wasn't exactly the story of my book, but it had a lot of the elements in it. And we thought -- the kids gave it an eight out of 10, which I thought was a pretty good review of the movie.
NNAMDIYou turned the story of Alexander into a musical that was performed all over the country, including the Adventure Theater in Glen Echo. Can you tell us about that?
VIORSTYes. I mean, it was commissioned actually by the Kennedy Center. They wrote me a letter and said, would I be interested in making a musical out of this? And, you know, this was one of the happiest experiences of my life. You know, I worked with a marvelous director, a local director named Nick Olcott, who I think is something of a genius and one of the nicest people I've ever met. You know Nick?
NNAMDIYes, I do know Nick. I've interviewed him on several occasions.
VIORSTYeah well, he was the director and he was marvelous. I had a friend named Shelly Marcum who wrote the music. I wrote the lyrics and I wrote the play, the book. But it was an exact replica of the actual Alexander book, except it had some additional scenes in it. And we just -- it was just a totally happy experience. The Kennedy Center was very happy with it. It went on the road. It's still out there still playing. And, you know, I felt like I was starring in a movie, you know, let's put on a show. It felt really magical and very satisfying.
NNAMDIYou have two other children. When they were little, did they get books about them, too?
VIORSTThey did. The books weren't as famous as the Alexander books, but I do have a book called "I'll Fix Anthony," which is about my oldest son, Tony, Anthony, who was a perfectly lovely, perfect, darling person who was only mean to one person in his life, his younger brother, Nick.
VIORSTAnd so this is a book about all of the ways Nick imagined that someday, when he got to be six years old, he would get even with Anthony. He'd be smarter. He'd dive off diving boards while Anthony would only go glug, glug. Anthony would have to get shots. He'd go to the movies. And I wrote it because I think sometimes make believing a happier world for yourself can really cheer you up. Like Alexander imagining everything would be just fine in Australia, and Nick imagining that he could fix Anthony when he got to be six.
NNAMDII can't tell you the things I used to imagine about my older brother, but (laugh) that's just another...
VIORSTOh, come on, can you give a little hint?
NNAMDIThere was a lot of choking involved, let's just put it that way. (laugh) Let's talk about "Lulu and the Brontosaurus," your book about a girl who wants a dinosaur for a pet. Where did you get the idea for it, and why did you make Lulu such an annoying person?
VIORST(laugh) There's actually a backstory to that, because my husband and I were up in Maine with our New York grandsons, Benjamin and Nathanael, when they were little. And they were -- we were sitting in the cottage, and it was a rainy day and it was a chilly day. And you could not go outside. You couldn't do anything.
VIORSTWell, I had built card houses. I had played Sorry. I had played War. I had played Bingo. I played hide and seek, and a couple thousand other things. And it was only 10:00 in the morning. So, I was in trouble, and I said, I'll tell you a story. So, I made up this story. And when you're just sitting around making up a story without really any forethought, they're not such great stories. So, after I'd finished that story, they said, tell us another story, tell us another story. And I said, what am I, a story machine? And they said, yeah, you're a story machine.
VIORSTSo, I told them -- then I started telling them about this really bratty girl who wanted a brontosaurus for a pet. And she was chanting, I'm gonna, I'm gonna, I'm gonna, gonna get a bronto, bronto, bronto, brontosaurus for a pet. And then my boys started -- my grandsons started marching around the house chanting this and asking me for more information about Lulu.
VIORSTAnd I thought, you know, if I really worked on this, this could actually be a book. This could actually be, instead of one of my dopey things that I'm telling, this could work out. And so I wound up writing about Lulu and her successful-unsuccessful quest for a dinosaur as a pet.
NNAMDIHere's 12-year-old Iris in Greenbelt, Maryland. Iris, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
IRISHi. My question is, what was your favorite book to write, out of all the ones that you did write?
VIORSTOh, Iris, that is such a tricky question. That's sort of like asking me, which of your children do you like best, Tony, Nick or Alexander? And the honest answer is -- well, there are two of them. I like them all equally, but depending on the day, I may like one better than the other, because of the way they're misbehaving or driving me crazy. But now that they're all grown up, I would have to say I could not pick a book or a child that was my favorite.
NNAMDIIris, thank you very much for your call. Whenever somebody asked me what is my favorite interview, I am stumped. I can't stay with -- everyone, every single last one of them is my favorite. Judith Viorst, do you have another one of your poems you could read to us, maybe "Sad Underwear"?
VIORSTYeah, this is from a poetry book called "Sad Underwear." And when I would go to schools to talk to the kids, I'd say, I'm going to tell you the title of a book and the title of a poem, but you have to promise me you won't laugh. And then I'd say, do you promise you won't laugh? And they all solemnly yelled, we promise. And then I tell them I'm going to read them a poem called "Sad Underwear," and they all laugh.
VIORSTSo, here's the poem. "Knock, knock. Who's there? Someone with sad underwear. Sad underwear, how can that be? When my best friend's mad at me, everything is sad, even my underwear."
NNAMDIWell, kids obviously think it's not a sad poem. They think it's a very funny poem, as a matter of fact.
VIORSTYeah, but I usually ask kids what other feelings there are. And it's so interesting to hear all the feelings that kids come up with. You know, happy, silly, frustrated, mad, I mean, they just go on and on. More feelings than I could ever even begin to imagine.
NNAMDIJudith Viorst, what's your advice to kids who want to be writers?
VIORSTOh, I love being asked for advice. (laugh) First of all, I always say, do you want to be a writer, which is a title like lawyer or doctor, writer, or do you want to write? Because if you want to write, no one's stopping you, and you can sit down and do it right now. And if you want to be a professional writer, actually be able to pay the rent someday with your writing, then you have to start at a very early age, taking it seriously. Give yourself a little bit of time and write something every day.
VIORSTStart out by writing what's in your head and what's in your heart, and putting it down on paper. Write about stuff you know. And then you should rewrite. I mean, we write something and actually, we should be called rewriters, because you write it, and then you read it. You'll think, ah, it's not that good, and then you rewrite it and you rewrite it some more until there's a little ping in your head which says, that's it, that's right.
VIORSTAnd you should try to finish what -- if you're starting something, to try to finish it. If you start something and you drop it and you drop something else, you're never going to get anywhere. And I think finishing what you start is probably a good piece of advice, not just for writing. And then, hang in there. And when you get older -- and there are children's magazines, that your parents could probably look up for you, that you can start sending stuff to right now, and you can start to get used to being rejected. (laugh)
NNAMDI(laugh) But do not let it deter you.
NNAMDIWell, school is out, and most camps in this region are closed. What's your suggestion for kids who might have a lot of time on their hands this summer and who do not have a story machine for a grandparent?
VIORST(laugh) Well, I've been sort of watching my own grandchildren and other people who have been trying to figure out what to do in the summer. My grandson Ben, in New York, who is a teenager, has become a professional chef. He is now making food every single day, and he is just going into the cookie business. I've just given him five orders for, I think he gave me a choice of chocolate chip cookies or snicker doodles. So, he's become a serious baker. So, serious, he's complaining about his parents' stove is not good enough for his baking.
NNAMDIAnd he's going to be mailing out things. So, he found an activity that he really loves to do. So, I think trying something that you've never done before, something you've thought about doing. I mean, there's one granddaughter of a friend of mine who is -- I don't know, there's something on her computer that is teaching her to play the clarinet, so she's learning to do that.
VIORSTSo, try something new. Isn't that cool?
VIORSTTry something new. Try to do something nice for somebody else once a day. I'm suggesting a nice thing you could do is call your grandmother, once a day. And then figure out something nice for yourself, some kind of treat, whatever it is that makes you feel good. So, those to start with, and I think that could keep you pretty busy.
NNAMDIJudith Viorst is the author of "Alexander and The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day," along with dozens of other books for children and adults. It's been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you so much for joining us.
VIORSTLovely talking to you, Kojo. I love your show.
NNAMDIThank you. Today's Kojo for Kids with Judith Viorst was produced by Lauren Markoe. And our conversation about adult learning and the digital divide was produced by Kurt Gardinier. Coming up tomorrow, at noon, COVID-19 infections and fatalities are far more prevalent in communities of color and in communities already disadvantaged by poverty.
NNAMDISo, how did we get here, and how do we make sure vulnerable communities are better prepared for what's to come with this pandemic? That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening, and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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