Author Judith Viorst Talks Alexander, Movies & the Benefit of Bad Days

A couple of months ago my husband mentioned that he had a client whose mother was a children’s book author, and that a movie was being made of one of her books. He couldn’t remember the mother’s name, so I asked him his client’s name: it was Alex Viorst.

“You mean like Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day Alex?!?” I asked excitedly.

It was indeed the same Alex. And his mother — and the author of the book (and many others) — was Judith Viorst.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, was published in 1972, has sold over 2 million copies and won a myriad of awards. It spawned three sequels, the most recent published in September of this year. In 1998, Viorst worked with the Kennedy Center to turn the book into a musical production. On October 10, 2014, Disney released a film version of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, starring Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner.

Judith Viorst - Alexander and the Terrible book

Like many kids who started reading in the 1970s, Alexander was a perennial favorite. Needless to say, I was beyond thrilled to talk with an author from my childhood. Many thanks to Nick and Alex for arranging this wonderful opportunity for me to chat with Judith about her books, the movie, her family, and the importance of bad days.

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Designer Daddy: I know you were involved in the creation of the musical of Alexander at the Kennedy Center. How much were you involved in the creation of the movie?
Judith Viorst: Zero. There’s a different set of principles between what authors do in the theatre and what they do in the movies. In the theatre, they really cannot change an and or a the without consulting you. So I wrote the script for the musical, I wrote the lyrics, and I worked with a friend of mine, Shelly [Markham], who wrote the music, and I was at every rehearsal. If they needed something, I wrote it. Nobody else did. And of course there was a huge amount of brilliant input from the director. But with the movie, they buy the book, they give you money, and that may be the last time you have anything to do with each other. They did arrange for a weekly fee for the 12 weeks they were making the film, if they felt the need to consult me. But they never felt the need to consult me. The musical was my take on the book, and the movie was Disney’s take on the book.

How long ago did they purchase the rights to the book?
It was surprisingly not that long ago. And it seems that [the making of the movie] all happened within a year. But over the four decades that this book has been out, a lot of companies have tried to make a movie out of it without success. They’ve optioned it, they’ve had scripts written and nothing has panned out. It was Disney that made it work by giving everybody in the family a bad day, not just Alexander. That then allowed for a lot of opening up of the book, humor and grown up characters. They wound up with a movie that people of every age could relate to. So I thought it was a really clever solution to the challenge of turning a 32-page picture book with large print into an 82-minute movie.

Alexander and the Terrible - Steve Carell
Alexander, as envisioned by Disney; as illustrated by Ray Cruz

It sounds like you liked the film, even though it was quite a bit different from the book.
I did. It kept my character, my thorny Alexander. And it kept the idea — which is a useful idea — of the bad day. Useful because it suggests some kind of container concept. It has a beginning and an end, and implies maybe tomorrow can be better. When we say, “we’re having a bad day” — when adults say that — what we’re saying is that it’s finite. And without spelling it out, I think that I was trying to convey that to kids. And they kept that idea. They also had a lot of cute, goofy stuff about Australia, which is a big obsession of Alexander’s. So a lot of the things I really cared about remained in the movie.

I saw in the article in the Post that you and the real Alexander got to go to the premiere. How was that?
Yes, my husband and I, and Alexander and his wife — the four of us went. It was everything a premiere should be from your fantasies. It was really darling. We had actual red carpet that you walked down, photographers taking your picture. And Disney assigned me a person I probably can’t live without for the rest of my life called a talent handler — he carried my purse and walked me to the ladies room and back, and took good care of me. (laughs) I don’t know how I’m going to live without him.

Where the event was held was absolutely gorgeous. It was in a theater in Hollywood from the 1920s, with someone playing a solid gold organ, which sunk down into the ground when he finished. I loved it. Then there was a big party across the street. It was a family premiere, so everyone involved with the movie brought their kids. However, I was planning on a designer gown kind of thing, but then I was told it was “California casual,” so I’ll have to save that for some other movie premiere.

So was that the first time you’d seen the film or did you get to see a screening?
Our family got a screening here in Washington. We had about 10 kids and 9 grown ups going to see it. We all liked it. The kids gave it an 8 out of 10, which I thought was pretty good — they’re very critical.

Did they show it at your home or did you go to a theater?
The MPAA has a screening room downtown, so we went — probably the grubbiest collection of 19 people they’d ever seen. Just coordinating it was so Disney. They called me up and said they could give us a screening. And I said, “Well, two of my grandchildren won’t be in town until tomorrow and two of my grandchildren are leaving the day after tomorrow, then there’s a couple of dentist appointments — so the only time all the kids can come is 12:30 on Friday.” And they made it happen!

I just read Alexander to my 5-year-old for the last time last week. I could definitely see him relating to it, the things at his level that really frustrate him. It gave me more empathy as to what may be going on in his brain. But as we got to the end (I hadn’t read it in forever), I thought “Wow, that was different!” So many contemporary picture books have a happy ending or a life lesson — yet you just leave it at, “You know, sometimes you just have bad days…”
…and moving to the other side of the world isn’t going to make them go away.

Right. And it made me think back to some of the other books that I grew up on. Maurice Sendak, Shel Silverstein, and even Schulz’ Peanuts characters — things weren’t always happy or resolved.
Sendak and Shel Silverstein are gods in the children’s book writing field because they are transgressive. They don’t wrap everything up and everyone isn’t a sweetie pie. I think of Shel’s poem “Prayer of the Selfish Child:”

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
And if I die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my toys will break.
So none of the other kids can use ’em….

I just love that sensibility. And I think there’s a lot more of that now, and it’s much freer. I was a children’s book editor in the late 1950’s and you never could have had any…any of this stuff. And when I wrote a book in 1971 about the death of a cat [The Tenth Good Thing About Barney], four publishers turned it down. I was just a little tiny bit ahead of the curve, and they thought it would be too sad.

In the Alexander movie the takeaway was that bad days cause us to appreciate the good days more. Yet because your book wasn’t wrapped up that way, it caused my son and I to have a conversation — about how he had a bad day recently, and that tomorrow is another day and that we can do better. It left it to us, which I thought was great.
I’ve gotten so many letters over the years, kids telling me about their bad days. Or giving advice to Alexander, telling him, “Don’t let it bother you.” My favorite one was “Dear Alexander, next time you have a bad day, blame your brothers.” I thought that was very handy advice. Kids have bad days.

In fact one poor kid wrote me a letter, and said, (in a very sad-sack voice) “In my life, every day is a bad day.” (laughs) It was a very sad letter.

Have you ever gotten any letters that you gave you concern?
No, not at all. Every once in a while there’d be a mother who would be very disapproving that my boys — the boys in this book — were not always sweet and wonderful and darling to each other. She was shocked, because the children in her family always hugged and kissed and played so beautifully together. I used to read that letter to kids when I talked to schools, and I ask if that was possible, and they would all scream “NO WAY!”

So did you ever consider ending the book differently?
No — as a matter of fact, I have a fourth Alexander book that just came out [Alexander, Who’s Trying His Best to Be the Best Boy Ever] about Alexander eating a box of jelly donuts, hiding them, getting caught and then getting punished. He decides he’s going to be good for the rest of his life and never have consequences again. But then it ends with him realizing that being good is way too hard, and what he really needs is a better place to hide the empty donut box. He gets through a week of being pretty good, but with a great deal of stress and strain doing it. And deciding he can’t live that way. It came out in September, after a very long break following my third Alexander book.

Judith Viorst - Alexander book
Alexander’s latest adventure, involving a box of donuts and an attempt to be the best boy ever.

Was it a matter of you wanting to wait to write another book, or was it a publishing issue?
It’s when I come up with an idea. I wrote the first one, and then the second one fairly soon after; the third book it took me forever to think of something I was interested in. And this one I actually sat down and started three different Alexander books, and took two of them and threw them in the trash because they were horrible. And I really like the idea of this one. You know, I like the character. And if something strikes me again someday, I’ll write about him. I don’t want to write an Alexander book just to write an Alexander book.

Were the sequels inspired by any real-life events from your Alexander or your grandchildren?
There’s always a bit of something — like Alexander not being great at hanging onto money. But the book about moving was more about how much I hated to move. I kept the character of Alexander and gave him the feelings I remember having when I was a kid. And of course the first one was prompted by Alexander claiming he was getting more than his fair share of bad days.

What about And Two Boys Booed? I read that it was inspired by your granddaughter, Alex’s daughter. How did that book come about?
Olivia came home from JCC camp a few summers ago. She had been in a talent show. I asked her how it went, and she replied, “Two boys booed.” In one of my more shameful moments as a grandma, instead of hugging her and saying, “Oh, poor baby,” I said, “Great title for a book!”

Judith Viorst - And Two Boys Booed
“And Two Boys Booed,” inspired by a new generation of Viorsts — granddaughter Olivia.

The one question I always hear every author asked is, “What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring authors?” So instead I’ll ask you, “What advice would give aspiring authors of what NOT to do?”
Well, I would say if you want to be a writer, don’t be casual about it. Take it seriously. That requires you to do some writing — a little bit — every single day. And finish what you start. And you know, there are a lot of people who say they want to be writers, but that means they want to tell people, “I’m a writer.” But if they want to write, no one can stop them, and they can do it. If they sit down, with their little tush on the chair and write.

Are there any plans for an Alexander movie sequel or a movie based on another one of your books?
Not that I know of. Disney has the rights to do that, but I haven’t heard anything about that.

What do you have planned for the near future?
I have a book of poems for adults coming out in 2015 called Wait For Me and Other Poems About the Irritations and Consolations of a Long Marriage — I’m going over the illustrations this week. And I have a book of poems for kids called What Are You Glad About? What Are You Mad About? Poems for When a Person Needs a Poem. I’m reviewing the copy-edited manuscript this week, and it comes out in 2016.

Finally, I have two questions from my son. When I read Alexander to him and told him that Alex was a real person, and then told him I was going to talk to the author, he literally gasped with astonishment! Every time we read to him, we say the title and who wrote and illustrated the book — he becomes familiar with the names and they mean something to him.
That’s very good. Because we appreciate that.

Okay, so he wanted to know, Why did Alexander have to have a bad day?
Because everybody has a bad day. Nobody gets through this life without having bad days. And if you have a story about a bad day, you’re reminding all the kids reading the story that they’re not the only person in the world who is being picked on and persecuted and chosen to have a bad day. And I think it feels good to know that a bad day is something that happens to everyone and that you’re not all alone with your bad day.

And his other question: Why does he want to go to Australia?
It’s the other side of the world. If it’s dark here and cold here and bad here, it’s going to be sunny and beautiful in Australia. One of the songs in the Kennedy Center musical is called “Australia,” and the whole song is about going to Australia because it’s the opposite of here. If here (in the story) is bad, the opposite is going to be all good and great and terrific and sunny and beautiful.

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My sincerest thanks to Judith for taking the time to talk with me. I’ve been reading her books since I was a kid, and being able to meet her and read Alexander to Jon within the same week is about as far from terrible, horrible, no good, very bad as you can get.

Share your favorite books from childhood in the comments, or stop by the Designer Daddy Facebook page and strike up a conversation there!

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