John Lithgow is an inspirational fountain of creativity. Most of us kidlit people know about his children’s books in addition to his fame as an actor, but the real extent of his work is almost unbelievable. He has won multiple Tonys, Emmys, Drama Desk awards, Golden Globes, SAG Awards, The American Comedy Award, and has a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He graduated from Harvard, studied in London on a Fulbright Grant, and was awarded the Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Medal. When he was honored with an honorary Doctorate from Harvard, he also gave the commencement address, concluding with the dedication of a children’s book, Mahalia Mouse Goes to College, to the graduating class. The book is intended to get small children interested in higher education.
What to make of a man who is a runaway train of talent and storytelling? His work for children includes nine best-selling picture books (some including CDs):
The Remarkable Farkle McBride (2000), illustrated by C.F.Payne
Marsupial Sue (2001), illustrated by Jack E. Davis
Micawber (2002), illustrated by C.F. Payne
I’m A Manatee (2003), illustrated by Ard Hoyt
Carnival of the Animals (2004), illustrated by Boris Kulikov
Marsupial Sue Presents: The Runaway Pancake (2005), illustrated by Jack E. Davis
Mahalia Mouse Goes to College (2007), illustrated by Igor Oleynikov
I Got Two Dogs (2008), illustrated by Robert Neubecker
Never Play Music Right Next to the Zoo (2013), illustrated by Leeza Hernandez
He has also created a few Lithgow Palooza activity books for parents and children; a series of Lithgow Palooza Readers, non-fiction co-authored leveled readers (I think there are 18 of them) featuring his characters Farkle and Marsupial Sue, about animals and the arts; and The Poets’ Corner, 50 classic poems presented for young people.
Lithgow has performed concerts for children with many American orchestras, appearing in his own shows, singing his own songs, and narrating his original text for Carnival of the Animals as well as Prokofiev’s classic Peter and the Wolf. He has also released three of his own children’s albums. All of this work has won him two Parents’ Choice Silver Honor Awards and four Grammy nominations.
Carnival of the Animals is a special piece. We flute players are often afraid of it, since the Aviary movement is one of the hardest things we will ever have to play. But as I watched Lithgow perform his original story (youtube video), which features a boy who is locked in the Natural History Museum at night and sees the creatures come to life, I wondered if he had been inspired by the 1993 children’s book The Night at the Museum, which in 2006 was adapted into the hugely successful film starring Ben Stiller.
Then I reread Ogden Nash’s delightful Carnival of the Animals poems from 1949 (honestly, who else would rhyme boomerangs with kangaroomeringues?), and discovered the same reference to a museum come to life in the Fossils poem:
- At midnight in the museum hall
- The fossils gathered for a ball
- There were no drums or saxophones,
- But just the clatter of their bones,
- A rolling, rattling, carefree circus
- Of mammoth polkas and mazurkas.
- Pterodactyls and brontosauruses
- Sang ghostly prehistoric choruses.
- Amid the mastodontic wassail
- I caught the eye of one small fossil.
- “Cheer up, sad world,” he said, and winked—
- “It’s kind of fun to be extinct.”
On his Amazon author page, Lithgow talks about creating works for children: “Writing a children’s book was not something that I pursued. It pursued me. It started when I was asked to write a narration for a symphony for kids. I realized that it had the text for a book. From that text “The Remarkable Farkle McBride” was born. And once the first book was successful, others followed.
. . . .
“I credit my parents for fostering my love of literature and books. I have fond memories of my father reading chapters aloud from great thick books like “The Jungle Book” and “A Teller of Tales”.
“I have carried on my father’s tradition by reading aloud to my own kids when they were little. I have also started a few traditions of my own, like singing to them and playing really mediocre guitar, building castles with them out of refrigerator boxes and treasure hunts across museums. Once I even created a very elaborate paper chase across the entire campus of UCLA for my daughter Phoebe’s 16th Birthday. Some of these games were inspiration for all of the Lithgow Palooza books and books with kits that have been published by both Simon and Schuster and Running Press.”
What do you think? Are you a John Lithgow fan? Does children’s literature pursue you, too?