Marc Brown makes a cameo appearance in the series finale of the PBS show “Arthur.” (For those of you who haven’t been in the company of young children in the past 45 years, Arthur is an 8-year-old anthropomorphic aardvark.) Arthur and his friends go to the library to return a book about drawing animals that the librarian mistakenly gave to him. “Hey, this shows you how to draw an aardvark!” notes Buster, Arthur’s best friend. Marc Brown (or the character drawn to look like him, which he voices in this show) is in the library reading the Alwood City Times, and before Arthur returns the book, Brown’s character asks him, “Are you sure you don’t want it? There are some really great drawings in here.” It is a lovely meta-moment. Arthur takes the book, and we soon find out (spoiler alert) that when he grows up he will write and illustrate a book about — well, you can guess.
The television series “Arthur,” which is based on the series of books written and illustrated by Brown, ran on PBS for 25 years, making it the longest-running animated show for children in America. (The first book in the Arthur series,“Arthur’s Nose,” was published in 1976.) To celebrate this extraordinary achievement, Brown recently published a new book, “Believe in Yourself: What We Learned From Arthur” (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers). The book is a collection of “wit and wisdom” from Arthur’s many years as an 8-year-old aardvark.
Brown, who is a part-time Vineyard resident, said in a recent phone interview, “This is probably the closest thing I’m going to come to writing a memoir.”
At the end of the book, in a section titled “How Arthur Came to Be,” Brown writes about the evolution of the books and television series. He begins by writing, “I was literally rescued by Arthur.” The college he was teaching at had closed, but another opportunity opened. Brown told his son a bedtime story, which began, “This is Arthur. He is worried about his nose.”
“Most people grow out of their childhood; I grew back into mine when I started making books. My memories became the beginning of Arthur’s imagined world. I could vividly remember the joys, heartbreaks, messiness, and dignity of being a third grader,” writes Brown.
The stories Brown has penned over the years have engaged and taught several generations of children about a host of issues, including friendship, loss, empathy, and perhaps most important, making mistakes. He created characters that discover an imperfect world and approach challenges not as adults might, but as children do, which is one of the reasons the books and series have such an enduring appeal.
“Believe in Yourself” is a collection of highlights and life lessons from both the books and the TV series. Reading it is like flipping through a photo album and recalling the events of each picture. Brown summarizes a situation that loyal readers and watchers will likely remember, and then, with largely new work, shows the scene.
“When Buster confesses that he’s not sure he wants to spend time at home after his parents’ recent divorce, Arthur tries to help his friend by getting creative. Maybe a little too creative …” writes Brown. On the facing page is an illustration of Buster sitting under a tree with a look of surprise as Arthur suggests, “We’ll dig a pit under my house and you’ll live in it! They’ll never find you!”
“My editor kind of expected me to just pull existing artwork out when I was citing a certain passage in a book or television show,” said Brown, who created over 60 pieces of new artwork for the book. “But I wanted to kind of bring it all together with a feeling of cohesiveness.”
He admits he felt frustrated when the TV show began. “One of the hardest things for me was sharing my part with other artists. They were doing things in animation that were never going to be perfect in my eyes. At a certain point, early on, I said, ‘OK, Marc, you are now part of the team, and if you’re gonna enjoy this process, you’ve got to let go a little bit.’ In this book I could bring it all together and I could make moments in the television show that I wanted to depict like the books, and I could go back and redraw things in the books.”
The characters Brown created have not only entertained and taught generations of children; they have become lifelong friends and allies. Arthur, his sassy sister D.W., his friends, Buster, Francine, and Binky, to name a few, and his teacher, Mr. Ratburn, have found a secure place alongside other enduring characters in children’s literature (Madeline, Harriet the Spy, Skippyjon Jones, Harry Potter, and Charlotte and Wilbur, to name a few) who help young readers navigate through the unknowns and the inconsistencies of childhood and beyond.
“Believe in Yourself: What We Learned From Arthur” and many other Marc Brown books are available at Bunch of Grapes bookstore, Edgartown Books, and elsewhere nationwide, but we encourage you to support your Vineyard booksellers. Marc Brown will be speaking on a panel about writing for children at this summer’s Islanders Write. islanderswrite.com. If you want to see more of the illustrations, visit rmichelson.com/illustration/marc-brown/.