A kid at heart

By SAMANTHA CRITCHELL Associated Press Writer Published:

NEW YORK (AP) The only qualification John Lithgow has for being a childrens book author and entertainer is that he was a kid before growing up to be a successful actor. Still, hes made a second career enchanting young audiences. It comes naturally, he says.

When his now-adult children were growing up, it was Lithgow whod build a medieval castle made of boxes for a birthday party, leaving it to the party guests to paint it and play in it. Lithgow would take his turn inside the fortress, too.

Fun ideas good for parents and children still come. On this day, hes pondering an inefficiency day, a day when no one would use elevators or cars and just take their time doing everything.

For his childrens books, the 60-year-old Lithgow, who starred in TVs 3rd Rock From the Sun and in films The World According to Garp, Terms of Endearment and Shrek (as the voice of Lord Farquaad), has created a family of lovable yet imperfect creatures.

In the most recent, Marsupial Sue Presents The Runaway Pancake, Sue the kangaroo and her friends put on a stage version of a familiar tale for the rest of the neighborhood.

Im a Manatee features a boy whose desire to be a manatee is so strong, he is swept away by his own dream. Micawber is about a squirrel who tries to copy some of the art worlds most famous paintings.

My parents always had books around. My dad read a chapter a night of Kiplings Jungle Book to us, and, of course, I loved comics. And Im a habitual reader now and I track that back to childhood, Lithgow says.

From his books grew accompanying CDs, tapping into some of Lithgows other talents. I listened to jazz, novelty, Danny Kaye and Broadway. I knew every word to Music Man a month after the album came out. It was good for endless hours of creative play. Add to that art supplies and then I wanted to be an artist, he says.

He taught himself to play the guitar to serenade his own children and that led to kiddie concerts and a 1990 video.

He wanted to give a concert for children at New Yorks Carnegie Hall, but he was pushed to come up with some sort of educational value to it beyond entertainment. So I wrote the childs guide to the orchestra suite, which became The Remarkable Farkle McBride, he explains.

It was written entirely in verse, which, Lithgow says, made it a ready-made childrens book.

He contacted Simon & Schuster and got an immediate green light. He didnt know the publishing house had already sent him a letter a few weeks earlier asking if hed be interested in childrens projects.

The letter was probably still on his desk when David Gale, vice president and editorial director for Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, received the text and sample drawings for Farkle.

When I wrote to him, he was still starring in 3rd Rock, so kids knew who he was. And I think hes funny. And I knew about his childrens concerts. He just seemed smart and I thought he could do it, Gale recalls.

The next picture book will be released in spring 2007. Itll be about a mouse who lives in a classroom at Harvard University and ends up graduating.

Last spring, Lithgow, a 1967 graduate of the school, became the first actor to be the main speaker at Harvards commencement ceremony.

Lithgow also presides over Lithgow Palooza, a childrens entertainment-education project that includes books of boredom busters to keep kids minds active. Its basically all the ways I learned to keep my kids from getting bored in the car, in line, waiting in a restaurant to get waited on.

Lithgow Paloozas mission statement is to connect the dots between fun, learning, the arts, creative play and family.

Lithgow says hed like to see some of those creative juices that drove him to flow in todays kids who spend a lot of time playing video games or watching TV, which have predetermined styles, characters, even sound effects.

Theres a high value to creative play. Theres education, socialization and kids learning who they are, Lithgow observes. Im completely convinced that creative minds are better learners.

Want to leave your comments?

Sign in or Register to comment.