Zibby Owens: I’m really excited to be here today with Christopher Cerf who is an Emmy and Grammy award-winning author, composer, humorist, and producer. A charter contributing editor of the National Lampoon and a former senior editor at Random House, he has written three hundred plus songs for the Sesame Workshop Productions. He's the author of children's book A Skunk in my Bunk!, Spinglish, The Experts Speak, Blackie: The Horse Who Stood Still with Paige Peterson, and many other books. Welcome, Chris.
Chris Cerf: Hi, Zibby. Really great to be here.
Zibby: Great to have you. First, I want to talk about your latest book, A Skunk in my Bunk!, which is fantastic. I could read a quote, but it would be a rather short quote. “Boat. Goat. Coat. Moat. Float. The boat with the goat in the coat in the moat does not float.” [laughs] My little guys loved this book. They think that you are Dr. Seuss. Tell me about how this whole book came about.
Chris: There is a little bit of Dr. Seuss involved in the story. Back in the 1950s, my mom and Dr. Seuss started Beginner Books. It was based on the fact that Dr. Seuss had already written The Cat in the Hat, which he wrote because John Hersey, the novelist, wrote a piece in Life magazine suggesting that American kids weren’t learning to read because their premiers were so boring. Someone like Dr. Seuss should be writing them using the same word list that the people who wrote the Dick and Jane books were using. Ted Geisel, Dr. Seuss, said, “Okay, I’ll do that.” He wrote The Cat in the Hat as a result using only about three hundred different words and was a gigantic hit right away. Obviously, the public felt books like this would be needed. Besides, it was a great book. Ted didn't plan to do any more. My mom had the idea, “Why don't we do a whole series of these? Ted, you could do some more. We’ll get some other writers that you and I pick to do it.”
They started Beginner Books. Ted then wrote another book. My dad, who cofounded Random House, who published all these things, my dad bet Ted that he couldn't do a book with just fifty different words. Ted took the bet and wrote Green Eggs and Ham, which was the next Beginner Books. Ted always claimed my dad never paid off the bet. It sold tens of millions of copies, so that would be pretty silly. In any case, Beginner Books were a great hit and have been growing ever since. Over the years, they got away a little bit from the original formula of how Ted said the pages should be laid out so kids should understand them and the word list and all that.
Random House got in touch with me a couple years ago and said, “Chris, you've been writing all these Sesame Street songs. You wrote two Beginner Books with your mom at the beginning,” which I did. “Do you think you could write a book in the old Beginner Book style using the original rules?” I said, “I sure would love to try.” That would be bringing things full circle. I tried. I wrote A Skunk in my Bunk! They liked it. It was just published a couple months ago. It happened.
Zibby: That's so exciting. That's such a great story. Oh, my gosh. Over all those years and coming back to where it all began, that's great. Do you have more of these coming?
Chris: I hope so. Not yet, but I'm planning to do another one. They would like that. My [audio cuts out] one’s off to a really good start.
Zibby: Good. My kids would also like that. You have a little fan club in the house.
Chris: Excellent. I'm thrilled to hear that.
Zibby: You've been very focused on childhood literacy throughout your career with all the work you've done on Sesame Street, the show that you did, Between the Lions, which I want to hear more about. Somehow, I must have been at the wrong age when you were doing this show. Tell me a little more about Between the Lions, the literary show that you did.
Chris: Between the Lions was a show on PBS that our own company, Sirius Thinking, produced in collaboration with WGBH up in Boston, a great public station there. It was on the air for eleven years. It was a great run. It was very much in the format of Sesame Street. We used a wraparound story and lots of little segments that were designed by teachers and writers together to help kids learn to read. The show was set in a library that was run by the lions that ordinarily only stand outside. Our library was actually run by lions. The pun of course, Between the Lions, has to do with reading. My dad always said that great projects always start with terrible puns. That's a really terrible pun.
Zibby: [laughs] I love that. Great projects start with terrible puns.
Chris: A lot of the original Muppet performers working on it and a lot of writers from Sesame, tremendous educators from Harvard Ed School and from other places, from Brown, really top people. We had a great run. We taught some kids to read, which shows that it was very helpful. Now we have a new project to take that show and take the best segments from it and actually put them into classrooms as part of the first-grade reading curriculum. [Audio cuts outs] Johns Hopkins university on that, so doing a lot to help kids learn to read even now.
Zibby: What about putting them all on Netflix or something? Are they on Netflix?
Chris: We'd love to do that. I hope we’ll get there.
Zibby: I have faith. I bet you'll find a way.
Chris: We’re talking to WGBH about that. For instance, there's performance rights and things that need to happen. I think it’s going to happen. I’ll let you know when it does.
Zibby: Please do. For sure. What was it like for you contributing so much to these amazing shows like Sesame Street songs, Electric Company, all of these classics from when I was little? How did you come up with all these song ideas? What's it like writing a song versus writing a book? I haven't tried to write a song, really.
Chris: I don't know how to answer that exactly. It’s fun. I love doing it. I love the idea that I can do things that are fun and funny and that help kids and that parents might like too and that I might like too. We get to work with incredible performers. The Muppets are amazing. Of course, the music people are amazing too. We've had a lot of celebrities, in addition, over the years. I've gotten to work with some of the people I idolize singing my songs to help kids learn to read. You can't ask for much more than that. In answer to your question about how you go about it, both Sesame Street and Between the Lions had a curriculum that was drawn up by, as I mentioned earlier, top educators. There are learning goals in that curriculum that might be that kids should know the difference between the letter B and the letter D because they look alike. They should know that -EA sounds like E or whatever. You just take something off that list or they assign you one. You write a song about it. It’s actually easier for me to write a song and assign it like that than just to sit down with a blank piece of paper or computer screen and write anything. I don't know where to start then.
Zibby: Assignments are always really good. I like assignments. [laughs] It’s so funny because I feel like there’s -- not “I feel like.” There is this huge backlash against screens, too much screen time, limiting screens. Sesame Street and all these shows and the kind of work that you did, you're literally helping kids learn to read through screens. How do you feel about this backlash? It’s not fair. It should be more parsed out, right? What do you think?
Chris: Obviously, there's such a thing as too much screen time. There's also too much violence in a lot of stuff. Some things are great. Some things are terrible. That's true of books as well. It’s true of comic books. When I was a kid, everyone thought comic books were terrible. Now teachers are actually recommending them because kids are reading when they read them. It’s really a question of quality and time limits. If kids watch TV or play video games every single minute, they get no exercise. They make no friends. They're not socialized. They're not learning how to get through the world. There's obviously too much of a good thing. We try to do things that are very helpful. We don't suggest that you watch them twenty-four hours a day and do nothing else.
Zibby: It’s really about balance like everything, right?
Chris: Balance and quality.
Zibby: Balance and quality, yes. You wrote the book Blackie with Paige Peterson, who I've known forever and who I adore. Tell me about that book and how that one came about.
Chris: We had a great time doing that book. Actually, as you know since you know Paige, she's from Tiburon out in Marin County. There was a horse there named Blackie who was in a pasture that you would drive by as you drive down the main street into town. He was famous for being an incredibly lazy horse. He stood still all day and barely ever moved. He was always just standing there. He became kind of a legend in the town. Everybody knew Blackie and Blackie’s pasture. It seemed like a fun idea for a book, a horse who stood still. I tried to think with Paige of all the advantages. He never got fuzzy in pictures because he stood still. He would see what was going on around him while others didn’t. He could be observing, etc.
We made up a crazy story about him. Then we did a book which was used to help raise money to preserve things in the town that needed preservation. It was kind of a charity project. We found a wonderful publisher, Lena Tabori, who had Chronicle Books and then her had her own publisher, Welcome Books, which is distributed by Random House just like Beginner Books are. I wrote in verse because that was fun for me. Paige painted amazing pictures, put a lot of her friends in, though not identifying them. She got a lot of their Tiburon surroundings into the book. She grew up there. We've had a nice hit with it. It’s been through many printings. It helped raise some money. It’s still in print. I'm very happy about that too.
Zibby: That's great. Fantastic. You've worked with some of the most elite literary authors out there over your whole career at Random House and all the rest of it, people like George Plimpton from The Paris Review. Then you've worked with people -- not even people. You've worked with Snuffleupagus. Do you see anything that the muppets and the literary elite have in common?
Chris: Absolutely. They have to really be into what they're doing. You can't write a book on assignment -- I was talking about assignments -- unless you want to. If you write down to kids because you think this is good for them but you don't like it yourself, it’s not going to work. Passion is one thing all these people have in common, and talent. Snuffleupagus was originally Jerry Nelson, one of the very first muppeteers. Marty Robinson took it over, mainly because it’s such a heavy costume. It takes two people inside it. Jerry’s back was never the same. I don't know how Marty does it. They're great performers. People like George Plimpton wrote a great kids’ book called The Rabbit’s Umbrella, actually, as well as his adult things. My dad used to say, even though he published incredible adult authors like William Faulkner and Truman Capote and William Styron, he said at least privately that Ted Geisel might have been the greatest genius of them all. Of course, he didn't say that to John O’Hara or William Faulkner’s face. He did think it was just as brilliant the others, if not more so. It’s all about talent and passion and creativity.
Zibby: You grew up in this insanely talented literary family. As you mentioned, your dad was the cofounder of Random House Books, your mom with the Beginner Books, even your brother wrote a book. For someone who's been so involved for so long, where do you think the publishing industry is going from here? What do you make of where it is? What do you think’s coming next for the industry?
Chris: All of media is changing so fast that it’s very hard to answer that question. Nobody really knows. I think people will always like to hold a book in their hand. I love to read on an iPad, actually, because I can bring lots of different books with me wherever I go. I still love the feel of a real book. If I love a book, I'm almost sure to buy it even if I read it on the iPad first, just because I like to have it. With kids’ books that's even more true. It’s just different to have a book and turn the pages and look at the pictures. It’s not the same on an iPad or on a computer.
Beyond that, publishing is changing. A few ways are disturbing to me, just being older and having grown up when Random House was tiny. When I worked there first when I worked for my dad and mom, there were fewer than a hundred employees. Now there are tens of thousands worldwide. It’s hard for the top people in a publishing house to give the kind of attention to single authors that executives used to. As long as there are little divisions within those houses -- the small publishers can still do that. One of the problems, though, is that now that publishing has become such big business, the bottom line is more important. It always was important, but not book by book. When I was an editor at Random House, I was supposed to turn a profit. My list of books should make money or at least break even. Nobody said every single book alone had to do that. If you wanted to build a new author, maybe they would lose money for a while. You take a chance on them. Some other book would sell a lot of copies and make up the difference. I don't think that's as true now, which makes it harder to break in. If you have a fairly successful first book but your second book doesn't do a lot better, then it’s a lot harder as a writer to keep going. It used to be easier to have mid-list books. I'm getting into the weeds here. I hope that smaller publishers or the smaller imprints within big publishers will keep being allowed to experiment. The best publishers always permit that, I think. The best publishers still do permit that.
Zibby: That's excellent. What do you have coming next? You might do another Skunk in My Bunk! Beginner Book type book. What else do you have cookin’ over there?
Chris: As I mentioned earlier, our big project now in our company is adopting Between the Lions for classroom use, which I think can be incredibly important. A lot of shows -- Sesame is another example. There are decades worth of incredible video that has the highest education standards that kids love that are just sitting on shelves. Imagine if we could use those at just the right time in the classroom. It can't just be any time. If you were learning the letter B and we could play the “Letter B” song I wrote for Sesame Street at exactly that moment in the classroom, it might really help. If a kid were having trouble with that and the computer noticed that from a game the child was playing and then played just the right video or gave them the right game thing to help them learn that, that could be great. That's the kind of thing I'm working on in my day job, still lots of fun. I'm still writing songs and working on all kinds of other education projects. Try to do a funny book once in a while for grown-ups too.
Zibby: What do you think people can do to help children’s literary if they can't write songs for Sesame Street and other amazing things like you? What if I want to get involved and help with that effort? What do you think? What should I do?
Chris: A few things. One thing is read aloud to kids. That's been shown over and over again to be what fosters a love of books and reading. Without that love of reading, it’s going to be a chore for kids. They’ll never really get into it. If they don't learn to read, how are they going to learn everything else? That's one thing every parent should do and every caregiver should do. Another thing is make sure that books are available to children. I'm on the board of an incredible organization called First Book, which allows kids who are less affluent to get either free books or books in their classroom. They can be purchased at very much lower prices than normal by schools and things. You could give to them. Reading Is Fundamental is another great organization. That's another way to help. Making sure that there are books in kids’ environment is the most important thing you can do in getting them to love reading.
Zibby: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors out there?
Chris: Keep writing. Realize that it isn't easy. Some people think kids’ books are much easier to write than grown-up books. They may be easier in theory. Writing a good one still takes a lot of care and work and inspiration. Unless you're an absolute natural genius, you have to be prepared to work at it, to take advice, to be rejected. Don't give up. Make sure you enjoy it. If it’s drudgery for you, you're never going to really stick with it long enough to make it work. I love the stuff I write. All of us at Sesame Street, over fifty years now -- it’s the fiftieth anniversary of the show, believe it or not. All of us have had an amazingly good time doing it. I think that's why people like the show. It shows that everybody's having a great time. They think it’s funny. The actors love the characters they play. The puppeteers are brilliant. We love writing and seeing what some producer will do with our material. On every level, enjoying it is key to success.
Zibby: I love that. Thank you so much for sharing all of your hard-earned wisdom with listeners of “Kids Do Have Time to Read Books” and “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Chris: Hard-earned, but lots of fun.
Zibby: Thanks so much.
Chris: Thank you, Zibby.