James Howe
 
 
JamesHoweAbout

James Howe is the author of over ninety books for young readers, including the modern classics Bunnicula and The Misfits and both books’ highly popular sequels.

He wrote the award-winning bestseller Bunnicula with his late wife, Deborah Howe, in 1977. The couple went on to write one other children’s book, Teddy Bear’s Scrapbook, before Deborah’s untimely death from cancer in 1978.

After Bunnicula’s publication in 1979, James Howe quit his job as a literary agent to pursue writing full-time. His many other popular books for children include the six sequels to Bunnicula; the Tales from the House of Bunnicula series; the Bunnicula and Friends Ready-to-Read series; the Pinky and Rex series; the Houndsley and Catina series; and such picture books as Horace and Morris but mostly Dolores, I Wish I Were a Butterfly, There's a Monster Under My Bed, Brontorina, and Otter and Odder.

He is also the author of several acclaimed novels for older readers, including The Misfits and its companion novels: Totally Joe, Addie on the Inside, and Also Known as Elvis. Beloved by kids, teachers, and librarians, The Misfits inspired the national movement known as No Name-Calling Week, which is observed by thousands of middle and elementary schools each year.

Howe has also written the teen novel, The Watcher, and is the editor of the anthologies The Color of Absence: 12 Stories About Loss and Hope and 13: Thirteen Stories That Capture the Agony and Ecstasy of Being Thirteen.

Howe’s many books frequently deal with the acceptance of difference and being true to oneself.  James Howe has a daughter, Zoey, who lives in Boston.  The author lives in New York State with his husband, Mark Davis.

 
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Writing Bunnicula

I wrote Bunnicula with my late wife Debbie. This is our story and the story of how that book—my first and still my most popular—came to be written.

It was spring, 1977, just after dinner, when we sat down at our kitchen table, the wooden table I had painted a bright tomato red soon after we’d married, and began to write.

The words "Count Bunicula" in Debbie's handwriting

The words "Count Bunicula" in Debbie's handwriting

I still have the scrap of paper from that evening. The misspelling and handwriting are hers: her scrawl, so like tangled hair it was sometimes impossible to decipher.  Were we drinking coffee? There’s a stain on the paper that leads me to believe we were. I see—or imagine I see—the look in her eyes that said: Who are we to think we can write a book? Who were we indeed?

Debbie and I were thirty when we began writing Bunnicula. We had met twelve years earlier as freshman theater students at Boston University and had become good friends. Had we met as children we would likely have been friends even then. Born ten days apart in 1946, we grew up in different worlds, but we had a great deal in common.

Debbie and me as children

Debbie and me as children

We both loved words and weren’t shy about using them. But Debbie was—and would always be— far more of a reader than I. From an early age, she read quickly and with understanding. As an adult, it wasn’t uncommon for her to read anywhere from ten to twenty books in a week. When it came to reading, I was the tortoise to her hare. If I managed to read one book in a week it was an accomplishment. Besides, when I was a boy, my favorite reading wasn’t books but comics and Mad magazine.

We were both writers as children. Writing was for me a natural extension of the kind of make-believe play I engaged in with friends or by myself. Debbie, too, liked to act out the movies she’d seen or fantasies conjured from books or real life or thin air. She and her younger brother whiled away many hours spinning stories together in the backyard of the Smith family’s home in Newton, Massachusetts. This would have been around 1954, 1955, when I was living in Webster, New York. At that time, I was in the fourth grade, playing the part of a monkey in a class play about the jungle, head over heels in love with my teacher, Mrs. Kubrich. My weekly allowance of twenty-five cents I spent at Bowman’s Candy Store on one comic book—Archie, usually—and fifteen cents worth of penny candy (strips of candy buttons, wax lips, jawbreakers, tiny tins of fudge eaten with tiny tin spoons). While Debbie was in the Brownies, I was in the Cub Scouts, but only for a year. It felt too much like the army, and besides, I was such a chatterbox I couldn’t stop talking long enough to finish the birdhouse my fellow scouts completed with ease.

It was in the fifth grade, I think, that I was so taken with the idea of vampires that I co-founded—with my best friends Terry and Judy—a club called the Vampire Legion. Membership: 3. I don’t remember much about the Vampire Legion other than meeting one time in somebody’s basement (Judy’s, I think), where we turned off the lights, turned on flashlights, and made weird faces at each other. We also published a newspaper called the Gory Gazette. I was the editor. Circulation: 3.

I don’t know where the fascination with vampires came from, since I don’t recall liking horror movies unless they were played for laughs. Debbie loved scary movies, even as a child, but I preferred movies that were funny—Abbott and Costello; Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis; Francis the Talking Mule. I admit it: I was a major Three Stooges fan. I just liked to laugh. Growing up in a house of jokers, I got to laugh a lot.

My mother loved to laugh, too. I remember her sitting at the kitchen table in Webster, with her husband across from her and three of her four sons—myself and my brothers Dave and Doug—completing the circle. My oldest brother, Lee, had gone off to college when I was four. I hear my father say, “I heard a good one today.” And the joke-telling begins! My brothers pitch in with jokes they’ve heard. They astound me. They all have new jokes to tell. Where do they get them? Why is it that I never have any new jokes? It could be because I couldn’t then—and still can’t—remember jokes to save my life, but it also could be that I just didn’t hear them. How was it that they did? How did they manage to come to dinner every night with new material?

I had to do something about it—and I did. I trooped off to the school library and checked out books of jokes and riddles. And every night at six I arrived at the kitchen table armed and ready. Most of my offerings were interrupted by one of my brothers shouting out the punchline or, worse, greeted with stony-faced silence. They were a punishing audience, putting me through an apprenticeship, forcing me to earn my laughs. But when I did manage to get a good one across—ah, the satisfaction! What I discovered was that I didn’t really need the joke books. I was a fast thinker—I had to be, growing up in that house—and I often managed to come up with something all my own that made everyone laugh.

I was told I had a “way with words,” and my mother always said, “You should be a writer when you grow up.”

But I didn’t want to be a writer, even though I loved to write. From the time I was ten, I wanted to be an actor. I lulled myself to sleep every night plotting out in great detail the movies I would star in, scripting the interviews and acceptance speeches I would give . . . writing, writing, rewriting in my mind. But I didn’t think of it as writing. No, it was all in the service of something greater than words: my own glory!

Christmas, maybe 1955. My mom is at the far left and my dad is sitting in the armchair at the right. My brothers are Doug, next to my mom; Dave, with the hipster mustache; and Lee, leaning forward next to my dad. And yes, that's me, making a face for the camera, with my new Jerry Mahoney dummy. At the time, my dream was to become a ventriloquist.

Christmas, maybe 1955. My mom is at the far left and my dad is sitting in the armchair at the right. My brothers are Doug, next to my mom; Dave, with the hipster mustache; and Lee, leaning forward next to my dad. And yes, that's me, making a face for the camera, with my new Jerry Mahoney dummy. At the time, my dream was to become a ventriloquist.

Had Debbie and I known each other then, she would surely have joined in the fantasy, for I have little doubt that she, too, had dreams of being famous. What was it that was so alluring about the spotlight for both of us? Was it a product of having “famous” fathers? Debbie’s father was a well-known newscaster at WOR Radio from the time the family moved to New York City in 1958, when Debbie was twelve, until he retired years later. My father, while not known to as wide an audience, was an outspoken community leader, first in the Rochester, New York, area and then in Schenectady, New York, where my family moved in 1958. My father was a minister whose activism and liberal views on civil rights, the peace movement, and other social issues of the day made him a highly visible and frequently controversial figure.

Debbie and me with our fathers

Debbie and me with our fathers

If having the particular fathers we did accounted in some part for the attraction to the spotlight we both felt, it also may have accounted for other things we had in common. Our love of words, for instance. Words were an integral part of our fathers’ work. For Debbie’s father, the exact use and meaning of words was crucial; the misuse of one word could distort the truth or slant a news report. For my father, words were the very tools with which he constructed a relationship with his congregants and community. Words were used to heighten consciousness, to inspire, to build the bridge between silent thoughts and meaningful actions. My father had studied preaching in its heyday, and he was masterful at it. I may not remember the contents of his sermons (I was too busy counting the squares in the church ceiling or the ladies’ hats while he spoke), but I must have been listening, because to this day I can feel his style within my own. There are times I’m writing when it is almost as if his hands were guiding mine.

Because of our fathers, Debbie and I both grew up with an awareness of the world’s problems and a sensitivity to its injustices. While religion played a larger part in my life as a child, Debbie’s Jewishness played a part in shaping her sensitivity to the plight of the outsider and to the occurrence of injustice. Always protective of her little brother, she was ever on the alert for a perceived unfairness done to him or anyone else she cared about, and if she did see an injustice being done, her defense of the victim would fly from her—passionate, eloquent, dramatic, and heartfelt.

But her sensitivity to injustice and what it was to be an outsider went deeper and was more personal than mere social awareness. For despite her beauty and her sophistication, Debbie wasn’t comfortable in the world. She saw herself as different, as an outsider trying to find a way in. I, too, was an outsider. My ease with words, especially in making others laugh, and my hunger for the spotlight masked a shy, sensitive, nonathletic boy who was afraid of being seen as different, of being mocked or excluded. Words were my power, as Debbie’s beauty was hers. Words—read, spoken, or written—gave both Debbie and me the tools to try and find our way into a world where we didn’t feel quite at home and the language with which to dream.

Our common dream of becoming actors carried us through high school to the Boston University School of Fine and Applied Arts where, after three years of being friends, we felt our friendship grow into something more. We moved to New York after graduating in 1968 and married in 1969.

Along the way, we acquired two cats. Debbie named hers, a delicate-looking, long-haired gray tabby, Ganymede, from Shakespeare’s play As You Like It, revealing her romantic, theatrical nature. I named mine, a tiny white kitten we thought was a female, Moose, revealing my warped sense of humor. Sadly, Ganymede died from unknown causes only a year after we’d gotten her from the animal shelter. Moose, who lived to be thirteen, revealed his true gender and in a very short time grew from petite to extra-large, fully justifying the name I’d given him.

While living in our first apartment in Brooklyn Heights—just across the Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan—Debbie and I acquired another cat to replace Ganymede. This one, a pretty but vacuous and tirelessly irritating part-Siamese Debbie named Gudrun (after a character from D.H. Lawrence’s novel Women in Love), rounded out our household for several years. Moose never entirely took to Gudrun. He would terrorize her by stationing himself about six feet away from their food dishes and cackling at her every time she tried to eat. When it was his turn to eat (we assumed Gudrun successfully managed to get nourishment by tiptoeing to the food dishes when Moose was napping in another part of the apartment), Moose would often line up his catnip mice at the side of his dish to keep him company. We never knew if he did this because he was pretending he was throwing a dinner party or because he was imagining the mice were on the menu.

Moose in particular inspired us as we created the character of Chester. While writing the sixth book in the series—Bunnicula Strikes Again!—I found myself recalling, over twenty years later, the time I pulled what I thought was a tiny bit of string out of Moose’s mouth, only to have it uncoil for about ten feet. Harold’s recollection of Chester’s looking like a tape dispenser is a mere transposition of the words I remember thinking about Moose at the time.

But, as Harold would say, I digress.

I was talking about the post-college years in New York, when Debbie and I were in our twenties and trying to figure out what to do with our lives. Having decided I wasn’t a terribly good actor and thinking it might be nice to earn an actual living, I set my sights on getting a graduate degree in psychology and becoming a psychotherapist. I went back to school during the evenings to earn undergraduate credits in psychology, took typing jobs during the day to pay the bills (thank goodness for that touch-typing class in high school), and stayed up late most nights watching old movies on TV with Debbie.

There were no DVD players or VCRs, no cable television, in the early to mid-1970s. But there was The Late Show at 11:30, and The Late Late Show at one in the morning, and The Late Late Late Show after that. These weren’t talk shows; they were movies. Debbie and I stayed up many a night to watch our favorites—The House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum, among other adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories produced and directed by Roger Corman and frequently starring Vincent Price; and anything, anything at all, produced by the British “house of horror,” Hammer Films. These movies, many of them vampire variations starring Christopher Lee, were scary, funny, and often screamingly bad. We loved them beyond reason. We also loved non-horror movies: Sherlock Holmes mysteries starring Basil Rathbone as the famous sleuth; the Marx Brothers’ comedies; and the song-and-dance extravaganzas of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. But it was the vampire movies of Christopher Lee—Dracula: Prince of Darkness; Scars of Dracula; Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, to name a few—that we were willing to stay up until three in the morning to watch, risking bleary eyes and late arrivals at whatever typing job was currently helping to keep the bill collectors from the door.

Debbie worked at an odd assortment of jobs at this time, most of them related to the fashion industry. Neither of us was excited about the work we did, so when my applications to graduate school in psychology didn’t pan out, we decided to take another stab at making a living in the theater.

Our return to show business took us to an outdoor summer stock theater in Danville, Kentucky, called the Pioneer Playhouse. Only in our mid-twenties, we were cast as the leading man and leading lady of the season and given the opportunity to play everything from young love interests to a middle-aged couple to octogenarians. It was a glorious summer.

Summer 1971, Pioneer Playhouse. Me, as a young suitor in a play by John Boruff called The Loud Red Patrick.

Summer 1971, Pioneer Playhouse. Me, as a young suitor in a play by John Boruff called The Loud Red Patrick.

Debbie, wearing the kind of beautiful period costume she loved, in Moliere's classic farce, The Imaginary Invalid.

Debbie, wearing the kind of beautiful period costume she loved, in Moliere's classic farce, The Imaginary Invalid.

The two of us, relaxing during a rehearsal break.

The two of us, relaxing during a rehearsal break.

Returning home to Brooklyn with new friends and a renewed sense of ourselves as theater people, we threw ourselves into the task of finding work as actors. We had photographs taken. We read the casting papers and showed up for auditions. We both tried getting work as models; ironically, I was the one to succeed. For a year I worked steadily as a model in ads that appeared in magazines all over the country. To my relatives, at least, I was famous!

Our professional acting photos, called "head shots." Debbie took the stage name of "Franklin" in honor of her grandfather Frank. My photo caught the eye of a modeling agency and led to my brief career as a model for national magazine ads.

Our professional acting photos, called "head shots." Debbie took the stage name of "Franklin" in honor of her grandfather Frank. My photo caught the eye of a modeling agency and led to my brief career as a model for national magazine ads.

In some ways, the most important thing that had been restored to us that summer in Kentucky was a sense of play. With our newest best friends, Annie and Lawrence, who also lived in Brooklyn, we passed many an evening entertaining ourselves by improvising silly song parodies, mock epic poems, absurd plays, and spoofs of TV commercials. When we tired of playing, we speculated endlessly on what our lives might yet become; we still felt a long way from being grown-up. We were children at heart, children at play, the four of us.

And Debbie and I, we were children in adult bodies who, in the spirit of play, would one evening a few years later begin to write a book. We were actors, used to transforming ourselves into other characters, practiced at imagining our ways into other lives, other skins. We were readers. We were writers, but not writers who took themselves seriously. We were watchers of countless horror movies and comedies and musicals spun of tinsel and silk. We were cat-lovers and chocolate-lovers and believers in magic.

A belief in magic is required if you want to be an actor, but it doesn’t pay the rent. While I did have my modeling work, the occasional job as a movie extra, and acting stints off-off-Broadway where the salary was subway fare, I still needed those typing jobs to put dinner on the table for Debbie and me, and tuna on the floor for Gudrun and Moose and his lineup of catnip mice.

In 1975 I accepted a job offer from the woman who ran the literary and theatrical agency where I had been working as a temporary typist. At the same time, I wasn’t about to let go of my dreams. I just had to pursue them on evenings and weekends. Having become more interested in directing than acting, I went after every opportunity I could find to direct plays at community theaters, on college campuses, and off-off-Broadway.

Debbie frequently acted in the plays I directed and she tried to find other work as an actress, but her efforts were thwarted by the illnesses that had plagued her from the time she was a very young child. She was frequently sick with one thing or another; even the common cold hit her harder than it did most people.

When she was ill, books were her best companions. I can picture her, stretched out on the sofa in that apartment at the top of the brownstone in Brooklyn Heights where Bunnicula was begun, a box of tissues beside her, Gudrun curled up on her lap, a book open in her hands, and there, always within reach, a stack of books waiting to be read.

Over the next couple of years, I continued working for the literary agency by day, and many of my evenings and weekends were taken up with attending plays and movie screenings that were work-related. Somehow, I found the time to take classes at Hunter College, where I was working toward a master’s degree in theater, and to direct plays, and to act as the artistic director of an off-off-Broadway theater called Theatre-Off-Park. As if this weren’t enough, my courses at Hunter included a playwriting seminar, where I studied writing for the first and only time, and for which I wrote two full-length plays. It was during this period that the inspiration for Bunnicula came to me.

The idea for the character of Bunnicula was mine, but the idea for turning the character into a book was Debbie’s mother’s. I honestly don’t remember where the character came from, but my guess is that my almost instinctive sense of parody was inspired by all those late-night vampire movies—with perhaps a little help from the Marx Brothers and a dash of seasoning from Sherlock Holmes and his colleague, Dr. John Watson, who would ultimately and unconsciously serve as models for the detective team of Chester the cat and Harold the dog.

In the beginning, there was only Bunnicula; and he was nothing more than a free-floating character in my head who, on one occasion, served as material for a homemade birthday card. At some point, Debbie told her mother about him.

My birthday-card drawing of Bunnicula.

My birthday-card drawing of Bunnicula.

“A vampire rabbit,” her mother said. “What a wonderful character for a children’s book. The two of you love to write. Why don’t you try it?”

“Sounds like fun,” was my response when Debbie told me that night of their conversation. And so we cleared the dinner dishes from the tomato-red table in the kitchen, and put words on paper for the first time.

The handwritten words "Transylvanian bunny turns to vampire at nite."

The handwritten words "Transylvanian bunny turns to vampire at nite."

We knew next to nothing about children’s books. What we set out to do was write a story to entertain ourselves, not imitate someone else’s style or figure out what we were supposed to do when writing for children. We gave little thought to being published, none at all to establishing careers as children’s book authors.

That first scrap of paper held all the main ingredients of the book save one. There’s no mention of Harold, only of Bunnicula’s “war with household cat, Chester.” But Chester’s means of foiling Bunnicula—and therefore most of the plot of the book—are listed in neat numerical order and are all based on legendary methods of destroying or defending oneself from vampires: garlic, immersion in water, driving a stake (steak) through the heart.

Whether we discussed Harold or not that night, I don’t recall. All I know is that when I returned from work late the next evening, Debbie had written the beginning of the story—and there on the page was Harold come to life, with his tired old eyes and distinctive voice.

Moose, in the foreground, with Gudrun behind him, in the living room of the garret apartment in Brooklyn Heights where Bunnicula was begun. Much of the first draft was written on the sofa at the right.

Moose, in the foreground, with Gudrun behind him, in the living room of the garret apartment in Brooklyn Heights where Bunnicula was begun. Much of the first draft was written on the sofa at the right.

From that evening on, our working method remained much the same. We settled into a comfortable place to work, most often at either end of the living room sofa, and talked the story through. Using a pad of lined white paper, soon to be replaced by a three-hole notebook of yellow lined paper, we took turns recording the words that flew so quickly out of our mouths. It wasn’t easy for whoever was writing to keep up, but how easy I remember it being to spin that story from our imaginations.

The very first page of Bunnicula, in Debbie's handwriting.

The very first page of Bunnicula, in Debbie's handwriting.

A later page in mine.

A later page in mine.

We wrote no character histories, did none of the kind of prewriting I so often do now for my novels, just put a few notes down on a single sheet of paper and began to play. Looking at that first handwritten version of Bunnicula, I can spot something I know was Debbie’s (the Romanian sheet music) or mine (Chester’s kitty sweater with the sixteen purple mice), but more often than not, I don’t know who was responsible for what. There were many times that one of us began a sentence and the other finished it.

Most of the first draft of the book reflects the final version. There were very few substantial changes. Toby started out being the older, more obnoxious brother; Pete, the younger, smarter one. By the next draft, they had changed places. And although we never wrote him as such, we at first envisioned Bunnicula to be a different sort of character from the one who evolved—one who spoke, for starters—and one who was much more a traditional vampire, malevolent and bloodthirsty. Had we drawn him as we had first conceived him, Chester’s suspicions would have been entirely justified! But the idea of a little bunny rabbit leaping great heights to sink his fangs into his human victims’ necks seemed just a little too far-fetched, even for us. Besides, logic told us that if there were such a thing as a vampire rabbit, he would most likely be a vegetarian. And so Bunnicula’s victims became carrots and tomatoes and, in one of my favorite scenes in the book, a poor, unsuspecting zucchini! The reason for making Bunnicula mute was simple: It allowed him to remain much more of a mystery.

Writing the book became part of the fabric of our lives, but only one thread among many, and not a major thread at that. Some days we wrote for an hour, some for fifteen minutes. Many days we didn’t write at all. I was occupied with the demands of my work and studies and trying to run a theater and direct plays on the side.

If not exactly occupied, Debbie found herself more and more distracted by the pain she was experiencing in her lower back. The pain grew worse over a period of months, and by the late spring of 1977, it was beginning to make it hard for her to get around. Then, on the twenty-seventh of July, in the middle of the night, Debbie was rushed by ambulance from our apartment in Brooklyn to St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan, her back pain so severe she couldn’t stand or walk. On August eleventh, one day before her thirty-first birthday, we learned that she had a rare form of cancer and that she would not recover.

Debbie remained in the hospital for about two months. In late September, she moved into her parents’ apartment in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, the apartment where she had lived from the age of twelve until she had gone off to college. After a time of shuttling back and forth between Brooklyn where I lived and Manhattan where I worked and the Bronx where my heart was, I found someone to live in our apartment and take care of Gudrun and Moose, and I, too, moved into my in-laws’ home.

For ten months, I spoke to doctors and nurses every day on the phone or in person. Every day, I filled pieces of paper with lists of questions and hastily scribbled notations about symptoms and treatments and pain medications. Debbie would return to the hospital four more times, spending nearly as much time there as she did in her parents’ apartment.

At some point that fall, I typed up the six chapters we had written and, when Debbie was feeling up to it, we returned to telling each other the story of Bunnicula, the vampire rabbit. I can’t place the moment, where it happened or when; in truth, I have no memory at all of writing the book from that time on. I trust that some of it was written in the hospital, some in the apartment in Riverdale. But I can’t see us in my mind’s eye, can’t connect the words on the page to the hands that wrote them. The only connection I can make is to the sound of the two of us laughing as we continued to tell the story aloud to each other.

Typed manuscript page of Bunnicula, with handwritten edits.

Typed manuscript page of Bunnicula, with handwritten edits.

There is one other moment I recall. It has more to do with a teddy bear, though, than the writing of Bunnicula. The bear had been mine when I was a child, handed down from my older brothers, so he probably dates from the 1930s. He had button eyes and slots behind his head and arms for fingers to slip into and animate his worn, nubby body. Shortly after Debbie and I had married, I had rescued Teddy from the attic of my parents’ home; during Debbie’s first hospital stay, I gave him to her to be her mascot. She kept him next to her on her bed, where he became a familiar sight to visitors and a constant and comforting friend to Debbie and me.

Teddy, in my arms as a child in Webster.

Teddy, in my arms as a child in Webster.

Many years later, Teddy is still with me. Here he is on a bookshelf in my office, where I see him every day.

Many years later, Teddy is still with me. Here he is on a bookshelf in my office, where I see him every day.

Using my fingers and the slots in Teddy’s arms, I brought him to life many times, to cajole Debbie out of her sadness and make me laugh, to turn bad moments on their heads. It wasn’t long before Teddy demanded to know when we were going to write his story. “I’ve had a fascinating life, you know,” he told us.  “Your readers would be far more interested in my adventures than those of a silly old vampire rabbit!”

The only way to quiet him down was to promise to write his story. Which we did, of course, not wanting to put up with the nattering of a cranky, egotistical teddy bear any more than we had to. But then, how smart he was to know that we needed something to look forward to as we approached the end of writing Bunnicula.

By the time Debbie died on June 3, 1978, she was the coauthor of two children’s books: Bunnicula, a Rabbit-Tale of Mystery and Teddy Bear’s Scrapbook.

The original covers of Bunnicula and Teddy Bear's Scrapbook.

The original covers of Bunnicula and Teddy Bear's Scrapbook.

It was important to her to leave something of herself behind, something to let the world know she had been here.

To those who knew her, she left warmth and light to help us move on without her. To those who would never know her, she left Harold and Chester, a piece of Romanian sheet music, laughter, and words—words, with their power to create characters and worlds, to light up the darkness, and, in the face of impossibility, to make anything seem possible.


A version of this essay, "Writing Bunnicula: The Story Behind the Story", was originally published in 1999 as part of the 20th Anniversary special edition of Bunnicula.

Beyond Bunnicula

I was thirty-one when Debbie died. I had a job in Manhattan, an apartment in Brooklyn, two cats, and two unsold children’s book manuscripts. Still working as a literary agent and dreaming of being a theater director, I had no intention of becoming a children’s book writer. But the truth was, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with the rest of my life. My world had been turned upside down.

Then both books were bought by Atheneum and my world began to turn right side up again. I was on my way to becoming a published children’s book writer, whether it was my intention or not!

One day a photographer, who was a client of the literary agency where I worked, asked if I had any ideas for a photo essay for children. I told him that Debbie and I had considered writing one about what it’s like to go to the hospital. “That’s a great idea!” he said. “Why don’t you write it and I’ll take the photos?”

With a handshake, I was on my way to my third book.

The Hospital Book was published in 1981. By that time, I had left my job with the literary agency in order to write full-time. I had also gotten married again. My “office” was a desk along a wall of the living room in our small one-bedroom Manhattan apartment.

I wrote on an IBM electric typewriter, not just original books, such as the first Bunnicula sequel, Howliday Inn, but also “works for hire,” including a number of Muppets books. I loved writing as Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog! I also wrote several movie tie-in books, including what in my opinion is my worst book ever, How the Ewoks Saved the Trees. (In case you’re wondering, the movie that that book tied in with was “Star Wars, Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.”)

Letting go of my dreams of being a director, I set my sights on my new dream of being a children’s book author. I wrote picture books and middle-grade novels. I visited schools to talk about writing. I got fan mail!

In 1985, my wife and I moved from Manhattan to Hastings-on-Hudson, a small town just north of New York City. Two years later, our daughter Zoey was born. I loved being a dad. I still do.

Zoey loved books from the time she was a baby.  And I loved reading to her.

Zoey loved books from the time she was a baby.  And I loved reading to her.

(By the way, if you see Zoey’s name spelled without a “y”—as it is in some of the dedications of my early books, it’s because Zoey added the “y” herself when she was in the third grade. She was tired of people calling her “Zo”!)

Over the years, I’ve written many kinds of books—picture books; chapter books for beginning readers; novels for middle grade, tween, and teen readers; nonfiction books; and adaptations of books (The Secret Garden) and movies (Dances With Wolves).

My Pinky and Rex series is loosely based on myself when I was seven and my down-the-street-and-around-the-corner best friend, a girl named Bobbie. My favorite color was never pink, as Pinky’s is, but in many other ways I was a lot like Pinky when I was his age. I was a collector of stuffed animals, a good student, a champion speller, and a poor athlete.

Pinky and Rex illustrations paired with photo of Bobbie and me.

Pinky and Rex illustrations paired with photo of Bobbie and me.

Being chosen last for every team, being told I threw “like a girl” (whatever that means), and being called names and picked on all left a lasting mark—one that resulted not only in the Pinky and Rex series but many other books about being different and liking yourself for who you are.

It took me a long time to be okay with feeling different myself and liking myself for who I was. After years of telling myself there was something wrong with me, I was finally able to feel good about who I was and came out as gay. I began thinking about how I could help others, like me, who felt beaten down or bad about themselves because of the negative messages they’d taken in.

Around this same time, Zoey was having trouble fitting in socially at school. It was particularly tough for her in the seventh grade. Although we were now divorced, Zoey’s mom and I worked together to help her. That was our number one priority. I also wanted to do something as a writer not just to help her, but others like her, and like the boy I had been when I was her age.

That’s why I wrote The Misfits. Set in the seventh grade in a small upstate New York town much like Webster, where I grew up, it tells the story of four best friends who are teased and picked on because they are seen as being different. Though none of the characters is based on my daughter or me, one of them—Joe Bunch—is gay. In writing Joe, I was rewriting my own story and, in my own way, was choosing to come out publicly.

The Misfits was published in 2001, and it ushered in a new phase of my career as a writer for young people. Not only did it lead to three companion novels—Totally Joe, about Joe Bunch; Addie on the Inside, about Addie Carle; and Also Known as Elvis, about Skeezie Tookis—it led me to become an anti-bullying activist. In 2004, The Misfits inspired the creation of GLSEN’s national No Name-Calling Week. In my work with No Name-Calling Week and on my own, I speak out regularly in print and in person about the effects that bullying, in all its forms, has on a person’s life and spirit.

In 2011, I married Mark Davis, my partner of ten years. We had our wedding in a beautiful field in Vermont, our favorite place in the world, with many friends and family gathered. My daughter Zoey, now all grown up, was our “best person.” We had square dancing and lots of music and a crazy, tipsy, Technicolor cake.

It was one of the happiest days of my life.

Mark and I share our home with a hound dog named Lily and two cats, a brother and sister named Archie and Waifer.

We sing together almost every day, take long walks with Lily, read side by side on the couch (often reading aloud to each other), have friends over for dinner, go to see plays and hear live music, eat ice cream, and make each other laugh a lot.

Every day I go up to my office on the third floor of our house, read for a while, and then settle into writing my current book. Sometimes, I gaze out the window at the treetops and let my mind wander. Daydreaming is a big part of what writers do. Sometimes, I look around my office at all the books I’ve written, the art and photos, awards and memorabilia on my walls and shelves, and think how lucky I am to have the life I do. And then I get back to work. No matter what I’m writing, the message is always the same: Everyone deserves to have a good life, to do the things they most enjoy, to be loved, and to feel proud of who they are.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Where do you get your ideas?

I like to say that I collect ideas, rather than “get” them, because ideas are everywhere. I carry a little notebook and pen in my pocket at all times. That way, wherever I am, if an idea comes to me—from something I’m thinking or something I observe—I can jot it down so I don’t forget it.

How do you think of your characters and their names?

Characters and character names come pretty easily to me. Often, they just appear and I can’t even tell you where they came from. To help myself think of names, I sometimes look through one of several baby name books I keep by my desk.

How do you think of your titles?

Very often (though not always), I have a title in mind before I start writing a book.  I’ll have an idea for a book and a title will occur to me.  Sometimes the title will change once I’m actually working on the book, and occasionally I have to come up with a title after the book is finished.

I think one of the reasons I’m a writer is that I love playing around with words, so titles and character names are almost like word games to me. My ability to conjure them has as much do with how my brain works as anything else.

Why do you write for children?

I don’t. I write for myself and hope the children who read my books will like what I’ve written.

What is your favorite book you’ve written?

That’s tough. I’ve written over ninety books, from picture books to young adult novels. If I had to choose just one, I’d probably pick The Misfits, not only because I had such a good time writing it and love the characters, but also because The Misfits is read in many schools and is used as a way to talk about name-calling, bullying, and being true to yourself.

I’d have to say Bunnicula is also a favorite, because it’s my most famous and it was also my first.  Also, it was in Bunnicula that I first wrote “as” Harold.  I’ve written many books in Harold’s voice since then, so he’s really a part of me.  And so is Bunnicula.  The other book I’d have to say is a favorite is The Watcher, my only book for older teens.  I think it’s my best writing.

Oh, and “Jeremy Goldblatt Is So Not Moses” is my favorite story I’ve written.  You can find it in Thirteen: 13 stories that capture the agony and ecstasy of being thirteen

What is your favorite book you didn’t write?

Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White.

How old are you?

See “What’s your lucky number?” in Infrequently Asked Questions.

What was your first book?

Bunnicula, which was published in 1979.

How many books have you written?

Over ninety. I’ve lost count.  (Okay, fine, I just counted.  The answer is 94.)  (Except, wait, I've written two more books that are being illustrated now, so make that 96.) 

How long does it take you to write a book?

It depends on how easy or hard it is to get what I have in my head onto the page.  On average, I’d say it takes me close to a year to write a novel, and maybe two to three months to write a picture book or short chapter book. There are wide variations in this. The longest it took me to write a book was four years. That was Addie on the Inside. The shortest time was a picture book I wrote years ago called The Day the Teacher Went Bananas. That one took me half an hour!

How many drafts do you write?

It depends on the book. I do a lot of editing and rewriting as I write, so by the time I have written my first draft I usually have a lot of what I want in place. After that, I may revise two or three times.

Where do you write?

I have an office on the third floor of my house. But I write on a laptop, so I sometimes sit on the couch in the living room. This accomplishes two things:

  1. It gets me out of my office.
  2. It allows me to sit next to my dog.

What is your writing process?

I start with an idea, often a very simple one—a character or a situation. Then I ask questions. Lots and lots of questions. This is how I “grow” an idea into a story. When I feel that I have enough to get myself started, I plunge into the writing. Well, sometimes I wade in. Finding the right tone or voice for the story is often the biggest challenge and it can take time. During this time, I can easily feel:

  1. My idea is garbage.
  2. I’m kidding myself thinking I know how to write.
  3. Maybe I should go to plumbing school or open a restaurant.

When I finally do find what feels like the right way to tell this particular story, I move forward one sentence at a time, one paragraph at a time, one chapter at a time. I go back and forth between writing notes (asking more questions) and writing the story itself. I like to let the story unfold. I don’t outline or plan things out too much, although I usually have an idea of how the story will end. It’s good to have that in my head as I write, because it gives me a destination to reach.

I try not to talk much about a book while I’m working on it, and I don’t show it to anyone until I’ve finished a first draft—unless I’m really stuck, in which case I’ll bring my trusted editor in and ask her to look at what I have so far and offer some guidance on how to proceed.

Does anyone help you write your books?

My editor helps me, but usually only after I’ve written the first draft. I need to keep other voices out of my head when I’m creating the characters and story. I did write my first two books—Bunnicula and Teddy Bear’s Scrapbook—with my late wife, Debbie, but I haven’t collaborated since then.

Sometimes my cats think they’re helping. They do this by sitting on my desk on top of whatever papers I need to be looking at.

Before Mark and I had Lily, we had a small dog named Otis. One day Otis and Archie and Waifer all decided they would help me write. Then again, they may simply have been staring at me, thinking, "When's lunch?"

Before Mark and I had Lily, we had a small dog named Otis. One day Otis and Archie and Waifer all decided they would help me write. Then again, they may simply have been staring at me, thinking, "When's lunch?"

Are any of the things that happen in your books based on events from your childhood?

For the most part, the things that happen in my books are made up. I’d say my books are based more on the feelings I had as a child than on the events of my childhood. But there are certainly pieces of my life in many of my books. Some of Joe’s stories in Totally Joe are mine from when I was his age and younger. And a number of the Pinky and Rex books are based on my life.

For example, in Pinky and Rex and the School Play, Pinky is forced to wear a leftover cat costume from Halloween as his monkey costume in the play. He feels really bad about this— and about the fact that he’s a lowly, nonspeaking monkey, when he wanted to have the main part. But when the other children in the play forget to stand up at a crucial moment, Pinky hops all over the stage, acting like a monkey, and whispering stand up, stand up, stand up in everyone’s ears. He saves the day! Well, that all happened to me in the fourth grade. Here’s a class picture of me in the fourth grade with one of my favorite teachers, Mrs. Kubrich.

Here's the scene in the book where Rex, playing the lead role Pinky had hoped for, is telling everyone to stand up, and Pinky is about to come to the rescue.

Here's the scene in the book where Rex, playing the lead role Pinky had hoped for, is telling everyone to stand up, and Pinky is about to come to the rescue.

By the way, that's me in the back row, the third from the left.

By the way, that's me in the back row, the third from the left.

In the Bunnicula books, is the wirehaired dachshund puppy Howie named for you?

No, he is named for his father, Howard. Howard was named for one of my favorite uncles. Besides, “Howe” and “Howie” are not pronounced the same way. If you want to know how to say my name, listen here:

Is Bunnicula really a vampire?

I’ll leave that to you to decide. All I can say is, if he’s not, I don’t know how he gets out of his cage and turns all those vegetables white!

Will you write any more Bunnicula books?

After writing seven Bunnicula novels and two related series (Bunnicula and Friends and Tales from the House of Bunnicula), I think I’ve done about all I can do with these characters. I won’t say “never,” because I could still get a great idea and decide to write another book, but in all likelihood I’m done writing about Bunnicula, Harold, Chester, Howie, and the Monroes.

Which character in The Misfits is most like you?

Joe Bunch. Totally. But there are pieces of me in all the main characters. The only one of the Gang of Five I always said I didn’t resemble is Skeezie Tookis. Then when I saw the cover of Also Known as Elvis,  I was reminded of a photo taken when I was Skeezie’s age. Whoa, back when I had hair I was a lot more like Skeezie than I realized!

 

Cool cover! Is that really Skeezie? And who’s the dog?

“Skeezie” is really a thirteen-year-old actor and model who lives in New York City.  And that’s my dog, Lily!  Here are a couple of pictures of the photo shoot:

Why did you write Addie on the Inside in poems?

I felt it was the best way for Addie’s character to reveal the inner thoughts and feelings she might not have the words to express otherwise. Poetry is a sort of pure language. It gets to heart of things. I read a lot of poetry and began writing it for my own pleasure before writing the poems in Addie on the Inside.

Will you write any more Misfits books?

I intended Also Known as Elvis to be the fourth and final Misfits book. The first three, in order, are The Misfits, Totally Joe, and Addie on the Inside. But when I finished writing Also Known as Elvis I started missing them as if they were my friends who were moving away. So I guess the answer is: I don’t know. Maybe, if the missing becomes too strong.

Have any of your books ever been turned into a play or movie?

Bunnicula was made into a TV cartoon many years ago. And the exciting news is that it is now a cartoon series on Boomerang.com. It's also being shown on network television in over twenty-five countries worldwide. There are two play versions of the book. One is a play with music (meaning there are several songs in it); the other is a musical (meaning there are many songs in it). Both versions are produced in theaters all over the country. I hope you’ll have the chance to see one sometime.

The Misfits was turned into a play by the Omaha Children’s Theatre. And Horace and Morris but Mostly Dolores was made into a mini-musical by TheatreWorks, the same producing outfit that created the musical version of Bunnicula.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

I read. I prefer fiction to nonfiction, though I read both. I also read and write poetry. I see movies and plays and go to hear live music. I sing and make music. I play the cello, which I started studying a few years ago. With my husband Mark, I write songs and we arrange and perform them, singing harmonies, as Old Dogs New Tricks (Mark on guitar, me on cello). I go to museums to look at art and I draw. I travel, though not as much as I wish I could. Mark and I spend time in Vermont. We love Vermont. And we enjoy visiting Zoey in Boston. Her apartment is one block away from the apartment I lived in when I went to Boston University many years ago!

Much of my non-writing time is spent with friends. Friends are very important to me, which is why friendship is so important in my books (think of Harold and Chester; Pinky and Rex; Horace and Morris and Dolores; Houndsley and Catina; the Gang of Five in The Misfits). I take long walks with Mark and our dog Lily. I hang out with the cats. I take photos. Lots of photos. (It’s kind of a family joke.) And wherever I go, I take my little notebook with me, because a part of my brain is always tuned to ideas that might be out there waiting for me to find them.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a writer?

Read. Daydream. Carry a little notebook. Write what matters to you. Write what makes you happy. Write because it’s fun to write. Play with words. Take walks.  Look around you. In the words of Mary Oliver, one of my favorite poets:

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.

Infrequently Asked Questions (IAQs)

If you could be an animal for one day, what animal would you be?

A squirrel. Squirrels really know how to have fun! If I could have a second day, I’d be a giraffe. How awesome would it be to look at the world from way up there and to move with such grace?

You write the Bunnicula books as Harold, the dog. Do you wish you were a dog?

One of the great things about being a writer is that you get to use your imagination to inhabit your characters. So, as Harold, I have “been” a dog many times. I wouldn’t want to be one in real life though, because:

  1. Dogs eat meat. I’m a vegetarian.
  2. They sometimes eat other stuff that’s really gross. I have my standards.
  3. Think of how they greet each other. Ew. No thanks.

Why is there a doll’s head in your office?

Okay, this isn’t entirely an infrequently asked question. Mark asks me this regularly. He just doesn’t get the whole doll’s head thing.

So here’s the story: I love toys. What can I say, there’s a reason I write for children! I have wooden toys and mechanical toys and puppets and all sorts of playthings around my office. I was in a flea market once and saw this doll’s head, and how could I resist? I mean, she has a tear painted on her cheek! I had to wonder why. Maybe she was lonely and needed a home. Well, I gave her one. Simple answer.

If The Misfits were a song, what song would it be?

I love this question. It was asked of me by a seventh-grader in a school I was visiting. I couldn’t think of an answer right away, so I asked her if she had a song in mind. She did: “People Like Us,” sung by Kelly Clarkson. That made me think of the song I would pick, which is “True Colors,” by Cyndi Lauper.

Do you play music in the background when you write? What’s your favorite kind of music?

I love music, but I need quiet when I write. When I’m not writing I listen to music a lot. I love different kinds, but I particularly like folk music and singer-songwriters, because I appreciate strong lyrics that use a few words to tell a story or shed light on the human condition. I also like music that’s full of feeling, what I call “dreamy” music, because it takes me somewhere when I listen to it. I go to hear live music as much as I can. To me, there’s nothing more magical than being in the presence of really talented musicians, performing music they’ve written themselves.

Do you sing or play an instrument?

I’ve been singing for as long as I can remember. Mark and I sing together almost every day. He plays the guitar. I often sing the harmonies, but sometimes I sing the melody. I’ve played the piano, the cello, and the guitar—though none terribly well. I played the cello back in the seventh grade. I decided after a break of . . . well, a lot of years . . . that I wanted to take it up again. So I’m studying and playing the cello now.

Were you ever in a movie?

Yes. I worked as an actor and model for a couple of years when I was in my twenties. I was an extra (that means someone who’s in the background and doesn’t have any lines) in a movie with Barbra Streisand. I modeled for ads that appeared in national magazines and even on the New York City subway. I also acted in a number of TV commercials. One of them was for a game called Screwball. You can view the “1970s Screwball TV commercial” on Youtube. I’m the “little” guy on the far right standing next to the biggest sports superstars of the day: Tom Seaver, Bob Griese, and Earl Monroe. I put “little” in quotes, because I’m actually 6’2”. To make me look smaller than those superstars, they had the three of them stand on boxes and told me to keep my arms close to my sides so I’d look short!

Do people get starstruck when they meet you?  Do you ever get starstruck when you meet other authors?

The answer to both questions is yes. I remember being in a bookstore once doing an appearance when I noticed a woman peeking around the corner of a shelf as other people came up to me to have their books signed. Finally, she approached me and said, “I love your books so much, I just had to make sure you were a nice person before I could meet you.” I get that, totally!  When I meet another writer—or a singer or actor or someone else whose work I really admire—I worry that a) I’ll like them, b) they’ll like me, and c) I’ll make a total fool of myself.One time I met Janis Ian, a singer-songwriter I admire enormously. I couldn’t get any words to come out of my mouth. She put out her hand and said, “Let me make this easier. Hi, I’m Janis.” Then we talked for a few minutes, I got her autograph, and she said, “Sure!” when I asked if I could have my picture taken with her.

If you don’t know her music, you should check out two of her most famous songs: “At Seventeen” and “Society’s Child.” She wrote “Society’s Child” when she was thirteen, and by the time she was fifteen she was a star!

What talent do you wish you had?

I’m pretty talented artistically, so if I weren’t a writer I can imagine myself being a singer or an artist. What I can’t imagine being is an athlete of any kind. That’s the talent I wish I had: a talent for sports.

What are your three favorite foods?

  1. Chocolate.
  2. Chocolate.
  3. Chocolate.

What is your comfort food?

I have three (six, if you count the answer to the previous question), and they’re all from my childhood. One is a vegetarian variation of the chili my dad made. Another is mashed potatoes. And the third, and my absolute favorite, is oatmeal chocolate-chip cookies, which my mother called “oatmeal drop cookies.” I grew up making these first with my mom, and then my dad, and I’ve been making them on my own ever since.  Here’s the recipe:

Oatmeal Drop Cookies

(I often double the recipe)

3/4 cup butter

3/4 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup white sugar

2 eggs, beaten

1 tsp. vanilla

1-1/2 cups quick oats

1/2 cup milk

2 cups flour (I use whole wheat flour)

1 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp allspice

2 tsp cinnamon

1 cup chopped walnuts

1 cup chocolate chips

Cream the butter, brown sugar, and white sugar. Add the 2 eggs, beaten, the vanilla, oats, and milk. Mix. Add the flour, baking soda, baking powder, allspice, and cinnamon. Mix. Finally, add in the nuts and chocolate chips.

Bake at 350° for 13-15 minutes.

Do you always eat your greens?

Pretty much. Broccoli, spinach, mint chocolate-chip ice cream. Being a vegetarian, greens are a big part of my diet. My daughter Zoey became a vegetarian before I did. She was seven when she decided she’d had it with meat and asked her mom and me if she could be a vegetarian. We said yes, and we made sure that she had a good source of protein at every dinner. She’s been a vegetarian ever since, and she inspired me to become one, too!

What are your favorite Christmas movies?

It’s a Wonderful Life and Elf.

What was your favorite movie when you were a kid?

Old Yeller.

What did you like best about being a child?

The freedom. I lived in a small town in a time when people left their doors unlocked and kids were able to roam the neighborhood freely. I had hours of unscheduled time to do whatever I wanted. I wandered and daydreamed and made stuff up and played with my friends and rode my bike and let my imagination run wild. I wish it could be more like this for kids today.

What’s your lucky number?

10. Here’s how it happened. When I was in the fifth grade (when I was 10 years old), we had a unit (we didn’t call them units then) on square dancing in gym class. It was one of the few times that gym was co-ed. We were told that the boys would pick numbers and the girls would call numbers out, and the matching numbers would determine the partners. My friend Jill and I wanted to be partners, so I told her in advance that I would pick the number ten, and that’s the number she called out. Not much luck involved, but that’s how 10 became my lucky number.

Since then, I’ve thought it was the perfect lucky number for me, though, because when you take the numbers in my birthdate, they add up to three tens. I was born on August 2, 1946.

8 + 2 = 10.

1 + 9 = 10.

4 + 6 = 10.

Cool, huh? And now you know how old I am, and when to send me a birthday card. Or chocolate.

When you were a kid, what books made you think, “This is who I am”?

When I was very young, I found myself in the pages of Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White; The Story of Ferdinand, by Munro Leaf; and Morris the Midget Moose, by Frank Owen.

Later, it was The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger, and The Lord of the Flies, by William Golding, that spoke to me. I’ve read The Catcher in the Rye many times, though maybe not as many as Charlotte’s Web.

Not surprisingly, all these books have to do with trying to survive when you’re different and don’t fit in.

Where is your favorite place to be?

Vermont, especially the northeast corner of the state, which is called the Northeast Kingdom. We go there a couple of times a year and it is the most beautiful, restful place I know. You might think I’d say someplace more exciting, like New York City, or Paris, but I’ve lived in or near New York City for most of my adult life, so I’ve had plenty of excitement. Besides, as you get older, it feels like time moves faster. Going to the Northeast Kingdom slows time down for me.

What is one word that says it all for you?

Kindness. In her song “Hands,” Jewel sings the line, “In the end only kindness matters.” I sometimes play this song as students are filing in to an assembly to hear me talk about bullying and name-calling. I am firmly of the belief that if we treated ourselves and other people with more kindness, there would be a whole lot more happiness in the world, and a whole lot less trouble.

By kindness I don’t mean superficial “good manners” niceness, however. I mean real compassion that goes deep, the ability to put yourself in another person’s place, stick up for yourself and other people, and do what’s right because you know in your heart it’s the right thing to do. Kindness grows out of understanding that our lives are short and they are precious, and that that’s a truth that applies to everyone.

Are you a happy person?

Oh, yeah. Definitely. I admit I don’t always show it. I fret and worry a lot and that can make me grumpy. When I get that way, Mark calls me Mr. Crabapple, or Eeyore. But even when I act like Eeyore, I’m really happy inside. I try not to lose sight of the fact that there are always reasons to be happy. All you have to do is pay attention.

Who is your favorite Winnie-the-Pooh character?

Eeyore.

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