Marc Brown recalls a phone call he received late one night at his home in Hingham, Massachustts, just outside of Boston. On the other end of the line, a small, obviously young voice asked, "Is Arthur there?"
"I told him that Arthur had already gone to bed," Brown recalled for the Los Angeles Times in 1996. "And so should he."
That such phone call is not an isolated occurrence at the Brown household is testament to the popularity -- and approachability -- of Brown's creation. Arthur is not simply the world's most famous bespectacled aardvark, he is also a kid just like any other, grappling with same issues his readers are: annoying sisters, terrifying teachers, and babysitting nightmares. Arthur may be a drawing, but to his fans, he seems quite real.
"I feel like I'm listening to my own kids," Carol Greenwald, who produces the companion television program for PBS, told People in 1997. "I have to bite back the urge to say, 'Stop bickering.'"
By now, the Arthur series has produced more than 10 million books as well as a hit television show for PBS and made his creator a wealthy man. But the early days were a different story. Separated from his wife, living with his mother-in-law and recently released from his job as a college professor, Brown came home in the mid-1970s to a request from his 4-year-old son, Tolon:
Tell me a story.
And make it about a weird animal.
So, as Brown reached into the possibilities of uncommon zoology for his son's nocturnal enjoyment, he also concocted the beginnings of a career. He took his new creation to a friend at Atlantic Monthly Press who gave him guidance, and he landed a publishing deal for the first book in what would become a series: Arthur's Nose. And the big money started rolling in. His first check was somewhere around $70 to $80. (The number seems to vary with the telling.)
"I was imagining buying a new car, and instead I got groceries," he told the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida. "It was about five years before I felt like I could make a living doing this."
Brown had long dreamed of illustrating children's books, inspired in high school by Maurice Sendak's classic Where the Wild Things Are. As a student at the Cleveland Institute of Art, he says he found that such pursuits were considered too pedestrian for the serious artistic mind: He has said his decision to include his illustrations in his submission for the institute's drawing award cost him the prize.
After Cleveland, he worked as a cook and a delivery truck driver who kept getting lost. He also farmed chickens. He found freelance work as a professional illustrator in the textbook field and even worked on an Isaac Asimov book for his first non-textbook assignment.
Arthur, though, eventually opened all the right doors. And, aside from that series, Brown has also illustrated books for other children's authors and drawn on his own life for books outside the Arthur titles. The end of his first marriage eventually yielded a children's book, Dinosaur's Divorce: A Guide for Changing Families.
"When I went through a divorce..., I went to the library hoping to find books to help my two young sons through the experience," he is quoted in Contemporary Authors as saying. "I found little information, and what there was very sexist, depicting children living with the mother and the father living in a depressing residential hotel. Our experience was different: my sons lived with me. I started keeping a file for a book I had in mind to write one day."
Brown makes no secret of his habit of mining his own life for his children's fiction. The Arthur books, in fact, are something of a family album: Arthur's sister D. W. is a composite of his own sisters, Arthur's adventures in babysitting were inspired by his own experience watching over two children who tied him to a chair and scampered off to find hiding places in their enormous house. Grandma Thora doesn't even have a different name from his own grandmother, who used to save all of his childhood drawings and later encouraged him to go to art school.
And when Brown and his second wife had another child, Eliza, he decided he shouldn't be the only one saddled with the less enjoyable aspects of child care. He gave Arthur a baby sister, Kate.
"I though if I had to change diapers," he told the Christian Science Monitor in 1997, "so should Arthur."
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Brown changed his first name from Mark to Marc because he was so enthralled with the work of painter Marc Chagall.
He told People magazine in 1997 that Arthur is the spitting image of his third-grade class picture.
Brown dresses up as Arthur on Halloween, which makes his house a must-stop for the children of Hingham, Massachusetts.
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