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When Judith Viorst’s youngest son had a very bad day, he inspired a very good book. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day was a hit with put-upon, accident-prone kids everywhere. And more than 40 years later, Alexander’s story is still being written. Viorst spoke with us about the latest book in the series (Alexander, Who’s Trying His Best to Be the Best Boy Ever), the widely anticipated film adaptation (in theaters this October), and her new picture book, And Two Boys Booed.
Q | Your youngest son inspired Alexander. How did that come about?
A | Alexander was a kid who had more than his share of bad days. One day he came limping home from preschool saying, “My knee! My knee!” I was very sympathetic, and I said, “Poor baby. Soccer?” And he said, “No, story time.” He was such a wriggly kid; he wriggled off the chair and got a knee injury during story time. I thought I would write this book to amuse him and cheer him up. But when I read him the manuscript, he was really furious with me. I was giving him a bad day!
Alexander, Who’s Trying His Best to Be the Best Boy Ever was inspired by a combination of my grandson, my son, and myself—all those times when each of us has decided that we’re just not going to get into trouble anymore. But it’s so hard to be good all of the time!
Q | And Two Boys Booed is inspired by your granddaughter, Olivia?
A | Olivia was going to summer camp, and they had a talent show. She came over to my house after the talent show, and I said, “How did it go?” And she said, “Two boys booed.” To my embarrassment, instead of telling her I was sorry, I said, “Great book title.”
The message is that we all go through tough times. Whenever you experience embarrassing or difficult or unnerving moments in your young life, instead of feeling like you’ve been singled out, understand that most of us are in the same boat. These are shared experiences that come and then go.
Q | As a child, were books an important part of your life?
A | Growing up, I was a fairy-tale addict. I used to take out so many books [from the library]. I piled them from the bottom of my hand to the top of my chin. I barely got home.
My favorite was The Secret Garden. I loved it, and I think it’s had a big influence on all of my characters. The Secret Garden is about transgressions and imperfect people. Mary was such a pill—and I loved that! You don’t have to be all golden and sweet to be someone who is ultimately valuable, and redeemable, and even lovable.
Q | Did your teachers encourage you to write?
A | They did! As a matter of fact, I got away with murder because I used to write poems and stories about everything. In history class, I wrote a poem, “The Royalists and the Roundheads.” I would write poems about driftwood in art class and little stories about the sun, moon, and stars in science class. Since not many kids were writing in class, I got away with it.
Q | Any favorite teachers?
A | My Girl Scout leader. She told me if I listened more and talked less, I could grow up to be a good writer. I thought that was interesting advice at age 12.
Q | Are you excited to see Alexander on the big screen?
A | It’s pretty thrilling! I’ve had plenty to tell you about Alexander over the years. I love the fact that [the filmmakers] are taking his character and finding a new story to tell about him. It’s still going to be about a no good, terrible, horrible, very bad day, and that is the core of the book.