In his first published book, acclaimed director and screenwriter Gary Ross takes young readers on a high-flying journey that stretches all the way from a boy’s bedroom to a pirate-infested island and a hidden canyon. Bartholomew Biddle and the Very Big Wind is a rousing adventure story with a nostalgic feel, told entirely in rhyme and featuring lively illustrations in oil by noted artist Matthew Myers.
Ross is best known as the director of The Hunger Games but his Hollywood breakthrough came in 1988 as screenwriter of the Tom Hanks’ hit Big. He went on to write the screenplays for such films as Dave, Pleasantville and Seabiscuit, and made his directorial debut with Pleasantville. It was during his work as a co-writer on the animated film version of Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux that Ross first made contact with Candlewick Books, which is publishing his new children’s book.
We asked Ross to tell us about the inspiration for Bartholomew Biddle, who swoops and soars across rooftops and questions the status quo wherever he goes.
The character of Bartholomew Biddle was created in 1996 when your friend needed an unpublished children’s story to be read in a film. Why did you decide to turn the story into a book?
I didn't really think about it for a long, long time. I wrote a few stanzas for my friend’s movie then forgot about it for years. After a while inquiries started popping up on the Internet—people asking where they could buy the book. I wrote a little bit more for fun and then put it away again. A few years ago I showed it to Karen Lotz from Candlewick when we were making [the film of] The Tale of Despereaux. She loved it and they bought it and I sat down to write the bulk of the book that year. It was a lot of rhyming that year.
Bartholomew flies through the sky with a bedsheet after he discovers the “granddaddy of winds” outside his room. What inspired this image?
I've always loved to fly. I took flying lessons when I was young. I still take occasional lessons in a helicopter. I'm fascinated and drawn to it. I've always flown in my dreams (the good ones). I think flying is about freedom—literally breaking free from the constraints that hold you down. There is honestly nothing more exhilarating than being up in the air.
Bart encounters several situations in his journey that make him challenge the status quo. Is this part of the message of your book? What lesson do you hope young readers will take from Bartholomew Biddle?
He is constantly questioning. But he challenges rules for rules’ sake. I don't think it's a process of rebellion—it's more about coming to know himself. To have his own ethical code. His own set of rules for himself. Hopefully we all acquire that in life.
How was the process of writing a children’s book different from writing a screenplay?
Honestly, it's completely different. For one thing, you're writing the finished product every day. When I write a film, it's a document that is a plan for a movie that will be filmed one day. When I write a page of verse, that's it. Its a direct communication from me to the reader, so it feels very different and it's very satisfying. Some people have said that there is a cinematic quality to the book, so in that sense, I guess it was influenced by my day job. I suppose I can't help it.
What inspired you to write the book completely in verse? How do you think the rhymes add to experience of reading the book?
Well it's a little like having the music and the lyrics all at once. Rhyme imparts a feel, rhythm, sound: Something that operates beneath the conscious level of the text. When it’s working well, it underscores and supports the content of the text. I have always liked to rhyme and it seemed like a wonderful challenge to tell a long narrative in verse. I wondered if I could sustain that. As I went, the rhyming (thank God) started to feel like second nature. It was a great experience.
Were you involved in choosing Matthew Myers as the book’s illustrator? What do you think his drawings add to the story?
Candlewick showed me several illustrators and I fell in love with Matthew's work. I thought it was loose and free and gestural and at the same time very emotional. I couldn't be happier with the illustrations.
Your twins were one-year-olds when you began the tale of Bartholomew Biddle. Is this story for them? Now that they’re teenagers, what do they think of the book?
They really like it. They've heard it along the way. They both love to read and they love poetry so it was great sharing it with them.
When you were a kid, what did you dream of doing?
My first aspiration was to operate a caterpillar tractor. I thought they looked amazingly cool. Maybe it was the bright yellow. Along the way I wanted to be a surveyor, a chef and president of the United States. But all the time I was writing and acting and putting on shows, so I guess this was always happening even when I didn't realize it. I've also rhymed from a pretty early age so maybe this was inevitable.
What were some of your favorite books as a child?
Wow, so many. Much of Dr. Seuss: If I Ran the Circus, And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, McElligot’s Pool. . . . There was a great book that won the Newbery called The Twenty-One Balloons that I read over and over. As I started to get older it was stuff that many kids love: Huckleberry Finn, Catcher in the Rye. It's honestly hard to make a list. I remember loving A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court even when I was very young.
Are there more children’s books in your future?
I hope so. Several years ago I spent time studying the Civil War era with a professor at Harvard named John Stauffer. He and I have talked about writing a children's history of the era. I love Gombrich's A Little History of the World, a world history written for kids. I think it would be great to tell the story of the era in terms that kids can understand.
Image from Bartholomew Biddle and The Very Big Wind, reprinted with permission of Candlewick Books.