A Connection to Learning

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“I don’t think you should have to love to read books that are crappy.”

Author-actress Jamie Lee Curtis lent her star power to the American Library Association’s 2008 Annual Conference in Anaheim with a special media event during which she read her latest book, Big Words for Little People, to children from the ALA childcare facility in the convention center. She then keynoted the Public Library Association’s President’s Program.

I caught up with Curtis for a quick Q&A before she went on stage and asked her why she started writing books for children. “I didn’t start writing books because it was a connection to learning. For me, it was a connection to feeling. It spoke to me from a creative standpoint,” she said.

Asked when she started thinking of herself as a writer, Curtis said, “I didn’t use the words ‘writer’ or ‘author’ for a couple of years because I think of myself as a reader, and the import of that title, ‘author,’ is so monstrous for me that it’s taken me a long time to own the fact that I am an author.”

“What do you like best about being an author?” I asked. She told me it was “sitting in front of a group of children and having them engage with me—them understanding what I’m talking about, at a level that is eye-to-eye.”
Curtis was vivacious and irreverent, very much the sexy and hilarious star of True Lies and A Fish Called Wanda. Her answers to my questions were all over the map, rambling free association that always somehow managed, nevertheless, to get to the point.

“I enjoyed it,” Curtis said of her energetic session reading to the children, which seemed only to have warmed her up for the day’s work. While thrilled to be in Anaheim to speak to librarians, she said, the children are “who it’s for.”

When somebody like her puts her celebrity behind reading and literacy and lifelong learning, I told Curtis, it’s important for libraries and meaningful to librarians, whose role in education is sometimes underestimated.

“I don’t connect to it from a scholastic side,” Curtis warned, laughing, “because the perfect truth is I’m an underachiever academically. I barely got out of high school. I can’t spell. I mean, I asked grandma questions all day long. ‘Is it me and you or I and you?’ ‘Is it me and I?’ ‘I go to the market?’ ‘You and I go to the market?’ I mean, really; I’m a functional illiterate. I can’t spell a word. If you ask me to write a paper, I won’t be able to write a paper. So I don’t approach this from that standpoint.

“What I’m interested in is connecting and relating. And if I can connect and relate to a child, a book, and love of reading comes from it, that’s beautiful. But I don’t attack it from the reading-gets-you-there view, that reading will bring in the emotion. I go emotion into reading. I would have never written a book from the outside. I had to go into something where it was like I felt something.”

Curtis reflected on the inspiration for her first book, When I Was Little: A Four-Year-Old’s Memoir of Her Youth. “My daughter stated ownership; I am four, and I’m here!” Curtis said, explaining that her daughter was essentially saying she was not a baby anymore. “And that made me go, ‘hmm, a 4-year-old’s memoir of her youth?’ and it made me laugh, and find the nugget of some emotional content.

“I am an actor from instinct only. I didn’t come to acting from, ‘Well, I’ve studied at Juilliard and I can do 15 accents, and I can break a script down, I can break a scene down, I know character study.’ I don’t know anything. But if you ask me to play Queen Elizabeth, I’ll play Queen Elizabeth. Not because I will do it from the outside in; I’ll do it from the inside out. And that’s how I am as a writer, it’s from the inside out.

“The fact that I’m an author who now promotes the very thing that I didn’t do very well as a child is thrilling for me, but it’s not from some pastiche of ‘you gotta love to read,’ because honestly, I don’t think you should have to love to read books that are crappy. I don’t think you should have to love badly written books. I don’t think you should have to love boring books. I think you should have to love terrific books. And that’s why Harry Potter blew the roof off of the children’s book market, because it was mind-blowing.”

Of her book Big Words for Little People, Curtis said it was born at BookExpo four years earlier, where she gave a keynote speech in the morning and told the story of a 4-year-old’s memoir of her youth. Much of the speech was about “my complete neophyte-ness, if that’s a word,” Curtis said. She also told the story of the “only argument” she ever had with her editor, Joanna Cottler, over a line that she had written in the book: “When I was little, I didn’t know what consequences were. Now I do, but I don’t like them.”

Cottler thought that a 4-year-old wouldn’t know what the word “consequences’” meant and the editors had advised that she replace it with “an age-appropriate word.” They went back and forth a little bit, said Curtis, “and I kind of caved.” The line was changed to “When I was little, I didn’t like time-outs. Now, I do, but I don’t like them.”

Curtis and her editor walked back to the exhibit hall debating the change, Cottler feeling a little embarrassed that Curtis had brought up their little disagreement in front of so many people because it looked as if they had had a fight over it. “And so we were walking by the stalls,” Curtis explained, “and I said, ‘You know, Joanna, we should probably just turn it into a book, Big Words for Little People.’ Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding. And that’s how the book was born.”

I asked Curtis to explain more about how reading empowers children in ways that maybe video games and television do not.

“I’m the mother of a 12-year-old boy with learning disabilities,” she said. “My son is a multimedia kid. My kid is at computer camp this week, you know. I have a boy for whom the computer is a port from which his creativity and imagination comes pouring out, and the imagination offered in the technology draws him deeply. And I don’t fight it, because how many guys did I grow up with who were Dungeons & Dragons fans? That’s my son. He’s that guy. So he’s the World of Warcraft, which is a beautiful, fable-like, role-playing game, and you go into these worlds and you have experiences.

“I’m a big proponent of technology, as long as there are limits to it, as long as there’s good balance, like a healthy diet. I’m fine with a little of that. I’m fine with some fresh vegetables. We don’t have to choose one and exclude all the others, because there is no exclusion, life is not exclusionary. If we did that, honestly and this with all due respect, we’d all be Amish or we’d be an Orthodox Jew, living in a very protected environment where you control the input into your children. But if you’re a person who travels the world, there is no control, because you’re the control. You’re the filter. You can decide what is appropriate and inappropriate.” Curtis pointed out that the two words in Big Words for Little People that are “the biggest parent words in the book” are: “What is appropriate? What is inappropriate? And why?”

“What do books give children? What is reading for a child? It’s freedom. See, a book is freedom. A book is the port into a world, like The Princess Bride, for example, or My Friend, the Rune Warrior. You open that door, you’re in another world. Harry Potter, you open that door, you’re in another world. I love the freedom that reading gives you, which is why anybody corralling the ideas with any sort of controls bothers me. Yeah, there’s appropriate and inappropriate. I certainly think that there are inappropriate things in certain books that only an older child should be able to read. Should Anne Frank be a 7-year-old’s book or a 5-year-old’s book? I don’t think so. Are you really exploring the Holocaust for the 5-year-old? But with an 11-year-old? Absolutely, because their understanding of life and death is very different.

“What books give anybody, me, is freedom? freedom to stop being me and freedom to explore another world that I would never get a chance to. And that to me is life and living and all the reasons why we’re here?to explore and have the freedom of imagination and the belief that we can, too, write whatever we want.”

An article in AARP magazine had recently profiled Curtis, calling her “an exuberant crusader for aging wisely” and quoting her as having said, “Getting older means paring yourself down to an essential version of yourself.” I asked her how I could pare myself down to an essential version of myself. She went off on a wildly entertaining diatribe about essence.

“It’s like essential oil,” she said. “Have you ever experimented with any sort of essential oil? Something that has been condensed. It’s like reducing something on a stove, and the stronger you reduce it, the more flavor comes out, the more true essence of it comes out. When you really get into that essence, that delicious, deep, aromatic essence of yourself, you’re in the zone. You’re in that essential you. And it really, for me, is a multistep experience. It has to do with divesting stuff. I’m a big divester of stuff. I don’t own more than I need. I look at the world and think, ‘Oh, stop this train.’ It’s just this acquisition, where here in America, we’re acquisition maniacs. We have this idea that everything can be on credit and everybody can have everything. And it’s just stuff, stuff, stuff, stuff, stuff. And everywhere you look, there’s stuff, stuff, stuff, stuff, stuff. And it’s almost unpatriotic for you not to buy the stuff, because somehow you’re not keeping the machine going.

“I would say hold onto every penny you have right now and ride. Don’t go shopping today. Sell your gas guzzler and buy a Prius if you can afford it.

“It has to do with divesting physical stuff, but it also has to do then with divesting people. You look around your day; how many times have you had some contact with some friend that you made 20 years ago that now you can’t even remember why you became friends, and you go, ‘Why do I know this person? Every time I see them, they’re either in trauma or . . . ‘If this isn’t a good relationship, get out. You can say to people, ‘You know what? I wish you well in the world. I really do. You’re a good person. But I’m going to move on from this relationship. It’s not helping me. It’s just not. And I’m sorry to say that and I’m sure that’s hurtful for you.’ Or just don’t call them back!” Curtis laughed.

“A person I admire a lot said to me just recently, ‘Aging is God’s way of telling you, you don’t have time to waste.’ And if you try to keep it away, you’re denying that reality. And you’re giving yourself less and less time to figure out what the F you’re doing here. Or why the F you’re here. If you’re aging, the first time you wake up and go, ‘Oh, my back,’ you have to realize, if you ever wanted to climb Everest, you better go freaking do it tomorrow. Or if you ever wanted to run a marathon and you’re waking up and you’re like me today, I was like, ‘Ooh, man,’ right away. That’s God telling me, ‘Jamie, you don’t have time to waste.’ And it’s a beautiful thing to remember. That’s why we age. We age because if we don’t start essentializing and figuring out what are we doing here? What are we going to have been known to our people for? What do we really want to say to the world? In whatever capacity, I don’t care what the capacity is. Put a sign up in your store window that says what you believe.”

Curtis went on to talk about a stranger who had handed her his business card during the conference. The card read, “Ask the question” and Curtis found that to represent another kind of essence. “Put that up in your freaking window of your store or your library,” she laughed. “Ask the question. What question? There’s the question. What are we doing? What is your life for? Why are you here? Why am I here? Why are you here? And that, to me, then gets into that very question of why are we aging. Because I’m not sure I was thinking that when I was 20. But at 50, I’m thinking it. This is the reason why we age, so that we can realize that we don’t have time to spare with people, with ourselves, with anything that we’re just so sick and tired of doing. Well, if you’re sick and tired of being sick and tired of being sick and tired of being sick and tired, change!”

I interrupted her to announce that I had reached that point.
“Me too,” she enthused, “so welcome to the change club! Because without it, we’re going to be 80-year-old people saying, ‘I have regrets.’ I don’t want to have regrets. I want to have reality. I want to have courage. I want to be able to look back and say, ‘Wow, I saw something and changed who I am.’ And that’s, to me, really an important, profound statement.

“Ultimately the fact that I’m here at all is about change and my own personal change. It’s about acceptance. It’s the kind of classic conversation that we just had, which is looking at your life, looking at the world, and figuring out what you aren’t happy with and then making change. And how do we get there and from a librarian’s standpoint? How do we relate to get more people in, who want to be part of books, who want to be part of a community? How do we do that?”

Curtis had plenty of advice. She recalled walking into the room that had been set up for her to read to and talk with the children at the conference. “You know it’s interesting,” she said, “I walked into that room today and it was very quiet. And I walked in there and I asked, ‘Why is it so quiet?’ and someone said, ‘It’s a library event’ and I went ‘Oh.’ Honestly, and I’m about to say something that’s probably blasphemous, but I didn’t like going to museums because they felt like prisons to me, until I could move as fast as I wanted to move in a museum. I understand there are inside voices and outside voices, I get it. But it’s not a church; it’s a room of ideas. And I’m nervous anytime I’m told to button it up, put my mute button on, or sit where I’m not allowed to move or do anything. How am I going to feel a part of it? Now, that’s mostly because I didn’t go to libraries as a child and when I went it was with a class and it was always the teacher going ‘Class! What are the rules of the library? You don’t touch! You don’t talk!’

“I’ve not been to the library where they’ve brought in Nintendo Guitar Hero nights, or having loud Wednesdays where for ten minutes everybody in the place is allowed to talk as loud as they want. I would encourage shaking it up and saying, ‘Attention Library Listeners, for three minutes everyone is going to talk at full voice’ and just let people get their ya-yas out. Because if you ask a child to sit here like this, they’re children, they can’t. If you say to a child, ‘All right you’ve sat there, now everybody get up, do the whacko dance, do some jumping jacks, run in place, stop, run in place, stop, close your eyes, open them, put your hands out, close your eyes, feel the room spin, open your eyes, touch the floor, anything!’ And then say ‘Sit down.’ That to me, needs to be explored. I’m just telling you from my experience. Anytime something feels like it’s just a prison where you’re not allowed to move and you’re not allowed to do anything, that isn’t good, so for me, libraries used to represent this kind of rigidity. And the more I hear when I meet these kind of cool groovy librarians, I’m like, Yeah!

“I’m not saying be disrespectful and I understand that some people are studying and they need quiet. But there’s room for everybody and I would create ways for children, particularly, to have some space to be children and make that a place that’s much more user-friendly. Well, I like the children’s reading rooms, but ultimately everything has to change. We can’t continue educating our children the way we educate them. It’s not working. It’s clearly not working.

“You can complain all you want, people can come up with excuses about why it is, but it is. And unless we change it, we’re in big trouble. The big word will be trouble. And I think that it really needs to be addressed. Clearly the Gates Foundation is going, ‘Oh, yeah.’ So I’m going to start doing a lot more work with them.”

Jamie Lee Curtis at fundraiser for Children Affected by Aids FoundationCurtis also pointed with pride to her work with the Children Affected by AIDS Foundation and her role in passing the Children’s Hospital Bond in California four years earlier. “We’re going to put another bond on the ballot to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to build and support the infrastructure of children’s hospitals up and down the state,” she said.

Clearly, her work with sick children had affected her view of education and sports.

“Libraries to me are like great coaches on a team. They are there in support. If you have a baseball team, the teacher’s the manager and the head coach, but then there are the batting coaches and the catching coach. That’s what libraries offer. They offer this great infrastructure of support.

“Any child can walk into a library and say ‘I’m doing a report on photosynthesis and I really need some help because I’m struggling with it and my teacher suggested I come to a library.’

“And that librarian will be very happy to help point that child in a direction, go over to that child later and say, ‘Hey, how are you doing? What’d you find? Would you like to go in a little deeper?’

“Or the kid who comes in with a summer reading list and says, ‘I don’t want to read anything.’

“And the librarian might look at the list and go, ‘You know Rune Warriors is a great book for boys about a Viking.’

‘I’m not interested in Vikings.’

‘Do you know anything about Vikings?’


‘Do you know they were great warriors?’


‘They sailed ships, they wore monstrous shields?’


‘Would you be interested in seeing a picture of a Viking?’


“Get a book on Vikings, and then hand them Rune Warriors and say, ‘Why don’t you try this and see if you’re interested.’” With that advice, Curtis snapped her fingers. “Like that! There are myriad things that occur in a library that can be great, great support that a teacher isn’t going to have time for. The teacher often has 30 students. In California right now they’re raising the number. Don’t even start,” she said, bringing up Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. “I mean he’s my friend and he’s having to cut, but I don’t understand how a public official cuts education. I know you have to cut somewhere. Nobody wants to pay taxes. By the way, nobody wants to pay for anything! It’s crazy! And I’m in the high tax bracket. I’m paying! And I’ll keep paying!” she exclaimed.

“You know, George Clooney had a great suggestion for the Screen Actors Guild. He said that for every million dollars you earn you should pay a certain amount in taxes. If every person who earns more than a million dollars has to pay that amount for every million dollars they earn . . . . He came up with a great solution. Nobody wants to pay, and people have to pay for this, but it’s not going to happen. What’s going to happen is in 20 years we’re going to be not 25th, we’re going 35th on the list, and one of these years we’re going to be at the bottom. And little countries like Finland are going to be above us. And someone’s finally going to go, ‘Because nobody wanted to pay for it.’”

“How are actors like librarians?” I asked.

“Because you’re required to know a lot about everything. Actors are supposed to be able to pretend to be anything. I might need to pretend to be a brain surgeon yesterday and today I might need to pretend to be part of a beauty conglomerate [how can one person be a conglomerate?] and tomorrow I might need to pretend to be a schoolteacher. Every day you’re an actor you’re pretending to be something else but you need to have some knowledge base to pull from and librarians have a multidisciplinary knowledge. They know everything from science to math to history to English to poetry to music. They have a breadth of knowledge and they need to be able to have access to that so they can help point you in whatever direction you need to go. And an actor just honestly needs to have that same breadth of knowledge.
“The best acting teacher—the only acting teacher I ever went to—was a guy named Alan Rich. He was a character actor for years, and then later he became an acting coach, and I remember again feeling weird that I could just do this without ever going to class. And a lot of people were like, ‘Who do you study with?’ Well I don’t study with anyone. ‘You don’t study with anyone? How dare you think you’re an actor if you don’t study with anyone?’

“So I had heard about this guy and I called him, and I remember going over to his house. And I’m not scared if you ask me to do any work, anywhere, any movie, anything, and you said ‘Here read this.’ I’d be like ‘Done, let’s go!’ Whatever it is, but with him I was sitting there and I felt like I was being watched and judged by him and we did some scene from some play or some movie and I remember sitting on his couch and I finished and he said, ‘Well, here’s what I need to tell you. It’s obvious that you know how to act like other people, pretend to be other people; that’s not a problem for you. I don’t think you should take acting lessons, you should just study the world. And travel and read and listen to music and have more choices to pull from.’ And that’s the same thing as a librarian in a way. You’re not a teacher of one thing; you’re a teacher of everything. And so you have to have some openness to everything. And that’s a big difference. One day you might be asked about astronomy and then the next day you might be asked about rap music. And you need to have some facility to reach all of those things.”

Asked what was the strangest or funniest experience she ever had in a library, Curtis reflected on her upbringing as the child of famous movie stars Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis.

“You know, I haven’t spent real time in a library in quite a long time. Meaning I’ve been there with children, I’ve been there with my own children. I love the fact that at our local library, in the children’s department, you could take out 20 books at a time. We used to have our big library bag and I loved that. You know what? Honestly my funny memories of that don’t exist. My memories, if anything, were more restrictive; that feeling was not a good feeling for me as a child. A lot has changed, and I think that the rigidity that the movies and the media have perpetrated about librarians has changed. Now you can rent movies at libraries, you can rent books on tape, you can be on the internet, you can go to a game night. This is a community center. This is a place for all the people. And I think the more you make it accessible to all the people emotionally, not just from a technological standpoint, I think you’ll bring people in.”

Following her American Library Association experience in Anaheim, Jamie Lee Curtis served as honorary chair of National Library Week in 2009 and appeared in a print public service announcement under the theme “Worlds connect @ your library.”


 Photo credit: Jamie Lee Curtis reading to children at the 2008 ALA Annual Conference in Anaheim.

LEONARD KNIFFEL is publisher of the @ your library website at the American Library Association. He was on the editorial staff of American Libraries from 1988 to January 2011, the last 14 years as editor in chief. This article is adapted from his book Reading with the Stars: A Celebration of Books and Libraries, copublished in April by ALA Editions and Skyhorse Publishing.