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ARTHUR IS KING IN INTERACTIVE EXHIBIT

There's Arthur on stage, Arthur at the museum, Arthur on public television, Arthur on video games and computer software, and of course, Arthur at the library. And maybe someday, Arthur on the big screen.

The beloved aardvark has grown into a very big deal since he first appeared in 1976 in "Arthur's Nose," created by author-illustrator Marc Brown as a bedtime story for his son. Now, there are more than 70 books about Arthur and his sister D.W., the Emmy-winning PBS "Arthur" show is the top-rated show for children 2 to 11 and a stage show, "Arthur -- A Live Adventure," is playing on the West Coast. "Arthur's World" is at the Strong Museum in Rochester through May 6.

For those who haven't met him, Arthur Read is an 8-year-old aardvark (who traded his snout for a more human-shaped sniffer early on) who struggles with such childhood traumas as wearing glasses, getting used to a new baby or a new puppy, coming down with chicken pox when the circus comes to town, and figuring out what to do when you think you've accidentally wrecked your mom's computer.

Sweet but not preachy, and full of appealing humor, the "Arthur" stories encourage a love of books and give a boost to self-esteem. "Arthur" has also tackled such topics as divorce, asthma, even head lice, and a story about dyslexia is in the works.

To promote the exhibit, Brown, 53, a native of Erie, Pa., agreed to a phone interview from his home in Hingham, Mass.

Q: You seem to have a knack for understanding the worries kids have. How do you do that?

A: I guess I have a pretty good recollection of what it was like to be a kid. Then going through childhood with my own kids, it refreshed a lot of things. I think over the years as a writer and illustrator, you train yourself to be a good observer. It's sort of like being a professional eavesdropper, my antennae are always out for situations that are appropriate for Arthur. You find yourself writing on napkins at Burger King, on the back of your electric bill.

Q: What inspired you to become a storyteller?

A: Every child needs just one person to really believe in them to be successful. For me that was my grandma. As a child I didn't have parents who read to me or exposed me to a lot of books, but my grandmother and great-grandmother were always there to tell us stories. They were first-class storytellers.

Q: What happened to Arthur's nose?

A: I never expected to write more than one book about Arthur. He was very much an aardvark, and that was a bedtime story and it was over and done with. Then I was writing a story about getting glasses. I had witnessed a wonderful thing at an elementary school. A little boy would not wear his glasses, and the day I was there, this boy had walked into the girls' room by mistake and caused this horrible scene, girls screaming and running out in the hall. The teacher poked me, we watched and he went over to the coat rack and put his glasses on. It became "Arthur's Eyes;" that's when the series began. He changed a little bit. I felt like I knew him better. He was fuzzier and warmer and cuter. And I needed to move his mouth up so I could see him talking better.

Q: Will Arthur always stay 8 years old?

A: Yes, he will never take the SATs. He's a happy aardvark.

Q: Do you get a lot of letters from kids?

A: I get over 100,000 letters a year. That's a lot of postage going back. Everyone deserves a response.

Q: Arthur is a stage show, a museum exhibit, video games. How does that work?

A: If I didn't have approval over all those things, there would be a lot more. I'm saying no to a lot of people who want to use him for things. I don't think a lot of people who are licensing these characters think how it can be helpful to kids. People would rather slap the face on a sneaker or some mindless toy that's going to end up in a garage sale. . . . If you're on PBS, you have to be creative about paying for expensive animation. I feel like I'm walking a tightrope, I want to do something I can feel good about . . . and yet keep a show on the air that I feel has got to be connecting with kids. The agenda is to make kids want to read, be helpful to kids with issues that are part of their lives, to do things that no one else is going to do on TV.

Q: Any new Arthur plans in the works?

A: There are some serious discussions about a movie. I have never been in a position where I had the time to develop a movie project. I'm lucky Arthur is still popular and I can think about doing a movie. I want it to be done really well.
The "Arthur's World" exhibit at the Strong Museum, One Manhattan Square, Rochester, involves children in role-playing, reading, writing and fantasy play in settings such as "The Backyard Sleepover," "Arthur's World TV" (museum visitors appear on screen as characters in "Arthur's World"), the Elwood City Library, the Read Family Kitchen and Mr. Ratburn's classroom. Call 263-2700 for more information.

Arthur fans can write to Marc Brown, care of Little Brown & Co., 3 Center Plaza, Boston, Mass. 02108.

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