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JAMIE LEE PICKS UP A PEN AND SOARS

"Where do balloons go when you let them go free...?

Where do they go when they float far away? Do they ever catch cold and need somewhere to stay?"

A wandering balloon may even find itself seeking shelter at -- the Bates Motel. The Bates Motel of "Psycho" fame.

Yes, actress-author Jamie Lee Curtis has planted a sly visual joke solely for the amusement of parents in her sweet and funny new picture book, "Have You Seen My Balloon? An Uplifting Mystery." And illustrator Laura Cornell's amusing cartoon of the Bates Motel (site of the famous last shower taken by Curtis' mom, Janet Leigh) will fly as far over the little ones' heads as their lost balloons do.

It may come as a shock to the uninitiated to learn that Curtis, sometimes dubbed the "Queen of Scream" for her slasher movie repertoire ("Halloween," "Prom Night," etc.), is actually a very gifted -- and successful -- writer of children's books.

And it is her childlike silliness and illustrator Laura Cornell's sophisticated sense of whimsy that give their books appeal to both children and parents. "When I Was Little: A Four-Year-Old's Memoir of Her Youth," "Tell Me Again About the Day I Was Born" and "Today I Feel Silly and Other Moods That Make My Day" have sold a combined total of more than 1.3 million copies. "Silly" was on the New York Times Adult Fiction best-seller list for 10 weeks in 1998; "Balloon" (HarperCollins, $16.95) sailed quickly to the top of the Times' new picture book best-seller list.

Curtis has been married for 16 years to Christopher Guest, the writer-director whose new movie comedy, "Best in Show," is due to open in October. They are parents of Annie, almost 14, and Tom, 4 1/2 .

Curtis, 44, talked about her new book in a recent phone interview from New York City:

Q: A lot of people, including celebrities, have tried children's books. Why have you been so successful?

A: I think they're successful primarily because I'm immature. My immaturity, which I think used to plague me, has turned out to be a wonderful benefit to me. I look at the world from a child's point of view.

Q: What inspired this book?

A: I was at a child's birthday party at an outdoor picnic area. A big storm came and we all took shelter under a gazebo kind of thing. All the balloons were tied to a post and a child walked over and started playing with the balloons and sent them all up to the sky. There was that moment when everybody went 'Oh, no.' And a little girl tugged on her mother's shirt and said, 'Mommy, where do balloons go?' I felt I might have been struck by lightning. I felt a chill up my back, and I put my son in the car and I ran home and wrote the book out in about 10 minutes."

Q: Did Laura Cornell put the Bates Motel in or did you ask her to do that?

A: We barely know each other. This is a single working mother in New York. I barely talk to her. With each book I send through (the publisher), I send a few specific visual cues that I have seen in my head. In particular, when I wrote 'where do they go, do they ever catch cold, and need somewhere to stay,' I said, 'wouldn't it be funny if a balloon was going to the Bates Motel?' I think (our books are) successful because picture books are designed to be read by adults to children. There has to be something for both child and adult. The child gets the story, the drawings. There hasn't been an adult who hasn't chuckled at many references in the illustrations.

Q: How do you balance writing, acting and family?

A: I do very little acting anymore and when I do, I negotiate so it's done in concentrated bits of time. My writing is not something I do on a daily basis. I think about things. They kind of percolate. My mood book (at first) was called "My Mood Swings" and I thought about it for three or four years. How am I able to be a participant in my son's co-op nursery school and my daughter's middle school? How do you keep your 16-year-marriage interesting? I'm challenged in those ways like everybody.

Q: You're sometimes referred to as the "Queen of Scream." Where do you stand in the current argument over violence in the media and do you limit your kids' access to violent movies or video games?

A: I'm as strict a parent as I know. I don't let my daughter see R-rated movies. I took Nintendo out of my house after my son woke up saying literally "Can I play Star Fox, I got to level 4." It's not a bad game, it was his obsession with it at such a young age so we took it out of the house and he cried and kicked and screamed. Obviously there are themes in R-rated movies my daughter could handle. My daughter's heard bad language, that's not a problem. Violence is a big problem, certain sex is a big problem.

I believe it's a parent's right and job to regulate their kids, period. I don't think it's the government's. If you don't like the Internet, take it out of your house. If you don't like R movies, don't let your kids see them. That's your job and your responsibility and nobody else's."

Q: Any future projects?

A: I have at least five or six other children's books in various utero stages.

Q: What message were you hoping children could come away with from this book?

A: I did not have an agenda, but without question in the development of this book, there have been some themes that have come out. The first thing is to let go of your imagination. What's beautiful about young children, they are limitless in imagination. That has turned into a couple subthemes. As a parent your child is a balloon and you hold onto them as long as you can, but part of the joy of being a parent is letting go of your children.

There's a lovely melancholy poignancy to these books that I think helps... deal with loss, the real tangible loss of a real human being or loved one. I believe it will help a child let go of that person perhaps and understand there will always be a forever connection.

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