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Q & A With 'I Am Jim Henson' Author

Jan 27, 2017

WUSF's Susan Giles Wantuck caught up with New York Times bestselling author Brad Meltzer recently to talk about his latest book.

It's a children's biography of legendary puppeteer, Jim Henson. But Meltzer says he's best known for writing thrillers. In fact, he jokes that he "kills people" for a living.

As a parent, he says he was fed with the "garbage" his children were taking in through their smartphones. With them in mind, he said he wanted to give children "real heroes" they could look up to.

That led to a series of biographies for youngsters, filled with beautiful illustrations by Christopher Eliopoulis.

"So we started this children's biography series, and we call them the "I am" series. We started with "I am Amelia Earhart," and "I am Abraham Lincoln" and since that time, we've also done Jackie Robinson and Rosa Parks.

And my daughter loves animals, loves our dog, so I did "I am Jane Goodall" for her, and my youngest son is really creative, so for him I had to find a good creator, we found "I am Jim Henson." But it's really just my own desire to help my own kids find real heroes today, "Meltzer said.

When it came to tackling the book about Jim Henson, Meltzer said he worried that maybe it was just a nostalgic feeling that he was entertaining.  In his words, "I was a little nervous going back to do "I am Jim Henson," like, is Sesame Street, the Muppets, are they going to be as fun as I remember or was it just because I was ten? 

And when I went back to them, I looked at songs like "It's Not Easy Being Green," and that's a beautiful song about accepting yourself for who you are," Meltzer said. ""Whether you're green or purple or yellow or tall like a mountain or strong like a tree." And this beautiful song of self-acceptance is being sung by a frog named Kermit that's a puppet."

"And to me that's profound and beautiful and that's why it resonates, because when Jim Henson talks through this puppet, we'll listen to him say things we would never listen to a real person say."

We asked Meltzer to read a passage from the book.

Here's what he said about that passage: "My wife sat in my room when I wrote those pages and we talked it out, she’s a huge Muppet person.  And when the words came out, we were both in tears. And that’s when we knew, when those pages were done, they were the most important pages in the book."

Everyone knows that Kermit was Jim Henson, and while Meltzer knows that Kermit has to be the sentimental favorite, his favorite Muppet was someone different for more personal reasons.

"My mother, her laugh used to sound just like Ernie. And when my mom passed away, every time I see Ernie and every time I hear him laugh, I just think of my mom, so that one will always get to me. But Kermit, like Jim Henson, his real power was never about having a cute voice or a catchy song. It was about bringing amazing people together and bringing out the best of them," Meltzer said.

Meltzer says we need to be reminded of the virtues of kindness, strength and persistence that Henson's Muppets teach on Sesame Street, and Henson's own life story told.

"We need that message. The message of Jim Henson when he got started is he wanted to be in television. And so he goes down to the local TV station, he says that he wants a job and they say, 'we don't have any jobs'. And he's all dejected, he's devastated. He walks back out of the station and as he's leaving he sees a sign up on the wall and the sign says, 'we're looking for puppeteers.'

So Jim Henson goes to the library, takes out a book on puppetry, goes right back to the same TV station, says 'I'm a puppeteer, can I have a job?' And that's why the world gets Kermit. I want my kids to know, to this day, if someone puts an obstacle in your way, you go around it. And that's why the world gets Kermit, because Jim Henson won't take no for an answer," Meltzer said.