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Author William Joyce talks about his book, 'George Shrinks'

September 29, 2000
12 p.m. EDT

"Once you enter the world of Bill Joyce you'll never want to leave," a reviewer for Newsweek once wrote. And it is a wonderful world: Joyce writes hilarious, whimsical children's books, such as "Rolie Polie Olie" and "Snowie Rolie." Recently, his 1991 book "George Shrinks" became an animated PBS series. He joined CNN Interactive to talk about it.

William Joyce: Howdy.

Chat Moderator: Please tell us about the animated version of your book, "George Shrinks."

William Joyce: Well, it is a 30-minute animated show on Saturday and Sunday on PBS. It is traditional 2-D animation that I executive-produced and designed and story edited. So I was able to keep the show very true to the original book, but expand George's adventures to delirious extremes. It has been a blast.

George is 3 inches tall. He lives with a normal-sized family. But no one ever makes reference to his size difference. George is so ingenious and clever and optimistic that he faces his monumental struggle to have a regular everyday American childhood that he never complains, and manages with casual aplomb to reign victorious.

Chat Moderator: What age group does this appeal to?

William Joyce: It's suppose to appeal to pre-school to first grade. But I have always cast my net a lot wider than that. (I've) designed my books and television shows to appeal to grown-ups and kids of all ages.

Chat Moderator: Do you think that there is enough good television programming for kids?

William Joyce: There is never enough. But there is a lot more right now than probably ever before. It seems like the networks and the entertainment industry have finally woken up to the fact that you need to do quality kids programming and try to make it sophisticated enough to appeal to more than kids.

Question from Biff: Do children lose their imagination when they watch TV?

William Joyce: I don't think you can make a kid lose their imagination. Their imagination is pretty much welded in there with titanium bore. I think watching too much television or too much of the wrong kind of television pretty much just stunts their brain. But if you make them go outside and play that imagination comes right back to life. I try to make television that actually stimulates that animation gland and drive them almost into an imaginative conniption fit. I want them so jazzed after watching one of my shows that they can hardly stand it.

That they have to go out and tell somebody or do something or reenact what they have seen by using imaginative play.

Chat Moderator: Do you have kids of your own, and/or who is your "research group"?

William Joyce: I have an in-house research group made up of one 9-year-old girl and one 5-year-old boy. I occasionally bring in freelance groups from surrounding domestic focus groups. No one over 4 feet tall is allowed.

Question from mamaw: They have proven a child learns more in their first five years than any other time.

William Joyce: I think that makes perfect sense. One to 5 you're brand new to this world, so you are doing 'round the clock, on-the-job training to figure out how everything works. You have to learn the language, the rules, and where to find the gummy bears. Seems like you get pretty much the basic rules covered by the time you are 5, then it is just a question of coming to terms with a right turn on red and taxes.

Chat Moderator: How did you get interested in writing for kids?

William Joyce: You know I can only assume it was either pre-ordained by some higher power or it was the only job I could find that allowed me to sleep late whenever I wanted.

Question from Freelancer: Do you believe publishers and editors are looking too much for politically correct children's manuscripts? And do you believe this stifles many good non-political writers?

William Joyce: I think everybody is getting a little too serious about just about everything. It is time to sit back and look at the way we have treated each other and the language that we use when we refer to groups that are different from what is considered the norm. But you got to have a sense of humor about the human condition and our differences and you have got to feel free to be honest. I think that when we become too concerned about political correctness we stifle honest dialogue. And then stifle our ability to communicate and get along better.

Question from bosgirl: Does TV really pose a negative influence, or (is it) the amount and content? I have a daughter that loves to watch TV and read books, plus listen to tapes. How are parents to know which will have more influence?

William Joyce: I think every kind of storytelling has an influence. I think we have all been moved by a book that we loved when we were children and that book had an influence on how we grew up and the people we became.

But I think that television, by its sheer vast unending reservoirs of content, can take over as the primary source of entertainment for children if you are not careful. I found that my kids will sit in front of the tube for hours if I leave them unattended. But they reach a point where they are just sick of it and they want to go do something else. I guess a parent's job is to make sure that they don't zone out in from the TV all day long but when they do come up for air that you are there.

(You can) either talk about the show they have just watched or guide them to a book or music or something else that will make them use their brains in a less passive way than most television has to offer. I have been playing old radio mystery shows from the 1930s and '40s for my kids and they are mesmerized by this extinct form of entertainment. This blew me away. I thought, here are two kids who have had all the modern methods of entertaining themselves: movies, TV, interactive CD-ROMs, books -- but they had no reservations whatsoever about listening. They actually preferred it. My 5-year-old son explained, "I like those radio shows better, Dad. I get to make up what everything looks like."

Question from Haley: Do you ever visit libraries and read your books to groups of children?

William Joyce: Yes I do. I used to do it all the time. But I find I need to spend time with my own kids, so my priority has shifted from reading to the public (to) focusing my attentions at home. When my kids get taller and need me less then I shall walk the earth again, whether the world wants me to or not.

Question from Shreveport: What were some of your favorite books as a kid?

William Joyce: I didn't have many books as a kid. I lived in a small southern town and the only library was way out in the woods in an honest-to-God log cabin. Thankfully, however, there was a very courageous librarian who loved children's books. So I was able to, on my occasional visits, see books that changed my life.

"Where The Wild Things Are" by Maurice Sendak changed my life and set me on the path of children's literature. After that it was "Peter Rabbit," "Stuart Little," the Pooh books, "The Borrowers" and -- I don't know if these qualify as children's books -- but Big Daddy Roth's trading cards and "Little Orphan Annie" by Harold Gray were probably my biggest childhood influences. And of course Bugs Bunny. Mad Magazine too.

Question from Freelancer: What do you think of the Harry Potter series' success?

William Joyce: I think it is really cool. These enormous publishing phenomenon that seem to occur every few years are always grownup books -- "Love Story," "Jonathan Livingston Seagull," "The Bridges of Madison County," for example. So it is great, fabulous, extraordinary, heartening, exciting and groovy that it's finally a so-called "kids' book" that has the world by the tail. Bravo bravo bravo. Now maybe kids' books will get a little more notice and respect from those pointy-headed grownups.

Chat Moderator: Thanks so much for joining us today, William Joyce. Do you have any final comments for our audience today?

William Joyce: We live in an age of technological wonders. It is a thrilling time for a storyteller like me to be able to do my stories the way I want to do them in so many different media. I am able to do my children's books, translate them to television and movies in a way that is true to everything I enjoy and feel passionate about. I can live in Shreveport, Louisiana, and oversee the production of these shows and still do my books, have a normal life without compromising my art. That could never have happened until now. The technology is there and there are enough people in charge who are willing to trust that some backwater swamp rat like me might actually know what I am doing, and trust me enough to over see a bunch of television shows. Pinch me so I will know this is true.

Yahoo. Thank God. Bang the dishes and rattle the pots and pans and isn't the new Volkswagen cool?

Chat Moderator: Thanks William Joyce!

William Joyce: Thank you for having me.

William Joyce joined the chat via telephone from CNN's San Francisco Bureau. CNN is providing a typist for him. The above is an edited transcript of the chat, which took place, Friday, September 29, 2000.

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