R.L. Stine’s Granddaughter “Memorized Every Punchline” From Why Did The Monster Cross The Road?
Stine and Arthur’s Marc Brown joined forces once again for a new picture joke book.
Early in my conversation with Arthur creator Marc Brown and his friend and collaborator, Goosebumps author R.L. “Bob” Stine, I apologize. “Both of you have been doing interviews like this for so long, so I’m sorry if I’m asking a lot of the questions you usually get.”
“I only like questions I’ve already been asked,” Brown says brightly.
“It’s really true,” Stine agrees. “You don't want any new questions.”
I open here to set the tone of our 45 minute conversation, which can be more accurately described as “banter” or maybe occasionally “roast.” Stine and Brown, both charming, quick, and very funny (who seem to love nothing more than to lovingly rib each other) have been friends for about 20 years, and while their meeting was happenstance (more on that in a minute; stick around, it’s worth it), it’s clear the two share a true rapport that goes beyond their professional collaborations, like Little Shop of Monsters and Mary McScary.
Their latest, Why Did The Monster Cross The Road?, is a picture joke book written by Stine and illustrated by Brown. Though released in July, it’s just the thing to get young ones in the mood for spooky season.
I spoke with the pair via Zoom — Brown in Martha’s Vineyard and Stine in Sag Harbor — about their various iconic books and future projects, but also the joy of Egg McMuffins, lying to reporters, and why “spry” is never a compliment.
Can you talk a little bit about how you guys became friends?
Brown: Bob, what story do you want to use?
Stine: We used to tell a different story every time. [To Brown] Remember that one event where we went from [press] table to table and told a different story about how we met each time, just for fun?
Brown: “We were fighting over a sweater at Saks Fifth Avenue!”
Stine: The truth is we met in Moscow.
Did you actually? Now I don't know if I can trust you.
Stine: Yes, a true story. The former Mrs. Putin was having a children’s book festival and Laura Bush, this was the Bush administration, brought Marc and me to this Russian book festival in Moscow, and that’s actually where we met.
That’s pretty impressive. That’s not what I was expecting at all.
Stine: It wasn’t what we were expecting either. We’ve stayed in touch ever since. A year later, two years later, Marc said, “You and I should do a book together.” I said, “Marc, you have such a good reputation in children’s books, why would you want to do a book with me?” This is true. That led to Little Shop of Monsters, our first picture book collaborative.
Brown: And the end of my career…
Well now you have Why Did the Monster Cross the Road? How did that come about?
Stine: I was judging the Halloween costume contest at Scholastic. Liza Baker, who’s a children’s book editor said, “I have a great idea for you. How about a monster joke book?” And I said, “Yeah, nice. We’ll do it.” Because I say yes to everything, and I was looking for another project to do with Marc, because I always have fun.
What do you guys like to do when you get together?
Stine: Well, on our last tour, which was five or six cities, I think the highlight was that we had Egg McMuffins one morning.
Brown: And they were really good.
Stine: That summarizes our trip.
How do you create worlds for children that are compelling?
Brown: It’s a hard question. I actually like kids. I think that’s a start. [To Stine] How many children’s authors and illustrators do we know who don’t like kids at all?
Stine: Big names too. Very big names. … Marc and I, we have kids. I have grandkids. There are kids all over and we actually like kids. And I think that’s a real start.
I think sometimes it’s hard for adults to remember what it’s like to be a kid.
Brown: I can remember third grade so clearly. In Arthur, all of those characters are my classmates, my teachers. I can smell the school hallways. I could draw you a map of the school. I have a really good recollection of being a third-grader. I’m still working it out. I had a lot of problems.
Stine: I was a very fearful kid. Shy and very fearful. I think that’s why I stayed in my room typing all the time. That came in handy much later because I can remember when I write these scary books, I remember that feeling of panic when I was a kid. It’s a terrible way to grow up. But I think that’s helped in writing Goosebumps and Fear Street.
I definitely feel like reading horror books when I was a kid really helped me not be afraid. I read a lot of Fear Street.
Stine: Hey, we killed a lot of teenagers. I know people love that.
Brown: I’m going to try this. I’m going to try this technique. Third grade kids could go like that.
That might hit different…
Brown: Playgrounds are vicious.
Stine: Jamie, you need to ask Marc about his new TV show.
Brown: Thank you. He’s my agent too in his spare time. Well, when Arthur finished after 25 years, I wasn’t finished. And so I started this preschool series called Hop with a little frog with one leg shorter than the other. And so that’s really coming along. It will be on air next spring on Max. The characters are pretty varied. One of our lead characters is autistic. Hop is voiced by this man who doesn’t have his legs from the knees down. We have one character who is blind. One of the characters is non-binary. Ron DeSantis is going to love this show.
I love everything about that. [At this point I observe a cutout of a cute cartoon frog in Marc’s office.] Now is that Hop behind you?
Brown: Yes. Oh my gosh, yes! His agent made him appear!
You both have kids and, Bob, you have grandkids. Have they engaged with your work?
Stine: Well, my son Matt, his claim to fame is that he never read a Goosebumps book. He was the right age, everything. He just knew how to make me crazy. Knew how to get me.
Brown: Millions of kids love us, but our kids, no.
Stine: No respect. Mia and Dylan are my grandchildren. Mia’s 4, Dylan’s 9. And I sat them down. I said, “Here’s my new picture book, Why Did the Monster Cross the Road? Sit down. I’m going to read this to you.” And so very obediently, they sit, and I said, “What’s the monster’s favorite school lunch? The teacher!” Not a smile. Dylan says, “I don’t get it.” I say, “Dylan, you’re 9. You have to get jokes!” They absolutely didn’t crack a smile. And then I finished the book and Mia said, “Oh, read it again.” And she had memorized every punchline. So she must’ve liked it a little.
A lot of children’s authors and illustrators I talk to say that kids really enter a new book through the illustrations, since many still need an adult to read to them. How did you go about turning Bob’s words into a visual, Marc?
Brown: I love illustrating for other writers because I consider myself an illustrator, not an author. And each one is a new puzzle to solve. And this one really clearly, I could see it as I read the manuscript, and I wanted that feeling of cut paper and a feeling that these pieces could move easily. So I paint the paper then cut it out.
Stine: It’s all collage! Can you imagine? I can’t get over that.
Brown: It’s a masochistic technique.
What is it like to leave the words to Bob, Marc?
Brown: I love it. It’s like this enormous weight lifted off my shoulders. I can’t tell you how painful the writing is.
Stine: Oh, come on.
Brown: Not for you. You’d whip off like 5,000 words a minute. You and Jim Patterson.
Stine: Leave him out of this. I write, I do the manuscript and I have several revisions, and I’m done. And then Marc needs six months to do his part. Half a year!
Brown: I love that part.
So after 35 or 40 years of writing and illustrating, what keeps you interested in coming back to it again and again?
Stine: I think stupidity. That would be my answer. [To Marc] You give a decent answer. Don’t listen to me. Marc always has to give the nice answers.
Marc: Well, with Hop, I really loved what Fred Rogers did for younger kids. And I thought, I can still do this. I don’t have to hang it up just because Arthur is finished. And so I’m really having a good time looking for things that this age group can learn about, and how they can be helped by these characters.
Stine: I wouldn’t know what else to do all day. I’m so used to writing. It’s the best part of my day.
Is it still?
Stine: Yeah. I look forward to it every day.
So, I loved Fear Street. My brother loved Goosebumps. My sister was obsessed with Arthur. Now my kids are reading Goosebumps now and they also watched Arthur. Generations of people engaging with your creations, and you’re still making more. How does that make you feel when you think about the fact that you have a legacy?
Brown: It makes me feel old.
Stine: Old and decrepit. I did an author talk at UMass up in Amherst, and it was college kids. They were great. Had a great evening. And the next day, the campus newspaper wrote an article about my talk the night before. And the writer described me as spry. That’s no compliment. “Spry.”
Brown: Oh, that’s the worst! Or dapper. I got “dapper.”
Stine: But I’ll give you a serious answer. I know how lucky I am. It’s all luck. When Goosebumps came out, no one had ever heard of me. No one had seen it. It sat on the shelves for six months before anyone discovered it. And then somehow kids discovered it and the secret kids network of kids brought it into school. And suddenly it’s this huge thing all over the world. How lucky is that?
Well, that pretty much does it for me I think. This was lovely. I really enjoyed chatting with you guys.
Stine: It was good. It was a B+.
Story of my life. “Jamie: B+.”
This article has been lightly edited for length and flow.