Judith Viorst talks 'Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day'
It’s time for a trip down memory lane. If you grew up reading picture books, chances are you’re familiar with Judith Viorst’s Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Originally published in 1972, Alexander is one of those instant classics because, like the titular character, we’ve all had our fair share of terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days. Alexander’s hitting the big screen next month with Disney’s adaptation starring Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner. Coincidentally, Viorst has two new books (out now) leading up to the movie’s release: Alexander, Who’s Trying His Best to Be the Best Boy Ever and And Two Boys Booed, illustrated by Sophie Blackall. Here, Viorst talks about her inspiration for both, and Alexander’s lasting legacy.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why revisit Alexander after all these years?
JUDITH VIORST: He’s a character that has always intrigued me and kind of nagged at me. Over a very long period of time, I wrote those first three books…. Then I had three ideas for a fourth one. I actually sat down and started three Alexanders at the same time, two of them went in the trash and got stomped on because I hated the idea so much. And the one I came up with, I got very excited by. And that’s Alexander, Who’s Trying His Best to Be the Best Boy Ever.
How does it feel to have your story come to the big screen after all these years?
I am astonished and thrilled out of my mind that people have been talking about making a movie out of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day since I wrote it! A lot of studios have taken options on it. It was always, “It’s gonna happen. It’s going to happen.” But it never happened. I always wondered how it could happen since it’s a 32-page picture book with very big type. [Laughs] The fact that they did it, just blew my mind. And the fact that I like it is really amazing. [Laughs]
So you’ve seen the movie already?
I just got to see a screening of it. I was very nervous. I went to see it with five of my seven grandchildren, and then some of my other relatives. I knew the grownups would be polite, but children are not polite about these things, and they really liked it!… It keeps a lot of the ideas of the Alexander book. It’s got the character of Alexander, who’s irritated all the time about how the universe is persecuting him…. But what he does is he wishes his family a bad day because they haven’t been sufficiently sympathetic toward him, and at that point, it’s Disney’s version of a bad day in the life of an entire family. And they pulled it off. I don’t know what I’d be saying to you if I didn’t like it! [Laughs] But I really liked it!
Did you ever expect Alexander and his horrible day would become so popular?
It certainly wasn’t something I was having fantasies about when I wrote it, but I did know that the idea of a bad day is a useful idea. It’s a useful idea because it suggests that there’s a beginning and an end, like maybe tomorrow will be better. And everyone has bad days, and when you’re having a bad day, you think, “Here I am being singled out by a hostile, malicious universe that is picking exclusively on me.” And then you read a book about bad days and realize they happen to everyone, not just tormented, persecuted you. I think there is something consoling about that. The letters I get from kids probably tell me more about the book’s success than anything I could say. Kids are always writing me: “I had a bad day too.” “I got gum in my hair.” And the kids also write to me to pass on advice to Alexander. My favorite one of those being, “The next time you have a bad day, blame your brothers.” I didn’t expect this. It’s certainly the most successful of my books.
Tell me about And Two Boys Booed. The Alexander books were written about your son, but this is about your granddaughter, right?
Yes, this is Alexander’s daughter, Olivia. Olivia was going to day camp a few years ago, and she was going to be in a talent show. I said, “How did the talent show go?” And she said, “Two boys booed.” [It was] one of my really bad moments as a grandmother. I did not put my arms around her and say, “Oh poor, baby!” I said, “Great idea for the title of a book!” The illustrations are dream illustrations. They’re just so wonderfully funny and charming with those flaps, and all those individual kids. I was very pleased with it. I wrote And Two Boys Booed several years ago, but we really chased around looking for the perfect illustrator, so it took a while. So [both books came out at the same time], and there’s this convergence of Alexander and his kid with these two books, even though [the main character is] a boy, not Olivia. But the book is dedicated to Olivia because she deserved it.