Viola Davis, meet Corduroy.
For the 50th anniversary of Don Freeman’s children’s book, the Oscar-winning actress signed on to write an original book about the beloved ursine. Alongside veteran Corduroy author B.G. Hennessy (A Christmas Wish for Corduroy), Davis conceived a story that was close to her heart: Corduroy Takes a Bow, a story which finds the eponymous bear exploring the theater and all of its machinations for the first time. Navigating the exciting chaos behind-the-scenes, he begins to whether there may be a place for him onstage, too. (Spoiler: The book’s title may provide a hint.)
Imaginatively illustrated by Jody Wheeler, it’s a sweet, touching addition to the venerable children’s series. But more than that, it has the feel of a personal work. In speaking with EW about writing Corduroy Takes a Bow, Davis confirmed exactly why: Not only was she writing the book for her daughter, but as she dug deeper into her imagination and memories, she found she was doing it for herself, too — remembering what it was about theater that first grabbed her, like she was experiencing it all over again. “I explored every bit of the theater that has left an imprint on me,” she says.
Davis goes into her process writing the book, why she leapt at the opportunity to do it, and much more in our conversation, which you can read in full below. Corduroy Takes a Bow publishes Tuesday, and is available for pre-order.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s start at the beginning: How did you wind up writing a Corduroy book?
VIOLA DAVIS: It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. With my daughter, when she was a baby, that was the book that she just loved the most. You read so many different books to your child, and there are certain ones that just stick — where they literally enter the story, from the moment you begin. Perhaps it was Lisa and the fact that she was an African-American; maybe it gave her a sense that she was a part of it. But that was the story that stuck. It’s just close to my heart. Certain characters stay with you, and that’s Corduroy.
Did you have a personal relationship to it, growing up?
I remember it when I was a kid. I’m a completely different generation though: I was going to the library at 5, 6 years old. I think I was 5 because I was in kindergarten; I would walk from the school to the library by myself. That was back in the day when you could go by yourself. [Laughs] I do remember that book. But when I started reading the book, it was one of several books that I was in love with; it was just the library itself that totally captured me. The smell of the pages. Certainly, Corduroy was a part of that adventure, a bigger part of my escape.
So what is it about Corduroy?
I keep going back to the fact that Lisa was African-American. It wasn’t like she had to be empathized. That it was trying to make any kind of statement. She simply was a part of the story. That was a big thing for me when I was growing up, and it’s a bigger thing with my daughter. No matter what story you tell her, she always wants to be a part of it. She says, “Make me the hero mommy. Put me in the story mommy. Just put me in the story.”
Children’s books leave such an impact, as you say with its impact on your daughter. How did that inform the way you wrote it?
Absolutely. With Corduroy, I love the fact that he’s curious. He’s not punished for being curious. I love the fact that he’s an inanimate object that comes to life. I love that he is in the life of Lisa, who loves him, who injects him with that personality. Who protects him. But also, the backdrop of the theater — which is a magical, sacred place. The theater is the greatest imagination playground. It’s a place where you can explore your imagination as a space of magic, of fun. It’s a place that certainly transformed me. This was a regurgitation of everything that saved me, in my life. It was a combination of all of that. The gift that was given to me by being introduced to the theater, I wanted to give to kids. That’s my gift.
Theater has so many moving parts, and you really conjure that chaos in the book.
Corduroy is discovering it for the first time. As mysterious as it is, there is a fun in the discovery of it. If it were a haunted house [Laughs], there’s no magic or discovery there — it’s dark and scary. I’d turn around and go back home and be perfectly fine! But the mystery of the theater — no matter what corner you turn in the theater, there’s something new to discover, that keeps you exploring, that keeps you going deeper and deeper into it. Once it has you in its web, it’s got you. It’s why in the theater, it doesn’t matter — you could be the jock, you could be the nerd, you could be the goth queen — it captures everybody. And that’s why I really wanted to end it with him taking a bow. It’s an acceptance. That’s what it is. Theater is a space of belonging. So taking a bow is the ultimate act of saying, “I belong. I’ve been accepted, and I’m being seen.”
Did you rediscover that magic of theater, yourself, as you wrote the book — of seeing and exploring it for the first time?
Yeah. I was exploring my first love of theater while I was writing Corduroy — through a bear! We kept talking about what I remembered. Like the ushers: They were always dressed up and they had the programs in their hands, and the first thing they’d do was give you the program and turn on the flashlight and show you to your seat. And that’s when your heart starts palpitating. And then the curtain goes up. That’s a big thing from my childhood when I went to the theater, too — seeing those big velvet curtains and the ropes as the stagehands were working them as it was about to begin. And that’s when the set was revealed. You’d just be in awe of what you saw. And then the props table: That was a huge thing for me. Every time I’ve ever done a play, I just love it; I like putting my hands on things and seeing how they’re made, and the different prosthetics. And the dressing rooms? Forget it — especially on Broadway. And the smell of the theater. And of course, the final curtain call, which is always so exciting. Are people going to stand for you? How long will the applause last?
It’s a lot to think about!
I explored every bit of the theater that has left an imprint on me. That’s what I did while I was writing this book. Sometimes you forget that stuff. Sometimes, you need the imagination of a child to come back to life again. To remember why you fell in love with anything.
This interview has been edited and condensed.