She might like to roar when she's mad, but third-grader Judy Moody has been winning the hearts of young readers since her arrival back in 2000. To date, some 14 million folks have picked up the stories chronicling her exploits, all written by Megan McDonald.
With Judy now making the jump to the big screen, even more families are poised to meet her for the first time. I recently talked with Judy's creator to learn more about what inspired this colorful character … as well as the values she hopes to pass along to Judy's youthful fans.
Adam R. Holz: Megan, Judy Moody and the NOT Bummer Summer was my introduction to Judy—as I'm sure the film will be for many folks this summer. But fans know she's been having all sorts of adventures in her books for about 10 years or so. Tell us a little about Judy's personality and what inspired you to create this spunky kid.
Megan McDonald: I grew up with four older sisters, and you can imagine the antics that went on there. So I started out just wanting to tell some of the funny stories about my own family. But once I created Judy and gave her the little brother that she would play jokes on, it kind of took off from there, and Judy took on her own character and her own personality. She's a really strong girl. She's very independent-minded, very creative. And, also, she has a lot of moods …
Holz: Hence the name.
McDonald: Yes, exactly. That was something I thought would be interesting to explore. It's not a perfect world. So a kid who goes through different moods, who has some disappointments, who has ups and downs—I just thought would be really fun to explore. And I think that's what makes kids connect with this character, because they see themselves in her. They know there are obstacles and that bad things are going to happen, and you kind of have to meet them creatively with a sense of humor.
Holz: What's the story behind how Judy graduated from the printed page to the big screen?
McDonald: Well, that was pretty exciting. My publisher had had lots of interest in turning Judy into a movie. But we were really looking for that person who would be the right fit. Then they were contacted by Sarah Siegel-Magness, our producer. When her daughter was 8, the school librarian thought she'd really like Judy Moody and sent home some Judy Moody books. They read them together as mother and daughter, and Sarah said they laughed and they cried. She said it really took her back to her own childhood, that simpler time before tons of technology, when summer was, you know, go out in the backyard and catch a toad. I just love that Sarah really came to it through her own experience with her own child.
Holz: That was one of the things that stood out to me, how the film's characters don't really reflect our culture's current obsession with constantly being plugged in. We see Judy use a laptop once or twice in the movie, but it's clearly not the main focus of her interest or her energies. As you said, she's out having all sorts of adventures in the real world. I, too, found that emphasis a refreshing throwback to the kind of childhood I'm sure many of us as parents had. But I suspect fewer kids these days have summers like that. I'm curious to hear a little more about your decision not to have Judy reflect where kids are often at today.
McDonald: I really wanted Judy to be a contemporary kid, and certainly to use the computer as a tool to look something up. But because I was drawing on my own childhood, where summer was just such a time of wonder, where we were always picking blackberries and watching fireflies at night, I really wanted to create that same kind of summer, where you don't have to have all of your time scheduled or, when it's beautiful out, [you don't have to be] in front of a screen. I wanted to remind kids about forming a club with your friends and catching a toad and crossing a rope over the creek and chasing the ice cream truck and, you know, those sorts of simple things that are really fun. And so even in the movie, there's kind of that message. Here's Judy: She has her plan for the summer, she's going to collect points and do all of these thrilling, daring things. And then there's a turning point where she really realizes, I'm so busy trying to collect all these points, and measure it and quantify it, [that] I'm missing all the fun in the simple things that I'm doing every day with my brother and my aunt and my friends.
Holz: There was another thing that really stood out to me in the film that I appreciated. So many kids' films these days want to dabble in edgy content and sexual double entendres. And that was absent from your film. That's especially true when it come to any foul language. When Judy's Aunt Opal says the word "crap," for instance, Judy's little brother, Stink, tells them that it's considered a swear word in their family. I'd love to hear a little bit more from you about the kinds of decisions you and the filmmakers made in terms of keeping things as family friendly as possible.
McDonald: We really wanted to make this movie for kids themselves. I think so many times it's adults writing for kids, and they're sort of writing more jokes and things to that adult level. And so to us, it was really, really important that this be one of those classic childhood films that kids themselves are going to want to see. So far, I've had so many parents come up to me and say, "Oh my gosh, Megan, I enjoyed it as much as the kids." And they seem so surprised. And, of course, I'm so pleased, because I want it to be a really enjoyable experience for parents.
Holz: What other messages or themes do you hope will really connect?
McDonald: I do have a concern that I'm not sure kids really get much alone time anymore, where they just get to be quiet or read a book or something. To me as a writer, that's really important. With my personality, I'm a person who just needs a lot of alone time—time to think or daydream or draw or read a book. So I hope [the film] does kind of hearken back to remembering that, and not over-scheduling and over-prescribing for our kids. Just remembering that play is important and reading is important. To me, imagination is a big theme of Judy Moody. She's a kid with such a big imagination. And no matter what she's thinking, she's gonna go after it and corral all of her friends, get them all onboard with the next thing that she has imagined for them to do together.
Holz: That's a great segue into my last question. We live in a world today in which kids can easily expect nonstop entertainment. As families gear up for summer vacation, I'm sure parents out there are bracing for that inevitable complaint, "I'm bored." How do you as a writer think that parents can help their children cultivate a love for reading when there are so many other entertainment options vying for their attention?
McDonald: Honestly, I think probably the simplest, best way to do that is to model it yourself. Because what I see is that kids who see their parents as readers also grow up as readers. I grew up in a house full of books. So we never were lacking for books to read. And we didn't even have a local library. But we had a bookmobile that came to the shopping center. So my mom would take us there every week, and we would load up with a new pile of books. My mom and dad were always reading. So I think for parents, it's really simple: Just show kids that you think reading is important. Then kids pick up on that.
Holz: That's a terrific word in the Facebook/YouTube/Twitter age that we're living in. Just the old-fashioned pleasure and goodness of reading a book, it's kind of a lost art.
McDonald: And reading together as a family, too. You know, reading out loud, and really enjoying a story together. I was on a tour in the Virginia/Maryland area right after a hurricane had gone through there. And parent after parent came up to me and said, "Oh, we discovered Judy Moody when the power went out. All their electronics were gone, so guess what they did? They got out the flashlights, lit candles and they read. They discovered board games and reading again. And I thought, How great is this! But yet I don't want it to take a complete power outage for this to happen.
Read our review of Judy Moody and the NOT Bummer Summer.