An interview with Idina Menzel and Cara Mentzel
The Children’s Book Review
In this episode, I talk with sisters Cara Mentzel and Tony-award-winner Idina Menzel about their debut picture book Loud Mouse: How a Little Mouse Found Her Big Voice.
Cara Mentzel‘s debut memoir, Voice Lessons: A Sisters Story, about her relationship with her superstar sister, Idina Menzel (yes, they spell their last names differently), was a Good Reads Choice Award nominee in 2017. Cara lives in Boulder, Colorado, where she and her husband raised their Brady Bunch of boys against the beauty of the Rocky Mountains. She has a master’s degree in elementary education with an emphasis on children’s literacy, and though she currently spends most of her time writing, she enjoyed teaching elementary school for well over a decade and can occasionally be found back in the classroom talking about books she loves. Loud Mouse is her first picture book.
Idina Menzel is a powerhouse: actor, singer-songwriter, philanthropist, entrepreneur, and now a writer. She was Tony-nominated for her Broadway performances in Rent and If/Then, winning the prize for Wicked’s green girl. People around the world know her as Elsa in Disney’s Oscar-winning Frozen and Frozen 2. She has performed at the Oscars and the Super Bowl, and is the co-founder of A Broader Way Foundation, whose mission is leadership development to amplify young women’s voices through the arts. Loud Mouse is Idina’s latest endeavor to build on the message of empowerment and finding our voices. Idina’s greatest gift is her son, Walker.
Listen to the Interview
Read the Interview
Bianca Schulze: Well, hello, Idina and Cara. I am so happy to have you on The Growing Readers Podcast. You’re the first pair of sisters we’ve had here, so welcome.
Cara Mentzel: Thank you.
Idina Menzel: Thank you. Hi.
Bianca Schulze: I’m thrilled to have you on the show today to talk about your debut picture book, Loud Mouse. So often in children’s books, we encounter stories of finding one’s voice. And Loud Mouse is unique to me because Dee the Mouse already has a voice. She has a loud voice, a beautiful voice. So, she doesn’t need to find her voice per se, but she does need to discover the self-confidence and bravery to use it. So, this story of Dee and Cara Lee is the perfect culmination of your personal and professional lives coming together, and it captures the bond of sisterhood. So, I’d love to begin our conversation by discovering your drive to create this particular picture book.
Idina Menzel: What I think makes this an exception is that our protagonist, she has this big voice, but it’s not until she decides that she’s comfortable enough to share it. She’s always just singing at home in front of the bathroom mirror or in her room. It’s when she decides that it’s worthy of sharing with other people in a public way that things happen, and life gets a little more complicated, and her voice gets bigger and louder. And that all comes with the joy she feels with sharing this voice and how it feels and how it felt to me when I was a little girl, which is the inspiration of the book, to share this thing that I love to do so much and that I really thought I was good at, but also how frightening that was to be. How would I be perceived when I was my best? It meant I had to make myself vulnerable.
And so, being authentic and vulnerable requires a lot of courage. So, it was more that it was like, is it okay that I show that I don’t want to feel like I’m showing off, that I’m being conceited in some way? And why do we feel that way when we’re just sharing the thing that makes us beautiful and exceptional in the world? Why do we have to feel that way? So that’s kind of what I wanted to explore. And that’s when I decided, after many years of being asked to do a children’s book and not knowing what I would want it to be about. I woke up one day and I thought, I think this is the territory I would like to live in. And I don’t want to do it unless I can do it with my sister. She is a much better writer than me and is an incredible teacher who also focuses on literacy in her teaching. So, she could really bring a total perspective to how we wrote the book and the language we used and all of that kind of stuff.
Bianca Schulze: Cara, what did it mean to you to create this book with your sister? And what was your driving force for wanting to be a part of it?
Cara Mentzel: Oh, my gosh, could you imagine if I didn’t? There’s like a million reasons why I was like, yes, let’s do it. I was with her when she was having these feelings, when she was testing out her voice in the world and seeing what happened, what happens, how do people respond, how does she manage that response, and how does it impact her as she’s developing an identity? So, I felt a very personal connection to that story. And then also, to work with her in a professional capacity means that I get more time with her because she’s very busy, and it means I get to work with some of my strengths with my sister, which is so much fun. Usually, teaching is in the classroom—well, with parents, they get to appreciate me, and the kids get to appreciate me. But it’s nice to be able to work with this skill set with my sister.
Bianca Schulze: After reading the story, what you both bring shines through, I imagine, with Idina’s experience with character work and voice work. And Cara, your educational background as a teacher, and you’ve written your book, your memoir, Voice Lessons. So, it makes sense to me that it was the two of you who would create this particular beautiful story. There’s so much to love about Loud Mouse, from the characters to the fun word choices and the artwork, but I’d love to dive into the characters of Dee and Cara. Idina, you already touched a little bit on Dee, but I want to dive in deeper with her. And I’m curious what you want listeners to know about Dee in terms of who she is and what we can learn from her.
Idina Menzel: I think what I want people to take away from the book, what we want people to take away from the book is kind of what I said before, is the power we have when we don’t shy away from being our most authentic selves. And that’s a process and a journey. And I think the journey is trying to just keep doing what we love and what makes us feel really fulfilled. And not every child and not every person in life may know that they want to be a successful performer when they’re seven years old, jumping up from behind the couch, singing. They may be on a different trajectory where they’re trying to figure out who they are. But as long as you keep searching for what you love and how to connect with people and what it is in you that helps you to do that. What’s your passion? That’s the thing that I think I want people to take away.
I also think that the sibling relationship in our book is very true to who we are as sisters in real life. And like Cara, taking the words out of your mouth like you like to say that it’s the family, the friends, and the people we trust that often help us see who we are. Sometimes we’re not objective. So, the greatest gift about this collaboration was being able to say: I think I’d like to do a children’s book. I want to do it with you. I want to do it with you, knowing that she would get it right because often, in collaborations, they can go a little awry. You can start with a kernel of something you want to work on and then someone else has a different vision for it. But I knew that my sister was the one who would keep it on track for me.
Bianca Schulze: Cara, do you want to add anything in terms of, like, a sister perspective on the character of Dee?
Cara Mentzel: I want to say one thing about what you just said, which is, like, she said different iterations of that before, but it never gets old. So, it’s nice to hear her sing my praises. It’s so, like, so special. And I think that is a lot of what’s in Loud Mouse between the sisters. Not every sibling relationship is the same. We all have our family issues and family dynamics. But at the heart of ours is really this genuine just enthusiasm and excitement about who we each are and how we have chosen to connect with the world around us.
Bianca Schulze: Why don’t you tell us a little bit more from your perspective of what Cara Lee brings to the story? We’ve touched on it a little bit, but it would be great to hear it from your perspective.
Cara Mentzel: She kind of has this innocence about her and this perkiness, yet she also has this wisdom, but it’s veiled because she doesn’t necessarily know she’s being wise. She’s just sort of she has this beginner’s mind about stuff. She’s just kind of stating her obvious, well, wait, who else would you be? Kind of thing. And yet it’s so powerful for Dee to hear that in that context—the context of this book.
Or when they’re sitting under the stars, and it just occurs to her to wonder, like, I wonder if what if stars chose not to shine? Could they do that? So, it’s not like she’s deliberately trying to make her sister feel better or resolve things. It’s that they’re just connected. And so, she’s in a state of wondering and in this state of connection that they kind of work off each other and come to a resolution.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, I’m so glad you mentioned that part of the story where they’re looking at the stars and could a star choose not to shine? That moment was so special when I got to it. I really enjoyed that part. So, I’m glad that you mentioned it.
Idina, from your perspective, is there anything you want to add about Cara Lee and the meaning of sisterhood?
Idina Menzel: It’s sort of that unconditional love thing, you know, where there’s such relief when you find people that you can just be yourself around and you can show your imperfections, you can reveal your deepest secrets—that’s nonjudgmental, that person will be there for you no matter what. And I think there’s a protective quality that these two sisters have, which is very true to what my sister and I have. We’re fierce protectors of each other. And even then, we have a sequel called Proud Mouse that’ll come out a year from now. But with that delves more into Cara Lee and how it feels for her to grow up in the sister’s shadow and what is her lane. What is she going to carve out for herself? And how she identifies. She’s not inextricably linked to her sister all the time. Who is she? And I think that that was important for us to explore as well.
Cara Mentzel: Can I say one more thing about that, please? The other thing is that moment where the little sister says, but you’ve always been big and loud to me; she’s so confused because this is her big sister, who is bossy and bigger. So, this idea that she’s sobbing and so sad because she’s these things that the sister always knew she was, it’s just so beautiful because she doesn’t get that. She literally got bigger, and things blew all over the place. This is the person she’s admired forever. And that whole sequence where Dee is walking next to the towering evergreens and then next to the buttercups and next to the ant, and you get to see how her size is relative, right? So, it shouldn’t really matter anyway. And then this is the text that kind of says, wait a minute.
Bianca Schulze: There’s this beautiful moment, though, where a little bit later, Ren is even so mesmerized by Dee’s voice and so proud that Dee sang out loud; Ren didn’t even mind that the artwork had blown. And I love those little elements of humor and compassion from your peers woven throughout, too.
Cara Mentzel: And it’s actually, I think, because she gets bigger, so her butt erases some of the drawings. And we went back and forth on that because as a teacher, a mother of two, and a stepson—three very kind of quirky boys—he’s one of my favorite characters because he would sort of hyper-focus on this drawing and lose track that it’s been going on. But he’s got to get the details right and all this stuff. I love this character so much. But they’re also like sitting there. So, it’s not that his talent is any different than singing, but he’s a different human being, so he’s going to embody it differently, and people are going to respond differently. I love that he kind of gets that. He gets that and then he’s able to still enjoy it. And like I said, his character comes from a place of deep love for a number of students that he reminded me of and my own children.
Idina Menzel: It was a real choice that came from a lot of my own experience. There were a lot of kids that weren’t so nice to me. And a specific girl I grew up with that was a little older and was a singer, too, but she just was so competitive with me, and she started bullying me—and all her friends and people would laugh. There’d be boys that would laugh. So originally, that was sort of loaded for me, but it was Cara who said, well, let’s rewrite that experience. Let’s show a bunch of kids that are supportive of one another and enjoy seeing this. Let’s mirror that. That’s the kind of stuff in the collaboration that I think made all this much better than advice.
Bianca Schulze: I love that you got to rewrite that part of the story. And I think that is the power of children’s books: when we share them with kids, we show them how things can be. You can read a history book and learn how not to be. Or maybe it was a game changer, a powerful woman who made a change in the world. There are these incredible things, and then there’s the power of a story that yours is fiction, but it’s also truth. And you can show children how to be and how they can be, and you hope they pick up on those little nuggets. I love that.
Idina Menzel: And that does bring us to the illustrator, Jaclyn Sinquett. We were very inspired by the Richard Scarry books when we were little. I love those illustrations. I would read those books with my son all the time. One—because of the monotony of a parent reading the same book over and over and over. It’s fun to be able to discover new little details and illustrations, but also the humor and also learning that great illustrators can add so much or allow for the text to be edited. And you can see it more in the visual. But we knew it was a specific kind of illustrator. We wanted someone that was going to be, how did we say it, Cara, painterly and whimsical and have a beauty, but also have humor?
And we really wanted someone that understood all these ancillary characters. So, she finds the humor and just little details throughout the book. Like our horse, who always wears a unicorn headband because she wishes she was a unicorn when the wind blows, you see the unicorn headband flying—on little things that she understood that we were sort of intuitive as well.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, Jaclyn Sinquett did an amazing job. And just the way she shows Dee getting larger and like De Elevating from the ground when she really does truly feel free to be as loud as she wants to, the artwork is incredible. I want to talk about the word choices because there are some spectacular and tip-top words in there. And then there’s also the refrain. And I am hoping that maybe Idina would share the refrain because I kind of imagine she has a way of saying it that would be way better than I did. But I love the refrain anyway. I want to hear more about the word choices, and it’s definitely intentional that there are some bigger words in there. So, who wants to go first?
Idina Menzel: Well, Cara can talk. She should talk about how she made each teacher a specific lover of certain words. Go ahead.
Cara Mentzel: I usually have a word in my classroom for juicy words, just the ones that hit the nail on the head and are precise or fun and printed.
I don’t know what reading level the text is at from a reader’s perspective; even though it’s targeted at preschool to second graders, few preschool readers can access the level of text in that book, and yet I still want them to hear that vocabulary. So much of the books read aloud are about taking away the part of your brain that has to decode words and just working with the comprehension or the social and emotional piece of it or the vocabulary. Kids should still be surrounded by that great vocabulary, even if they can’t read that word. And so that would be me using big words like that in the classroom.
So, she says spectacular. What did she say at the end? Unprecedented. And then I think it was recommended that I do a little more of that. And so that’s when we were like, okay. And I’ve got the hummingbird, and he’s so fast and sped up, right? Which is like zoom, zoom, zoom. So, all his words should be, like, really shortened to the point. And so, he’s always tip-top, tip-top. And of course, the music teacher could have been Italian, saying Italian words, but there was something that I just enjoyed, something more humorous about just maybe this. What kind of animal is he? Is he like an anteater or something? But he’s from New Jersey and sees himself as this great musician, and he just speaks with these great Italian words all the time, but he’s not Italian.
Bianca Schulze: I think the music teacher animal is open for interpretation, to be honest. You could probably assign a couple of different animals to him. But I love that he used the word fortissimo, which is to be louder, and he’s encouraging Dee to sing louder, but then it’s noted right below that Dee was asked to be quiet and to fit back in with the chorus. So, like, these words are fantastic, and they lend themselves to being read aloud, but they’re not just there to be spectacular words. They’re there to really demonstrate the power of each little part of the story.
Cara Mentzel: Yeah. Thank you, you say that better than I do.
Idina Menzel: Mr. Dimple.
Cara Mentzel: Yes, Mr. Dimple.
Bianca Schulze: Idina, do you want to share the refrain with us?
Idina Menzel: This is the conundrum as Cara put in my head that—so I wrote a song that we’re going to release right before the book, and then Cara was like, okay, but now everyone’s going to think they have to sound like you when they sing it. And so, my intention was not to intimidate but to inspire everyone to sing loud and proud. So, yeah, so hopefully, people don’t feel stifled, and they just enjoy the song. But I hear it as yeah—
With my tail in my hand
My whiskers out proud,
I sing it big
I sing it
La, La, La, La,
Cara Mentzel: That’s it, you have to sing it like that.
Bianca Schulze: I’m really glad I had you share the refrain. That was beautiful, and I just love what it brings to the story. Well, I am just so grateful for the time we’ve had together. I want to thank you so much for writing a book demonstrating to kids that the best thing they can be in the world is themselves. And I don’t know a single human who couldn’t do with a self-esteem boost from time to time. So, I do not doubt that there will be so many grownups reading this with their kids that will take away that message for themselves, too. And I just think it will be such a fun read-aloud for parents and classrooms. And I just want to thank you for being on the show today.
Cara Mentzel: Thank you so much.
Idina Menzel: Thank you so much. This is great. I appreciate it.
About the Book
Written by Cara Mentzel and Idina Mezel
Illustrated by Jaclyn Sinquett
Ages 3-5 | 48 Pages
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion | 9781368078061
Publisher’s Book Summary: Frozen’s Elsa and Tony Award-winner Idina Menzel, along with acclaimed writer and teacher Cara Mentzel, present a lyrical picture book about a little mouse finding her BIG voice with the help of her sister.
Dee loves to sing. She sings during her morning yoga. She even sings while practicing her math facts. She usually sings to herself. But when her teacher asks everyone to share something with the class, Dee knows just what to bring: a song. And as Dee sings la, la, la, la, LOUDly in front of her class for the first time, something extraordinary happens. . . .
Complete with gorgeous illustrations and filled with humor and heart, Loud Mouse is a clever tale about learning that sometimes your best self is big, brave, and, yes, loud.
Buy the Book
Voice Lessons by Cara Mentzel and a foreword by Idina Menzel
- About Loud Mouse
- Idina Menzel’s inspiration for Loud Mouse
- Cara Mentzel’s drive for co-authoring Loud Mouse
- Finding one’s voice and celebrating it
- Sisterhood—in the story and through collaboration
- The illustrations of Jaclyn Sinquett and finding humor in the little details
- The spectacular use of vocabulary—the juicy words
- And then the part when Idina Menzel reads (sings) for us.
Thank you for listening to the Growing Readers Podcast episode: Idina Menzel and Cara Mentzel Discuss Loud Mouse. For the latest episodes from The Growing Readers Podcast, Follow Now on Spotify. For similar books and articles, you can check out all of our content tagged with Diversity Ibram X. Kendi, and Non-Fiction.