Interview with Kathleen Krull about the Magical World of Jim Henson
Kathleen Krull is an award-winning author of many, many children’s books, including most recently Jim Henson: The Guy Who Played With Puppets. She specializes in biographies written especially for children. Krull lives in San Diego with her husband Paul Brewer a children’s book illustrator. She once worked a part-time job at a library and was fired for reading too often. Now she can read to her heart’s content- all in the service of research for her wonderful books!
Nicki Richesin: Jim Henson: The Guy Who Played With Puppets is a brilliant depiction of a man loved by the world for his creative genius. I admired how you followed the trajectory of Henson’s career and the paintings captured the various eras- from his humble beginning in Mississippi to the sweet seventies clothes and hairstyles- to the man himself. What was your approach when telling the story of Mr. Henson’s life?
Kathleen Krull: Thanks for your kind words. I wanted to shed light on a person who has done so much for children, a modern-day hero, just unbelievably creative. In his early days, everyone wondered what he was doing, playing with puppets, but he grew into this brilliant magician at making people of all ages laugh.
One of the many things I admired about your book is that you conveyed how Henson continued to pursue his dream of becoming a puppeteer, even when his father disapproved and even when his peers thought it was a little odd. Yet he stayed true to himself and his vision of what he wanted to achieve. I think this is such an important lesson for children, but really for everyone. I understand Henson’s children are running his company now. Do you think they’ve remained true to their father’s unique vision?
Do you believe Henson’s work bringing Sesame Street to television programming for children revolutionized the way they learn?
I’m a bit past the Sesame Street target audience, but I well remember how progressive this show was when it premiered, how in tune with the spirit of the 60s and 70s. The idea that TV could be used as a force for good– wow– that laughter could help children learn– this was huge. It’s now the longest-running TV show for children ever, seen in more than 140 countries, so this is a major validation of his work.
At the end of the book, of course Mr. Henson tragically dies far too young, but for his funeral he requested a giant party with all the mourners wearing bright colors holding butterfly puppets and a New Orleans jazz band playing ‘When The Saints Go Marching In” and parading down the aisle of the church. I love how you demonstrated that his funeral was a celebration of his life. There seems to be a collective world tribute going on in film and exhibits of his work. What do you think Henson would think of the current fervor for his talents now twenty-one years after his death? Do you think he would be surprised?
Having just been to the ongoing Jim Henson exhibit at the Museum of Moving Image in New York, I would say he seems more popular than ever, as more people are realizing his immense influence. Besides his accomplishments with the Muppets, he was always growing and experimenting– were he still alive, he’d still be at the cutting edge. I think he would be pleased at the attention being paid to his work today, maybe not surprised (I did sense a strong ego).
You’re married to an illustrator Paul Brewer and have collaborated on three books together. How did your working relationship develop and how do you find working so closely with your husband?
Paul illustrated two of my earlier books (CLIP CLIP CLIP and HOW TO TRICK OR TREAT IN OUTER SPACE), and we discovered that working together is mucho fun. We have adjoining studios, and he tends to work at night while I tend to work days. Now we’ve segued into writing together (on FARTISTE, LINCOLN TELLS A JOKE, and upcoming projects), and we like that just as well. Paul does the bulk of the research, and we take turns polishing the results.
You’ve written some astonishing biographies for children on timely subjects and historical figures such as Pocahontas, Abraham Lincoln, Cesar Chavez, and even A Woman For President on the amazing life of Victoria Woodhull. You’ve said you’re fascinated by strong women, in particular. Which biography you’ve created has been your most fascinating to work on for you personally?
I always focus on people I think are fascinating, so it’s a tough call. I do prefer the dead– we have more perspective on them, and there is usually more material to work with. The more contemporary the person, the more nervous I am. Will the person turn out to have a secret life, perhaps as a serial killer, will living relatives hate the book.…? I really have to be interested to tackle a live person. Hillary Clinton = very scary. (Fortunately, she liked the book– Hillary Rodham Clinton: Dreams Taking Flight.)
What advice would you give aspiring writers?
It’s all there at www.scbwi.org – the best place to start. Their conferences are excellent.
Which books are you currently dreaming of and writing?
Dreaming of many books, currently working on the seventh book in the GIANTS OF SCIENCE series (on Benjamin Franklin) and the eighth book in the LIVES OF series (on scientists). I recently joined Facebook to post news, rant, and have more fun than I expected.
Thanks for your thoughtful questions, Nicki, and your interest in this book.
Nicki Richesin is the editor of four anthologies,What I Would Tell Her: 28 Devoted Dads on Bringing Up, Holding On To, and Letting Go of Their Daughters; Because I Love Her: 34 Women Writers Reflect on the Mother-Daughter Bond; Crush: 26 Real-Life Tales of First Love; and The May Queen: Women on Life, Work, and Pulling it all Together in your Thirties. Her anthologies have been excerpted and praised in The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe, Redbook, Parenting, Cosmopolitan, Bust, Daily Candy, and Babble.