B.J. Novak makes his children's book debut with "The Book with No Pictures"
Novak performed on, produced, wrote and directed episodes of "The Office"
"There's something I'd like to write with Mindy Kaling," he says
Novak acted in the films "Inglourious Basterds" and "Saving Mr. Banks"
B.J. Novak’s first children’s book tops the New York Times list of best-selling children’s picture books. But here’s the catch: It actually doesn’t have any pictures. That gimmick, together with Novak’s celebrity status, has helped make “The Book with No Pictures” a bedtime story favorite for the elementary school set.
The 35-year-old actor is best known for writing, directing and producing episodes of the hit show “The Office.” As the title of his book suggests, “The Book with No Pictures” lacks illustrations. But it features silly sayings such as “My only friend in the whole wide world is a hippo named Boo-Boo Butt” and “My head is made of blueberry pizza,” designed to delight kids.
“The Book with No Pictures” is not Novak’s first foray into fiction. He also published a book of humorous short stories, “One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories,” in February. He has plans for many more works of literature, which could include a collaboration with a former “Office” co-star and reported former flame: “There’s something I’d like to write with Mindy Kaling, a book of letters back and forth of our arguments,” Novak says. “Ideas for books, I have a million.”
For now, Novak is returning to his roots in standup comedy to promote “The Book with No Pictures.” His tour is taking him to a range of elementary schools across the country, including his alma mater, Mason Rice, in Newton, Massachusetts. He spoke to CNN about his new book, his future plans and his tour, in which he lets his young fans share the spotlight with him. Below is an edited transcript.
CNN: How did you decide to bring kids on stage with you during your tour?
B.J. Novak: The school events are the most exciting to me because generally, they’re assemblies where they bring all the kids, K through 3, in. They’ve never met an author before. And most excitingly, I get to read the book to a super concentrated group of little kids. And it’s like they’re in a comedy club, more than they’re being read a book.
There’s something about live comedy, where they’re practically elbowing each other, like “Did you hear that?” “Are you seeing what I’m seeing?” It really brings back my standup days to me, except it’s for 5-year-olds. I really do feel like I’m on a comedy tour.
CNN: What made you decide to write a children’s book?
Novak: If you’ve ever been a comedian, you have this addiction to laughter. The laughter of children is the most powerful drug of all. If you get hooked on that, you’re really in trouble. While I was waiting for “One More Thing” to come out, I would hang out with friends who had kids.
At one point, my best friend’s son, Bruce, who was 2 years old at the time, toddled up to me, holding a book out. And something in my brain asked: “What is his dream? What are the dream words in this book?? He doesn’t know what’s in this book unless he’s read it before. He has the power to decide what the adult says.
He’s basically a little Harvey Weinstein, producing this experience, and I’m just the actor for hire. He’s handing me a script. What is his dream script?
Then my mind just went to: His dream would be that I would have to say all these ridiculous things I didn’t want to say. He would feel delighted and be in complete control. That was the first notion for the book. Then when I thought: What would the pictures be? I realized I didn’t have any vision for pictures and didn’t need pictures. Then the whole vision came together. What if the message and the challenge of the book was: What can you do without pictures? What can you do with the power of words?
CNN: How long did the process take?
Novak: I had the idea and put it in this notebook I carry around filled with hundreds of ideas. One Saturday, or one day when I didn’t really have anything to do but wait, I wrote up the whole thing. And I printed it on full-sized paper. And then I went to a stationery store, and I bought an empty book. I’m not a designer by trade, but I did my best.
I chose the font and the size and the spacing. I glue-sticked the cover page on. And I paper clipped the pages in, enough to make a 2-year-old think that it might be a real book. And I did all this all in one day.
And then I took it over to Bruce, and I asked if I could read him this new book. Then I read him the book. He was patient, and he laughed a couple of times, and then he said, ‘Now let’s read a book with pictures.’ Then I went through some editing.
It was six months on and off of design questions. At first I thought, a book with no pictures, great. No cover question, no title question, no design question. Just put the words out there. But in fact I soon realized when there’s nothing to look at but letters on a page, and you’re trying to make the youngest of kids stare at the page, it’s actually very hard, and you have to be very particular.
CNN: Has your standup experience helped with the book tour?
Novak: The standup is everything. I really do feel that this is a tour of elementary schools. A good comic has the philosophy: Funny is funny, and never blame the audience. More than ever, kids are kids: Newton, Massachusetts; Harlem, New York; Texas; Chicago – I’ve never seen crowds react so universally to anything as when they’re 5, 6, 7 years old. Whatever age kids become different, it’s later than this age.
The later I can delay that, the better. It’s really exciting and wonderful. More than ever, I know exactly where a laugh is going to come, where a cheer is going to come, where a call and response is; what line to hold a little longer. It’s really stunning how a 5-year-old in one part of the country will be totally the same as kids from a totally different part of the country. And that’s very standup-like.