Marla Frazee doesn’t know how many times family and friends who were at the movie theater this year to see “The Boss Baby” sent her a quick cellphone photo of her name flashing on the screen — “based on a book by Marla Frazee” — but it was a lot, maybe every time they saw the movie. And most saw it more than once.
Of course, Frazee had seen it for herself, even been at the movie’s New York City premiere. But every time, it was equally as thrilling.
“That was really fun. It was an incredible thing,” Frazee told The Missourian.
The award-winning children’s author/illustrator will be in Washington Thursday, Sept. 7, for a booksigning event at Neighborhood Reads bookstore, 401 Lafayette St., from 4:30 to 6 p.m. and then a presentation on her work at Washington Public Library from 7 to 8 p.m.
Frazee also will be the guest speaker at a special Family Reading Night event Beaufort Elementary School is holding for its families.
That same week will mark the 15th birthday for Newsbee, mascot of The Missourian’s Book Buzz youth literacy project that features monthly book recommendations, as well as reviews of those books written by area children, in select weekend issues of the newspaper.
It’s only fitting that Frazee’s visit is coinciding with Newsbee’s milestone birthday. She was the first author The Missourian’s Book Buzz program invited here to inspire children about reading and help them make the connection between the names on book covers and the people who create the words and pictures for them.
This visit will be her fifth to Washington, a community she has come to feel close to since that first Book Buzz event in June 2003. As a native of Los Angeles, Calif., Frazee was amazed to be in a community that was the type of place where one person — namely, Missourian Book Editor Chris Stuckenschneider, who picked her up from the airport to bring her to Washington — really did know so many of the people she was passing on the street.
What Frazee remembers from that first visit here was how warmly she felt embraced, not just by Stuckenschneider and her Missourian colleague, Dawn Kitchell, who co-created the Book Buzz program and this summer opened the independent bookstore Neighborhood Reads, but by the entire town.
“I was just really taken, not only with Chris and Dawn — they are so wonderful and their passion for this program was so apparent, and they were so hospitable and generous. It was that, as well as the town embraced my being there in such a way that it really made an impression on me,” said Frazee.
The three struck up a fast friendship that they have continued the last 14 years through email correspondence and Christmas cards.
“We just sort of hit it off, and it was comfortable,” said Frazee.
The beauty of Washington’s scenery also made a lasting impression on her.
“The first time (I came) I was staying down by the railroad tracks and the river, I just thought it was beautiful. It really touched me to be there,” said Frazee.
Support for Neighborhood Reads
As an author/illustrator, Frazee is excited anytime she hears about a new independent bookstore opening anywhere, but hearing about Kitchell’s plans for Neighborhood Reads was even more meaningful to her.
“I am a huge, huge supporter of independent bookstores and independent businesses of all kinds, actually, but specifically bookstores, because it’s one thing to go to, let’s say, your local automotive tire shop, but it’s another to go to your local bookstore, where the stories and the community-building happen, where the variety of stories are available, the touchstones that a community has to a bookstore — all of that is so important, and it’s just heartbreaking when independent bookstores close, but it’s so heartwarming when they open,” said Frazee.
That, combined with the new store opening in a community that has so embraced her personally and it being opened by a friend, amped up her excitement even more.
Last Christmas as Kitchell’s plans for Neighborhood Reads were taking shape, she had T-shirts made and mailed one to Frazee, who ever since has been wearing it regularly to her Latin dance workouts in L.A.
As the historic home that would become Neighborhood Reads was being renovated last spring, Frazee watched the progress through photos Kitchell posted on Instagram.
“So I could see it being (fixed up) and the shelves being brought in and people from the community being excited about the countdown,” said Frazee.
“There are certain towns that I have been to over the years where I arrived right when a beloved bookstore had closed. That’s happened a couple of times. And just listening to the community talk about that bookstore and what the person who owned it is doing now, what it used to look like and where it was — there were many years of that, and often being in towns that didn’t have a bookstore at all,” she said. “It’s just fabulous when a new bookstore pops up and thrives and a community embraces it.
“And with Dawn’s background, it just seems like this is going to be a really cool place, and it sounds like it is.”
Hooray for Hollywood!
When Frazee first had the idea for “The Boss Baby,” her 32-page children’s picture book released in 2010, she thought it would be an easy one to write. But it was quite the opposite.
“It was a hard book for me to puzzle out because the concept was so strong when it occurred to me to compare a baby to a boss . . . but it actually wasn’t,” recalled Frazee. “It actually was really hard to find that line between how to make this baby still babyish, and also bossy and kind of edgy. How much do I need in the story, and how much can I get rid of.
“It was a book that was hard to keep funny during the beginning of the process of working on it. I kept killing the funny,” she said. “It was a diffiult book to figure out, but once I did, it was a pleasure to finish it out.”
Then months before the book was released in print, Frazee learned that DreamWorks animation studio wanted to option it for a movie. That was a first for her; “It blew me away,” she remarked.
From the beginning DreamWorks wanted creative control of the project, and Frazee said she was OK with that.
“It wasn’t a book you could really see as a film. It required the brilliance and expertise of animation genius to pull that story into what became a film,” she said.
Frazee describes herself as “a big fan of animation,” and noted that she actually worked at Disney when she was fresh out of art school. So she knew enough about the process to know the project was in good hands.
“I was really happy to have it happening, and they were so generous about inviting me to the studio over the years to see the progress and loop me in,” said Frazee.
The process was long — seven years passed from the time the studio first optioned the book to when the movie was released last spring. Frazee admits there was a point where she was doubtful the movie would ever be made.
She and her husband had used the money they received for optioning the book to take their three sons on a two-week trip to Europe, Paris and Barcelona, and she felt that might be all that would come out of this opportunity — a wonderful and memorable family vacation.
When DreamWorks exercised the option two years after that, Frazee still had a wait-and-see attitude about the movie. But then things started moving forward.
Finally one day the producer and the developer came to her with a big gift basket to celebrate that “The Boss Baby” movie was in production; it was really being made.
“And I started to see tiny pieces of what became the movie about two or three years ago,” she said.
A few months before the movie was released, Frazee saw what seemed like a finished version of the film, but everyone told her then it would change far more before it was released. And it did, she said.
“It was almost like a different movie,” she remarked, noting it was an incredible level of polish that had been put to everything from the music to the animation.
“ ‘The Boss Baby’ book kind of sets up a lot of the film. It’s almost as if the beginning of the film is a read through, almost verbatim, of the beginning of the book,” said Frazee. “Then there is this incredible octopus of a plot that is so fantastical and crazy, and I think . . . seeing it a few times, you catch a lot of the little things that you don’t the first time.”
In that way, the movie mirrors the book — the more you see it, the more you get out of it.
“We make books that way. We know it’s not a one-time read. A picture book gets read over and over and over again,” said Frazee. “So you want to have many layers of the way you take in that information.
“I often think, ‘Well, most people are not going to see this on the first or second or fourth read, but kids will see it eventually if they like the book and read it enough,’ ” she said, noting there’s often details to the story only included in the illustrations or a nod to something in particular.
A Thank You to Supporters
Kitchell said when she and Stuckenschneider started planning Newsbee’s birthday, they knew Frazee had to be a part of the celebration.
“Marla is like that beloved aunt who watches your child grow up from afar — paying treasured visits and rooting for all the successes from a distance,” said Kitchell.
Frazee will help The Missourian thank the sponsors who have provided more than 16,500 new books to area schools at a special Book Buzz reception during her visit.
“How many programs can offer a two-time Caldecott Honor illustrator and bestselling children’s author to say thanks?” Kitchell said. “We are so grateful to all the service organizations, businesses and individuals who have helped spread this love of literacy and really, really good books to tens of thousands of children in our schools. Chris and I are excited to have Marla here to help us show our gratitude.”
Frazee will be at Neighborhood Reads bookstore Thursday, Sept. 7, from 4:30 to 6 p.m. to give kids (and adults) a chance to meet her, or reconnect from years past.
“It’s amazing when you realize a child who met Marla on her first visit in June 2003 might be a young mother or father now, sharing their favorite stories with their own kids,” Kitchell said.
“Families can bring their Marla books collected over the years or pick up some of her newer work at the bookstore, have them signed, say hello, even snap a picture,” Kitchell said.
Later that evening, Frazee will give a presentation at the Washington Public Library to talk about her work on “The Boss Baby” and also its sequel “The Bossier Baby.” She also will talk about why she makes books and share stories about some of books she’s done, including the back stories on where she gets her ideas. That presentation is free and open to the public as well.
On Friday, Sept. 8, Beaufort Elementary School families will be treated to a special visit from Frazee at the school’s first Family Reading Night.
Beaufort educators know their families are in for a treat. They have seen Frazee speak on her previous visits to Washington, and have enjoyed her fun, upbeat and informational presentations.
“I hope kids will get the inspiration to read and illustrate their very own books,” said Tammy Witte, the Beaufort teacher who is chairing the event.
Frazee’s visit to the school is being sponsored by the Beaufort Elementary PTO.
“We are very grateful for their assistance in this fun night,” said Kendra Fennessey, principal. “We are looking forward to hearing Marla speak, having an opportunity for students to purchase her books and get her autograph, as well as participate in fun activities and listen to various guest readers throughout the building.”
To learn more about Frazee, her work and to watch a short documentary on the illustrator and author and her inspirations as a child, visit marlafrazee.com.