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Originally published Friday, April 1, 2011 at 7:00 PM

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In 'Arthur Turns Green,' aardvark turns over a new leaf

Kids' books: In his first new picture book in nearly a decade, Arthur the aardvark takes on his family's environmental footprint in "Arthur Turns Green."

Scripps Howard News Service

Author/illustrator Marc Brown groaned when his publisher suggested that he write a new book about how Arthur, his beloved aardvark character, learns to do his part for the environment.

"I know that it's an important topic, but I just didn't think it would make a funny story," Brown said in a recent telephone interview from his Massachusetts home. "Then one day, I started thinking about the idea of 'going green' and began wondering what would happen if D.W. (Arthur's pesky little sister) actually thought that Arthur was turning green, and then I knew I had a story."

The result is "Arthur Turns Green" (Little, Brown, $16.99), which offers a comedy-laced look at Arthur's efforts to decrease his family's environmental footprint. While Brown's main focus is, as always, on telling a funny story, he also offers some gentle environmental lessons, and the book itself provides a model because it is printed on recycled paper with soy-based ink.

"Arthur Turns Green" is notable in other ways: it's the first new picture book that Brown has created about the cheerful, glasses-wearing aardvark in nearly a decade, and it's published just as Brown marks the 35th birthday of the "Arthur"picture books. Officials at Little, Brown plan to celebrate the birthday by reissuing paperback editions of 16 classic "Arthur"picture books with a fresh new look over the next few months.

Since the first book, "Arthur's Nose," was published in 1976, Brown has published more than two-dozen "Arthur" picture-book adventures. There also are a number of picture books starring D.W., as well as a series of "Arthur" chapter books, audiobooks and even board books. Today, more than 60 million "Arthur" books are in print.

In addition, the original picture books spawned the popular and critically acclaimed PBS show, "Arthur," which is in its 14th season (http://pbskids.org/arthur/); in 2002, TV Guide ranked Arthur No. 26 on its list of the "50 Greatest Cartoon Characters of All Time."

"I thought I might be able to get two books (published) about Arthur. I never entered my mind that it would come to this!" Brown laughed.

Born and raised in Erie, Pa., Brown had the kind of all-American childhood he creates in the "Arthur" books. He had three younger sisters (D.W. is an amalgam of those sisters, leading Brown once to describe her as "triply lethal"), walked to school and hung out at the local soda parlor on weekends.

Brown's real-life Grandma Thora, who became a much-loved character in his "Arthur" books, encouraged his love of art, and helped finance his studies at the Cleveland Institute of Art, where he majored in painting. Ironically, Brown's teachers discouraged his interest in children's-book illustration; meanwhile, his parents weren't happy with the idea that he would be any kind of artist.

Brown's first book, "Arthur's Nose," began as a bedtime story for his son Tolon. Brown chose an aardvark as his main character because it was different from the rabbits and mice inhabiting many children's books. In addition, having an aardvark as his main character allowed Brown to create a comic story about the problems of having such a large nose.

Over the next few years, Brown published several more "Arthur " books, including such favorites as "Arthur's Baby," "Arthur's Birthday," "Arthur's Family Vacation" "Arthur's Eyes"and "Arthur's Underwear." Combining the royalty income from his picture books with the money he made from doing author visits at schools, Brown was eventually able to live off his writing.

When Arthur became a television star in 1995, his popularity really rocketed. The show has won several awards, and has been one of the top-rated children's programs at PBS.

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Over the years, Arthur's look has changed somewhat, Brown said, noting that "the more I drew him, the friendlier and more lovable he became." But Arthur's basic job, to mirror the challenges and joys faced by all children, has never changed, and Brown considers himself fortunate that he has such vivid recall of his childhood.

Young readers also enjoy searching for the names of Brown's children — Tolon, Tucker and Eliza — that he often sneaks into his watercolor-and-ink illustrations (Hint: Look for Tolon and Tucker in "Arthur Goes Green.")

Between the television show and the books, "Arthur appeals to children younger than we imagine and older than we imagine," Brown said. "It's wild — no one can quite believe it, but Arthur seems to appeal to a 2-12 age span."

After spending much of the past decade focusing on the television show, Brown said he's now ready for new challenges. He's just finished the illustrations for "Zoozical," a picture book written by Judy Sierra, and hopes to collaborate with her on another book.

In addition, Brown is working on updating the illustrations — using collage instead of watercolor — in some books of classic rhymes and finger plays that he published years ago. He doesn't have any new "Arthur" book planned right now, but said that "I always keep my eyes and ears open" for a good story.

Overall, Brown says: "I love my job! Kids are my boss, and I hope they never fire me."

Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at Kam.Macpherson@gmail.com.

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