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Cartoonist: From Bloom County to Moms on Mars

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Cartoonist: From Bloom County to Moms on Mars

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Cartoonist: From Bloom County to Moms on Mars

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

And I'm Andrea Seabrook.

Berkeley Breathed is breaking the mold again. Remember "Bloom County"? The comic strip had Opus, the penguin, slickster lawyer Steve Dallas and a full cast of characters biting and scratching their satire into the funny pages. Breathed style was unconventional, but it won him a Pulitzer Prize. And now he's writing children's books. His new one is called "Mars Needs Moms."

Mr. BERKELEY BREATHED (Author, "Mars Needs Moms"): It's about a little boy who doesn't appreciate his mother as much as he should and sees her in a bit of a one dimensional way. And…

SEABROOK: He calls her a bellowing broccoli bully.

Mr. BREATHED: Yeah. And that's the one dimension part.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BREATHED: A tyrant, as my own Milo will often see his mother and me. And he goes to bed angry and without supper, and would you believe it, the Martians come and kidnap his mother. Now, they don't have any mothers on Mars - as the Martians grow up to the ground like potatoes without mothers. And they had looked down with their telescopes and noticed that mothers look pretty cool.

So they kidnapped his and he follows them back to Mars, and something happens and he gets the opportunity to see his mother in a more three dimensional way.

SEABROOK: Berkeley Breathed stopped by NPR West today. He says a children's book with a positive message is a counterpoint to his usual work. But it didn't change the way he writes.

Mr. BREATHED: Driving my editors crazy, I draw all the pictures first. I paint the entire book, all 42 paintings; laid them all around the room, and stare at them, and let the words come with the pictures. I know what the story is as soon as it comes in my head. I lay it all out visually, that's how it shows up. And I worry about the words later. It's never, never done that way.

What I've learned from having children is you - there's a few unbreakable rules that you can't stray near. You can't say, in the words, the boy walked down the street and picked up a Coke can and kept going. You better show that Coke can in your painting or your kid stop the story right there as you're reading into them. And they will - and you keep going. Where is the Coke can, dad?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BREATHED: And so I've started with the pictures now so I don't miss that.

SEABROOK: Could I ask you to read a little bit of it? Do you have the book in front of you?

Mr. BREATHED: Oh, I don't.

SEABROOK: Oh, you don't. Okay. I love this section about:

(Reading) And suddenly he knew why Mars so badly wanted mothers.

Mr. BREATHED: Oh dear.

SEABROOK: (Reading) They needed driving to soccer and to ballet and to play dates, parks and pizzas, plus cooking and cleaning, and dressing, and packing lunches, and bandaging boo-boos.

Mr. BREATHED: I think, you did it better than me, Andrea.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: There's this wonderful picture of this giant bus full of Martians holding soccer balls and wearing tutus and, sort of, waiting for the mothers to arrive from Earth.

Mr. BREATHED: On a giant minivan.

SEABROOK: A giant - a giant Martian minivan.

Mr. BREATHED: I got a little trouble with the domestic dream of the Martians when they look down on Earth to see the aspects of mothering that they thought looked pretty cool. That's what they want to be repeated on Mars. What I couldn't fit in is that mom may - as long as - as well, as those domestic duties, mom may well have been coming back from a very high-powered job at IBM.

SEABROOK: This book takes a really serious turn towards the end. The mom actually, in the book actually sacrifices herself, gives her Martian helmet to Milo…

Mr. BREATHED: Yes.

SEABROOK: …and there's the question about, for a while anyway, about whether she'll survive.

Mr. BREATHED: Yes.

SEABROOK: This is not typical for a children's book.

Mr. BREATHED: No. And that's why nearly every publisher passed it up. It's why I left my publisher of 25 years. They wanted the book, but they wanted that scene be watered down so that, I believe their words were, so the mother looks like she's just feeling a little bad rather than dying. But that's not really sacrifice.

The whole point of this book is the transition we go from - in life before our children where our interests are our own. And a child enters our life and suddenly for the first time, truly, someone else's interest come first. We sing songs about how we would die for each other, but I'm a little suspect about that.

I'm not sure I want to be tested. With my kid I know that I'll jump in front of the train and get whacked by the choo-choo if he's on the tracks without thinking. And I found out - it's what drives great movies and they're not afraid to flinch from that in a film and make that a dynamic. But in children's books, they don't want to remind people about that.

I don't know. They were uncomfortable with it. I felt, as long as the book ends well and mom is perfectly fine, the fact that she was willing to die for her child should be something that could be easily discussed in a family because it's so unalterably true.

SEABROOK: Berkeley Breathed, you don't fit again. Children's book world, the cartoon world…

Mr. BREATHED: I know.

SEABROOK: I'm reminded that you won a Pulitzer for your editorial cartooning and the editorial cartoonists of the world are very angry about that.

Mr. BREATHED: Yeah. I just can't step into this without causing a stir, can I?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BREATHED: I think that's where the "Bloom County" continues in the children's books. I see an area that hasn't been wholly explored yet and I just got to push the envelopes. In the cartooning, it was a whole lack of knowledge and contentiousness that I brought to that. It was not by design. I was completely clueless.

I didn't know that I was breaking all the rules when I drew a Sunday strip as if a doer's booze ad. I didn't know I was breaking rules when my cartoon characters turn to the audience and suggested they were tired of getting ripped off by Garfield up on top of them for all the merchandise and they were going to bring out their own cat to merchandise.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BREATHED: Now, it happened because I didn't know anything about the industry that I stepped into. I knew very little about children's books when I started doing picture books, which was probably all for the better because I wasn't repeating motifs that had happened. I think that's good. And I'm getting people surprisingly touched by it, and they end up talking about their own parents and the sacrifices that they look back in their lives and see what their parents did.

In my case for instance, it made me look at my parenting, which I have some issues about, and realized that my mother put off a divorce for 10 years in a very, very unhappy marriage just until I was old enough to go to college and be able to handle it in her eyes. And that was a sacrifice I'd overlooked for all these years with my other complaints.

In my mother's case, that was the space helmet that she offered me. You don't have to die to show your love for your child, but sacrifices is all about what parenting is. And I'm hoping the book will remind, not only kids, but the parents, too, to look back on their own lives. To see that whatever issues they've got and you can hear about them all day long in "Oprah," people's issues, especially women's issues with their mothers. If they look carefully enough, they'll see that their parents or their mother did take the proverbial bullet or the rhetorical bullet at some point in their lives.

SEABROOK: Thank you so much for stopping by our studios.

Mr. BREATHED: Andrea, it was delightful.

SEABROOK: Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and author Berkeley Breathed's new book is called "Mars Needs Moms."

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: You can see some of the illustrations from "Mars Needs Moms" at npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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