Last week was not my best. My car was broken into. I paid the DMV $125, courtesy of a speeding ticket I earned on my way to an ill-fated meeting. I got a fat lip, and the vending machine in my building ran out of frosted Pop-Tarts. It was, by all accounts, a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week.
But all bad days — and weeks — come to an end. Saturday dawned much brighter, and I set off to the National Book Festival to meet children’s author (and personal hero) Judith Viorst. One of Washington’s leading literary figures, Mrs. Viorst immediately made me forget my recent string of bad luck. Chances are, one of her books has helped brighten one or two of your days as well.
After all, Mrs. Viorst authored the iconic children’s book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Published in 1972, it has sold over two million copies, and ranks as one of the most famous and best loved picture books of all time. It has taught generations of children that rotten days happen no matter who you are, or where you live. It also suggests that while Lady Luck can be cruel, the tides of fortune change. The gum you woke up with in your hair can be removed with ice or peanut butter. The hated pajamas you must wear to bed will get dirty; you’ll get to wear your favorite pair tomorrow night. Windshields can be fixed, and vending machines are restocked. With the end of every bad day comes the potential for a great one.
Born and raised in New Jersey, Mrs. Viorst has called Washington home since 1960. Although she unabashedly exalts the city, she had her own share of bad days when she first arrived. “I came to DC, kicking and screaming, from my idea of paradise — Greenwich Village — because I married Milton Viorst, then working for The Washington Post…my friends said I was starring in a horror movie called ‘I Married Someone From Out of Town.’”
It’s true that DC is no New York. The landscapes, soundscapes and smellscapes are worlds apart. The energy is an altogether different shade of vibrant. And as Mrs. Viorst says, “you can’t even get a good hot dog here.”
But over time, she fell in love with the “buzz and excitement” of DC’s political atmosphere, along with the quiet stability of her Cleveland Park neighborhood. From her three-story Victorian, she can walk to the National Zoo, the National Cathedral, “20 restaurants and the biggest movie theater.” She dismisses the city’s reputation for transience, citing the many long-term families she knows. She raised her three sons here, all of whom are featured in her books. Nicholas and Anthony (the brothers who have all the luck in Very Bad Day) moved away, but Alexander — yes, the Alexander — still lives in Washington with his own children.
I wondered if whether growing up with literary alter egos ever bothered her sons. “My kids were fine, growing up, with appearing in my books,” she said. “All their friends asked me to use their names as well.” Of course, it did open creative new avenues for one-upmanship that most siblings can only dream about. “There may have been a bit of competition between Tony and Alexander when Alexander started being more successful than my book I’ll Fix Anthony. But they got over it.”
In addition to the Alexander books (there are three), the prolific Mrs. Viorst has written dozens of other children’s books, adult fiction and non-fiction works, collections of poetry and even three musicals.
She still writes every day, and continues to find inspiration in the unlikeliest of places. Where others see childhood trivialities, she sees literary magic. Take pierced ears. It’s possible that every little girl in the country wants her ears pierced. Mrs. Viorst saw the story behind this mainstream allure, leading to the publication of Earrings in 1993. Likewise, every parent has had their child fight with a best friend, or lament the existence of vegetables. Mrs. Viorst teases the poetry out of these commonplace situations, turning them into touching, funny verse. “I’ve got my own six-year-old self still living inside of me,” she said, explaining how she has maintained the sense of what life feels like to a child. Pretty impressive for someone who’s just a few months shy of turning 80.
So next time you’re having a bad day, remember: behind every lousy day is a story. There’s probably even a little laughter too. You just might have to look a little harder to find it.