Viola Davis has accrued some serious hardware—an Emmy, a Golden Globe, an Oscar, and two Tonys—for her roles in film, television, and theater. Now the actor is taking on children’s literature. American Libraries caught up with Davis to talk about libraries, storytelling, and her forthcoming book, Corduroy Takes a Bow (Viking Books for Young Readers, September), before her Closing Session appearance at the 2018 Annual Conference and Exhibition in New Orleans on June 26.
What was the inspiration for Corduroy Takes a Bow? Was Corduroy an iconic character for you growing up?
He was an iconic character for me, but more so for my daughter Genesis. I would read to her every single night, and that was the book that stuck. I had to read it over and over and over again. I’m always trying to please my daughter. I always think, “What can I give my daughter?” It’s an homage to her.
What was it like stepping into the role of a children’s book author?
Intimidating. The thing about the world of children’s books is you have to allow the character to be who they are. You have to allow Corduroy to be curious without making him look like he’s mischievous. There’s got to be a lightness to it. Just to be able to tell a fluid story, to have that friendship between Lisa and Corduroy, to keep it fun—it was intimidating.
What role have libraries had in your life?
[Libraries] changed my life. I remember I was in kindergarten at Broad Street School, and school would be out at 2 o’clock, and I would walk to Adams Memorial Library on Central Avenue in Central Falls [Rhode Island]. I would stay there until it got dark.
It was almost like stepping into the Land of Oz. I would just take book after book after book off the shelf. It was a relief from my life—that’s how I saw it.
Then there were the librarians. Denise always saved half of her lunch for me. It was like Pavlov’s dog. As soon as I ran into the library, I would stand by the front desk and wait for Denise. She always had half a tuna-fish sandwich and a little cake [for me], and then I’d go downstairs to the children’s section.
Your production company, JuVee Productions, emphasizes character-driven narratives and mentorship. How do you decide what projects to take on and whose voices to amplify?
I always try to amplify the voices of people who are usually voiceless and on the periphery. The docuseries The 4%—4% of prisoners who are on death row are actually innocent. Two Sides of the Truth—police-involved shootings from both perspectives. Hollywood wouldn’t necessarily push these stories, but they intrigue me. I have to feel like I’m not watering it down to make it palpable.
Manchild in the Promised Land [by Claude Brown] was the first serious book that I read that changed my life. It was straight, no chaser. It was honest and insightful and that’s what I look for in narratives: what’s different, what’s going to wake people up, what’s going to give them a dose of truth.
In interviews you’ve spoken out about the gender pay gap. Librarianship is a profession that’s about 85% women but still deals with similar inequities. Was there a piece of advice someone gave you, or something you learned, to help you combat inequities in your career?
When I first started out, I just had to take the job. I didn’t have any money for my Screen Actors Guild card. But at a certain point, you have to understand your worth. At a certain point, you have to say no. That’s what women have to understand, because men do it. Men do it with even less of a résumé. And I always use [TV producer] Shonda Rhimes’s quote: “I deserve everything that I get, because when I walk in the room I expect to get it.”
Is there any other genre or creative outlet you’d like to take on? Are you going to go for the EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony)?
If I were to give you an honest response, I would say no. I’ve gotten increasingly not ambitious. I want to be on the beach in Hawaii somewhere. I want to meditate, even though I’m crappy at meditation.
But every genre imaginable, I would love to take on. I watch Jurassic Park, I’m like, “I’d like to run from some dinosaurs.” I love character-driven anything. I just want to be woken up. I just want to be surprised.
No one knows what works anymore. Sometimes tentpole movies don’t work. They have the tendency to have the same archetypes. If someone says, “When did film start becoming different?,” I want my name to be in there. And the EGOT thing … yeah, maybe [laughs].
Category: Corduroy Takes a Bow
People.com did a beautiful article talking about Viola’s new book. I am personally so excited for this book because I grew up reading Corduroy as a child and have kept my original copy and read it to my three year old regularly. I plan to go purchase this book as soon as it is available!
During Viola Davis’s difficult childhood, she found few books that connected to her life. An exception was the bestselling picture book Corduroy by Don Freeman, which caught national attention at the time of its publication in 1968, because the teddy bear’s friend, Lisa, is African-American. The book so touched the Oscar winner that it inspired her to write a continuation of the story, Corduroy Takes A Bow.
“When I was a little girl, it wasn’t often that I found myself reflected in the pages of a book,” the 52-year-old star of How To Get Away with Murder told PEOPLE in a statement for the book’s exclusive cover reveal. “Corduroy was an exception, and I adored flipping through it. To be able to introduce a new generation, including my daughter, to this character that was so special to me in my childhood is an incredible honor.”
The first Corduroy book, published in 1968, follows the teddy bear as he searches for his missing button. In Corduroy Takes a Bow, illustrated by Jody Wheeler, Corduroy and Lisa visit the theater for the first time and the teddy bear goes off to explore behind the scenes before ending up on stage. Corduroy Takes a Bow will publish on Sept. 4, 2018, to coincide with the original book’s 50th anniversary.
“Viola Davis is an extraordinary creative talent and it’s a privilege to publish her first children’s book,” said Ken Wright, vice president and publisher of Viking Children’s Books. “Viola and Corduroy felt from day one like a perfect match, and she does a magnificent job introducing this beloved character to the theater world that she knows so well. There could no one better suited to maintain and build upon Corduroy creator Don Freeman’s enduring legacy.”
Davis has worked hard to be a role model for her 6-year-old daughter Genesis and young readers. Born in a one-room shack on a former slave plantation near St. Matthews, S.C. with no running water or bathroom, she grew up in poverty in Rhode Island and developed a passion for acting, earning a scholarship to the prestigious Juilliard School. She fought for recognition as an actress for decades before achieving acclaim with films like Doubt (2008) and The Help (2011).
“I was the kind of poor where I knew right away I had less than everyone around me,” Davis told PEOPLE in an episode of The Jess Cagle Interview last year. “I would fall asleep in school on a daily basis because there was nothing. We had nothing.”
Davis would go on to become the first black actress to win Tony, Emmy and Oscar awards for acting. She has used her platform to fight childhood hunger, encourage women’s equality, and advocate for equal pay for black actors who continue to be paid less than their white colleagues.
“People say, ‘You’re a black Meryl Streep … We love you. There is no one like you,’” Davis told journalist Tina Brown in an interview last month for the Women in the World Salon event. “OK, then if there’s no one like me, you think I’m that, you pay me what I’m worth.”
In The Jess Cagle Intervew, Davis emphasized the importance of making an impact on the world. With Corduroy Takes A Bow, she’s moving forward in that mission.
“Once your life is done, the only thing that’s left behind is how much you influenced the world and impacted a life,” she said.
Viola has shared with us the cover of her new children’s book Corduroy Takes A Bow.
I am thrilled to share the cover for my first book, and writing for the iconic Corduroy Bear. The book comes out in September and I can’t wait for you all to read it. #CorduroyTakesABow #CorduroyBear https://t.co/Mi60R54WNx pic.twitter.com/HtjK2J4ye0
— Viola Davis (@violadavis) March 14, 2018
The Chicago Tribune shares the exciting news that Viola is writing a children’s book to be released next Fall. I love this because Corduroy has always been a favorite!
The celebrated picture book “Corduroy” will soon have a new sequel, written by an Oscar-winning actress: Viola Davis.
Viking Children’s Books told The Associated Press on Tuesday that Davis is writing “Corduroy Takes a Bow,” which continues the story of the teddy bear made famous in Don Freeman’s million-selling book. Illustrated by Jody Wheeler, “Corduroy Takes a Bow” comes out Sept. 11, 2018, marking the original book’s 50th anniversary. Freeman later wrote “A Pocket for Corduroy,” published in 1978, the year of his death.
Davis said in a statement that she had “special” memories of “Corduroy” — as both a child and a parent. The 52-year-old actress is known for films such as “The Help” and “Fences” and for the TV series “How to Get Away With Murder.”