But they might not know about Novak’s special connection to libraries.
He revealed that connection during the recent American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference & Exhibition in Las Vegas.
It was during the question-and-answer session following his speech at the Closing General Session on July 1 that he made an even more direct connection.
One of the video clips, showing Novak reading to children at a charter school from his children’s book, The Book with No Pictures (September 2014, Dial Books for Young Readers), prompted Paula Beswick, director of the Bozeman Public Library Foundation, to ask during the question and answer session that followed, if he were doing any more public readings, She asked if he would ever consider coming to the Bozeman Public Library’s annual Children’s Festival of the Book for a reading. Novak said, “Actually, I’m going tomorrow for the Fourth of July. So, yes.”
He asked if the library would be open on July 4.
Beswick replied, “No….but we can be.”
It turns out that Novak was deadly serious. He was indeed traveling to Bozeman and Livingston, Mont., where he met with his friend singer/songwriter John Mayer. Novak and Mayer visited the Bozeman Public Library on Sunday, and Novak read from his book before a capacity crowd.
Beswick said that following their initial exchange, the details were arranged when she and Public Library Director Susan Gregory met him in the line for his post-speech book signing.
Instead of July 4, they resolved on Sunday, July 6, so more people could attend.
The next day, he contacted Susan Gregory, the library director, and suggested 11 a.m. on Sunday.
“It was packed,” she said. “We had over 250 people.
“We had kids sit up front – a whole mob of small kids. And then parents and adults and a huge number of teenagers sat in the back.”
Novak told Gregory, “I want this to be about the kids.” First, he explained the concept of a picture book with only words and no pictures to the children, who responded with giggles. He then read the book to the crowd in what Beswick described as a booming, animated voice that prompted howls of laughter from the children. Novak then took questions from the children, one of whom said he had read a book with no words but only pictures. Another asked him how space creatures fly.
After Novak took some questions from adults, he received a request to have the book read again. He suggested someone else read it. That was accomplished by the children’s librarian, Cindy Christin.
“It was great,” Beswick said. “B.J. was laughing and just soaking it up. And the kids loved it again.”
During his speech in Las Vegas, which was humorously illustrated by slides and video clips, Novak said that his first ambition – before he wanted to be an actor or a writer or a player for the Boston Red Sox – was to become a librarian.
“I was enthralled by the library in my elementary school, where anything could happen and where no one told you where your mind was supposed to be,” he said.
As a 6-year-old child in Newton, Mass., he even took the first step by asking his parents, before Hanukkah, to give him the gift of a date stamp. He established his own library in his bedroom, but he can’t remember lending any books out.
“My parents must have had their own copies of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, he said. “But I didn’t mind. I loved that everything was catalogued and ready to go and that I was technically now living and sleeping in a library.”
Novak said he was extremely lucky to grow up in a house that was filled with the written word. His father, William Novak, was an author of such books as The Big Book of Jewish Humor and the ghostwriter of the autobiography of Chrysler executive Lee Iacocca.
Novak said his father is such a devotee of the Newton Free Library that he recently estimated he borrows up to 40 items a week on two different library cards. William Novak is also the host and master of ceremonies of the library’s annual Spring Fling Gala fundraiser – a showcase for authors, but, Novak said, “only one that my mom took a picture of this past spring,” B.J. Novak.
As his love of reading developed, he said he found himself drawn to humor and its sense of controlled rebellion.
“The world had rules and expectations, and when those rules and expectations were bent and broken, the results were exciting, interesting, fun.”
In the process, he noticed a difference between humor aimed at children and humor tailored for adults.
“Humor for adults takes the rules of the world that we all know to be true for granted and then twists them. The world has already provided the setup,” he said.
But humor for the youngest children needs to provide both the setup and the punch line, he said. In Dr. Seuss books, there is “an established sense of order that it would be particularly funny to disrupt.”
He mentioned one significant book in his development, a “fake” children’s book, Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book, written by Shel Silverstein that preceded that author’s activity as a children’s author. The book, among other things, urged children to steal money from their parents’ wallets and mail it to Uncle Shelby.
Novak’s appreciation for humor eventually landed him at his college humor magazine, the Harvard Lampoon, where he successfully ran for the position of staff librarian.
Later, as he ventured into stand-up comedy, he said he learned an important rule from his father.
“How about you only say what you like and you only keep what they like,” he said.
That rule held him in good stead when he embarked on his own career as an author, which began, he said, as he was trying to find himself following many years working as a writer and actor on The Office.
In 2014, Novak published his first book for adults One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories (February 2014, Knopf). Soon after, he wrote his first children’s book.
In fact, he said, he tested out material for his first book in the same way he tested material for his stand-up work – on the stage, reserving a theater where he would read various passages.
He said he followed a similar process with the children’s book, testing the material on children.
As he developed what would ultimately be a picture book consisting only of words, “I thought, ‘What if I designed a book that introduced kids to the power of the written word by showing them how to abuse that power.”
Novak said the book is an advertisement for the written word itself. It would be a huge honor, he said, to have it in libraries.
He said, “To me, there is no more fun and effective way for a kid to learn a rule than to learn how the rule can be used to their advantage. And to me, there is no more meaningful, important or exciting rule to introduce to children than the power of the written word. That the written word is something that can give them joy and power. That the written word is their ally in wanting to make the world a more exciting, fun and funny place.”
1. Article illustration: Actor/writer BJ Novak reads from his children’s book “The Book With No Pictures” to a capacity crowd and group of delighted kids at the Bozeman Public Library on Sunday, July 6, 2014. The book will be available on September 30. Photo by Paula Beswick.
2. BJ Novak with Susan Gregory, director of Bozeman Public Library. Susan coordinated with BJ to ensure a wonderful and unexpected event for the Bozeman community! Photo by Paula Beswick.