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'Moody' author and North Hills native wanted right touch

| Thursday, June 9, 2011

Judy Moody, feisty third-grade superstar of preteen fiction, has good reasons for her many moods -- like an annoying little brother named Stink who won't leave her alone.

Right now, Judy is excited. Her first movie -- "Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer" -- is coming out Friday, starring Australian newcomer Jordana Beatty as Judy, and Heather Graham as her eccentric, exuberant Aunt Opal.

The creator and author of the "Judy Moody" books, Megan McDonald, grew up in the North Hills of Pittsburgh. McDonald, a former librarian now living in northern California, co-wrote the screenplay for her adventurous 8-year-old character.

"My biggest concern was that we had to find the right kid for Judy Moody," says McDonald, whose series has sold more than 14 million copies worldwide. "For a character that has moods, it's a very fine line. I just didn't want her to be snotty or bratty. That would be a nightmare. Judy Moody has so many other qualities."

There had been interest in adapting the "Judy Moody" books for years, but McDonald wasn't sold on any until she was approached by independent producer Sarah Siegel-Magness.

"She did the movie 'Precious,' which makes people's jaws drop, because it's so completely different, so dark," says McDonald.

"She wanted to do something really fun and light and funny after 'Precious.' Her daughter brought the books home from school, and they were reading them aloud. She said they were just crying, laughing aloud. and said, 'I've got to find out who has the rights to these.' She immediately had this vision about the film. When I met her, I thought nobody had more passion for the project."

McDonald was initially a bit nervous. She was well aware that Hollywood adaptations often stray far from the author's intentions.

"My experience, I think, is highly unusual," says McDonald. "The writer friends that I have who have had films made from their books have gotten to see the script and make notes in the margin. But, all along (Siegel-Magness) said, 'You are the creator. I want you involved every step of the way.' "

McDonald co-wrote the movie with a screenwriter friend, Kathy Waugh, as a new story. She spent three months on the set in Los Angeles.

Her misgivings mostly vanished when she met the girl who would play Judy -- Jordana Beatty.

"It was this young actress from Australia, a little redhead," says McDonald. "She had to come a month early and they gave her a dialect coach. She immersed herself with other American kids. It was just flawless. She's in every scene."

McDonald was impressed with the amount of work involved, and Beatty's spirited, enthusiastic attitude towards the role.

"I asked, 'How do you do this?' She said, 'If people are telling me different things and I don't know what to do, I just close my eyes and go inside and think, What would Judy Moody do?'"

Of course, there's a new "Judy Moody" book coming out to coincide with the movie.

"For kids who really want to read the story of the 'Not Bummer Summer' there will be a novel," says McDonald. "Then, a behind-the-scenes diary of the movie."

After that, McDonald has another new book on the way -- "Judy Moody and the Bad Luck Charm."

"That actually has Pittsburgh roots," she says. "My nieces, I took them to Ritter's (Diner, in Bloomfield). They asked if they could play the prize claw machine, where you use the electronic arm and try to get a stuffed animal. I'm giving them countless quarters, thinking we're throwing them away, because you can never win these things.

"My niece won three times in a row. It inspired this whole thing were Judy Moody goes to a diner and wins the prize claw machine three times in a row, and she thinks she's on this unstoppable good-luck streak. Then she drops her lucky penny in the toilet, and the luck changes."

McDonald once worked at Carnegie Library in Oakland

Before she was a best-selling author of children's books, "Judy Moody" author Megan McDonald worked at the Carnegie Library in Oakland.

Lisa Dennis, coordinator of children's collections at the Oakland library, worked with her and recalls they were often mistaken for one another because they both played music during story times.

"She was an excellent storyteller," says Dennis. "She did quite a number of picture books, readers, first-chapter books."

The "Judy Moody" books belong to the genre known as first-chapter books, says Dennis. They're typically series of books that feature the same recurring characters, and are very popular with young readers who have mastered picture books.

"It's a crossover area between skill-building and reading for pleasure," she says. "Kids that age like to read things that are familiar. (The books) also tend to have some pictures to tell you what's going on."

The "Judy Moody" series is quite popular at the Carnegie Libraries, and is easily among the top first-chapter book series in stock.

"In my opinion, that series 'Judy Moody' is the most lively and alive of what she does," says Dennis. "She just totally nailed the characters. I think part of it comes from growing up with bossy older sisters.

"The plots are fun, but the characters are really fun -- Judy Moody is such a typical bright, quirky third-grader. And her little brother Stink has his own series, too. They have some comic book panels in them, which is a way to grab kids who are improving their reading skills."

Dennis has learned to stock up on children's books when movies based on them come out.

"The boom in children's movies, post-'Harry Potter,' has been wonderful," she says. "The movies introduce kids to the characters. I generally do respond to the news that a movie is coming out by buying extra copies of the book, but we have a good selection of 'Judy Moody.'

"I'm making sure everybody has a fresh new copy of 'Mr. Popper's Penguins' (out June 17, starring Jim Carrey) now."

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