LOWELL, Mass. — Seven-year-old Ryan Leong of nearby Nashua, N.H., was hurt and confused when kids at school this fall told him he looked "different" and began making fun of him.
His father well understood that "at this age" kids can be cruel. But Dr. Patrick Leong, who was born in China, said that for Ryan, "This was completely new. He doesn't see color."
Then Ryan brought home a new book from an after-school reading program. The Leong family sat down to read "The Meanest Thing to Say." Never mind that the author was one of the most famous men in America.
"From his aspect, he doesn't know who Bill Cosby is," said Dr. Leong, an emergency room physician. What mattered to Ryan and his parents was the book's message:
"That sometimes you meet somebody who can be really, really mean," Ryan said. "But you don't have to be mean yourself. And in the end, you might even be friends."
This description made Cosby, in his signature beret and a mullberry-colored sweater so well-worn it stretched the term "grunge," smile warmly. Just before a recent stage performance here, he had gathered a small group of local schoolchildren and their parents to talk about his first foray into children's literature. Ryan's assessment, it was clear, was exactly what Cosby was hoping for when he wrote the three "Little Bill" books that have just been published by Scholastic Books.
Out of earshot of his young literary critics, Cosby said, "These books are aimed at asking kids to think. These books are asking kids to respect their own thoughts, to respect their own minds--and to give themselves very positive thoughts, to not be afraid to be themselves. Because therein lies the best entertainment that one could have."
But Cosby has always been interested in more than entertainment. Talking about his new books, he expresses a new impatience, a new determination to make government--and society in general--more responsive to children. Solutions to many social problems exist, Cosby argues: "We are equipped to take care of many things, I mean in terms of money. Yet we shut many of these programs down. And then I look at corporations, education, government, religion--and, I think, 'Where is the pressure coming to make people do things correctly?' "
The small, paperback volumes use humor and fine storytelling to address such topics as dealing with bullies, learning to appreciate differences and discovering that material objects are not always the be-all and end-all in a child's life. A "Dear Parent" letter from Cosby's longtime associate Alvin Poussaint, the Harvard Medical School child psychiatrist who reviews every script for Cosby's television shows, accompanies each title ("The Meanest Thing to Say," "The Best Way to Play" and "The Treasure Hunt"). Vibrant illustrations by Los Angeles artist Varnette P. Honeywood, an oil painter and collage specialist, make Cosby's stories leap off their pages.
Officially, the books are aimed at beginning readers, ages 6 to 10. But so universal are the themes--and so endearing, apparently, is the central character of Little Bill--that on Monday Oprah Winfrey announced she had chosen Cosby's series as her book club selection for December. By week's end, orders for the three books numbered close to 2 million. Nickelodeon is already planning to produce three "Little Bill" specials, and a five-day-a-week series is under discussion.
In part, the groundswell reflects Cosby's extraordinary brand name. His longtime tenure as the paterfamilias of "The Cosby Show," along with his current CBS comedy, "Cosby," among other television roles, has made him a familiar presence. His earlier best-selling books--among them, "Fatherhood" (Doubleday, 1986)--secured his reputation as an author. In recent years, moreover, the reading public has grown accustomed to celebrities crossing over into the children's book market.
Cosby began focusing on the children's books early in 1996. One of the first people he consulted was his son Ennis, a graduate student in education at Columbia University with a special interest in children's reading difficulties. Ennis' own childhood was marked by a struggle with learning differences--Cosby is insistent in his opposition to the phrase "learning disabilities"--and his father wanted his advice. As is often the case where learning differences are concerned, Ennis' condition was misunderstood throughout much of his childhood. School was an ongoing trial. And while the Cosby family knew there was a problem, identifying it proved difficult.
"People don't know the connection that exists when a person who doesn't know what's wrong with them has trouble academically," Cosby explained. "Not being able to perform academically when the majority of people are performing well--that only makes it worse."