Simon & Schuster
He wakes up with gum in his hair, slips on his skateboard, gets snubbed by his best friend — and it just gets worse. Alexander is still easy to recognize 50 years after he entered the world of children’s books.
On June 1, 1972, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day was first published. Written by Judith Viorst with illustrations by Ray Cruz, the best seller has been made into a musical and a Hollywood movie. The book is so popular, Viorst’s string of sad adjectives entered the vernacular; it’s been used to describe lousy days, weeks and years far and wide, from political leaders to corporations.
Teachers have even used poor Alexander’s misadventures to teach kids about cause and effect and ethics.
Viorst didn’t need to look far for inspiration. The real Alexander is her third son, “and I guess in a way the most challenging of them because he did not want to be left out of anything,” she reminisces, sitting on the now grown-up Alexander’s front porch in Washington, D.C. “He was always chugging behind his brothers saying, ‘Wait for me guys! Wait for me guys!'”
Alexander Viorst/Simon & Schuster
But that one day in this little boy’s life is a cascade of bad karma.
NPR fact-checked with Viorst’s primary source.
Gum in his hair? “Never happened,” says Alexander.
Lima beans? “I don’t think I had any direct hostility to lima beans.”
Picked on by older siblings? “I’m sure.”
Alexander says “conceptually,” his mom got it right.
Judith — who seems a lot younger than her 91 years — says Alexander was “something of a klutz” when he was little.
“The famous klutz story about Alexander is him limping home from school one day and saying ‘My knee. My knee. I killed my knee!’ I said, ‘Oh my god, poor baby. At soccer?’ And he said, ‘No, story time.'”
Debbie Wagner/Courtesy of Judith Viorst
By 1972, Viorst had already written a couple of children’s books. One was about sibling rivalry called I’ll Fix Anthony. She wrote the book about Alexander thinking it would cheer him up. She read him the manuscript.
“And he got furious with me. He said ‘Why are you giving me this bad day? Why don’t you give it Nick? Why didn’t you give it to Tony? Why me?’,” Viorst recalls. “He didn’t think it was at all amusing.”
Viorst did what she calls a “totally manipulative mommy thing” and proposed changing the name of the kid in the title. She said to him: “‘But of course your name won’t be in great big letters on the front of the book.’ At that point he decided to keep it Alexander,” she says.
At the Kent Place School in Summit, N.J., a group of second graders read and discuss Alexander with Ariel Sykes, assistant director of the school’s Ethics Institute. Yes, they teach ethics and philosophy to second graders. Sykes says one of the reasons Viorst’s book is such a good resource for discussion is that there’s no judgment of Alexander’s behavior. “It’s a good model of how it can be ok to sit with your emotions and that you don’t always need to fix things and that having a bad day is just part of life,” says Sykes.
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Viorst says that’s partly why she wrote it, “These days happen to everybody and I think it makes it a lot more tolerable when you think you haven’t been singled out.”
Back in 1972, there was no internet or social media gossip riling people up, not to mention 24/7 access to a relentless number of tragedies. Viorst believes it’s harder to be a kid today.
“I think the world has gotten tough and even if they’re not watching the news and reading these incredibly depressing stories, I think it must seep into them.”
The real Alexander agrees. He has three kids of his own.
When they were little, he read them their grandmother’s books — including this one. “This is a guy who’s sort of been in my life forever,” says Alexander, “and he keeps having crappy days. But I’m gonna keep rooting for him.”
Fifty years after it was written, Judith Viorst is happy with how Alexander turned out. “I look at this fierce tiger of a little boy and I see this loving, benevolent father and head of a family and it’s a thrill to me practically every day,” she says.