Back when Gary Ross’ twin son and daughter were just a year old The Hunger Games writer/director got a frantic call from a friend. David Koepp was shooting his first movie, 1996′s The Trigger Effect, and needed a bedtime story for Elisabeth Shue to read to her son in a scene. Could Ross come up with something on the fly? So Ross dashed out some verses about a boy named Bartholomew Biddle who flies out of his window using his bedsheet as a kite, surfing currents of air in search of wild adventure. Then Ross set Bartholomew aside for years, though the boy never really left his heart. It was while on the set of 2008′s Tale of Despereaux, the adaptation of Kate DiCamillo’s charming tale of a misfit mouse which Ross wrote the screenplay for, that he showed those early pages to DiCamillo’s publisher Karen Lotz. She too fell hard for Bartholomew’s curiosity and verve and offered Ross a book deal.
The tale of Bartholomew Biddle and the Very Big Wind has since bloomed into a 30,000-word epic told in verse, full of heart and fun and surprising poignancy, which Candlewick Press will publish next week. Ross wrote the bulk of the book in the year before he dove deep into The Hunger Games. “There were days it was the easiest thing in the world, like eating dessert,” he says. “And then days when it was brutally difficult. I was a real purist in the beginning. ‘I will never look at a rhyming dictionary. If a word doesn’t come to you organically it’s not appropriate.’ And then by the end the rhyming dictionary was on my bookmarks bar.”
There’s something touching, Ross thinks, about now getting to share such a personal project whose gestation has spanned his now 17-year-old children’s entire lives. “Especially after Hunger Games it’s nice sending this thing out into the world and seeing what comes back,” says Ross. (And so far what’s come back includes a starred Kirkus Reviews rave and an Amazon Book-of-the-Month pick.) As for The Hunger Games, Ross insists he’s never second-guessed his ultimate decision to walk away from the franchise after co-writing and helming the phenomenally well-received first installment. ”I didn’t feel that I would have the time for the way that I work to do the movie justice,” he says. “I wear two hats. I don’t wear one hat. When you write and you direct that’s a linear process, it’s not a simultaneous process. I would’ve had to have written a script and prepped the whole movie in four months and on the first movie that’s a process that took me eight months. And I thought [Catching Fire] was a more difficult adaptation, not an easier one. I didn’t really feel I had the time I needed to live up to my own standards. And I haven’t had a moment’s regret. It was absolutely the right decision and I’m thrilled about new challenges.” (Ross’ next movie will be Peter and the Starcatchers, a reimagining of the Peter Pan fable that he’ll direct for Disney.)
In the meantime EW challenged Ross, a former Los Angeles library commissioner whose mandate included expanding children’s and teen services, to narrow down his own favorite children’s books—culled from his memories both as a boy with a flashlight under the covers and as a parent reading to his kids. Ross’ list of most treasured reads will make you want to call in sick tomorrow and spend the day on the sofa covered in books. And then read them all over again with your kids when they get home from school.