Best known for her role as tough-talking waitress Carla Tortelli on the hit television series Cheers, Emmy Award-winning actress Rhea Perlman has served up a new series for the middle-grade set: her Otto Undercover children's books. In the third installment, Otto Undercover: Water Balloon Doom, Perlman once again pits secret agent and superkid Otto Pillip (and his trusty Racecar!) against bumbling bad guys in a hilarious adventure for kids ages 7 to 11. Here, the famed funny lady shares what inspired her and how her family gets into the act.Q: What made you decide to write children's books?
A: I used to tell a lot of stories to my kids, and the Otto Undercover books are based on a running story I told my son Jake that was called "Jake and Racecar." It was about this boy who built and drove a crazy race car that was like a gadget and did everything and anything he wanted it to do, or anything Jake thought of at the moment. The race car was always being stolen by these two bad guys, Ralphie and Paulie, and Jake would have to get it back. He lived with his silly aunts FooFoo and FiFi, and I would tell variations of the story every time. Now that it's morphed into a book series, I decided that at the end of the first book Otto would find out the secret about his family and become a secret agent. The rest of the books follow him on missions on which he has to deal with all kinds of different, really wacky bad guys.
A: I have three children: Jake is now 18 years old, and my daughters are Gracie, who is 21, and Lucy, who's 23.
A: No, not really -- not on Jake anyway! He's still the family expert on gadgets and vehicles. All little boys are especially fascinated with vehicles, and he started out with trains, and then planes, and then cars -- that's around the time I started telling the "Jake and Racecar" story. So I always go to him when I need to think of a really cool thing for Racecar to turn into and he'll come up with something great.
A: [Laughs] Yeah! He's my best audience. I give him the manuscripts when I'm done, and if he laughs I know it works. He gives me ideas too -- we've always worked that way, even on screenplays. It's a natural thing to get notes from him.
A: We thought the wordplay would be a great way to have something a little challenging and a little educational in the stories but still make them fun. I've always been fascinated by backward words and looking at a word on a sign and saying it backward. Palindromes are the ultimate backward words, and whole sentences that are palindromes are just so cool! So that's why I decided Otto should get his clues in anagrams and backward words. But I didn't want make it too frustrating for kids who didn't want an educational lesson while they're reading, so I always put the answers on the sides of the pages.
A: Yes, there are six stories altogether. I've written five of the six already, and when I get home I'm going to start the sixth one. And one more thing of interest: When my son was young, he really loved books but sometimes struggled to get through chapters. So for kids who are reluctant readers, I put in some chapters that are very, very short -- some of them have only ten words -- so those kids can say, "I read three chapters today!" I think reading should be a fun experience.
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