The Real-Life Animal Inspiration Behind Bette Midler's New Children's Book

A duck in Central Park inspired Tony winner Bette Midler’s imaginative new picture tale.

Bette Midler
Photo: James White/Trunk Archive

When a brightly colored mandarin duck popped up in New York City's Central Park two years ago, many people took notice—including legendary performer Bette Midler.

"The idea that this glamorous, exotic bird suddenly appeared in the midst of one of the hardest, least natural cities in the world, and that his very presence stirred something in people, was very moving to me," says Midler, who recently starred in the second season of the Netflix series The Politician. She added dramatic flair to the duck's arrival in her first children's book, The Tale of the Mandarin Duck: A Modern Fable. In the story (which includes photos by book critic Michiko Kakutani), New Yorkers stare at their phones "as if nothing else existed" until they learn about the duck and want to see it for themselves. We asked Midler all about her exciting new picture book tale.

What do you want children to get from your book?

"I wrote the story before the pandemic. Back then, it looked as though smartphones had taken away our ability to really see each other and the world around us and to interact with it in a completely relaxed, human way. Since COVID-19, however, the mobile phone has been a lifeline for most people, and I'm glad to have it. Even though the virus is still with us, we all have the need to see the world in real-time with our own two eyes. No screen can capture the joy and surprise of the natural world."

If you could voice a children's book character, who would it be?

"I've always adored Eloise. I think I have the entire oeuvre. I worship [author] Kay Thompson, although I gather she was a handful, just like Eloise."

How can parents make storytime more fun—for their kids and themselves?

"If you have books that you loved, start with those, and tell your child how you were introduced to them. Make it a little bit of a tradition. Or add some excitement: 'Oh, look what I found at the library today.' Don't read in a monotone or as if it were a chore. Act! Vocal variation goes a long way; up, down, faster, slower, louder, softer, because your child is picturing what they are hearing, and you want them to enjoy what they are picturing so that you make a reader. And if they want to hear it again, read it again."

Berenstain Bears and Curious George book covers
Courtesy of Random House Books for Young Readers and HMH Books for Young Readers

What books did your daughter want you to read on repeat?

"She loved the Berenstain Bears books. She just adored the family and the way they interacted with each other. We got them all, and she still has them. But we also got fairy tales and the classics like The Little Engine That Could; the Babar and Curious George series; and Monkey See, Monkey Do. There was a ballerina phase, but it didn't last."

Have any books influenced your life?

"Every book I finish changes my life, and many that I don't finish. There is always something, a turn of phrase, an idea, a sentence, a revelation about how the world works, or an author who answers the question you're asking yourself. I open books at random, and invariably I find exactly the advice I need."

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's February 2021 issue as "The Kids' Book Beneath Her Wings." Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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