October 6, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

After 28 years directing one of the nation’s top youth theaters, James Larson knows how cats talk. They tend to be a bit snooty. They certainly like to think they’re smarter than your average talking dog.

So shifting to writing children’s literature after decades directing the Omaha Theater Company for Young People at The Rose wasn’t that big of a leap, Larson says. Especially since Larson also has written stage adaptions for some of America’s most beloved children’s books.

“Writing fiction is quite a bit of fun,” says Larson, who adapted, among others, The Little Engine That Could and Mercer Mayer’s There’s an Alligator Under My Bed for national tours. “I’m usually limited to the space on a stage. In a book, nothing limits your imagination. I can have rocket ships blasting off to the moon. Pigeons can talk. It’s liberating.”

It’s a pleasure to witness that imagination unbound. His new book, “A” is for The Alchemist is a pure joy, a book seemingly written by a seasoned literary veteran rather than a first-time novelist.

“A” is for The Alchemist, a tale of a brother and sister (Winnie and Winslow) and their cat and dog pitted against a mad scientist, has exactly what fans of the Theater Company would expect from Larson: Vivid, fun, young characters, dastardly antagonists, a frolicking adventure and, yes, some lovable and pitch-perfect animal characters.

While Larson may have been steeped in the storytelling art, he did struggle with some of the novel demands of writing literature. For one, when you have 255 pages of story, you have a lot more story to tell. That means more backstory. Much more than in stories for the stage, Larson had to get to know everything possible about his characters and the landscape in which they live.

“To make them come alive, you have to know these characters so well,” he says. “I’ve written so much just in the process of getting to know them and trying to get to understand the craft. While some things about writing may be easier because of my profession, in some ways, writing this book is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

One of Larson’s longtime collaborators, Mark Medoff, winner of both the Tony Award and Olivier Award for his play Children of a Lesser God, effused about his friend’s skill at storytelling. Larson and Medoff have collaborated on several productions over the years. Medoff says he’s excited to see Larson try his hand at fiction.
“James became one of my heroes,” Medoff says. “He is such a talented artist and humble and generous human being that it’s not shocking he made the Omaha Children’s Theater into an international success.

“I so look forward to reading his book—and my grandchildren reading his book,” he says. “I know it will enhance my respect for…this dear and unique man.”

The book is already beginning to garner significant positive reviews.

Kirkus Reviews wrote that Larson “has written a well-paced story with all the ingredients to keep kids enthralled.” A Clarion Review piece said the book “is a promising start to Larson’s new series, which will appeal to children and young adults seeking an action-packed novel with some fantastic twists.”

Yes. Winnie and Winslow and their friends are scheduled for many more adventures, Larson says.

“I really like these characters, I really enjoy spending time with them and exploring their lives,” he says. “I honestly can see writing about them until I’m—I dunno—89 or so. That’s how much I care about them.”

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