An illustration from the new book How the Grinch Lost Christmas! Photograph: Dr Seuss Enterprises, LP 2023
An illustration from the new book How the Grinch Lost Christmas! Photograph: Dr Seuss Enterprises, LP 2023

Alastair Heim Talks Crafting a Sequel to a Dr. Seuss Christmas Classic

Dr. Seuss wasn’t one for sequels. Aside from writing a new adventure for a couple of his iconic creations, the famed children’s author refrained from returning to old wells for his books. However, there is one character he and many others have had a fascination in fleshing out. The tale of the Grinch, the Christmas curmudgeon who attempts to steal the holiday from the Whos of Who-Ville, has long been a yuletide classic. And with its everlasting popularity, other forms of media have tried their hand at expanding the narrative of everybody’s favourite green fiend. Notably, film adaptations have explored his origins. While the doctor himself wrote two television specials: a Halloween-set prequel and a crossover with the Cat in the Hat.

This trend hasn’t ceased in recent times, and now things have reached the unprecedented. After seeing new sides of the Grinch in television, film, and even the stage, he is returning to the page. Kansas-based writer Alastair Heim has added to the character’s legacy by writing a sequel to the seminal text titled How the Grinch Lost Christmas! Set precisely one year after the infamous heist, it follows the Grinch’s attempts to prove he has embraced the festive spirit by winning the town’s Christmas tree competition. Heim is no stranger to the Seussian world. He has previously penned several books featuring the Cat in the Hat for Dr. Seuss Enterprises. But this is certainly on another level. It is the first and possibly only direct continuation of the Grinch’s story.

With Christmas practically here, I got to speak with Heim about the book in an Australian exclusive. He and I discussed how he secured the assignment, locking himself away from his family to strike a partnership with Dr. Seuss’ estate, and how he felt about the book making it onto the prestigious New York Times Best Sellers list. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

HOW THE GRINCH LOST CHRISTMAS! is now available at all leading booksellers.

This story contains spoilers for the book How the Grinch Lost Christmas!

How did your working relationship with Dr. Seuss Enterprises begin? 

Alastair Heim: It’s a very long and complicated story. Essentially, I was first published in 2016. Then I had two books come out in 2017, and then I had my fourth book come out in 2018. I was published by Little Bee Books, which is a North American division of a large European publisher for children’s [literature]. They published my first and fourth books. In June 2019, I got a phone call from my agent. She had sent a manuscript in October 2018 to a bunch of brand new publishers for a new story I had written. One of the publishers was Random House, which publishes Dr. Seuss’ books. In January 2019, she got an out-of-office message from the editor she sent it to, telling everybody basically that they had retired. So without answering or saying no to my picture book idea, they retired without sending a reply to my agent. 

 Alastair Heim
Alastair Heim

So my agent then spent the next six or seven months trying to track down who at Random House had my manuscript for consideration. I got another phone call on July 31 2019 at about 2:07 pm from my agent — I remember these dates and times because there’s life before and life after — and she said, ‘Well, I found out who has your manuscript. It’s the editor who worked at Little Bee Books who bought your first and fourth books. They are now a vice president of publishing at Random House. She said it’s not right for what she’s working on.’ And I replied back, ‘Well, what is it you’re in charge of?’ My agent said that back to her, and they said, ‘I’m in charge of early readers, but I’m also in charge of the Dr. Seuss estate.’ And my agent replied back immediately and said, ‘Oh my goodness! If there’s a chance for Alastair to work on anything Dr. Seuss, he would faint.’ They replied back immediately and said, ‘Well, funny you should mention it. We want to launch a couple of new beginner books featuring the Cat in the Hat, and the first one we want to be about what would happen if the Cat in the Hat were President of the United States. If Alastair wants to try out for it, we would need to have his first draft by Monday.’ This was on a Wednesday, so I got home that night, and I kissed my wife and kids goodbye. I locked myself in the bedroom for four days straight and just wrote as much as I possibly could. And on Monday, I clicked send on the email. 

That email was sent the first week of August 2019, and I heard back about a week later that it was between me and one other writer. They wanted us to make some changes, so they gave us both a week to make some edits and resubmit our manuscripts. So the following Thursday, I submitted my next draft. Then my dad called me to tell me that my grandmother had passed away. She had some late-stage life things going on. So we knew we were going to have to go to where I’m originally from, Wisconsin, the following week. So we drove there from Kansas City, got to my mum and dad’s house, changed [clothes], and got up to the funeral home. I was standing there talking with my wife and one of my cousins, and I got a text from my agent. She sent me a gif of The Cat in the Hat dancing. So it was at my grandmother’s funeral when I found out I got the Cat in the Hat book.

After that, it took about another month for us to get an official confirmation that I got it. And when they sent the official confirmation email, they actually offered me a two-book deal. The first book was the one about the Cat in the Hat running the White House called If I Had Your Vote by the Cat in the Hat. Then they said a second title tentatively called If I Ran Your School by the Cat in the Hat [which was later published]. So that’s really the beginning of it. From there, I worked on another title that came out last year called If I Were Saint Nick by the Cat in the Hat: A Christmas Story. I also have written a couple of board books. One is I Am the Cat in the Hat, and I have another coming out, I think, next year.

How did the opportunity to write How the Grinch Lost Christmas! come about?

AH: The opportunity for the Grinch book I found out about in June 2021. My agent again called me. My agent and I usually talk through text or email, so whenever she calls me, it’s usually for something important. She called me again and said, ‘I’ve got another amazing opportunity, potentially, for you. I got an email from an editor at Random House. They said they want to know if you have time to try out to write the official sequel to How the Grinch Stole Christmas!‘ And I said, ‘I absolutely have time to try out for that. That would be an incredible dream come true.’ And she said, ‘They want you to write as much as you can over the course of the week and just submit where you’re at with it. That’ll be your audition.’ I did, and I found out a month later that I got the book. And again, my agent texted me a gif. This time, it was the big Grinch grin to let me know I got to write the official sequel for How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

Were you a fan of the character growing up? Can you remember your first exposure?

AH: Yep, I absolutely do. First, it’s the original cartoon from the 1960s and then the book. My original memory of the Grinch is sitting in the house I grew up in and laying on the living room floor watching the television special at Christmas when I was very, very young. I remember it vividly. It’s been a part of my Christmas for a lot of years. I was a huge fan of Dr. Seuss growing up. I’m from a very small town in Wisconsin, and my elementary school is still the same elementary school. It’s still there; the libraries I grew up in are basically laid out the exact same way. I was there maybe four, five, or six years ago, before the pandemic. We went for a visit to the school, and I specifically remember I thought, ‘I know exactly where the Dr. Seuss books are.’ I went around the corner, looked on the bottom shelf, and they were in the same spot they were when I was growing up, and I had been there in the 1980s. So Dr. Seuss has had such an impact on me and my writing style. I mean, the Grinch is Christmas. It’s a huge part of everyone’s Christmas, and, absolutely, the first exposure was powerful. But overall, Dr. Seuss has been such a special influence. I’m honoured, humbled, and grateful that I even get to have this conversation with you.

As mentioned, the estate has previously commissioned authors to write books with Dr. Seuss’ characters. However, this is the first one to function as a direct sequel. I know you said you jumped at the opportunity to write this book, but was there any hesitation to expand a text so beloved by yourself and the world?

AH: It’s a really great question. I like to say that I’m my own worst critic. I put a lot of pressure on myself to try to do the best I can. I’m kind of a pressure-prompted individual as well. I tend to work better under pressure, but it doesn’t mean that I enjoy living there all the time. I felt less hesitation but more of a deep sense of responsibility to the first book. The first book was next to me the entire time I was writing because I had to make sure that I got the metre, flow, tone, wordplay, humour, and a lot of the language that Dr. Seuss used correctly because I wanted very much for this to feel like it picks up right where the first one left off. That being said, it was a lot of fun. Creatively, when it comes to writing, I’m very much inspired by what I call the blank page. When I see a blank page on my computer, I feel like I have to fill it in, and stuff just sort of starts flowing out of my brain. I can’t really explain how it works; it just starts happening. 

Whenever I’ve written these Dr. Seuss books, it tends to just flow out of me. And that was absolutely the case with the Grinch book, too. As soon as I had the opening stanza, I just kept writing and writing and writing and writing for that week I had to write. It was like every spare moment I could get I was writing ideas. I filled multiple pages with ideas, and not everything I wrote made it to the submission process. I also like to say I have to get the bad ideas or the dumb ideas out of my head first to allow room for the good ones to filter in. So again, not so much of a hesitation but a deep sense of responsibility. I wanted to do the first book justice. Dr. Seuss is not here to write the second one, and I felt very responsible to try to make him proud if he were here. That was the goal in the back of my mind. Also, I wanted readers to pick the book up and go, ‘That feels right out of this world.’ I tried my very best to do that.

Once you started writing, how did you land on your premise of the Grinch wanting to win the Who-ville Christmas tree contest?

AH: When I got the phone call from my agent in June 2021, I found out that the storyline was something Random House and Dr. Seuss Enterprises had been collaborating on already. So when I got asked if I would try out for it, they actually sent me a bulleted synopsis of the storyline they had collaborated on and ultimately approved together. So I basically had plot points I was given that had to happen throughout the narrative. There weren’t any writing examples. They didn’t have a title for the book quite yet. But I just kind of started with the plot line they had provided and started writing from there, knowing I had to hit these points throughout the narrative.

That’s fascinating. I was curious if the estate informed the story to any degree. 

AH: They were very simple notes. It’s a year later after the events of How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Grinch wants to prove to the Whos that he’s changed for good, but how will he do that? He sees a poster or something that the Whos always have a Christmas tree contest, and he wants to create the biggest, most magical, awesome Christmas tree ever. It was basically those kinds of bullet points, and I let my brain spin out. I was like, ‘Okay, where do we start? He obviously starts in his cave because that’s where he started in the first one.’ I loved the idea of him looking back down at Who-ville, it’s a year later, but this time, we know out of the gate that he loves Christmas now. Then, it went from there, making sure that I hit those high-level plot points throughout. 

Bouncing off what you just said, this book takes iconography and phrases from Dr. Seuss’ original and reverses them. It opens with the Grinch looking down on the Whos from Mt. Crumpit but doing so lovingly rather than angrily. This time, he gets an awfully crafty idea instead of a wonderfully awful idea. His heart even shrinks when it once famously grew. Could you tell me why you juxtaposed those iconic rhymes and sketches?

AH: That was very collaborative with Random House and Dr. Seuss Enterprises because those pieces and parts you’re talking about are so ingrained and iconic and wired into the narrative that I think it was a way to honour the original book to have that familiarity between the two. I remember the revision process on ‘Then he got an idea! A crafty idea! THE GRINCH GOT AN AWFULLY CRAFTY IDEA!’ There were other words originally than crafty that I was toying with that we had some conversations back and forth about. And we ultimately landed on crafty, which I think works perfectly and serves the story beautifully. 

Then the heart shrinking versus growing — you’re right  was an opposite parallel of what happens in the first one. I think we all thought it was important that his heart grew a few sizes more than it had ever grown before because the theme of the book is about belonging and togetherness. That felt right in that moment because it’s almost like these Whos accept him unconditionally. And knowing you have people in your life who do that, man, there’s no better feeling. So those parallels were intentional; they were discussed. It wasn’t that I just said, ‘Hey, can I do this?’ And they said, ‘Okay, cool.’ These were conversations we had through the revision process because we wanted to honour and have it feel like the next logical step of the first book. That’s a really good question, Connor. 

In a more general sense, how did you balance honouring Dr. Seuss’ style without sliding into outright imitation? 

AH: Whenever I get to write for Dr. Seuss, my goal is to honour the work, not copy the work. His writing is wired into my childhood and DNA, and he’s a big part of why I wanted to become a writer of children’s books in the first place. So again, it’s about honouring the work, but it’s about bringing something different to it as well. And when it comes to writing rhymed unmetered verse, it’s one of the trickiest forms of writing there is. Sometimes, when you’re writing a stanza, you’re just happy you wrote something where the second line rhymes with the fourth line, and you’re like, ‘Okay, I got it. I landed that one.’

But there definitely needs to be new elements to it because it’s a new book. It’s a sequel; it’s a year later. And I’m not Dr. Seuss, so I come at it from an Alastair Heim love for Dr. Seuss, if that makes sense. It’s very much a deep appreciation. I love his writing, love his body of work, and want to do my best to do new stories in his universe justice and do right by the work he’s done. I get to play in this amazing sandbox, and that’s what I love about it — it’s a sandbox. I can go all over the place as long as it feels like something that came from his world. 

I’m sure that sentiment also applied to the illustrations. How was your collaborative process with Aristides Ruiz?

AH: Our collaboration process is that there wasn’t any collaboration between the two of us in the moment. My way to communicate with him was that I’ve got the curse of the writer who can’t draw. I can’t draw to save my life. But I can see things very vividly in my brain as I’m writing them. So when I’m writing the pages, what I typically will do is write a stanza and then put in what’s called an art note. So it might say, ‘Up high on Mt. Crumpit, just north of the Whos, a Who just delivered the day’s Who-ville news’ in the manuscript, and then underneath it says, ‘ART NOTE: the Grinch and Max are at the entrance of his cave on Mt. Crumpit. They are both looking down, smiling.’ I might say something like that, or in that particular instance, a Who-ville paperboy or papergirl or character is throwing the newspaper in front of the Grinch’s cave. I’ll type that out at the bottom underneath the stanza. 

Art notes are basically suggestions. They’re not directive. They’re just me trying to communicate what I’m seeing when I’m writing. Then, the publisher, the art directors, Dr. Seuss Enterprises, and Aristides can take those if they want to, or they can come up with something completely different. But I feel like I have to put those in the manuscripts so that I can at least explain what I’m seeing, just in case there’s anything confusing in my writing. And they always say if you can show it, you don’t have to say it in anything. So if you show someone riding a bike, you don’t have to say that they’re riding a bike. 

So I put the art notes in there purely as suggestions. That is my way to communicate with Aristides, who goes by Art. I’ve gotten to meet him once on a Zoom call. He’s a great human being and such an incredible illustrator who put so much love, care, and attention to detail into this book. When I saw the drawings for the first time, I cried. It was pretty emotional to see those. My wife can vouch. 

There have been efforts in the past to deepen what we know about the Grinch. For example, the film adaptations and television specials have explored his childhood and lineage. Since you had a similar task, were those sources you looked at when crafting this book?

AH: I really stuck to the original book because, once more, this was a collaboration between Random House and Dr. Seuss Enterprises. I wanted it to stay in that world with the Grinch of what we know of him in the original book. I’ve seen all of the other films and cartoons, and they’re in there somewhere. My wife and I actually saw the Jim Carrey movie together in the theatre when it came out. But as far as I was concerned, the historical record of the Grinch is that first book and this book. I didn’t go down the path of, you know, Cindy-Lou’s dad working for the post office. I really used that first book as my source material, if you will. 

When I read How the Grinch Stole Christmas! as a child, I really gravitated to how sinister the character was. There can be a thrill in fear, and the original book was my first experience of that sensation. In your book, you flirt with him reverting to his more malevolent personality. Did you ever consider pushing that grim side further?

AH: I’m not sure that that thought ever crossed my mind. In the outline of the narrative, he kind of has a reaction in the moment, and he does revert back to that Grinch. But by the time he gets up to Mt. Crumpit, Cindy-Lou Who is already calling up to him. So because that happens so quickly in the narrative, honestly, I didn’t consider taking it any further. I don’t even know where he would go from there. We all have moments where we’re not perfect, and he had one of those moments, and then she quickly pulls him back into how he truly feels about things. So no, I don’t think I ever did have that inkling to say, ‘Okay, does he go to the top and throw the tree over, like he was going to throw the sleigh over?’ I don’t think I ever went there. That’s a good question.

There’s a nice message in this story of Christmas being a time for community rather than extravagant displays. Why did you want to spotlight that idea? Do your neighbours go a tad overboard with their Christmas lights?

AH: (laughs) I assume you’ve seen National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation with Chevy Chase. I don’t have any neighbours who go that far. I got to work with a phenomenal editor at Random House named Maria. Her and I were talking about the Grinch. We talked about him wanting to prove to the Whos that he’s changed. And she said something that just — pun-intended — struck me in the heart. She goes, ‘He just wants to belong,’ and I went, ‘Oh my gosh, he just wants to belong!’ Again, it’s about proving to the Whos that he’s changed, but the reason he wants to prove it is because he wants to belong. As soon as she said that to me, I said, ‘Perhaps I was wrong and belonged all along!’ Because I liked the rhyming cadence of it. She goes, ‘Yes! Yes! Write that down right now.’ So I typed it out as fast as I could, and that’s actually what made the end of the book.

But it was really that conversation with her because deeper than just proving to someone that you’ve changed is kind of the reason behind it, and this is his reason behind it. And back to the fact that the Whos accept him unconditionally, he’s figuring that out as he goes on from the first book to the second book, and that’s a pretty special thing. Everybody would love to have relationships with people who accept you unconditionally; we’re very lucky if we do. That idea of belonging hit me like a tonne of bricks when her and I were having that conversation. That’s what drove that narrative. 

The book recently made The New York Times Best Sellers List. For an author, does that feel like reaching the summit of Mt. Crumpit? What does it mean to you?

AH: To be completely honest with you, it’s not why I started doing this. Writing children’s books was never really on my radar. I started writing children’s picture books after my first child was born and started reading. We started getting picture books as gifts from people and just started reading them. It inspired me to say, ‘My gosh, it would be really cool if one of my kids one day can hold up one of my books and say my dad wrote this.’ I’m a creative writer by trade and set off with that in mind, not really having any expectations for things. But when that happened, it was a very cool thing. 

My goal is I just want as many kids as possible to get to read the story and find out what happens next with the Grinch. My mantra since day one is that I don’t write children’s picture books to win awards, I’m trying to win bedtime. Kids and adults have so much they deal with day in and day out; the pressures on everybody are so intense and immense every single day. I want kids to have five minutes laughing, smiling, and hanging out with their parents before bedtime. I truly hope they choose the books I write to do that. I love infusing humour and whimsy and rhyme and delight into my stories, and that’s why I set out to do this. When it made The New York Times Best Sellers List, it was an honour to be associated with this book, and I hope kids love it; I really do. I’m writing these for the kids, the kids at heart, and fans of the Grinch.

Given this has been such a fruitful endeavour, has there been any discussion about further sequels?

AH: I would love to. It would be another dream come true. But nothing has been discussed yet; the book just came out. But I would be absolutely honoured to continue to be a part of this world. It is so much fun to play in the sandbox that [Dr. Seuss] created. If it were to go forward, I would love to be considered to be a part of it, for sure. But no conversations have happened yet that I know of.

I want to wrap up with a big question. If you could show this book to Dr. Seuss, what are some aspects you would love to get his thoughts on once he finished reading it?

AH: I will tell you that question has been with me from the moment I even auditioned to try to write his books. I would hope he would say I approve. He can’t be here to give any feedback, but I think the aspects in particular are the rhyming metre, did the creativity I tried to put into it come through? Did I do his original stories justice? Did I do service to his work? And would he say go do more? That would be very cool. It’s a question I’ve asked myself a lot, Connor, and again, I feel such a deep sense of responsibility to his body of work that I take it very seriously. I put a tonne of pressure on myself and care very deeply about getting it as right as I possibly can.

I can imagine the responsibility and pressure would have been immense, but it has resulted in a charming book. This character is so dear to me, and I appreciate you allowing me the time to talk about how you put this sequel together. 

AH: I really appreciate you and your kind words. That means the world to me. I don’t take this for granted because it just as easily could not have happened. You know, the editor that I told you my agent sent my work to in October 2018, who retired in January 2019, very easily could have said, ‘This book’s not right for me, I’m retiring, thank you very much.’ My agent wouldn’t even have been in the position to be trying to track it down and happen to be in touch with the other editor in July 2019. So much of this had to do with luck and timing, and I just can’t tell you how appreciative I am that I even get to write these books. Everybody who knows me personally will tell you the same thing. I’m very lucky, and with that feeling, I feel like I need to put my whole heart into every project I get to work on, like the Grinch. I hope that comes through. 

Connor Dalton

Connor Dalton is a freelance entertainment journalist with a Bachelor’s degree in film and television studies. When he isn’t interviewing stars of the screen, he works in the reality television sector. He is sadly not related to Timothy Dalton.

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