Encore: Bette Midler discusses her children’s book, ‘The Tale Of The Mandarin Duck’
December 6, 2021
By Ari Shapiro
This next interview is with someone who has been a household name for decades. She’s won Grammys, Emmys, and Tonys. And we are replaying my conversation with her today because last night, she was honored at the Kennedy Center for her contributions to American culture. A lesser-known part of her resume – children’s book author. Her latest book is “The Tale Of The Mandarin Duck,” and I’m guessing many of you will recognize her just by this recording of her reading from the book.
BETTE MIDLER: (Reading) A new bird came to town. No one had ever seen a bird like this. Many birds are very beautiful, but this bird was extraordinary. He was a mandarin duck. When bird lovers heard he was in the pond, they ran to see him. Word spread about the duck, and soon people began flocking to look at him. Wouldn’t you?
SHAPIRO: That is, of course, Bette Midler, who is here to talk about “The Tale Of The Mandarin Duck.”
Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED – such a pleasure to have you here.
MIDLER: And it’s a pleasure to be here.
SHAPIRO: This book is described as a modern fable. And as in any good fable, a problem arises before the duck comes to town. What is the problem?
MIDLER: Well, the problem is that we have a city, a lively, wonderful, vibrant city where everyone is happy to see each other. And a new invention comes into their lives – the cellphone – and suddenly they become completely interested and only interested in what’s on the screen and how they can photograph themselves against certain backgrounds. It’s sort of what has happened to us in the last 15 years. And the duck comes to town and sort of reverses that.
SHAPIRO: Yeah. This beautiful, colorful, exotic bird arrives. And I have to ask whether part of your connection to this bird comes from your recognition of a fellow diva, someone who attracts a spotlight, who people cannot get enough of.
MIDLER: Yes, absolutely. I recognize myself in that bird, and I think a lot of people will. But I think the moral of the tale is that we are all rare and beautiful birds. The bird holds a mirror up to us and shows us that we’re all worthy. We are all worthy of the spotlight.
SHAPIRO: You describe the duck’s arrival as the most exciting thing to happen to the city in a long time. This is New York we’re talking about. Like, the most exciting thing – really?
MIDLER: Well, first of all, this bird was a rara avis. This bird was a rare bird. Not only had it never been seen; I don’t think it had ever been dreamt of by people in a city that’s made of glass and stone and brick and steel and people who don’t get out much. And when they do get out much, you know, if they see a tree in bloom, they lose their minds…
MIDLER: …And stand under it and photograph themselves incessantly. Certainly, when the real bird came, it caused a sensation because people don’t pore over bird books and say, oh, I’ve never seen that bird; oh, I’ve never seen this bird. I mean, most people are not avid birders, although there are a number of people in New York City who are avid birders (laughter). And Michi Kakutani happens to be one of them.
SHAPIRO: She did the photography in the book.
MIDLER: Yes. She did the photography in the book, and she’s a friend of mine. And we’ve gotten closer over the years. And I hadn’t seen the bird in person.
SHAPIRO: Well, I was wondering about that. Did – you didn’t make the pilgrimage.
MIDLER: I didn’t make the pilgrimage because I believe I was on the road. I might have been in Las Vegas, or I might have been in Europe at the time. And I came back to the city, and the bird had already gone. And she showed me photographs on the phone. And I was, of course, mesmerized, just as most people who love beauty are. And she confessed to me that she thought he deserved a children’s book. And I said that’s a great idea, Michi. And I said I can’t wait to read that. When are you going to write it? She said, I hate to write. And I said, oh, I’ll write that for you. I love to write.
SHAPIRO: It occurs to me that the experience the city had around this bird shares something with the experience that people have in a theater watching a show or when they go to the movies, which is everybody kind of gasping collectively, laughing collectively, being in awe collectively at the same thing at the same time, which is something we really haven’t had very much of this year.
MIDLER: Well, I think that this was a – definitely a pause button, but I don’t imagine that it’s not going to come back because these things are eternal. So I believe that this kind of, you know, us gathering together and us laughing as one and experiencing things in a collective – I believe that the best part of that will return, I mean because it always has and sometimes with a vengeance. We were reminded during this period of time that after the First World War and the flu pandemic of 1918 that all hell broke loose in the ’20s. So, I mean, people who never drank suddenly started drinking like fish.
SHAPIRO: Well, if we do head into another roaring ’20s on the other side of this, what’s your roar going to sound like? I mean, what do you want that to look like for you?
MIDLER: Well, I’m very old. I mean, I’m 115.
MIDLER: So I just hope they make room for me.
SHAPIRO: Oh, are you kidding?
MIDLER: Do I want to go to discos? No, I don’t want to go to discos. I’ve been to discos. Do I want to go to restaurants? I love restaurants. And actually, the camaraderie of a restaurant is kind of sensational. And I love people who cook, and I love people who are in the hospitality business. I just love them. Their generosity of spirit, you know, the way they keep up with trends, the excitement they have of showing you something new – I mean, it’s almost theatrical in a way. So I do hope the restaurant and the hospitality businesses come back.
SHAPIRO: Well, to return to the mandarin duck that is the focus of this book, the duck is gone now, and we’re more glued to our screens than ever. So what is your hope for the legacy of this visitor?
MIDLER: When I was a kid, I had a few books. One of them was an encyclopedia. It was called “The Book Of Knowledge,” and it was from the ’20s. And it wasn’t a complete set. It was a set that my father rescued, I think, from the garbage. And it was – it had the most beautiful illustrations I’ve ever seen. Children’s illustration especially has always fascinated me and enchanted me. And I think that Joana, who did the illustrations of this book – I believe those illustrations are really going to be imprinted on children’s minds.
And so in a funny way, I believe that it’s almost going to be more of a visual takeaway than the text takeaway. I hope that the things that I say about the people who lived in this city, that they looked each other in the eye and they liked what they saw – I hope that kids will remember that and grown-ups will remember that. I hope that that’s the takeaway. When you – when I look at those – the pictures that Michi took of the – of our bird, our little bird friend, he’s got kind of curiosity in his glance. He has a sparkle in his eye. He’s sort of looking, but he’s not judging. He’s curious. He’s interested. And I do hope that he stands as a sort of a model for all of us.
SHAPIRO: Well, Bette Midler, thank you for bringing us this book at a moment that I think many of us could use a little more color in our lives. It’s been a pleasure talking with you about it.
MIDLER: Thank you, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Her new picture book with photos by Michiko Kakutani and illustrations by Joana Avillez is “The Tale Of The Mandarin Duck.”