Idina Menzel & Cara Mentzel, LOUD MOUSE

Idina Menzel & Cara Mentzel, LOUD MOUSE

Broadway and film star Idina Menzel and teacher and author Cara Mentzel join Zibby to discuss their new picture book, Loud Mouse. The three talk about the inspiration for the story, how Idina and Cara managed to reconnect during the pandemic after busy schedules kept them apart, and the best lessons the sisters have learned from one another that they want to pass down to their readers. Idina and Cara also share the premise for their next book together and their tips for reconnecting with your long-distance sisters or friends. Click here to listen to “The Loud Mouse Song” which Zibby’s daughter sings in the episode!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Idina and Cara. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I’m so thrilled to have you here.

Idina Menzel: Thrilled to be here.

Cara Mentzel: Yes, thank you. We’re very honored.

Zibby: Loud Mouse is so gorgeous. The illustrations are amazing. The story is so inspiring. Tell listeners, why did you two decide to write this book together? What is this children’s book really about at its heart?

Idina: I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write about for a long time. It finally dawned on me that I thought I wanted to have this conversation with kids about — when I was a little girl, I knew deep down that I had something special to share, but I wasn’t always sure how much space to take up with it and how much to call attention to myself. It was scary to make myself vulnerable. Like Cara says, when you want to be seen and heard and it happens, then you’re really seen and you’re really heard. That elicits a lot of complicated emotions. It still happens for me as an adult, but especially as a child. When I decided that’s where I wanted to go, I didn’t want to do it on my own. My sister is the writer. She’s a teacher. She’s specialized in literacy. She knows me better than anyone in the whole world. I didn’t want to do it unless she would do it with me. Then I called her and asked her.

Zibby: In Cara’s memoir, you talked about how publishers or editors came to you to write a memoir. You said, I want to do it with my sister. They said, oh, she could be the ghostwriter. You’re like, no, no, no, my sister is no ghostwriter. She’s going to write the whole thing with me or she’s not going to do it. Then she ended up writing the whole book, which is wonderful.

Cara: Thank you. That was a huge accomplishment. A whole different game to write a memoir versus a picture book, but equally difficult tasks.

Zibby: I have to say, I also went to a very similar sleepaway camp. I was also in the play. They also did not let my parents come. I was devastated. I was in The Diary of Anne Frank. I was Anne. It was the only starring role I’ve had in my life. That was basically it. Age twelve, I peaked.

Idina: Diary of Anne Frank? At Stagedoor Manor or French Woods?

Zibby: It wasn’t. Although, I actually just visited French Woods. It wasn’t there. It was at a regular all-around camp. Later, they were like, maybe they just knew you could memorize the lines. I was like, that is so not nice. I am not an actress. I completely related to that moment.

Idina: I have a video of myself singing — maybe I did mention this in Voice Lessons — “Bushel and a Peck” or “Take Back Your Mink” or whatever it is. I’m like, this is a strip tease. Maybe my parents shouldn’t see me do this. It all works out in the end.

Zibby: I was really moved by one moment, Idina, when you heard Cara singing to her child and you realized that she also has this amazing voice. You had this moment. What if I didn’t let her star power really shine? I feel like there’s so much of that there. There’s a lot in this children’s book, of one person growing so big and everyone else staying the same size. Maybe you could just talk about that and what it feels like in relation to others when you’re — you talk in the children’s book about, can a star not shine? Of course not. The effects of the other stars not shining as brightly, what does that do? I feel like nobody talks about that.

Idina: I’m so glad you brought that up. That’s something we haven’t touched on as much today. That was one of the special things about the book that we really wanted to try and tackle, for sure.

Cara: Talk about how that was for you.

Idina: I think that’s what happens. We hide our gifts. We’re afraid that we’ll be too much and we’ll steal attention from someone else, especially if it’s someone like your sister, who you want to shine and have her moments. I think there’s always that kind of navigating that dynamic and sort of this codependent relationship. She wants me to have these moments, step into the spotlight, while all along that is somehow complicated for her because she’s like, I don’t know what I want to do with my life, but my seven-year-old sister is already dreaming of being on Broadway and has got it worked out. She’s still figuring it out. I think that happens a lot with siblings and even married couples, relationships. You know how you always talk about not losing yourself in a relationship but also being able to learn from the other person and compromise as well? It’s always that balance. It’s hard. How do you keep your own identity while also merging with someone else? That’s the more grown-up version of it.

Cara: The identity piece of that is really important in Loud Mouse because it is family. It is the people that she’s closest to, her little sister, her mom, that help her stick to the truth, find her truth. I think that’s so important because identity is ever evolving. We ask kids all the time — just be yourself. That’s the solution. Just be yourself.

Idina: What does that mean?

Cara: What’s that mean? I don’t know what that means. Today, I’m a children’s book author. Five years ago, I was not.

Idina: That’s why I tend to tell people to just go where it feels good, where you feel fulfilled, where it brings you joy, whatever that creative outlet is for you. You can’t go wrong if you’re following your heart in that way. It will lead you somewhere that is your passion, that is the thing you were meant to do.

Cara: With the exception of the few people that are motivated to go the wrong way.

Idina: The saboteurs. We’ve all been that as well, haven’t we? We have our inner saboteur. That’s one thing. I did have bullying kids that, looking back, were probably jealous or competitive and put me down and said, you’re showing off. We actually made a conscious effort to portray the other kids in this book as very supportive and excited by this young girl and her love for singing.

Cara: That was tricky. It’s humor and authenticity that drove the writing. We still wanted to be authentic. I think it is authentic for kids to be kind. We wanted that to be modeled. We wanted that to be on the page. You still have Ren, who does have this huge talent. He draws this amazing, amazing International Space Station. It’s just a quieter talent. It’s just maybe not as fascinating to a class of first graders or whatever.

Zibby: One that can be easily wiped off with somebody else’s , as it says in the book.

Cara: Totally. His identity and how he expresses himself in the world is different and will be a different book.

Idina: At risk of being long-winded here, what I love about what Cara did was when you were talking about the size of things and how we make each other feel or how we feel in the world and how she has this repetitive theme of walking past the ant hill and the buttercups and then the redwoods when she’s excited. She’s excited to go to school and share her voice. She’s getting larger in perspective to what she’s — is that right? — to what she’s walking past. That’s how we feel in life. We feel tall today. It doesn’t have to be height. We just feel that way. How many people tell me when they meet me that they thought I was six feet tall when I was in Wicked? They don’t realize I was in all black and I was wearing heels and a black, tall, pointed witch hat. It’s also because I felt powerful. I was doing my thing. Then on the way back when she’s feeling really demoralized, she’s —

Cara: — sort of shrinking, but just in perspective. Then when her little sister says, “You’ve always been big and loud to me,” we’ve already sort of, using imagery, established that size is relative. For the little sister, big sister is bossy and loud and bigger. Those were really important embedded themes that we wanted to have on the page.

Zibby: Even the sadness of success, the loneliness factor, it was a little lonely for her to be so big because she was up there by herself. People don’t discuss. Okay, here’s my gift. I’m starting my stuff, but where’s everybody else?

Cara: Exactly. There’s an educator guide that we put together that has ten lessons and stuff. Half of them are really social/emotional learning focused. One of those lessons that it makes me think of is called Take a Seat. Kids have to sit in different chairs in the classroom and talk about what they notice or what they feel. One of the seats is the teacher’s chair in front. This idea that it feels different to be in these roles, in these different positions. Sometimes you feel bigger. You go to a kindergarten parent-teacher conference, and they put you in those teeny chairs.

Zibby: That’s always fun. Nothing makes me feel more slender than those chairs.

Idina: It is lonely. I just know that I experience that. Sometimes in order to have that transcendent experience of when you’re doing something so pure and there’s a love of something, it can feel very solitary because you really have to make yourself completely vulnerable. There’s that fragility. For me in my life, in order to connect, I’ve learned to really make a connection. To move an audience, so to speak, it only works when I’ve made myself vulnerable and I took a risk. That can be lonely to do that.

Zibby: I would imagine there would be a huge sense of emotional deplete-ment afterwards. How do you give so much and then have to rebound?

Idina: Yeah, there’s a crash.

Zibby: I was really struck also — I think it was Cara, in your note or somewhere in your book, when you said that the two of you come together and you’re always there for each other, but that for a while, you were seeing each other mostly at family stuff. You can be in touch, but sometimes you don’t even see the people you love until — not in the fabric of your everyday life anymore. Idina, you were traveling all the time. You were farther away. How do you stay close and maintain those bonds, especially between sisters or best friends or whatever, when you are far apart and you do tend to only reunite when something really good or really bad happens? How do you navigate that?

Idina: We were really lucky during the pandemic. One of the silver linings for us was that Cara relocated to LA. She rented a home nearby with a pool and a little pool house that we converted to a schoolhouse. Then five mommy friends and I brought our kids over to Cara, dumped them off. What’d you do? You connected with the school curriculum and the teachers virtually. Then once the parents knew how great Cara was, we were off and running and off the screens. It was just so nice to be in the same town. My son developed this wonderful bond with Cara. He always loved her, but this is special during that time, to have this — our kids were so free and running outside and learning in a place that felt un-suffocating. This one-on-one experience, they really bonded. That just felt so good to me.

Cara: I loved it. When he’s young and I would see him, it’s still all about mom. Then I have all boys. Then when he gets a little older and I see him but I’m with Jake, or Jake and Avery, or Jake, Avery, and Oscar, he wants nothing to do with me. He’s got his cousins all around. Also, being the son of celebrities, too, I never want to be one more person he has to pay attention to or something else on the radar. I just want to be present. I was never reaching for him in that way. I don’t know how to explain that.

Idina: It was so organic. He needed you.

Cara: It was perfect because it was like, oh, this, I can do. My whole family was able to pick up and leave because they’re older. My son was in high school, so he was already remote.

Idina: It’s just a testament to you and what a great teacher and human you are. It’s also that he just wanted to get the hell away from me because I was helicoptering. I was like, “Did you do this assignment yet? Did you do this? Did you do that?” She’d take them to the beach and have them creative write in their journals looking out at the ocean and then take them for ice cream. Then they’d jump in the pool. Then they’d do math. We talk about it all the time, my mommy friends and I, about how it literally saved our sanity. That’s all that matters.

Zibby: If only I could’ve dropped my kids there. Actually, I have four kids. My daughter, who’s nine, loves to sing but gets very embarrassed singing in public. We spent probably an hour straight with her singing your song over and over again, “The Loud Mouse Song.” I recorded it. Can I play a few seconds of it?

Idina: Oh, my god. I thought you were going to say “Let it Go.”

Zibby: No, the new song. Wait, I have to play it for you because we spent so long on it. She was so excited.

Cara: Is she okay with you sharing it publicly?

Zibby: She is. She’s okay with it.

Idina: Tell her she’s more brave than me because I have yet to .

Zibby: I’ll stop there.

Idina: She’s got such vibe already. You tell her what I love about it is I can hear that she emulated some of the things that I did, but she also made it her own. To do that at such a young age shows real artistry. And that she made my day. This is a pretty big day. The fact that that topped it took a lot.

Zibby: This is all we’ve been singing around here, I’ll have you know.

Idina: I’m glad the set list is changing a little bit.

Zibby: It’s true. It’s really wonderful. The message behind it is so great, the message behind all of it. It’s so empowering for kids. Everyone has their own interests. Everybody, they have their things. It’s like, maybe I shouldn’t like this. Maybe this shouldn’t be my thing, or whatever. I didn’t say that very well. It’s really empowering to know that to pursue what you love is so important. Anyway, thank you for having this stuck in my head forever.

Idina: I’m sorry.

Zibby: It’s okay. It’s all good. I woke up singing it to my son. He’s like, “Uh, Mom…” Do you two have plans for more children’s books together?

Idina: We started writing the sequel already. In the publishing world, man, they don’t give you a break. They’re like, this takes a year, so get on it.

Cara: I’m supposed to have a draft already today.

Idina: We’re like, today? On book release day?

Cara: On book release day? It’s going to be called Proud Mouse. It focuses on Cara Lee and exactly what we’ve been talking about and trying to pave her own way and find her own lane in life in the midst of having a very bossy sister who takes up a lot of space.

Idina: I think it’s equally funny and equally endearing. It’s actually more funny.

Cara: It’s really fun. It’s really difficult to write children’s books — of course, I knew that it would be — because there’s a simplicity to them, but there’s also a sophistication.

Idina: The ones that we grew up reading and the ones that we loved reading to our sons — they have to be multilevel in their themes and in messaging. That’s just what we were inspired by, those books that we loved.

Cara: Nailing that balance is key and challenging. I think we did it.

Zibby: You did a great job. It’s amazing. I actually wrote a children’s book. It’s called Princess Charming. It came out from Penguin Random House.

Idina: I know that book.

Zibby: You do? No.

Idina: Yes.

Zibby: It came out last year. People are like, is this really hard? I’m like, it was so hard, but at the end of the day, it’s not that many words. I’m kidding. You wrote a memoir, Cara.

Cara: I know, but every word counts.

Zibby: It does. I’m totally kidding. I’m kidding. Yes.

Cara: It is a totally different endeavor. I get it. Challenging in a different way. A children’s audience, that’s a different attention span that you have to engage. That’s another thing different from memoir. Somehow, you’ve got to use a refrain to have repetition to pull them back in to give them access the whole time. There’s all these things that you have to do to keep a young mind engaged.

Idina: With all the performing I’ve done in my life and all the high-pressure gigs, I’m usually the most nervous when I have to stand up in front of a room full of children.

Zibby: Really?

Idina: Yeah. I have this camp foundation called A Broader Way. We send girls from the city up to the country for two weeks. We sing. We dance. We write. It’s all using the arts to help amplify young voices; future leaders, we call them. Whenever I’m asked to come up — I go up there. When I’m asked to teach a class, I’m terrified. I feel like they see through you so fast if you’re not honest and authentic. It just happened the other day. I was down in North Carolina singing in front of four hundred little kids. I found myself so nervous. Carnegie Hall, no problem. North Carolina elementary school, wherever I was in Salem, oh, my god.

Zibby: I’m sure it went well. How did it go?

Idina: It was great. If you engage them and you ask them certain questions, sometimes they raise their hand, but they’re not really prepared to answer the question. They just want to talk. Then they just start talking about things that have nothing to do with what you asked them. I was like, okay, let’s talk about that.

Cara: It was very Kindergarten Cop. Remember that Arnold Schwarzenegger movie?

Zibby: Yes, totally.

Cara: Maybe you have a tumor, or whatever.

Zibby: I would argue that occasionally happens at grown-up book readings as well.

Idina: True. Very true.

Zibby: You never know. Do you have any advice on all the sisters out there who want to stay in touch, or all the best friends? They don’t, maybe, have as good ways to stay in touch. They have to cope with, maybe one of them has been more successful than the other. They don’t even, maybe, talk about it or any of that. What do you say to all those people?

Cara: For me, I don’t know if it’s okay to say this, but I’m atheist, so I have to get really clear about what my values are and what’s important to me. Then I try to build all my behavior and make all my choices around what I’ve decided my values are. I know that family and relationships, that’s my priority. My priority is never to be right or to be better. My priority is always just to be connected. I think that makes it really easy to be a cheerleader and really easy to be a protector. What’s the last one when I think of sisterhood? Cheerleader, protector. Oh, truth-teller. I think a truth-teller also. You can’t be afraid of telling your sister the truth. Then something’s missing. I don’t know if that’s advice. Sometimes I have to remind myself what is actually important to me so that I behave in the way that I want to instead of letting it happen haphazardly.

Idina: I’ve always talked about the role reversal with us. I might look like the one that’s got the glossier life, more attention, but the truth is, when it comes down to it, even though she’s my younger sister, I look up to her most of the time. She’s the one I call for guidance at my worst. She got married younger, had kids younger. She’s always been the old soul. It doesn’t even feel that way so much. She’s the hero to me. She’s the one I go to. I think that’s what makes successful sibling relationships, friend relationships, is honoring in each other, what you love about them, and the truth telling. My friends and my family, my sister, they’re not afraid to tell me when I screw up and when to get real. I find in my business, a lot of people surround themselves with “yes” people. This is the thing. I have a lot of “no” people, a lot of people that are like, no, get your shit together. That’s the way I prefer it because I want to be a good person, and so I try to surround myself with people that I really look up to.

Zibby: Wonderful. Thank you so much, both of you, for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks, I’m sure, for making my daughter’s whole world by commenting on her — what’s that?

Idina: What’s her name, your daughter’s name?

Zibby: I try not to say it publicly. Not like I’m or anything. I don’t know. I just don’t.

Idina: No, don’t say it.

Cara: I was thinking first name, but yes, you don’t need to say it publicly. No worries.

Idina: Just let her know, thank you. It’s very brave of her to share that. I can’t wait to hear more things that she does. I really could hear her own style in there, which is really rare for such a young person to have. Tell her to keep searching for that and to emulate but not imitate.

Zibby: Love it. Honestly, it was your book that gave her the bravery to do it. I’m serious. She never would’ve done it. You inspired her, as you will be inspiring so many other people.

Idina: Thank you.

Cara: Love it. Love it so much. Thank you.

Zibby: Congratulations on the launch. Enjoy.

Idina: Back to the next one.

Zibby: Bye.

LOUD MOUSE by Idina Menzel & Cara Mentzel

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