Newsmaker: Pharrell Williams

The global pop star takes a break from his European tour to discuss the importance of libraries and literacy

October 30, 2015

Singer, songwriter, producer, and now children’s book author Pharrell Williams. Photo: Mimi Valdes
Singer, songwriter, producer, and now children’s book author Pharrell Williams. Photo: Mimi Valdes

It might seem crazy what he’s about to … write. Grammy Award–winning singer, songwriter, and producer Pharrell Williams—best known for his 2014 global hit “Happy”—can now add “author” to his long list of accomplishments. His recent picture book Happy! (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2015) features photos of children around the world celebrating life’s joys.

A native of Virginia Beach, Virginia, Williams credits his mother, who is a librarian and teacher, for being the biggest influence in his life.

Williams is featured in a new READ poster, available at the ALA Store. He responded via email to questions from American Libraries while on tour in Europe.

American Libraries: In 30 years of READ posters, you are only the second person to hold Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. Which character do you identify with?

Like Max, I had a very wild imagination as a child. In Where the Wild Things Are, it’s the beasts who make Max king, but he was looking only for adventure and to get out of his room and have some fun. But in the end, he yearns for the comforts of home.

Did libraries or librarians help nurture your interests growing up in Virginia Beach?

Absolutely. The library was a frequent hangout for me growing up. Especially in the summer. If we were out skating or riding our bikes, we’d go there to get out of the heat, and we would end up reading magazines and books and getting exposed to different things. But even more than the physical space, the librarian who had the greatest influence on me was my mother. She was a librarian and a teacher and was always in school furthering her education, so her thirst for learning was imparted to us. Even if not at work, she was always researching something at the library; it was just an ever-present environment in our lives. She ingrained a curiosity in me and an overall understanding of the importance and value of education.

Your nonprofit, From One Hand to AnOTHER (FOHTA), focuses on getting STEAM education to underserved youth, which is also a goal of many libraries. Does FOHTA work with libraries?

It works with some school libraries and curates a small library of books for students at locations without existing libraries. We also work with schools, churches, and local youth programs to bring our STEAM curriculum to them. This is my mother’s personal area of passion. She has implemented a reading program within FOHTA that exposes kids to award-winning books, including Caldecott winners, Newbery winners like Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, and family favorites like Dr. Seuss. When I started to travel for my career and was getting exposed to different cultures and languages and opening my mind to what was happening around the world, I wanted to find a way to share that knowledge with people who grew up in neighborhoods like mine and didn’t have the resources to see these things firsthand. Given my mother’s background, it was just a natural evolution for us to work together to create educational opportunities in our community. A library provides a great resource to learn about the world beyond your own neighborhood. Libraries are a place you can use a computer and take a virtual tour of the world. When we were forming FOHTA, this concept was very much a part of the vision: to provide a learning center where kids could use technology to pursue their interests. And we know that reading is a basic building block in any field of learning.

In the library community, a video showing staff members at D.C. Public Library singing “Happy” went viral on YouTube in early 2014, prompting similar music videos produced by library staffers from across the nation (including a “Happy” flash mob dance in front of the US Capitol in 2014 for National Library Legislative Day). What do you think accounts for your song’s popularity among librarians?

I am still amazed by the popularity of the song and how many people connected to it around the world. I would imagine that people who work in libraries are mostly people who have a hunger for knowledge and are fundamentally curious, and this keeps you young at heart, keeps you creative and open to experiencing the emotions that the song expressed.