Neil Patrick Harris’s New Book Is an Ode to Magical ‘Misfits’
“It’s important for kids who have two moms or dads, or one parent, or some other type of unique family system to feel respected and represented”
Neil Patrick Harris is a true renaissance man. Not only is he an actor, but Harris is also an accomplished magician — who once served as the president of Los Angeles’ exclusive magicians club, The Magic Castle. He is also the devoted husband of actor and chef David Burtka, and father to twins Harper and Gideon. And as if that list isn’t long enough, on top of all that, Harris is the author of the best- selling young readers series, The Magic Misfits. The series follows a group of — you guessed it—magic misfits. The third installment, The Minor Third, is available now and proves that Harris still has quite a few tricks up his sleeve.
Katie Couric: This book is the third in your Magic Misfits series. What was the inspiration behind this series in the first place?
Neil Patrick Harris: When I was growing up, my first job ever was at a small bookstore in this tiny mountain village in New Mexico. I’ve just had a love for the tactile book for as long as I can remember. My husband David and I read to our kids all the time, and now that they’re in the third grade they’re starting to read independently. I thought that writing a book series was a good opportunity to be able to teach a few lessons, both life lessons and magic lessons, since magic is really my passion. So there’s some adventure, there’s morse code, there are secrets to decode. Those are things that make me excited, and I tried to do it in a way that I think would be fun to read if I was that age.
The book also has some complexity to it, because I believe that kids have sophisticated palates. I don’t think that kids only need to eat chicken nuggets and hear stories with happy endings. They have a capacity for subtlety, and a dark sense of humor. I don’t want to be too caustic, but I want to respect kids because they can handle complicated information in ways that they’re often not given credit for.
Back when the second book in the series was released, you said you read it before bed to your twins, Gideon and Harper. Are your kids still excited about being read to before bed, or are they at the stage yet where they prefer to read on their own?
They are old enough to read on their own, but it’s still a little challenging for them, especially if there are words that are long or complicated and they don’t quite understand them yet. So they still far prefer when we read to them, because they get to be passive listeners and enjoy a radio play. I don’t know how long that will last though, because I can’t stop doing weird accents and voices to amuse myself. My New England sailor voice gets very old very quickly. I think their eye rolling and criticism of my vocal performance is wearing thin on them… but hopefully I can get away with it for a few more years.
The new book touches on themes of inclusiveness, teamwork, and the fact that sometimes, we all feel like misfits. Why were these themes so important for you to include in the book? Do you draw on experiences from your own life at all when writing these stories?
In my life, I’ve lived in a lot of very interesting places… not only in locations, but also in skillsets. I’ve gotten to spend a month in Boston, I spent three years in Vancouver, I grew up skiing in New Mexico, I currently live in Harlem in Manhattan. The list goes on. Because of that, I’ve met people from different backgrounds, different families, different areas… and I wanted to make sure that in writing the The Magic Misfits I was being as respectful to different lifestyles as possible. I also of course am married to a man and we have two kids together, and that’s not the nuclear family that many people associate with. Thankfully, we live in a time and place where I feel like my family is equally honored. I think it’s important for kids who have two moms or dads, or one parent, or some other type of unique family system to feel respected and represented, because they have just as many things to learn and to give as everyone else. Everyone has their own uniqueness. In writing these books I wanted to make sure that was touched upon in a way that didn’t feel heavy handed or preachy, but was just normal life for the misfits.
How do your kids feel about the series, by the way? Do you ever run ideas by them?
I sometimes run jokes by them. There are a set of twins in the book, Izzy and Olly, and their comedy is intentionally bad. It’s showy and vaudevillian, with bad puns and silly runs on the same word. So I would sometimes read the twins passages to see if they thought a joke was really funny, or if it was a groan and an eye roll sort of funny, but I wouldn’t really tell them which reaction I was hoping for. And then I would have to make a few edits.
Most people know you as an actor — and now a writer. But you’re actually also an accomplished magician. How did you get into magic?
It was my hobby growing up! When my mother’s father, G. Walter Scott would come to visit, he would always bring my brother Brian and I gifts, and sit with us and do magic for us. The magic he did was almost of a scientific nature… he would get a cork to move through a glass of water using static electricity, things like that. That got my mind thinking in magical ways, and it became my hobby. I have always been intoxicated by magic, and have been given the unique opportunity to have a platform to encourage other people, adults and now children and teenagers, to join the magic fraternity and hopefully get them interested as well.
What makes magic so… well, magical? Why do you think so many people, adults included, love going to magic shows, and what makes magic so transfixing?
As adults we often have to prioritize the thing that’s going wrong. We’re late for work, there’s a problem, something is broken and needs fixing, the schedule needs to change… but if you get a moment to sit in that sense of magical wonder, it can remind you of what it’s like to feel like a kid again. I think people are drawn to the idea that the impossible can actually happen. They’re drawn to that childhood wonder, that idea of excitement, thinking that a woman can’t possibly disappear from a box and appear at the back of a stage. That a card can’t possibly be ripped up and burned in a vase and then reappear inside your wallet. But I think that same sense of wonder exists when you see the most amazing sunset, or you’re watching a kid walk for the first time. It’s a feeling that everyone is drawn to. And magic by design is meant to elicit that reaction.
You and David just celebrated your five year wedding anniversary— congratulations! What did you do to celebrate?
We contemplated doing something very fancy… but instead we had the best time ever going for the weekend to Brimfield, Massachusetts to a giant flea market. We brought our minivan and filled it with knick knacks and bought random things that were once owned by others. We got sore feet and ate a wonderful prime rib meal in a nearby town and just kinda hung out. It was a perfect anniversary.
I know it’s maybe early to ask, but your family does not mess around for Halloween. Do you know what you’re going to be this year?
I think we’re zeroing in on it now that it’s fall. I try not to commit to something too soon, just in case our kids decide that they really want to do something different, and I don’t want to force anything on them. But we’ve come up with a few options. I don’t think it will be quite as scary as we’ve done in the past. Last year, the family was very kind in letting me do my ode to Disney’s Haunted Mansion, which is one of my favorite things in the world. That involved a corpse bride and ghosts in a graveyard. So I think this may be a little less macabre, but I hope it’s successful. We’ll see.
Thank you so much, Neil! The Magic Misfits: The Minor Third is available now.
This interview originally appeared in the September 11, 2019 edition of Katie Couric’s Wake-Up Call newsletter. Subscribe here.