For years now, publishers have asked Idina Menzel (Maureen in Rent if you’re Gen-X, Elphaba in Wicked if you’re a Millennial, and Elsa in Frozen if you’re ... everyone) to write a children’s book. The stage and screen actress demurred time and again until she finally felt she had a really authentic story to tell: her own. But she knew she would need help with the writing, so she went to the person “who knows me better than anyone else in the world,” and who just so happens to be a talented writer and children’s educator: her younger sister, Cara Mentzel. Together, they created Loud Mouse.
The creative duo recently joined Romper on a Zoom call recently to discuss their collaboration, their childhood, and how they’re still learning from one another in surprising ways.
First of all: yes, they spell their last names differently. Idina, whom Cara calls “Dee,” dropped the “T” to reflect the English pronunciation of the Russian last name. But talking to them, it’s clear that there’s far more they have in common. Their bond — even when everyone is in a different location — is clear, and it’s something that’s on adorable display in their new book.
This sisters’ delightful book tells the story of an exuberant little mouse named Dee (naturally) who likes to sing “la-la-la-la-loud” wherever she goes, to the delight of her adoring little sister named Cara Lee (naturally). One day, while singing for her class, something magical happens: her big voice makes her big. And at first that’s pretty cool — it certainly feels right — but over the course of the day Dee becomes self-conscious at taking up so much space. It’s up to her supportive mama and Cara Lee to help her realize that the best she can be is herself.
The story is sweet and simple, with the kind of “be yourself” message you’d expect to find in a children’s book about a singing mouse. But Loud Mouse comes from a real, vulnerable place for Idina and explores the conflicting feelings she a as a child about her obvious talent. “I didn't want to take up too much space,” she explained. I was afraid I would I look like I was showing off and would alienate myself from people.”
Loud Mouse is Idina’s first book and Cara’s second. Her first, Voice Lessons: A Sisters Story, is a memoir about growing up in the shadow of her larger-than-life older sister and, ultimately, learning how to find her own voice. Idina wrote the forward.
“She's always sort of clearing a path for me to do what I do also,” Cara says fondly.
“I guess I'm apologetic sometimes for taking up that space with my sister,” Idina admits. “So I like to be able to put her in a pedestal and say, ‘I need you to do this. I think you're the better writer and you'll have a better outlook perspective to make this really good.’”
“I hope it comes from a place of love as much as it comes from a place of guilt,” Cara jokes.
“Maybe that's the sequel: Guilt Mouse,” Idina deadpans. “It's about a very big mouse who we're trying to get smaller.”
The worked with illustrator Jaclyn Sinquett to bring their story to life in vibrant, painterly, and humorous images. “I joked once that we chose her just because she made us the most attractive mouse version of the child,” Cara says.
But while seeing themselves as little mice is fun, the two have always relied on one another to see themselves more clearly. Cara observes that the two seem to have objectivity when it comes to identifying truth for each other, and Idina agrees, noting that her sister is the first person she turns to in crisis.
The two also find self-confidence in motherhood. Idina is mom to son Walker, who just turned 13, while Cara is mom to adult sons Jake and Avery, and step-son Oscar. “Motherhood was a safe space for me,” Cara says, “because that was the only thing I knew I wanted. So that role was like home to me. What happens outside of mom: that was scary for me.”
Idina agrees, observing that motherhood has enabled her to recognize her value outside of her talent. “Being known for my voice as a singer, in some ways, has made me feel like ‘Who am I without that voice? Am I still interesting? Am I still me?’” she observes. “As a mom have recognized how much I have to offer. And I think that's one of the great gifts of parenthood: being able to get outside of ourselves and realize what we have to give.”
It’s also a space, they say, where Cara has uncharacteristically taken the lead.
“She got married, had kids before me. She was always able to guide me in certain times in my life,” says Idina. “I love that our roles are sort of reversed where I look up to my younger sister. But she’s always also just had an older soul vibe, had words of wisdom, and an outlook on life, a perspective that's always been helpful to me.”
The pair hope that their brand of humor and love shines through the pages of Loud Mouse, and that it can inspire children to feel comfortable in their own skin, even if it’s uncomfortable at first.
“I find as a performer when I'm best is when I've made myself or allowed myself to be the most vulnerable because then you're allowing people to see you for who you really are,” says Idina. “The book is giving kids the permission to allow themselves to be vulnerable and know that in the end it will reveal their greatest self.”
“I think it even goes farther than permission, right?” Cara continues. “It's your job to be yourself. You don't need to apologize for that. Work with the people around you who love you and express yourself at whatever volume you would like to.”
The song draws lyrics from the story.
And, of course, when you have Idina involved you know there’s going to be singing — she recorded a song to accompany the book, which is available for download on various music platforms and streaming services. Cara only stipulated that it had to be a song anyone could sing.
Loud Mouse is now at a bookstore near you, online, and from your local library.