09/25/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
Of course Jamie Lee Curtis was thrilled when her third children's book earned glowing notices two years ago and made the New York Times bestseller list. For an actress perhaps best known as the scream queen in Halloween, being taken seriously as an author really is something to shout about. But nothing beats the reaction she gets from a certain subset of her fans. "I love that I can make little boys laugh when I use the word 'diarrhea' successfully in a rhyme," says Curtis, 41, referring to the glee that erupts at readings when she recites lines like, "Today I am cranky, so nothing seems right. I have diarrhea and broke my new kite."
The kids who shriek at those lines have probably never seen her in films like A Fish Called Wanda or True Lies. But with 1.2 million books sold, Curtis can count on a loyal following for her latest volume, Where Do Balloons Go? An Uplifting Mystery. "Jamie is a writer who just happens to be a celebrity," says Curtis's editor, HarperCollins senior vice president Joanna Coder. "She's a very serious writer, and that's why her books are so incredibly successful." Critics agree: Her tales have been called "quite charming" by The New Yorker and "expressive and inviting" by Kirkus Reviews.
Curtis says storytelling is her true calling. "These are wonderful books," she says. "You'll never hear me say that about anything else I do, except maybe my Caesar salads. These books are the closest thing to letting anybody know who I am."
What she is foremost is a mother to Annie, 13, and Tom, 4. In fact, Curtis began writing children's books in 1992, when Annie had just turned 5, with When I Was Little: A Four-Year-Old's Memoir of Her Youth. Annie, who is adopted, also played a key role in her mother's second book, Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born, in 1996. That one was difficult, Curtis acknowledges, because it involved " 'outing' my family, as a gift to help other adopted children." The book sold more than 150,000 copies and paved the way for her '98 bestseller Today I Feel Silly & Other Moods That Make My Day.
By Hollywood standards, Curtis, the daughter of actors Tony Curtis, 75, and Janet Leigh, 73, had a relatively placid childhood—even though her parents divorced when she was 3. (Her sister Kelly Curtis, 44, is also an actress.) The summer g she was 13, Curtis went to Sardinia to visit her father—and decide which parent she wanted to live with. It was during that wrenching time that she discovered the joy of reading. "It was a very weird summer, and I felt like a fish out of water," she recalls. "Then I found a copy of [James Clavell's] King Rat, and it saved me. I lost myself in it."
After graduating from the tony Choate Rosemary Hall school in Connecticut in 1976, Curtis went into her parents' line of work, appearing in more than two dozen films. But she rarely found acting satisfying. "It doesn't fill me up with self-esteem," she says.
In 1984 Curtis married actor-writer Christopher Guest, now 52, whom she met in 1983. Although she still acts in the occasional film—including The Tailor of Panama with Pierce Brosnan, which will be released in December—Curtis consciously began slowing down five years ago. She was so driven and frenetic, Curtis says, friends called her Terminator. The first step was getting "sober," says Curtis, who calls her substance-abuse problem and recovery "private." She now focuses her full attention on family and writing. Guest says his wife is a natural at both: "She relates absolutely to kids."
These days, Curtis walks her little boy to and from preschool through a shady canyon of eucalyptus trees near the family's four-bedroom Los Angeles home. "My kids have taught me that the more and more I let go, the better," she says. "Let someone else try to rule the world. I don't want to."
Johnny Dodd in Los Angeles