Alice Bee looks grumpy.
The 5-year-old is sitting at the head of the dinner table on the covered porch of her Takoma Park, Md., home. She’s smooshing her face into her hands. Her blond pigtails drape over her flowered shirt, while her blue eyes stare straight ahead.
“Oh, I like that,” says her father, Dave Engledow. He’s sitting behind a camera hooked to a laptop. “Look up here.” He points to his left, then snaps a few photos. Before he can give another instruction, Alice Bee hops off her chair to retrieve a tray of rocks, which she brings to me.
“This rock has rocks in it,” she says, pointing to a geode.
I try to appear interested enough to be polite but not delay matters.
After some wrangling, Alice Bee is back into position and Engledow gets a couple more shots before she rockets away again. This time she wants to show me shells she found at the beach.
Engledow sighs. His wife, Jennifer, gently prods her. “Right now, the light’s just right for Daddy,” she says.
Engledow tries to appear cool but looks tense. This is one of many shoots for the 45-year-old photographer-writer’s debut children’s book, “The Little Girl Who Didn’t Want to Go to Bed.” To millions of people who have liked and shared his images online, Engledow is already known as the World’s Best Father. His hyper-exaggerated, highly humorous photos of Alice Bee as a mischief-maker extraordinaire and him as a distracted dad went viral in 2012, landing them on “The Today Show” and earning them enduring Internet fame.
The book he’s working on is based on stories Engledow used to tell Alice Bee when she was struggling to fall asleep. “She knows the Little Girl is her even though I’m not specifically saying it’s Alice,” he says. “That way the character can get into more trouble.”
The story’s hero/antihero would rather do anything else than go to bed — even clean the toilet — because she’s convinced that her parents are living large without her. After staying up all night, she dozes off during activities she would otherwise love: flying a kite, having a pancake breakfast, attending a piñata party.
The dinner-table photo is set at the end of the day. As the parents, played by Dave and Jen, are talking animatedly about what happened, the Little Girl realizes she can’t remember any of it because she fell asleep.
The book is the first of a trilogy to be published by HarperCollins in late 2017. In May 2015, Engledow quit his full-time job as deputy director of a nonprofit organization to make his February 2016 deadline. But he still has to work around Alice Bee’s school schedule, play dates, family time and those instances when she’s just not in the mood.
“I worry about the shoots where she is not into it or is bored and wants to do something else,” he says. “When she looks back at this and these images, I want her to have nice memories of this thing she and Daddy did together. I don’t want her to look back at it negatively.”
The World’s Best Father images (doctored of course) include her as a toddler, hoisting a turkey twice the size of her head over a deep fryer; holding up her parents on the palms of her hands; and getting washed as a baby by her dad — in an open washing machine. The real-life Alice Bee has her own real-life tricks that would make for good photos, if they weren’t so destructive. Not long ago, her dad recounted on Facebook, the kindergartner abruptly tossed her mother’s toothbrush in the trash. Her excuse: “Because I used it two weeks ago to clean the sink.” Recently, after smelling burning rubber and finding the remains of her rain boots in the oven, Dave Engledow wrote: “I have this sinking feeling that our 2016 is going to be filled with many more incidents caused by Alice Bee’s creative play choices.”
Engledow’s photos are a lot more work than the iPhone pics most parents take of their little ones. Like his previously published photos, each of the roughly 40 images in the book is a composite of two to six photographs. Editing those files together and adding hyper-realistic, ultra-vivid coloring so they pop off the page, takes anywhere from five to 15 hours per image. Given the amount of work needed, he could rename the project, “The Father Who Couldn’t Go to Bed.”
After Engledow gets the perfect shot of Alice Bee, he rewards her with a treat. Minutes later, as she runs across the porch, she accidentally kicks the tripod.
“Ooooooh,” he groans, his head slumping in defeat. Unless he can get the camera back in the exact position, it will take extra hours to fix the image in post-production.
“I get obsessive about how things are laid out,” he says. “Then Hurricane Alice comes on the set and ruins everything. There’s probably a reason no one has ever shot an entire book — that I know of — starring a 5-year-old.”
Alice Bee (Bee is her middle name, but everyone calls her Alice Bee) has been a star since before she could walk. In early 2011, just nine weeks after her birth, Engledow took a photo of her that eventually went viral.
In it, he’s standing in his kitchen holding her under his arm like a football. Wearing a “Schoolhouse Rocks” T-shirt and a bleary thousand-yard stare, he uses Alice’s bottle to add milk to his coffee in a mug that reads “World’s Best Father.”
“I wanted to make fun of myself,” says Engledow, who studied photojournalism in college, “because I was exhausted and felt really clueless as a new father.”
After he posted the picture to Facebook, his mother Peg Engledow admits she was “a little shocked.”
“I immediately emailed him, ‘What will people think when they see this?’ ” she says. “But after I saw two or three more of the photos, I thought, ‘Oh, how creative he is.’ ”
Engledow took another photo around the Fourth of July. In it, he’s peering over the top of The Washington Post’s sports section at Alice Bee, who’s sitting on the table in front of him, sucking on a Roman candle and holding a lit match by a pile of fireworks. Once again, the World’s Best Father coffee mug is there. The scene is part Norman Rockwell, part Looney Tunes.
In June 2012, his wife, Jen, an army chemical officer, was posted to Korea for a year. To keep her connected with the growth of then-1-year-old Alice, Dave Engledow produced a World’s Best Father picture nearly every week, each one more outrageous and hilarious than the last: Engledow distractedly pouring lighter fluid on a blazing barbecue as Alice Bee flambés marshmallows; Engledow carving a pumpkin with her sitting inside it, playing with a lit candle; him eating toast with her sitting on the toaster as if it was a hobby horse.
The photos “evolved into me playing this character,” he says. “It’s a cautionary tale. Don’t be the guy in the photo.”
Most of the images are flights of farcical fancy, though one of Alice Bee in her car seat on top of the family SUV was inspired by Engledow’s worst nightmare. “At least once a year, you read the story of the guy who leaves the baby on top of the car,” he says. “That was my way of dealing with that fear.”
In September 2012, Engledow launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $1,200 to print calendars. The website’s editors named it a staff pick, leading to stories on BuzzFeed and Huffington Post, and appearances on “The Today Show.”
In a day, Engledow’s World’s Best Father Facebook page went from 1,000 likes to 12,000. (As of June, it had 200,000 plus). He scored a book deal, and in spring 2014, Gotham published “Confessions of the World’s Best Father.” The collection of more than 80 photos with diary-like captions was translated into Italian, Korean, Mandarin, German and Vietnamese, and sold 20,000 copies.
Compared with his online following, that figure was slightly disappointing, so Engledow’s agent, Steve Ross, spent time mulling the potential of Engledow’s work. His “aha” moment came at a dinner over a year ago, where some children were entranced by “Confessions of the World’s Best Father.”
“One of them would turn the page and another one would say, ‘Don’t turn it yet. I want to see it some more,’ ” says Ross. “That’s when I realized the natural, organic market for Dave’s work is kids — not adults. I think they’re attracted to the subversive quality.”
Dave Linker, executive editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books, agreed and signed Engledow to write and shoot the trilogy he is now working on.
Engledow then left his job as the deputy director for Working America, a nonprofit arm of the AFL-CIO, with the support of Jen, Ross and Linker. World’s Best Father had taken over his life. Engledow says he fell behind on chores. He felt harried. On weekends, while Jen went with Alice Bee to gymnastics and the zoo, he was home alone, editing images of the virtual Alice Bee’s antics. Doubts about quitting plagued him until a few days later when he took Alice Bee to get last-minute flowers for teacher appreciation day. Instead of picking out flowers like she was supposed to, she insisted on grabbing five little mylar balloons-on-a-stick. “I felt my blood pressure rising as it has done in this sort of situation for the past three years when her shenanigans have caused me to worry about being late for my job,” he wrote on Tumblr. Then he looked down and saw all the balloons read, “It’s a boy!” Instead of losing it, he laughed.
“Even if there’s nothing else after these books, I get this gift,” he wrote, “a year or more of being able to find special moments like this.”
“What do you like to cook?” I ask Alice Bee, who’s standing on a small red footstool. It’s scooted up to the kitchen counter so she can mash sausage for the Rigatoni Pugliese she’s helping her father make. A white apron covers her pink shirt and jean shorts.
“Popsicles,” she replies gleefully.
Engledow is standing next to her, trying to keep his eyes on her and three occupied burners.
As she helps de-seed a pomegranate for a salad, Alice Bee announces she recently flooded the bathroom. “I left the water running in the sink,” she explains.
Jen stands off to the side, making sure the crazy train stays on the tracks. Sometimes, she steps in to hit the brakes, like the time Dave wanted to do a photo of him reading the newspaper while he distractedly lit a cigarette for Alice.
Another time, Jen recalls, “we were very informally approached about doing reality television and we very quickly said, ‘no.’ Alice Bee will never be Honey Boo Boo.”
Alice Bee wasn’t told of her close call with reality TV stardom. And even though her image has been published around the world and shared millions of times online, she’s only partially divined the uniqueness of her situation. “She’s aware of it, but she’s not aware that not every kid can see a picture of themselves in GQ or People,” Engledow says. “We were talking about going to New York City and she said, ‘Can we go back on ‘The Today Show?'”
Alice Bee has moved on to removing membranes from blood orange slices. Her father leaves her to it, while he cooks pasta. A few minutes later, her mother checks her progress.
“Wait, where did all the oranges go?” she asks, peering into the bowl.
“Did you eat them all?” says her father, turning from the stove.
“No,” says Alice Bee in a low, guttural voice favored by cartoon villains. Then she slowly pirouettes to reveal her face streaked with red juice, which is running down the front of her apron, and bursts into laughter.
“It’s this combination of that personality and constantly amazing us,” Engledow says of his daughter later. “We’re under her spell. I said to Jen the other day that as soon as Alice figures out that a smile is a way to get whatever she wants, we’re doomed.”
Martell is the author of several books, including his most recent: Freak Show Without a Tent: Swimming With Piranhas, Getting Stoned in Fiji and Other Family Vacations. He tweets @nevinmartell.
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