May 19, 1997 12:00 PM

AS A STRUGGLING ARTIST BACK IN 1976, Marc Brown could never turn down a freelance assignment—even from his 4-year-old son, Tolon. “He wanted to hear a story about a weird animal,” recalls Brown, 50. “And then he wanted me to draw him a picture.” Setting to work, Brown created Arthur, an 8-year-old aardvark with enough furry charm to land him a book contract—and a first royalty check of $76.81. Says Brown: “I thought, ‘Maybe I can buy my kids shoes and groceries for the month.’ ”

Groceries are no longer a problem, and Brown has also found the money for a Range Rover and a summer house on Martha’s Vineyard. Since 1976, 10 million Arthur books have been sold, and this spring Brown landed a seven-figure advance for books 24 through 27 in the series, making him one of the highest-paid children’s authors ever. What’s more, Arthur, an animated TV show featuring the amiable aardvark (think Bart Simpson on Prozac) has trampled a certain purple dinosaur to become the No. 1 kids’ program on PBS. “Kids can relate to Arthur,” says Brown, “because he’s dealing with the same problems they are”—like chicken pox or a pesky younger sister. Carol Greenwald, the show’s producer, says that watching the characters interact, “I feel like I’m listening to my own kids. I have to bite back the urge to say, ‘Stop bickering.’ ”

Brown’s cast of creatures—there are also chimps, rats and bunnies—are in fact based on real people. Arthur’s finicky sister D.W., the author says, is a composite of his three younger sisters, with whom he grew up in Millcreek, Pa., as the son of a railroad laborer and a homemaker. The homework-happy Mr. Ratburn is a copy of Brown’s own seventh-grade algebra teacher, and Baby Kate was inspired by Eliza, now 7, his daughter with second wife Laurie, also a children’s author. (Brown, who lives in Hingham, Mass., is divorced from the mother of Tolon, 24, and Tucker, 21). “I remember changing diapers one night,” he says, “and thinking, ‘Maybe Arthur should be changing diapers too.’ ”

And who is Arthur’s real-life counterpart? “I found a picture of me from third grade,” says Brown. “And I look just like him.”

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