Wednesday, April 18, 2018

"The Joe Shuster Story: The Artist Behind Superman"

Today is the 80th anniversary of the first appearance of Superman. In honor of that...

Comic book creator duos often mirror their creations: one is the star, one is the sidekick. In the Bob Kane/Bill Finger dynamic, Bob hoarded the spotlight—until recently. In the Jerry Siegel/Joe Shuster partnership, Jerry has tended to overshadow Joe, but in a less contentious way than the Batman boys. Joe was simply the more soft-spoken of the two, always in Jerry's wake in their efforts to receive more for Superman. But unlike Bob and Bill, and despite intermittent frictions, Jerry and Joe remained a unit for most of their superhero saga.

That makes a new graphic novel written by Julian Voloj and illustrated by Thomas Campi especially inviting. It takes an atypical approach by unspooling Superman's real-life origin story from Joe's perspective. In most tellings, including my own (Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman), Jerry and Joe are presented on equal footing. In The Joe Shuster Story: The Artist Behind Superman, the sidekick speaks up.

That voice is largely fictionalized. Though meticulously researched, the book is heavy on dialogue, much of which had to be imagined. However, based on what I remember from my own Siegel and Shuster research (way back in 2004), most of it reads as authentic. Joe sounds here like he sounded in my head. And though tragedy recurs in both men's timelines, Joe suffered in ways Jerry didn't (namely, his eyesight deteriorated for most of his adult life—particularly brutal for a visual artist). 

Voloj cleverly frames the story with a 1975 incident in which a police officer rouses a downtrodden Joe resting on a bench in a Queens, New York park, then treats him to soup at a nearby diner. It's a woefully low point for one of the minds behind a high-flying hero—the opposite of the way many would expect such a story to start. And that's why it works. It punctures the skin immediately. In Joe's passivity is a pathos that is painful to observe. 

Like Joe himself, the book has a gentle aura. The lettering is small and delicate, the colors a wash of muteness. This has the effect of lulling the reader, which gives certain turning points (even if small) more kick, such as when Joe meets Jerry—but not the Jerry you're thinking of.

The book does a deft job of weaving in historical context from World War II to the machinations of the sometimes shady characters who called the shots at the company that would become DC Comics. This is especially well done with respect to the softcore artwork a conflicted yet desperate Joe agreed to do in the 1950s, and the paranoia and fear he felt when it was revealed that the Brooklyn Thrill Killers, prior to their murder spree, had read some of the lurid stories Joe had illustrated. One choice that I feel is a cliché is the way Bob Kane morphs into the Joker when he betrays Jerry and Joe in their first attempt to sue National.

I loved seeing scenes I have read (and written) about and places I have visited come to life in this format, which allowed for a good but not overwhelming amount of depth. This was no easy book to illustrate. Though at its core a story of two people at desks, in execution it is much broader than that, requiring scenes in grand-scale settings such as the 1940 New York World's Fair. Campi has clearly done thorough research and it's a joy to absorb the details he includes throughout. 

In terms of text and pace, a standout passage is a sweet seven-page scene where young Joe takes lead (Jerry is there, too) in welcoming a similarly young female model to his apartment so he can sketch from life. That model, Jolan Kovacs, would be one of the inspirations for Lois Lane, would later reinvent herself as Joanne Carter—and would become Jerry's (yes, Jerry's) wife. Joe left in the dust again. 

Being stringent about accuracy, I was disappointed to see that Joe can see—he is depicted without eyeglasses. To an extent this is defensible because in most if not all photos of Joe from the early days of Superman, he is not wearing glasses. But he did wear glasses then—except when being photographed. I don't believe it was a stylistic choice to leave out the eyeglasses, but this oversight (pun not intended) can be overlooked if interpreted thematically—Joe was "blind" to dominance (first Jerry's, later National's) insofar as he let both steer his course.

I also felt the ending was underwhelming. Again like Joe, it was too quiet for its own good. I craved a more trenchant emotional payoff. The material is there; perhaps a slightly more dramatic breakdown of the text or a more memorable final image would've done the trick. 

Despite my few quibbles, I highly recommend The Joe Shuster Story. I'm happy that Joe, like Bill Finger not long ago, is finally getting his chance to be the hero, or at least the heart, of the story.

Note: Julian Voloj is a friend and I was sent an uncorrected advance review copy.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Sunday, March 25, 2018

On advocating for diversity at kidlit conferences

(If you have time to read only one sentence, skip to the bolded action plan below.)

On 3/19/18, authors and other children's publishing professionals had a conversation on Twitter and Facebook about the first annual Asbury University Children's Literature Conference in Kentucky (a collaboration with the Mazza Museum of picture book art in Ohio) on 3/24/18.

The event scheduled four author speakers. All were white. All were male. One was me. (The others were Marc Brown, Peter Catalanotto, and Aaron Reynolds.)

The online conversation called out the dearth of diversity, and rightfully so. Though this is a conversation we need to have year-round, the timing was especially apt: March is Women's History Month and now also #Kidlitwomen Month.

After hearing me speak at Mazza the summer of 2017, one of the Asbury organizers invited me to speak at their 2019 conference and I accepted; I did not think to ask who else was presenting. A few weeks before the 2018 conference, one of the four authors backed out. (I later learned that the author was female.) My contact asked me if I would be able to switch to this year. Finding a comparable replacement for a conference speaker on such short notice is a challenge. I was able to rearrange my schedule so I said yes. Again, I did not think to ask or check who else was presenting. 

When the all-white, all-male lineup was announced, public reaction within our kidlit community ranged from disappointment to outrage. 

I take heart that creators of books for young readers have long embraced equality and tolerance on the page and are now empowered to identify mistreatment or lapses in judgment in real life. 

In this case, however, I was troubled by the approach that some people took in voicing disapproval. As one example, this anonymous comment:

I stand with all who are working to eliminate inequity in children's publishing (and I feel the other three gentlemen authors at the conference also do), but I do not condone doing so by casting aspersions on people you do not know. This can alienate those who already agree with you and who already speak up for others (five links). 

The goal at hand is fairness. The path to achieving it should exemplify fairness.

Unless proven otherwise, we must presume authors, illustrators, and conference chairs are human allies capable of exhibiting an oversight—and willing to fix it. We are all perpetually learning.

We must give the benefit of the doubt.

We must follow the Golden Rule.

We must Choose Kind.

Like many of our peers, I will now accept invitations only from events committed to gender and racial diversity.

In addressing the organizers and participants of events that do not represent diversity, I propose a simple course of action:

Rather than start with public shaming or snark, instead contact the event organizer and participants directly and privately to express the concern civilly. 

Takes the same amount of time as calling out on social media but is more in the spirit of our industryand of the movement itself. This good-hearted approach gives people the chance to course-correct because they want to do right, not because they were guilted. Stick to the mission: conveying the importance of maintaining a unified front on diversity at literary events. And stick to non-inflammatory language. 

I'm not saying we can't be angry. Anger fuels change. But it is most effective when it is controlled.

Nixing the negative while remaining positive is the way forward.

Case in point:

Two days after the lack of diversity was (directly, privately, civilly) called to Asbury's attention and three days before the event, the conference was able to add a female keynote, illustrator Erin Barker. (Remember that name. She's going places.)

And I have on good authority that if there is a second annual, it will be more diverse.

Thank you again to Asbury for inviting me, for listening to feedback, and for making a last-minute change. And thank you to those who discussed this issue constructively.

As we continue to insist on diversity, we must also insist on civility.

Side note of equal importance: 

I learned only after I presented that Asbury is a Christian university that has been accused of being anti-gay. As someone who has withdrawn from delivering a keynote in a state that had legislated LGBTQ intolerance, I was at first conflicted about this. 

But my perspective has shifted and now I would have ultimately participated anyway because of this. 

A story I commonly tell involves a gay man whom I mention during every talk for grades 3 and up (which the person who invited me to speak at Asbury knew firsthand). I do it even when I'm (sigh) asked in advance not to. Therefore, this would be a chance to speak about the issue plainly, as the non-controversial fact of life that it is (or should be). Marc Brown also touchingly discussed this by mentioning both his transgender son and a gay marriage in one of his upcoming stories.

We gave this community the benefit of the doubt and they did not let us down.

The way to promote tolerance is not to stay away from possible intolerance but rather to destigmatize it from within.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

University of Central Missouri Children's Literature Festival 2018

From 3/17-20/18, I had the honor of making my third appearance at this beloved UCM festival. (During my second appearance, in 2013, we ghost hunted. Yes, stuff happened.) Though this year was the 50th anniversary, the event felt young and vital. 

It was an especially great/impressive group of authors/people. I already personally knew a handful including Roland Smith, Chris Barton, Phil Bildner, Matt Phelan, John Marciano, Brad Sneed, Kelly Milner Halls, Antony John, Sue Macy, and William Anderson. Alan Gratz and I had been in touch online and finally met in person for the first time. And it was such a pleasure to make new friends including Obert Skye, Raul Gonzalez III, Mike Jung, Fonda Lee, Brandy Colbert, Mary Casanova, Jack Gantos, Beth Vrabel, and Mary Downing Hahn.

We were heavily scheduled (four talks a day) but I had the chance to sit in on parts of three author talks: Matt, John, and Alan. All top notch.

Contending with obstacles including a last-minute cancellation and heavy rain, organizer Maya Kucij tapped skill and summoned grace to oversee 31 authors, a fleet of volunteers, and approximately 4,300 students from around the state. She even kindly showed Batman & Bill the night most authors arrived, and I was touched that Matt, John, William, Raul, Mike, Fonda, and both Marys were among those who attended. 


 Phil Bildner, Chris Barton, me

 John Marciano, me, Matt Phelan

 Brad Sneed, Antony John, me

 Fonda Lee, Raul Gonzalez III, John Marciano, 
E.B. Lewis, Matt Phelan
(looks like a lost '60s British Invasion album cover, no?)

 I was pleasantly surprised to see this book in the 
library's fantastic collection of vintage children's books.
It shows diversity on the cover (and within)...
and it was published in 1969.

 The hotel phone had a direct line to pizza.
(Alas, it didn't work.)

 The hotel also had an apparently dangerous 
laundry chute.

 One rainy, windy afternoon, Matt, John, Raul, Fonda, E.B., and I 
explored downtown Warrensburg, in particular a multi-story
commission mart. The standout booth was a mini bodega. Yes,
someone was selling food at a flea market...

...the moldy bread was only $1.

(Though this horrified the six of us, we vowed to return 
the next time we come to the festival to see if it's still there.)

Thank you again, Maya and UCM, for putting in such effort to promote literature. Everyone I talked to loved the experience.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

"Fuels suspense…unforgettable" - "Booklist" on "Fairy Spell"

"A seamless blend of both frolics and facts fuels suspense ... part accidental trickster tale, part unforgettable fairy tale, all true, this will have kids reaching for cameras of their own in no time"

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Charlotte S. Huck Children's Literary Festival 2018

In 2015, I was one of the author speakers at the Charlotte S. Huck Literary Festival in Redlands, CA.

My books sold out quickly so I was quickly invited back for this year (actually last year, but I had a scheduling conflict). This year, however, after I spoke, my books again sold out quickly, leaving some attendees disappointed and the bookstore stunned. They said they'd never seen books sell out that fast and asked me "What did you say?"

I love the structure of this event. Each featured author gets to hear every author speak to the entire attendance. (Often at book events, authors are scheduled against each other throughout.)

I had the added privilege of speaking with a group of 4th and 5th graders whose parents drove them to campus. They had done some impressive prep work…

Inspired by Bill Finger, the kids made gimmick books:

Inspired by Bill Finger, I used "bill," "finger," and "bat" puns throughout Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman, and the kids discussed this (and alliteration):

They even made a timeline of notable events in comics history, which listed multiple Bill Finger events...including Bill the Boy Wonder and Batman & Bill! Granted they kindly did that because I would be there, but it was still cool to see.

Coolest of all: their nametags indicated their names twice…once correctly, once backwards. As for why, see Bill the Boy Wonder

Thank you again to Marjorie Arnett, my author "angel" Andy Mitchell, and all the committee members/volunteers who made the festival (and my participation in it) possible. It was an honor to meet James and Lesa Cline-Ransome, whose joint presentation was disarming, modest, and impressive. It was a similar honor to meet Kathi Appelt (and her husband) in person years after I "met" her as both a participant in the "kidlit authors read bad reviews" videos and a keynoter at a particularly dramatic SCBWI conference.

Side note: I started my California week in Los Angeles, where I had the pleasure of having lunch with Scott Valentine, the actor who played Nick, Mallory Keaton's boyfriend on Family Ties. He did not participate in my
Family Ties oral history but shared some startling stories over Thai food...

Monday, February 26, 2018

ANOTHER problem with mentioning sexual orientation in an elementary assembly

This past fall, I reported an unfortunate circumstance in which a parent complained to an elementary school principal because an author speaker (me) mentioned a person's sexual orientation during a presentation. To be specific, I said Bill Finger's son Fred was gay.

Despite that incident, which (as far as I know) blew over quickly, I've continued to identify Fred as gay in presentations for all kids in grades 3 and up—with virtually no other pushback elsewhere. 

This past week, however, I experienced a different response—one I had not fully considered beforehand. 

After doing three assemblies at a Maryland elementary, as I was about to head out, both the principal and vice principal approached me. They said they knew I was trying to beat traffic but warmly asked if had even a few minutes to meet with a parent who was in the main office.

Before another word was said, I figured this, too, was probably about me saying "gay."

And I was right. 

But in the wrong way.

The father of two of the students had come in because one or possibly both of his girls were upset. Not because I mentioned that someone was gay. 

Because of the way a few students reacted when I mentioned that someone was gay. 

Because he and his husband (the girls' fathers) are gay.

Those few students had expressed disgust. Dishearteningly, this has happened at numerous other schools—and I swiftly and sternly crack down it on every time. I remind them to be respectful. I remind them that we treat people equally, as we wish to be treated. The snickers or snorts screech to a halt.

Of course their intolerance is not innate. It's not what these young people think. It's what certain adults in their lives think and have toxically passed down to them. 

It's secondhand hate.

This father—let's call him Matt—was rightfully distraught (at one point on the verge of tears) that his children were in the room when this happened. (I was not clear if he had seen his girls since the assembly.) I sympathized deeply with his whole family. The principal and vice principal praised how I handled the situation and impressed me by facilitating a conversation between Matt and me.

Matt was not mad at me. Quite the contrary: he was happy that I plainly referred to Fred's sexual orientation like any other fact of life. But he was eviscerated that this put his daughters at risk for emotional anguish among their peers. They do not live in an area with a visible gay community.

This is an especially terrible conflict: Matt simultaneously craves and fears full disclosure. Heterosexuals do not truly know how it feels to have the nature of our love—the core of a human's being—challenged, mocked, loathed. Straight privilege. 

Then Matt asked me a question I was not expecting:

"What should I tell my daughters?"

I am quite sure he already knew, but was fogged in a kind of grief. I said I'm disappointed that we as a society are not there yet but I feel moments like these move us forward. Yes, talking about sexual orientation in mixed company can be difficult because of the small-mindedness of some, but not talking about it is a disservice to all. Of course he already knew that, too.

Matt wondered aloud what if anything schools could do to prevent ignorant reactions like what happened that day. I said I feel a good approach is simply bringing up the subject naturally, without any setup; this normalizes it.

I assured Matt that it was only a small handful of students who reacted insensitively and when I told them that was unacceptable, they went silent. I told Matt that I believe this situation, while hurtful at first, would have a positive effect. His girls heard an adult tell a group of young people that it is perfectly okay (and common) to be gay. Some kids have never heard that before. His kids have never heard that before, in such a setting.

I stammered other words that I hoped would sound supportive. Matt seemed genuinely receptive…and by the end, even somewhat relieved. He thanked me. I thanked him. The vice principal thanked us both. Everyone thanked everyone. 

Matt's family had plans to see Black Panther that night. Speaking of broadening minds…

By the way, the name of one Matt's daughters is Athena.

Same name as Fred's daughter.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Cover reveal: "Thirty Minutes Over Oregon"

In 1997, I saw the New York Times obituary for a man named Nobuo Fujita whose headline called him the "Only Foe to Bomb America."

Ten years later, I finally wrote a picture book manuscript about him. 

Seven years after that, after dozens of rejections and an unconventional experiment, I finally sold the manuscript to a publisher. 

And four years after that, which brings us to this year, Thirty Minutes Over Oregon: A Japanese Pilot's World War II Story is finally coming out. 

Betsy Bird at School Library Journal's Fuse #8 did the cover reveal.

So I am doing the reveal of the reveal:

If you think that image by Melissa Iwai is exhilarating, wait till you see inside...

Betsy is holding off on a full review till closer to the October publication date, but in the meantime, she wrote "Marvelous! Exciting and harrowing, a fascinating portrait of levelheaded thought and kindness."

Thank you, Betsy…and thank you, Nobuo.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Tikal: Mayan ruins turned "Star Wars" Rebel base

On 2/17/18, after a weeklong visit to the American School of Guatemala, I day-tripped from Guatemala City to what some call the historical highlight of Guatemala: the ruins of a Mayan city now called Tikal, part of a national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site. (How long it remains the highlight remains to be seen. Mere weeks earlier, it was announced that archeologists using LiDAR discovered an immense stretch of ruins—a megalopolis—not far from Tikal.)

My hotel was about 10 minutes from the airport. My (domestic) flight was at 6:30 am. Oddly, the tour company set my pickup for 3:30 am. I asked for leniency but the latest they would agree to was 4 am. Sure enough, there was a slow-moving, 15-person line at check-in, but even so, I was done by 5 a.m. That left 90 minutes to fill…assuming the flight departed on time.

Which, surprise, it didn't. My flight number was 110 but turns out three flights were scheduled to leave GC for Flores (the airport closest to Tikal) at 6:30, out of the same gate but with different (unannounced) flight numbers. Based on factors not clear or explained to us, the airline staff divided up the passengers, and of course my plane was not only last to leave but, for reasons not clear or explained, at least 20 minutes late to leave. 

No matter. I was going to Tikal. My first jungle ruins. 

The flight was under an hour. The drive to Tikal was slightly longer. As often happens on package tours like this, the van made one stop at a shop and suggested we buy a raincoat (it was sunny but in Guatemala, the weather often changes on a quetzale); if it went unused during the tour, we could exchange it for something else on the way back. No one bought one. (It did rain, but only briefly, and not until we were returning to the airport. It also poured the two days before and rain was forecast for the day after. We lucked out.)

The shop tripled as a Tikal visitors' center…

a model of the expansive site

…and a mini-museum about gum production.

chewing gum in its natural, flavorless state; we got to try it

A small tortilla stand next door to the shop:

A charming bakery below a residence across the street:

Once you pass the entrance to Tikal National Park, it's still at 17-kilometer drive through jungle to get to the actual entrance to the ruins. You pass signs warning of various animals, including snakes. I wanted a photo of the snake sign but we were driving too fast. And it ended up being the only snake we saw all day.

Another (scale?) model within the park:

It was warm but not oppressive, and much of the tour was under shade of the canopy. We walked from 10:30 am till lunch at 2:45 p.m. (originally scheduled for 1 pm, but we asked more questions and took more photos than anticipated), with only brief, occasional stops to rest; my total steps for the day topped 15,000 (though that included airport, etc.). Foolishly, I did this on an empty stomach—for some reason I had the opposite of appetite for most of the day. Lunch was at one of several wall-less restaurants within the jungle near the entrance.

Animals spotted: howler and spider monkeys, an exotic-looking male turkey (see below), lots of birds (in trees), armies of marching ants, a couple of coatis (similar to raccoons), and, most jungly, a tarantula. 

Pen for scale, but it did not work because
I did not want to get closer.

Jaguars are present but rarely seen, partly because they're active primarily at dawn and dusk, partly because they typically avoid humans.

Crocodiles are also present.

Oh, some monkeys have a disturbing pastime: pooping on hapless tourists.

The tour guide was almost too knowledgeable. He spoke at length without coming up for air (or questions), but I forced some through and he was happy and able to answer. 

Facts I learned and liked:

  • the site dates back to around 800 BCE 
  • it features six large temples and many smaller structures
  • the site was abandoned around 950 CE
  • the site was buried by the jungle and rediscovered in 1848, though I read that locals never forgot it (but didn't go there because it was remote)
  • Temple 3 is the newest structure in Tikal, built around 810 CE; it's mostly covered by flora
  • life at Tikal revolved almost exclusively around worshipping the gods; we did not hear of any leisure activities
  • the Spanish never reached Tikal but other indigenous factions conquered Tikal (twice, I believe)
  • some structures are still buried by the jungle because excavation is a complex, expensive process
  • if not maintained, the jungle would reclaim the site within 10 years
  • within the next 20 years, the government may stop allowing visitors to climb the temples 

The geekiest fact:

A Rebel Base shown in Star Wars: A New Hope was shot at Tikal (on Temple 4, which is the biggest, and which we climbed via wooden stairs but could not photograph due to the jungle around it). In the scene, you can see (from closest to farther) Temples 3, 2, and 1.

My awkward, fourth-wall-breaking recreation:

I was a bit surprised that the gift shops at Tikal don't take advantage of that (or, if they did, I didn't notice in my passing glance). If they marketed this, even sold Rebel helmets so people could recreate the pose from the movie (as I awkwardly did, helmetless), I bet they'd make a killing. But then, this is Tikal. As beloved as Star Wars is, does a breathtaking ancient civilization need a sci-fi movie to boost its draw?

Selective glimpses

An "apartment" (really just a small room) in the royal residence complex:

A bed for a couple, with a smaller bed (the ledge above) for a baby; they were softened with leaves:

A throne; to approach the ruler sitting here, people would have to climb stairs, kneeling on each one, and to leave, they descended the stairs…while still facing the ruler:

A ballcourt for a sport that was (as with most else) really about appeasing the gods:

Temples and other haunting and breathtaking structures:

Walking these grounds gave me an old familiar feeling. Until just before lunch, I didn't crave food…but all day I was hungry for the impossible chance to see the past in the past. To be at Tikal 1,000 years ago, at its peak, pulsating with color (the temples were painted reds and perhaps other shades) and teeming with people. 

Those people would, I imagine, have lived most of their lives in fear, but today Tikal seems at peace. If ghosts are there, they were as hard to detect as the jaguars, perhaps captivated into silence by Tikal's beauty, as I often was.

Though something I saw just before leaving may have been a colorful message from the beyond…

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