Saturday, April 20, 2019

Texas Library Association Conference 2019

From 4/15-18/19, I was an honored guest and Featured Speaker at the legendary Texas Library Association Conference, this year held in Austin.

I was invited by the conference itself and not sent by one of my publishers, which means I was scheduled to speak but not scheduled to sign—and I didn’t realize this till a day after I got there. Therefore, it was too late to slot me in to sign books, which disappointed a number of attendees (not to mention myself). No matter—they can still get the books!

The night before the festivities began, I explored the neighborhood around my hotel, where I found three things that made me feel at home: a bar named for the chupacabra (a southern U.S./Central America thing), a bar named for bats (an Austin thing), and a donut shop—in particular, a grape-flavored donut. You rarely see grape desserts and never have I ever seen a grape donut.




Special points for naming the donut after a semi-forgotten Hanna-Barbera character.

On 4/15, strong winds stranded a number of guests in their respective airports/hometowns, one of whom was my pal Tom Angleberger. At 8:45 pm, I was recruited to pinch hit for Tom in an author vs. author game show starting at 9 p.m. hosted by a puppet. (You read that right. Again, this conference is legendary.) 

My team consisted of Chris Barton, Jo Whittemore, Andrew Smith, Stacy McAnulty, and myself. We competed against Jennifer Ziegler, Lesa Cline-Ransome, Carmen Oliver, Shelley Johannes, and Jeff Anderson. 


The three-part challenge started with Pictionary, for which I had to draw as many idioms as my team could guess in two minutes, followed by story-in-round, concluding with (hard!) literary trivia. Trivia is usually one of my things but almost all of these questions stumped me. (Who knew Neil Gaiman’s first book was about Duran Duran? Well, someone on the other team…)

We did win, but it was so close.


On 4/17 at 8:30 am (which seemed early to me but doesn’t faze librarians), I gave the first of my two featured talks, this one on Bill Finger. My second was scheduled for the next day, at 10:30 am, which was close to the end of the conference (and after the exhibit hall would be closed), so I feared few would show up. However, I had at least double the audience for a talk on Thirty Minutes Over Oregon; my angle to discuss the book was empathy, and that also described the crowd. They were very kind to me and my story.

At that talk, a woman who had attended my talk the day before gifted me a bat-themed thank you for an enjoyable presentation.


One night, with Tom Angleberger (who was able to fly in earlier that day), I visited one of the city’s bridges from which thousands of bats famously emerge nightly to the thrill of hundreds of onlookers.


Except that night, they didn’t. (Well, four did.)

I was under the impression that this happened without fail soon after sunset every evening, and the large crowd gathered there gave me no reason to think otherwise. 




Alas, now I have to try again, and I don’t know when I will be back. 

The other disappointment of TLA also had to do with something that flies. As I’ve been doing since Nerd Camp last summerI hid several fairies on site. (Rather they hid themselves.) Whoever found one and tweeted me a photo of it would win a copy of Fairy Spell


But no one did.

I may be disappointed but I am surprised. 

Fairies are notoriously hide to find. And as Frances says in the book (i.e. in life), maybe it's too hot for them here...

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Four firsts in Austin, TX

On 4/15/19, Bridge Point Elementary in Austin hosted its first author visit, courtesy of its librarian, Katy Larson. It is her first year as a librarian. And it was my first author visit (in fact first time) in Austin. 

The inaugural photo in what will hopefully eventually be a wall of author visit photos:



I can’t wait to see how her author visit program develops!

Thank you again, Katy, for taking a chance on me. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

An eighth grader’s exceptional project on Bill Finger

In February 2019, I received an email from Leon (“Leo”) Filipczak, a Wisconsin teacher, on behalf of Zabian, one of his students, who was working on a project that they rightfully suspected would be of interest to me. Leo was blown away by the research skills Zabian acquired and said he’d not seen Zabian work this hard before on a school project.

They’ll take it from here:

Leo:

He wanted to do a project on the Golden Age of Comics. I wanted him to make it academic enough to compete in National History Day.  

Little did we know that several months later, he’d be down the Bill Finger rabbit hole, in contact with Athena Finger and Marc Nobleman, and have advanced to the statewide competition. Plenty of academic and life skills would be acquired along the way.

Zabian, an 8th-grade student from northern Wisconsin, returned from Madison on 4/13/19 having entered a website on Bill Finger’s life into the National History Day event. National History Day is a science fair-like competition for middle and high school students that emphasizes primary historical research. Every year, NHD has a theme, and for 2019, it was Triumph and Tragedy. 

Zabian: 

I was doing a project on Batman and I found a little article about the Bill Finger story. I don’t even remember which article—maybe it was one by Marc—but I found out there was a controversy about Bill Finger and the creation of Batman. So then I watched Batman & Bill and it really got me interested in finding out about the lies and everything that led up to the movie. I thought it would fit very well with the History Day theme because his entire life was triumph and tragedy. I have been a Batman fan my whole life, but I didn’t know anything about Bob Kane, or especially not Bill Finger, so this was all new.  

Leo:

From the movie, Zabian branched out to Marc’s TED Talk, Bill the Boy Wonder, and other sources. I tried to push him toward placing Bill’s life into the larger context of 20th-century American history. As a history teacher who has Elfquest, Persepolis, and Watchmen on his shelf but who has never had more than a superficial interest in the DC and Marvel superheroes, I was still somewhat skeptical of the academic merits of the topic.  

Another student in the class was doing a Stan Lee project and one thing that struck us was that Stan Lieber [Stan Lee], Bob Kahn [Bob Kane], and Milton Finger [Bill Finger] had similar backgrounds. They were sons of Jewish immigrants, grew up on the mean streets of New York during the Depression, went to the same high school (along with Will Eisner), adopted pen names, and got into pulp publishing very young in what was seen as a low-brow, entry-level sort of industry. It felt like a very American story.  

I convinced Zabian that it would be worth looking into Bill’s genealogy and we managed to track down the 1940 census record that showed Bill was still living at home and working in the shoe store even as Batman was starting to take off. We also found Louis Finger’s naturalization record from 1919, which contained some interesting details and led to some good discussions of the history of American immigration. I was able to talk about my great-grandfather, who immigrated from Austrian-ruled Galicia (now southeastern Poland/western Ukraine) five years before Louis, so this was one of my favorite parts of the project. 

With most of the published sources located, there was only one thing left to do…

Zabian:

From the documentary, I knew I would have to contact Marc and Athena at some point. I didn’t know for sure if they would respond, because I had never tried to randomly contact a famous person before. Maybe they would be busy and wouldn’t care about some kid’s project. Both of them responded, though. Athena gave me a lot of quotes, and let me put them on my site. Marc gave me some websites. They both seem like very nice people.

Leo:

Zabian won the middle-school website category at the northern Wisconsin regional in March and advanced to the statewide contest. This is not typical for a first-year competitor. And although he did not advance to national competition, he demonstrated skill and perseverance that surprised his teachers, his peers, and himself.

Zabian:

It definitely gave me a lot of new skills that I never used before. This was, by far, the biggest school project I’ve ever done. Bill Finger is one cool dude.



Here is Zabian’s website

Oh, he even found something I had not seen before—the petition for naturalization. Congrats, Zabian, and thanks to you both for sharing your story. I’d bet Bill would be honored.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

“The Chupacabra Ate the Candelabra”: The Play

In October 2018, the Kershaw County Library in Camden, SC put on a play based on The Chupacabra Ate the Candelabra


The characters were portrayed by puppets, but I learned of this too late to request photos—the kids took the puppets home!

Monday, April 15, 2019

Two schools and the Kutztown Children’s Literature Conference in PA

I spent three days with students, educators, and ghosts in Pennsylvania, though I saw only one of the three groups. 

On 4/11/19, I had the pleasure of being the 90th author (!) to visit Newtown Elementary in Newtown. Librarian Liz Dobuski has been at it for a quarter-century and has a stunning wall to prove it.




Among the dizzying array of sanctioned graffiti were a bunch of friends who’d blazed a trail there before me.






And I was especially excited to see one of my childhood favorites, José Aruego, illustrator of the immortal 1971 picture book Leo the Late Bloomer. I had never heard of him doing school visits. He died in 2012 (on his 80th birthday).


Liz’s students prepared for my visit in part by building a precious fairy garden.


Ive come across my share of Boys of Steel postcards, but Liz had one I dont recall seeing before.


A day later and 40 minutes down the road, I had a blast at J. M. Grasse Elementary in Sellersville. Librarian Kim Mulloy recruited a chatty group of students of all grades to join me for lunch, and they were so much fun to play around with. On her desk was a photo of her family in this frame:


Turns out the superintendent of her school district had gifted that frame to every employee. What a meaningful gesture in support of life-work balance.

On 4/13, I was honored to be one of four author keynotes at the 21st annual Kutztown Children’s Literature Conference on the campus of Kutztown University. The other three: Duncan Tonatiuh, Andrea Warren, and Brendan Wenzel, none of whom I had met before. The audience was engaged and humbling.


The other authors and I stayed in the charming Main Street Inn, which was probably also haunted. The only surface in my room suitable for a laptop was the vanity…in the bathroom.


And those ghosts? I believe I was the only guest at the Temperance House in Newtown and was hoping one would join me, but if s/he did, I didn’t notice. I did, however, take this photo…look closely behind me. Maybe you notice…?

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Dixon-Smith Middle School, Fredericksburg, VA

On 4/9/19, I had the pleasure of speaking to 6th-8th graders at Dixon-Smith Middle School in Fredericksburg, VA. My kind host, librarian Melissa West, went above, beyond, up, up, and away to prepare:


That does say "Marc," not "Mars."

And this was only a fraction of the craft work she and her students created to welcome me.


My favorite: scenes from some of my picture books depicted in Legos. One from Boys of Steel:


Thank you again to Melissa for making this day possible!

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

"Thirty Minutes Over Oregon" and "Fairy Spell" on CCBC Choices 2019 list

The Cooperative Children's Book Center of the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison annually compiles a list of their most recommended titles of the year; it's called CCBC Choices.

For 2018, the list comprises 258 books, two of which happen to be mine: Fairy Spell and Thirty Minutes Over Oregon.



Thank you, CCBC, and congrats to all others on the list!

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Friday, March 29, 2019

How to choose an Airbnb

This summer, I’ll be making my fourth pilgrimage to Comic-Con International: San Diego (commonly known as San Diego Comic-Con).

The three previous years I went:


  • 2011—to film for the second of three attempts to make a Bill Finger documentary
  • 2012—to promote the newly-released Bill the Boy Wonder
  • 2014—to honor Bill Finger on the 100th anniversary of his birth and 40th anniversary of his death (not to mention the 75th anniversary of Batman)


This year I’m returning to SDCC to take part in at least one special event for Batman’s 80th, and as usual, SDCC attendees need to book a place to sleep 18-20 months in advance.

To avoid paying approximately $400 a night for a Hampton Inn that will cost a quarter of that a week later, I booked an Airbnb for the first time. (I was also a late adopter of iPods, blogging, and Lyft.) Though I was a bit hesitant (being a clean freak), I was reassured by an omen. One of the options indicated that the owners have two cats—which is two strikes for me. But the property is a separate guest house where the cats don’t go. 

Funnily, the cats ended up being the deciding factor: their names are Bruce Wayne and Bane. (And you thought “B&B” stood for “bed and breakfast.”)

I’m not a cat man but am, of course, a Bat man.

Speaking of animals named for the Dark Knight’s secret identity, this is reminiscent of how I found Athena Finger.

Again, a good omen!

Thursday, March 28, 2019

My “Teen Beat” moment

In January, I spent five days with the students of the Casablanca American School. They publish a pretty snazzy magazine and several students/ace reporters interviewed me for it.


I also was the subject of the pull-out mini-poster! Yes, first time.


Sunday, March 17, 2019

A paperweight that carries significant weight

Bill Finger left behind few belongings that we know of

I was lucky enough to inherit one of them—a paperweight. That turned out to be the first of several quirky stories revolving around this small hunk of metal.


First, it's in Bill the Boy Wonder—anachronistically.

Second, I don't take it to school visits anymore. But not for the reason you might think.

At airport security in (I believe) Reno, the TSA agent asked me to remove the paperweight from my carry-on; I (of course) would never put it in checked luggage. 

He asked what it was. I said "Bill Finger's paperweight." He (of course) asked "Who's Bill Finger?"

I said long story. 

Short version: co-creator of Batman and this paperweight is one of the only things he owned that still survives. 

He said it could be used as a weapon so I could not bring it on board.

I nearly choked.

This was several years ago and my memory of the rest of the conversation is virtually nonexistent, but I imagine I said something like this: "I know we are not supposed to negotiate, but as I mentioned, it's a one-of-a-kind and culturally invaluable. Is there anything I can say to convince you to allow me to take it?"

Somehow my desperation sold him so he did let me keep it. I realized I was risking losing it every time I took it on a flight…so I stopped taking it on flights. 

Third, the man who gave it to me, Bill's sometime writing partner Charles Sinclair, did so because he felt I would take good care of it. 

One time I didn't. (Or a second time, if you count the TSA incident.)

I tend to pack for trips at the last minute. One night before an early flight, I went to my basement office to gather a few things to pack, including the paperweight. I didn't turn on the basement light. As a carried the stack through the dark, paperweight on top, it slipped off—hitting the tiled basement floor. 

Then I turned on the light to discover a small piece had chipped off the bottom. 

I was mortified, even more so when I could not find the missing sliver. Luckily, the next day, my wife did, and she even managed to glue it back so well that you'd probably not notice.

Fourth, this everyday object has obtained a near-mythic status in my family. When my daughter was seven, out of the blue she pointed to the paperweight and said "If there was a fire and you and mommy weren't here, I would take this out for you."

I said "That's so thoughtful, sweetie pea. But if there's even a fire, just get out…

"…I'll get the paperweight."

Fifth, it's even a possibility that a paperweight that appeared once on Gotham was similar-looking on purpose…

The paperweight has been part of my presentation for schools for years, and the reveal generates one of the biggest gasps of the hourlong talk. After, kids sometime ask if I brought it, and I relay the reason why I didn't. 

If I told teachers before the talk that we will get to a point in the story when kids will have a huge reaction to seeing a paperweight, few if any would believe me.

This little beetle has proven to have power far beyond preventing papers from shuffling out of order…

Friday, March 15, 2019

"Thirty Minutes Over Oregon" wins Colonial Dames of America 2019 Young Readers Award

I'm honored to report that the Colonial Dames of America chose Thirty Minutes Over Oregon as their 2019 Young Readers Award Winner.



To quote from the notification letter, "Since 1951, the Society has recognized books of merit that chronicle American history, life, and material culture by giving an Annual Award to the author of an outstanding work and a Citation to a second well-received book. The CDA also presents an award to a book written for Young Readers."

Thank you, Colonial Dames!

Monday, February 25, 2019

"Batman & Bill" makes a timeline of Batman milestones

As we Batusi deeper into the yearlong revelry that is Batman's 80th anniversary, I was thrilled to see Bill Finger make a prominent appearance in a special publication celebrating the Dark Knight's history and influence.


Not only did Bill get a full page to himself (a far cry from previous such tributes, where he typically made little more than a cameo)...


...but he also appears on the publication's Bat-timeline three times…one of which is Batman & Bill (final entry).



(One criticism: as has happened many times online, this magazine used a photo of fellow writer Robert Kanigher for Bill.)

The page about Bill kindly mentions both the doc and Bill the Boy Wonder. I believe this is the first time a print publication has acknowledged my Bill Finger efforts without interviewing me first—in other words, this was a total and surreal surprise.
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