Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Panel of picture book authors

On Saturday 4/25/09, the Fairfield County (Connecticut) chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators hosted a panel about the craft of creating picture books on which I had the pleasure to appear.

Thank you to all who took time on the first summery day of the season to sit indoors and participate, whether in the audience or alongside me (the only male in that photo without groomed facial hair
—scruff doesn't count). Thank you also to those who supported our books afterward.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Golden Age of Picture Book Biography

After I speak in schools, I hope students feel that "nonfiction" is not synonymous with "non-interesting." (Actually, I hope they recognized that before I showed up, but field reports often indicate otherwise.)

Now I want to address another publishing misconception. "Picture book" is not synonymous with "children's book."

I do not call myself exclusively a "children's author." Yes, some of my books usually do not score readers beyond children, particularly nonfiction series books for the school and library market. Such books must adhere to an established format and that often leaves little room for a creative imprint. A child may have no choice but to read such a book, but an adult interested in the subject will almost certainly look for a more lyrical approach.

Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman is a picture book and it is shelved in the children's section of bookstores, but I wrote it for all ages.
I've appeared at a diverse bunch of venues for it, from museums to comic conventions. At most of them (aside from school visits, naturally), I seem to be signing more books to adults than to kids.

The crossover potential of nonfiction picture books is an idea that some people in publishing have not embraced. In many cases, sales don't give them reason to...but that is perhaps because some authors haven't seen the value in promoting their books as crossover books.

They really should.

We are in the Golden Age of Picture Book Biography
, and that's good news whether or not backpacks and pigtails are still part of your routine. If a book is well-written, who cares how many (or few) words it has? Less is, as always, more. (Except, perhaps, with Twitter.) More than a couple of adults have told me that they actually prefer to learn about a subject in a picture book as opposed to a longer text. In our overscheduled modern lives, that's just good time management.

Of course, other adults feel that getting an introduction to a subject via a picture book is embarrassing. But it seems hypocritical to dismiss a relatively short, well-written nonfiction book simply because it has custom illustrations instead of photographs (or instead of no images at all).

Why? Well, since when are pictures just for children? We have all encountered adults who have art on their walls, pillars of photo albums, and something besides a solid color as their computer background—not to mention coffee table books brimming with glorious images. (With respect, I don't know anyone who has bought a coffee table book to read it.)

And you can't name a mainstream magazine or web site that doesn't consider strong visuals as important as strong reporting and writing. Visual literacy—learning how to read a layout dominated by graphics—is a growing topic in education and everyday life.

On a commercial note, one so obvious yet infrequently discussed, writing a book that attracts (and is accessible to) both kids and adults increases an author's market potential.

Though good illustrated nonfiction can have an all-ages audience, that is not the only reason I feel we are in the Golden Age of Picture Book Biography. Overall, the quality of writing in new nonfiction picture books has never been richer.

The days of starting a picture book biography with "Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, in Kentucky" are as dead and buried as, well,
Abraham Lincoln. Vivid language is imperative, but it's about more than that. It's also about approach. Biographies don't need to start with birth and end with death (or success). The illustrated portion of Boys of Steel covers only about ten years, roughly 1930 to 1940, though I do address what happened next in a text-only, three-page author's note. Nonfiction picture book writers have more freedom in terms of structure and style than ever before.

What's more, a healthy number of nonfiction picture book biographies profile people who (to my knowledge) have not had any previous trade book (for kids or otherwise) to themselves. Even Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, brains behind one of pop culture's most ubiquitous figures, were virgins in the standalone biography genre before Boys of Steel. They've been integral parts of larger comics histories (notably Men of Tomorrow and Superman: A Complete History), but they've never had a book just about them.

A quick and therefore criminally incomplete list of picture book biographies that are forerunners of their subjects (which in some cases means at least one other book on the same subject has come out, but only after the picture book):
  • The Day-Glo Brothers: The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors (color inventors)
  • Strong Man: The Story of Charles Atlas (bodybuilder/marketing wizard)
  • The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins (modeler of life-sized dinosaurs)
  • Sawdust and Spangles: The Amazing Life of W.C. Coup (circus/aquarium pioneer)
  • Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight Became an Inventor (first woman to get a patent)
  • Fartiste (about Joseph Pujol, who turned flatulence into performance art)
  • America's Champion Swimmer: Gertrude Ederle (first woman to swim the English Channel)
Dang. That list should be longer. If you can, please add to (and correct) it in the comments.

And then there are plenty of picture book biographies that come out after an "adult" biography, but an adult biography that did not get wide exposure or is out of print. I have examples but I will spare you for now. Suffice it to say we are talking about some fascinating individuals.

Just because a person has not been the focus of a biography before does not mean his story is not worth telling. Aren't we all perpetually hungry for "new" stories? Nonfiction writers are also detectives. I often feel the more unknown a figure (or an accomplishment of a well-known figure), the more engaging a book about him/it can be: "How could I have not heard about this before?" What writer would not take that as a high compliment?

So what about the youth audience for picture books? A subject for a future post. In the meantime, let's recap.

This is the Golden Age of Picture Book Biography because...
  • it's really an all-ages format, despite how many such books are marketed
  • visual literacy has become essential in our graphics-heavy digital age
  • picture book nonfiction is written with more flourish than ever before
  • in our ever-busier era, concise writing is in high demand
  • increasingly, picture book biographies are the first biographies on certain people
  • everyone likes pictures
Pictures sure would have made this long post go by faster...

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Death comes for Supermen

On 4/17/09, I was one of the authors appearing at a book fair at the Birch Wathen Lenox School in New York City. Each author read to an assigned class, took questions, then returned to the book fair to sign books. Here is a (going on memory) exchange after I read my class Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman:

student 1: Are Jerry and Joe still alive?
me: No, Jerry died in 1996 and Joe died in 1992.
student 2: Didn't Superman also die?
me: There have been Superman stories for 70 years. He's died several times but always comes back. His most publicized death was in 1992.
student 3: So Superman and Joe died in the same year. That's weird.
me: You know, that is weird.

Speaking of milestones, 71 years ago today, Action Comics #1 went on sale.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A risk of writing about the living

I wrote a book called Vanished: True Stories of the Missing that is due out in January from Scholastic. It consists of seven (non-illustrated, 3,000-word) true stories about people who disappeared under a diverse range of circumstances.

Half (well, four) of them were never heard from again. The rest resurfaced between a day and more than 30 years after they went missing. Some were swallowed up by the wilderness, others dropped off the radar in urban environments. The youngest was five. The oldest was in his late fifties.

All the disappearances happened within the last 100 years
—the earliest in 1925, latest in 2007. Some of these people are still alive. Of those, I had several burning questions about one, so I tried to contact that person.

Let's call this person A. The person who responded on behalf of A (let's call that person B) was more than kind and helpful.

But B also had three requests:
  • to edit my piece about A before it was published
  • to receive six copies of the book
  • to be paid for inclusion in the book
Many writers would balk instantly at the first request. "No one edits me but my editor!" But I was happy to agree to that—as always, I wanted the piece to be as accurate as possible. Plus I would be under no obligation to accept every (or any) suggestion. The second request was fine by me if the publisher supported it. The third...

I've written professionally about real people since 2001 but had never encountered this issue before. By the time I wrote about them, most were no longer with us in body, with one exception: Rosa Parks. However, enough books have been written about her that she probably no longer paid attention to any new ones coming out (or at least mine!).

B said that if my book profiled four people (B knew that it was a collection but did not know how many stories exactly), then each of them could get 5% of the profits, leaving me 80%. B wanted A to also benefit if Hollywood came hollering. B did not want me to take advantage of A. I fully understand that. I have written a book about Bill Finger, for heaven's sake.

But with a word of support from my editor and agent, I wrote B to explain the following as delicately but clearly as possible:
  • writers need not pay public figures (as A is) to write about them, as per the First Amendment; if biographers and journalists had to pay the people they interview or profile, newspapers would be even slimmer than they already are and biography sections of bookstores would be practically nonexistent
  • writers do not get 80% of a book's profits—not by a long shot (publisher, agent, bookseller get some, too—if there is any profit)
  • I contacted A to be sure I was telling A's story accurately; I assumed a side effect of this would be that A would appreciate the open line of communication and would feel I wanted to do right by A
B then (politely) responded that their request for payment was non-negotiable and repeated her concerns about profit and Hollywood. I elaborated on the following:
  • how writers typically get paid (advance against royalty, with no guarantee that they will ever sell enough copies to earn a royalty)
  • how unlikely it is that Hollywood would look to a book like this (compilation nonfiction for a young audience) in search of material
  • that if a producer did approach me with interest in A's story, I would have to come to A before doing anything else—as I understand it, I would actually need to acquire A's life rights
I emphasized to B that A's inspirational story would have a powerful effect on young people, hoping that would discourage B from demanding (morally or legally) that I remove A's story from the book. I also told B that my book does not preclude anyone else from writing on A. In fact, I encouraged B to seek out an official biographer for A, if that was of interest. I think A's story could make a lovely picture book. I just don't feel I'm the guy for it.

When one does great things, as A has, others will naturally want to write about it. I'm grateful that we live in a society that allows this to happen without impediment.

My last response to B was more than two months ago and I haven't heard back. I think A and B now see.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Houston, we have a program

Board game created by student at Walker Elementary in Katy, TX,
based on Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman; see more below

From 3/29-4/1/09, I was in Texas—my first time there. I did author programs at five wonderful schools, culminating with the one that initiated the trip, Beth Yeshurun. Several other authors and author/illustrators were also guest speakers at that school's daylong Young Authors Celebration.

My warm welcome at Poe Elementary in Houston

Walker Elementary, Katy, TX; this and next two photos
courtesy of James Broadhead

Large Boys of Steel welcome cards made by students at Walker Elementary,
plus books to sign

More board games students created based on Boys of Steel

My three favorite signs of the trip, all spotted while I was driving and none that you'd likely see in the Northeast:

"In Need of BBQ Lovers" (bumper sticker)

"Honey Bee Removal" (handwritten sign stuck in dirt by side of road)
"Truck Accident Lawyer" (billboard)

What I love about that last one is the specialization. Car accident? This is not your guy, apparently.

I probably would have noticed more gems but my GPS had trouble with Houston's loop—the road that laps around the highways. Or rather, I had trouble with my GPS's interpretation of the loop. See, seems the loop has different names in different places, and most of those places (at least the ones I drove on) didn't have clear signs.

And speaking of barbecue, I received welcome letters from the students at Walker, and this was my favorite comment from them (sounds like a high compliment coming from a Texan):

"I like the
Boys of Steel book better than my mom's steak and BBQ."