Thursday, June 25, 2009

How you found me: part 3

Lots of click-throughs to this blog result from straightforward searches including "Boys of Steel" and "picture book biography."

Lots, but luckily, not all.

This is part 3 in an irregular series revealing some of the irregular search phrases—all verbatim, most strange—that have led people here:

  • topless beach Fairfield CT
  • motivational speakers superhero elementary
  • bee keeper speakers in Houston
  • some biographies than one kid did
  • students prefer non-fiction picture books
  • is their a name for books with text and some pictures
  • book steel and kindness
  • the characteristics of a noble man
  • Batman vs. Hitler
  • sticker mania
  • how you found me

Sunday, June 21, 2009

A different type of father

Today, when the creative force behind an iconic character dies, it's unthinkable that this would not be mentioned in mainstream news and entertainment publications.

Yet when Batman co-creator and original writer Bill Finger died, in 1974, no obituary ran in the New York Times...or Variety...or anywhere else...

...except two lesser-seen DC Comics publications (neither was a regular monthly comic book). One was an oversized special called Famous First Edition: Batman #1 (1975).

This is the inside front cover:

"Last February, The Batman lost a father. One of his two real fathers, that is."

The one who is never officially named as a father, despite the undisputed paternity test on record here and elsewhere.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The query that sold "Boys of Steel"

At the Wooster (OH) Young Authors' Conference, an aspiring author (and mother of one of the Young Authors) was asking me about getting published. We've stayed in touch and this week, she e-mailed me two questions.

One of the questions: "Do you have any suggestions as to how I can sell myself to an editor when I have never been published previously?"

Every editor is different so there is no one-pitch-fits-all answer. But generally, it doesn't matter if you've been published. What matters is if you wrote a good book. (Every author used to be an unpublished writer. And every author, regardless of how many well-received books s/he's had published, can still turn out a subpar book.)

Of course an editor will not get to your good book unless you introduce it both in a professional manner and in a way that makes it irresistible. In the query letter, describe your book as if it were flap (or back cover) copy, or even a poster tease, engineered to hook that casual browser.

Here is the query I sent Janet Schulman, the editor who eventually bought Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman (which, at that time, was Boys of Steel: The Subtitle Is Undetermined):

I'm a writer who's authored over [oops—should have been "more than"] 40 books with publishers including Scholastic, HarperCollins, and Dutton. I also write regularly for magazines including Nickelodeon and National Geographic Kids. I don't work with an agent, which is why I'm contacting you directly.

May I have your permission to submit a picture book manuscript? I ask you because of The Boy on Fairfield Street. My manuscript is similar in that it focuses on the origin of another 20th century icon. Here's a one-line summary:

In the thrilling days of yesteryear, after a sleepless summer night, two shy boys create a character who will become the greatest icon in the history of pop culture.

I know the picture book market is tough right now, but this would be the first book on this subject in this format; plus the subject is as kid-friendly as they come. With all due respect to Ben Franklin, Pocahontas, Rosa Parks, and Neil Armstrong, the shelves are starving for some new blood, and my subjects are particularly inspirational. I'm confident that this book would appeal to a whole bunch of libraries, school and public. And there's a whole other active market for it which will be obvious once you read it.

If I may send it, to what address?
I didn't give the title or even specify the subjects of the book. Funnily, the book itself doesn't include the word "Superman" in the story proper. But that's off-topic.

The other question the aspiring author asked this week: "What is currently the turnaround time from putting an article or query letter in the mail to receiving the editors acknowledgment and answer?"

There is no "currently." It varies from editor to editor, day to day.

I e-mailed the above query on 2/22/05 at 11:10 a.m. I heard back at 11:26 a.m. But I e-mailed other editors queries before that...and, in some cases, have yet to hear back. So again, it varies.

(I should clarify that industry protocol typically dictates that unpublished writers not e-mail an editor unless submission guidelines or the editor him/herself has stated that is okay.)

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Magazine covers and pop culture museums

Coincidence 1 of 2

Hard as it is to believe, Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman is the first standalone biography (for any age) of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. (They’ve been a part of more involved comics histories, of course, but they’d never had a book to themselves.)

Why was I the fortunate one who got to benefit from this odd oversight?

Because my uncommon last name sounds like one of Superman’s colleagues?

Because one of my high school friends turned out to be Lois Lane’s grandson?

Because my daughter has the same name as Superman’s Kryptonian mother—though I swear I didn’t remember that when we named her?

Or is it because of March 14, 1988?

That day was a milestone for both Superman and me. It was the date of the issue of Time magazine that featured Superman’s 50th anniversary on the cover.

It was also my 16th birthday—when a boy becomes a man. Wait, that’s 13…or is it 18? No, 21…

Regardless, sixteen is significant because it’s the age You’ll Believe a Man Can Drive.

I had first become acquainted with Superman a decade earlier, but I like to believe it was on that day when our destinies synced up. Exactly twenty years later, Boys of Steel came out.

Coincidence 2 of 2

This also involves Superman and also requires mention of a(nother) high school friend, a one Mr. Barker. (Stay with me—I’m also not done with Coincidence 1 of 2.)

Unlike most of my friends, I was not able to line up a post-college job before graduating. So I went to my hometown, Cheshire, Connecticut. It’s lovely, but not a place with much opportunity for a young person who wants to work in the popular arts.

After a demoralizing summer of fruitless searching, I finally landed a position at Abbeville Press, a book publisher in New York. (This was the company at which I would publish my first book and meet my future wife.)

A couple of years later, I learned that the Barker Animation Art Gallery and the Barker Character, Comic, and Cartoon Museum opened…in Cheshire. A world-class collection of pop culture prints and obscure memorabilia, side by side…in Cheshire.

(I asked my high school friend Barker about it, and the founders are his cousins.)

My parents had left Cheshire soon after I moved to New York, so I rarely went back. When I did, if I saw the Barker comic compound, it was only from my passing car. Always in a hurry but not always with good reason, I never stopped.

Flash forward to 2008. To promote Boys of Steel, I went to the 30th annual Superman Celebration in Metropolis, Illinois, also a lovely town but even sleepier and more remote than Cheshire. Yet it does boast a pair of rather unusual tourist attractions.

Being the “official” home of Superman, it is home to the world’s only Superman Museum. It also has the Americana Hollywood Museum. I marveled at the seemingly endless array of pieces this place houses, including collectibles related to superheroes, film noir, science fiction, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, James Bond, probably Jesse James for all I know. Life-sized models of classic monsters, TV Guide issues, old board games, movie props, and more kitsch are arranged high and thick in room after room.

I was astounded that such a collection was assembled in this unassuming town. Some of the people who lived nearby probably didn’t fully appreciate the magnitude of it, or even know about it. I remember thinking that the town was lucky to have this sprawling time capsule of pop culture icons in their collective backyard and remember thinking how much I would’ve loved to have lived near a place like it when I was a kid.

Flash forward to this past weekend. It just so happened to be the 31st annual Superman Celebration and I just so happened to be not in Metropolis but in Cheshire. For the first time, I went inside the Barker Character, Comic, and Cartoon Museum. But I felt like I was back in the Americana Hollywood Museum.

It hadn’t occurred to me that they could be two of a kind—maybe the only two of their kind in the world?

And one of these rare places, a place I would’ve loved to visit as a kid and work for as a young adult, was in my hometown…just too late for me.

But not in every way.

In the fall I will be doing a Boys of Steel event at the Barker Museum…

…which, incidentally, perhaps coincidentally, displays a copy of the March 14, 1988 Time.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Library book shelving: a cautionary tale

I only recently became aware that some libraries are shelving Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman according to its Library of Congress number, 741.5—the drawing/cartoons section.

Yet I want it to be shelved with all the other picture book biographies. The picture book bios of Muhammad Ali are not shelved in sports and the picture book bios of John James Audubon are not shelved in birds...

Libraries can overrule the LOC designation, and indeed some have shelved Boys of Steel in biographiesbut, for example, only 10 out of the 130 or so libraries in my home state.

I wonder if some librarians shelved it in 741.5 only because they didn't realize it is a biography. They don't have time to become familiar with every book they process, given the volume. They see "Superman" on a cover and the shelving response is automatic. Who would figure a book with that word in the subtitle is nonfiction?

What I did not realize until this past weekend is that no picture book biographies (at least none I checked) are catalogued as biography. Therefore, it is always up to librarians (or library distributors) to determine when a book would be better served shelved in biography rather than with the subject. In other words, my original plan to try to get the Library of Congress to re-designate Boys of Steel is, mercifully, unnecessary.

The effect of the book will be limited if it remains in the drawing/cartoons section. Kids who look there typically want books on how to draw. They would not necessarily be surprised to find a biography on Superman's creators there—yet they also may not pay it much mind given their purpose in looking in that section.

I feel circulation of Boys of Steel would increase significantly if it were shelved in an area where more kids regularly browse (often because a biography assignment forces them to). Some of those kids would be pleasantly surprised to stumble upon unconventional picture book nonfiction among the multiple books each on Abraham Lincoln, Babe Ruth, Amelia Earhart, and Ashton Kutcher.

Thank you to Marc Aronson at Nonfiction Matters for helping me spread the word about this by posting a slightly different version of this post even before I did, and thanks to Betsy Bird, also at School Library Journal, for offering to do the same.

Librarians! Please reshelve! Picture book biography authors! Check your shelving!

More on this.

6/17/09 addendum: A sage poster on Betsy Bird's blog explained a detail that makes the difference: the Library of Congress adds a "B" to the catalog number if the book is a biography, meaning the librarians are explicitly signaled that the book can be shelved either with its subject matter or with biographies. Thank you, B, and thank you, BB!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The kids have spoken

I'm humbled to report that Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman made the Children's Choices 2009 list. Here is how the list is described on the International Reading Association site:
A booklist with a twist! Children themselves evaluate the books and write reviews of their favorites. Since 1974, Children’s Choices have been a trusted source of book recommendations used by teachers, librarians, parents—and children themselves. The project is cosponsored by IRA and the Children’s Book Council.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Superman in the classroom

Columbus, Franklin, Beethoven, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Wright, Ruth, Roosevelt, Roosevelt, Siegel, Shuster, Parks, Armstrong, Obama.

Hold up—a couple of impostors snuck onto that list. All of those people are typically discussed (or at least touched upon) in history class. And all of those people (along with many more textbook names) have been the subjects of multiple picture books...except Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, creators of Superman, widely considered to be the world's first superhero.

Teaching history is a process of ranking consequences. Teaching time is limited (more than ever these days, with increased emphasis on test preparation). Therefore, plenty of people who made significant contributions to society don't get classroom coverage—those contributions are not judged to be significant enough to bump any of the "validated" names above.

Luckily, however, we are in the Golden Age of Picture Book Biography. Part of what I mean by this is that we live in a time where writers are writing and editors are publishing picture books on people who are not textbook names but could be—and, arguably, should be.

Perhaps thanks to a picture book, some of these people eventually will be.

In other words, the Wright Brothers weren't famous before the public had heard of them. I am stating the obvious, but you smell what I'm cooking.

Imagine the time before the general public knew the name Philippe Petit. Some might have said, "Never heard of him. Can't be that great of a story." After the book The Man Who Walked Between the Towers came out in 2003, many probably said, "Can't believe I never heard of him. Really glad I have now."

What writer of illustrated nonfiction wouldn't want to be the first to publish the story of the first (and only) daredevil to string a cable between the World Trade Center towers and walk between them?

Is this achievement as significant as setting a home-run record or as refusing to move to the section of the bus designated for your race? To some, emphatically not. To others, enthusiastically yes. Yet if it is a riveting story with insight into the human condition, does this matter?

Declining to publish or read a book on a person you haven't heard of is counterproductive to the purpose of publishing. It is about bringing new stories to light, or illuminating new aspects to familiar stories.

Declining to mention such figures in the classroom is similarly regretful. I have had the fortune to meet many enlightened teachers who see the value in sharing a story like Siegel and Shuster's with their students, even though it is off-curriculum. One teacher I met even made a lesson plan (complete with a Venn diagram!) about Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman
. Actually, he made two: an 8-page version for students and a 15-page teacher's edition.

Here is a review of the book by the Graphic Classroom, which advocates using comics in teaching.

Christopher Columbus : terrestrial exploration :: Babe Ruth : baseball
Franklin Delano Roosevelt : crisis leadership :: Neil Armstrong : space exploration
Ludwig van Beethoven : classical music :: Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster : ?

See also: Boys of Steel as a curriculum tie-in.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

What made me cry in kindergarten

Kids sometimes ask me what I was like as a kid. Read the handwritten comment on this kindergarten report card (click to enlarge):

So same as I am now.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Nickelodeon Magazine 1993-2009

In my sixteen months of blogging, I have never been so jarred by a publishing industry news story that I was compelled to post a response immediately...until now.

Word broke today that Viacom is shuttering Nickelodeon Magazine.

The print magazine industry has been under siege for some time, so it should not be a surprise to hear of any one publication folding. Yet if there was a list of magazines that I would have said are immune to the digital invasion, I would have guessed Nick would be on it.

The apparent end of Nick Mag is sad for multiple reasons.

The magazine editors are a remarkably accomplished (and nice) bunch. I have full confidence that they will soon find (or be snatched up by) other outlets that recognize their talent. I had a rewarding relationship with Nick since my first sale to them, in 2001; thanks to my work for the magazine, I was able to segue into writing for other divisions of Nick.

For the past five years, I've made a point to praise Nick at literally every school (and most other venues) I've spoken at. Some elementary educators and librarians could not get past the celebs and licensed characters on the cover to discover the smart non-licensed content it always featured as well. It was a simple yet savvy (and, to me, defensible) strategy—hook kids with familiar faces and then ambush them with other less glam (but often more enjoyable) content inside, such as theme-based nonfiction and humor. My only quibble with the magazine was that it accepted advertising for junk food. But I understand the realities.

I know almost nothing about Nickelodeon the cable network. I know almost nothing about their characters. I have never watched an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants (and to the disappointment of many kids at the schools I visit, I can't draw him, either).

Yet I know that the passing of Nick Mag is a genuine loss for kids. It was one of the most consistently quality products (in any medium) for young people. It did die once before, in the early 1990s, but it came back. I hope that one day soon, it can pull that off again.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

We create and then we wait

Here is the article from The Daily Record of Wooster, Ohio, about the Young Authors' Conference of May 14 and 15 at which I was the honored guest: