Wednesday, September 30, 2009

How you found me: part 4

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 4 in an irregular series revealing some of the funconventional search phrases—all verbatim, most strange—that have led people here:
  • boys are mesmerized by Superman
  • amazing story exposed
  • basketball hair bands
  • children's writer Jonathan Nobleman
  • how to write a children's book writer's bio
  • lyrical engaging highly visual picture books
  • picture books that use the word folks
  • some biographies that people have wrote
  • autobiography of a school library book
  • shelving books boring
  • steal me a tear
  • I'm eagerly waiting for involve myself
  • Manhattan phone book of 1950
  • what age will you be in November 15 1993-2009
  • Hey, Sydney University and other interested souls: If you wish to use my information, writings or images for any purpose whatever you need to contact me for permission first. Who knows? I may even grant it.
That last one, obviously, is my favorite so far.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Celebrate Children's Book Day

Today my environment was sunny and rainy at the same time.

The sun part: I was a first-time participant in a vibrant, longstanding book festival at Sunnyside, the historic home and grounds of Washington Irving, in Tarrytown, NY.

The rain part: rain.

At times today, Celebrate Children's Book Day felt well-attended, but I'm told that when the weather is clear, this event is beyond crowded.

Among the personal highlights:
  • Unlike some sacrificial souls, I did not have to wear a sweltering Clifford costume.
  • I saw some writer friends.
  • I made some new writer friends.
  • For the first time in my career, someone buying a book (Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman) asked if the copy was a first edition. I was weirdly pleased to check and find that it was a second edition. (The customer was not as pleased, but bought it anyway, and I refrained from assuring her that a first edition will not be worth any more in the future.)
  • I had the honor of meeting and sitting next to Jules Feiffer, man of many distinctions including cartoonist and screenwriter, and author of The Great Comic Book Heroes (first edition 1965 and probably worth a ton). We didn't exactly pose but here we are:

Bonus: His wonderful daughter and fellow author Kate was there, too.

Note: I did not write most of those books that appear to be in front of me. It's just the angle of the photo.

And a highlight not only of the event but of the entire research portion of my career:

A person I plan to write a book on is Australian and running toward his 80th birthday. He's not well known in America but appears to be in Australia, having risen to the top of two disciplines there (one of which is politics, but that's not the discipline I'm going to write about). To test the level of awareness, I tend to ask Australians I meet if they know of this person.

I happened to chat with an Australian at the event, but for some reason, I did not ask her my "Australia question." A short time later, a charming older Australian couple stopped by. In my experience, it is unusual to meet even one Australian at such an event, and any more than that is especially curious.

So I got back to business and asked this couple (who turned out to be the parents of the first woman) if they knew the name.

They just so happen to be very good friends with him.

Out of all the crikillions of people in Australia, they just so happen to go back a long way (seems at least half a century) with my future subject.

Given my subject's high rank in politics, I wasn't fully confident I'd be able to reach him directly when the time comes. Now I have an e-mail scribbled on the back of a promotional postcard that means I probably will. I shudder to think of all the steps I would've taken without this.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

150 signatures

People who scribble in books usually fall into one of two categories: authors or toddlers.

This tale is about a lesser-known third category—and it is a cautionary tale. Booksellers beware.

Once upon 2005, I went into a Barnes & Noble in New York to see if they had any of my books. To my surprise, they did, and I asked a bookseller if I could sign them. He asked me for ID.

Authors regularly walk into stores unannounced and ask to sign stock. Most of those authors, including me, are unrecognizable to the general public. Yet that was the first time a bookseller wanted me to prove I was the person I said I was.

Every previous time, I'd wondered why the bookseller didn't.

This time, I asked why he did.

He said he didn't used to. Once, however, the author of a successful mass-market paperback series strolled in and got instant permission to sign all copies of his books that the store carried—all 150 copies. (Other authors—I'll wait a moment while you dream of a store carrying that many copies of your books.)

Welcome back.

Only after that author left did the store determine that he was not, in fact, the author.

His prank had ruined 150 books. His crime was identity theft. His weapon was a Sharpie.

And he's still out there.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Back to school visit

Today was my first school visit of the 2009-2010 academic year, aptly coinciding with the first day of fall.

But first, my GPS had some fun at my expense, which has been happening more and more lately:

Time I was scheduled to start speaking: 9:10 a.m.
Time I started driving: 7:20 a.m.
Time GPS said I'd arrive: 8:29 a.m.
Time I arrived: 9:04 a.m.
Number of wrong turns it sent me on: who knows/too many

Arriving with only six minutes to spare was later than I think I've ever been for a school visit...yet for the record, I was not late.

And in any event all was good when I saw the welcome:

My host had converted the subject matter of Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman into a "read power" message for the students.

While signing books after I spoke, a second grader gave me this charming drawing (her first comment refers to two drawings I had done during the presentation):

She also gave me permission to post it here. And she included Superman's distinctive spit curl! Yet she made it even more distinctive since this is how it usually curls (look carefully—it's a letter):

This visit also marked the first time I spoke to kindergartners since my older child became one. That was, not surprisingly, an emotional trampoline. For me. I don't think the kindergartners much cared!

They were more focused on telling me what their dads wear to work.

A first: Early on, one called out "Are you real?" I said yes but he looked unconvinced. So I let him pinch my arm.

He was still unconvinced.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Wikipediagilisticexpialidocious, part 2 of 2

As a writer, I’ve found Wikipedia to be invaluable in research, despite some editorial backlash and if used in a certain way. Reasons 1 through 3 are here, and reasons 4 through 6½ are here:

Contributor motivation

Writers and editors who contribute to Wikipedia don't earn money or widespread recognition. Unmotivated by these corruptible catalysts, their output shoots up the integrity scale. They’re wikifying out of love for whatever subject they’re writing about, and people are often experts on what they love.

Immediate sourcing

Given longstanding industry protocol, not to mention space limitation, print articles almost never cite sources. Wikipedia articles do, or if they don’t, they’re flagged so researchers know to proceed with caution.

If a fact on Wikipedia lacks citation, I don’t use it unless I can back (front?) it up with a reliable source elsewhere. Weaker Wikipedia articles may not help in and of themselves, but they can set you down multiple paths to better info. And that's a strength—Wikipedia has become the essential orientation point on most any topic.

Detail magnet—but especially “modern” details

I couldn’t resist titling this post the way I did (though I did first try “Supercalifragilisticexwikipedia”). However, Wikipedia is actually not “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” According to the film Mary Poppins, that word is all you can say when there’s nothing to say.

Wikipedia is about saying it all. Sort of.

It’s the first major fact repository to incorporate information in real-time. Yet this creates an imbalance, giving a texture to “current” subjects that past subjects don’t have.

Take the Kanye West/Taylor Swift incident during the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. It was promptly added to both of their Wikipedia entries, plus the entry for the VMAs. Will it end up being a defining moment for either artist? It’s too early to tell, but probably not. A Hollywood “controversy” like it happens several times each week, making many previous ones insignificant.

To contrast, the people who wrote the Wikipedia entry on pre-Wikipedia subject Huey Lewis and the News did not (according to the references cited) go back through period articles from Rolling Stone, People, Musician, Seventeen, and other magazines (whether extant or defunct) that covered the band during their 1980s heyday. Most of those articles are not online, and therefore understandably beyond the reach—or at least the commitment level—of the average Wikipedia researcher.

Yet if someone were to dig up such articles, they would surely provide the kind of nuances that a Wikipedia contributor documenting a contemporary topic often includes.

In other words, the entry for Kanye West will have lots more anecdotal info than the one for Huey Lewis and the News.

I do long for a Wikipedia that more deeply mines the recent past for “forgotten” facts, but that’s an immense expectation. Hopefully, as more publications digitize their archives, that will enhance Wikipedia's scope. Yet what about the magazines like Musician that don’t exist anymore? Who owns that content? Will it ever be digitized? What irresistible HLATN factoid is there and only there and will be lost to most of us for all time unless some enterprising Wikipedian unearths and shares it?

In the end, this imbalance between current and past topics is not a negative. To criticize Wikipedia for being more thorough about certain contemporary subjects than certain past subjects misses the point. The fact that it’s detailed about any subjects is a good thing.

The half-reason

A year ago, some kind soul gave my book Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman the Wikipedia treatment. You don’t need to investigate the IP addresses to learn that it was not me. The proof is simpler. Just look at my name within the article: not hyperlinked. Though I write about myself here, I, like most writers, know it’s bad form to do so on Wikipedia.

I’ve never written a Wikipedia article about anyone or anything else, either. Several years ago, I did lightly edit a couple. (One was on Bill Finger, the uncredited co-creator of Batman. I don’t remember the other but do remember that my tweak was only grammatical.)

And though I don’t plan to write or edit other Wikipedia articles, this is one writer who is grateful for the people who do.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Wikipediagilisticexpialidocious, part 1 of 2

As a writer, I am on Wikipedia daily. If an article is properly cited, it can be as—if not more—useful than many books. At times, I trust it more than brand name encyclopedias.

One study found Wikipedia as accurate as Britannica.

Yet some editors and writers’ guidelines ask writers to avoid using Wikipedia as a source because it is “user-written.”

But users are people, too. To expand, here are six-and-a-half weasons why Wikipedia is worthwhile.

Amateur doesn’t mean unprofessional

We all know good cooks who don’t work in high-end restaurants. And many of us have been crushed by good tennis players who’ve never appeared in the US Open, or even a town tournament.

Likewise, there are plenty of good writers (and researchers) who don’t do it for a living, yet luckily, plenty of them volunteer their time and minds for Wikipedia.

Books get it wrong, too

Conversely, a published book is not always a polished book. Despite best efforts, books still go to print with mistakes. I’ve read them. And written one or two. (But only one or two.) Writers have to doublecheck all facts, whether from a book or a site or the inside of a Snapple bottle cap.

Multiple brains for the price of none

A typical book has one editor (and a copy editor, but here I’m talking about mistakes in content, not grammar). An article on Wikipedia can have any number of editors. While that may indeed mean more chance for errors, at the same time it suggests a greater chance that more errors will be fixed.

Say a magazine writer turns in a 1,000-word article with 10 mistakes and his editor catches 8. The scale with a Wikipedia article is almost always greater—say 10 writers build a 1,000-word article with a total of 28 (initial) mistakes. Yet it may attract as many—if not more—editors as writers. Through group effort, all mistakes may be weeded out. While the “amateur” article had more than twice as many initial mistakes, it ends up with none; meanwhile, the “professional” article still has two. And once published, print mistakes can’t be changed as quickly as Wikipedia mistakes.

A Wikipedia article is like a piece of bread on the ground. You can always count on not one but many ants to show up fast and go to work on it. Same with a Wikipedia article, subbing in editors for ants. (Not an insult. Ants are hard workers. Not to mention freakishly strong for their size.)

Consider this experiment. Writer A.J. Jacobs tested Wikipedia by posting an article on it with numerous deliberate errors. He felt the article had reached healthy condition two days and 373 edits later. Here’s the link (from Wikipedia itself).

Tomorrow: reasons 4 through 6½, including the scoop on the title of this post.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Most did shave, actually

The New York Public Library children's section, under the sure stewardship of Betsy Bird, hosts a regular program called the Children's Literary Café.

The theme of the one I had the honor to participate in: "Men Who Write Children's Books, Live in the New York City Area, and Shave Irregularly."

Yet all four of us showed up facially groomed (for the most part):

Mike Rex = goatee
Jon Scieszka =
little hair patch under lip (name?)
Brian Floca = smooth (though he had a full beard when I pitched this idea to Betsy)
= two-day stubble

It was standing room only and a discussion that (for me, anyway) ended too soon. The audience was most gracious and mostly non-face-shavers (i.e. women).

We didn't get the chance to take a photo until a while after it ended, by which point Jon had unfortunately already left, but here he is, and here are the rest of us:

Use the key above to match the name to the facial hair. You get one freebie: Betsy is the one in the dress.

9/14/09 addendum: Betsy's post about this.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

ComiXology podcast on "Boys of Steel"

ComiXology kindly interviewed me about Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman, and asked some meaty questions.

Here's the original link.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Picture books for older readers are like Bigfoot

Picture books for older readers are like Bigfoot. Although lots of people have caught a glimpse of them, so many still don't believe in them. I wish I could be as sure about upright hominoids, but picture books for older readers do exist. I managed to capture some on film. And more proof came via a heartening e-mail I received from teacher and blogger Keith Schoch, who kindly gave me permission to share it here (in slightly condensed form):

First of all, I'm a big fan of Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman. My fourth grade class dug it as well, and what really impressed them was that at first they thought they didn't care about these two guys, but by book's end, they cared a lot! And then when I stumbled upon your site today I thought it was pretty cool to read your About Me and find that this is precisely what you're attempting to do now as a writer. [MTN: This refers to a former version of my About Me in which I explained that I like to write books on people whose achievement is well-known but whose name and back story are not (i.e. everyone knows Superman, few know who created him, when, or why).]

Good, good stuff, Marc. I say that not just as a teacher, but as someone who is constantly poking and prodding other teachers in the upper primary and middle grades to use picture books to enhance their instruction. I conduct workshops on that topic, and also host a blog aimed at teachers of grades 3-8 called Teach with Picture Books. It features summaries, themes, guiding questions, teaching suggestions, cross-curricular extensions, author profiles, and related links.

As a companion site to my workshops, I also put up a static site called Picture Books in Middle Grades, which offers reasons why teachers of the upper primary and middle grades should be using picture books in their instruction. Many teachers use this site to get their colleagues on board and to squeeze some money out of their administrators for purchasing picture books for the classroom. You might want to check out a post [in which] your book is featured prominently.