Monday, November 30, 2009

You all had my job

One or both of my jobs may seem atypical, but you all have had them, too.

We all start off as writers and cartoonists (cartooning, of course, comes first). Only the reckless few stick with it beyond lower elementary (cartoonists) and college (writers).

In other words, in our youth, we all scribble. But the relative majority of us never experience d
octoring, or financial consulting, or astronauting, or just about any job besides the one we have chosen (or the one that we unintentionally settled into).

Authoring is not only one of the few "jobs" everyone gets some practice in early on but also one of the few jobs that many who are accomplished in other fields will eventually come back to, often in a biographical capacity.

Pro athletes write tell-alls. Politicians, chefs, CEOs, and dog whisperers do, too. But few of them also record a song,
perform with the ballet, star in a movie, or formulate a perfume.

The only one of the popular and/or fine arts that almost everyone in the public eye (or so it seems) dabbles in at some point is the writing of a book.

The ever-increasing draw of the "non-famous" memoir (and its cousin the blog) means that more than ever fame is not exclusively the catalyst of writing about oneself but also, if done well, the result.

With so many non-"professional" writers (whether famous or civilian) getting published, it may seem to dilute the specialness of writing. Yet it also speaks to the survivalist urge to commit words to paper.

To some, writing is an exercise in vanity. To all, it's a shot at immortality. But to true writers, it's actually akin to all of those other endeavors that most never get to.

Writing is like composing a melody in that a certain flow of words can compel the reader and even the writer himself to dance (if only in their heads).

Writing is like performing before the camera, only the writer plays every role.

Writing is like engineering a fragrance, hoping to attract others by beauty great or terrible, yet intangible.

Writing is the best of all words.

That is something that remains special no matter how many give it a go.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The last issue of Nickelodeon Magazine

Number of years in print: 16
Number of years I freelanced for Nick: 7
Number of times I tried to break in before I was given the chance: 3
Number of months that took: 12
Number of final issue: 159
Number of the page with a tiny excerpt from one of my pieces: 29 (about pirates)
Number of kids disappointed that this is it: tens of thousands including some you know
Number of Nick Mag staff who will go on to even greater greatness: all of them

Show of hands: who thinks Nick should convert its sixteen-year inventory of content (most of which is already in compact form) into iPhone apps?

Yes, it certainly was, even from way out where I sat.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Sherman's Marc

On 9/21/09, I kicked off the school (visit) year in Sherman, Connecticut. It was the first school where I announced the sad news of the end of Nickelodeon Magazine. Other than that, it was a spirited way to begin an aspect of my job that I love dearly.

The local paper, The (Danbury) News-Times, kindly covered it and this week finally got around to running the story (posted here with permission):

Friday, November 20, 2009

A reunion of one

As I mentioned in my 11/18/09 post, I returned to my alma mater Brandeis University to participate in a "Meet the Majors" panel. It was the first time I'd been there since 2001. It was five months too late for my fifteenth reunion.

Aside from a handful of professors I knew, it was a reunion of one. Realizing that the students I was passing had not been born when I was a college freshman, I felt like I'd been flung in a catapult.
I'm always nostalgic; revisiting my former schools intensifies it. In going through my mental file, and some physical and digital ones, too, I rediscovered many things that made me smile. Some have something to do with the raison d'ĂȘtre of this blog.

Here is one, from a 2006 issue of the Brandeis alumni magazine. I have written many puzzles in my career. To my knowledge, this is the only time that I have been a part of one, and brace yourself for a misspelling:

Clue L: "Art form of Mark Tyler Nobleman '94, et al."

Answer: not slam poetry.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Fair, school, panel

On 11/14/09, I was one of the authors benefitting from the great planning of the annual Connecticut Children’s Book Fair, held on the campus of the University of Connecticut. Attendance seemed brisk to me although apparently not as strong as last year’s.

Each author was assigned a kind helper and a dedicated table at which to sign:

It was at this table where I signed the smallest book I've ever signed, perhaps one of the smallest I've ever seen. And I was told this is volume 9:

We were also assigned a 30-minute speaking slot. Mine was at 4:30 p.m.—last of the day—so I feared a small audience, but the turnout was a pleasant surprise. It really shouldn’t surprise me. After all, I’m just the opening act for Superman.

The UConn Co-op bookstore asked me to sign an ambitious stack of books...

...most of which I did actually write.

The authors attended a lovely reception and dinner in a most authorly of settings—the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center. Literally right in the middle of it, amidst books and exhibits and other things that don’t mix well with red wine (if it’s spilled, that is).

Between the reception and dinner, we were treated to a tour of the storage facility. The Dodd Center is an archive of invaluable materials including original art and documents of children’s book authors and illustrators. We got a look at some pioneering (and now well protected) art by Richard Scarry:

Onlookers include authors Hans Wilhelm and Lois Lowry.

We also heard something that astounded, seemingly, the whole group. A person owns any correspondence he receives, but he may not reproduce it without permission. In other words, he owns the actual physical papers but not the words on them. So an author may freely donate letters from his editor to the Dodd Center but would have to get approval to publish them.

The book fair didn’t resume until 10 a.m. the following morning, but many of the authors saw each earlier than that.

Much earlier.

The hotel in which many of us stayed had a fire drill at 2:15 a.m. It was the first time I’ve seen other authors in pajamas.

We spilled out in the chilly, drizzly night, and once it seemed clear that it was not a life-threatening emergency, photos were taken (the following ones courtesy of Diane deGroat):

Here's my back:

Here are some of us after we were cleared to go into the bar but not yet back to our rooms:

The next day, I spoke at a Massachusetts school for the first time:

That evening, I spoke at my alma matter, Brandeis University, for the first time (as an alum). I was one of two graduates on a “Meet the Majors” panel. I told the students that if they are interested in 
  • hanging out with people in aprons
  • signing large stacks of books
  • signing potentially no books
  • speaking to people who like books
  • speaking to potentially only one or two people who may or may not like books
  • eating in non-cafeteria academic settings
  • touring temperature-controlled repositories
  • evacuating hotels for dead-of-night alarms

then American Studies may be right for them.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The order of Amazon reviews

On any given Amazon page, every square pixel is a sellhole. No matter where you are on the site, it feels like you're only one click away from a "place order" button.

So I was all the more surprised to find a chink in that force-to-buy field. (And before I proceed, let me state that I am routinely impressed with Amazon's innovations and experiments.)

A book's Amazon home page includes a section called "Editorial Reviews." At the bottom of that section is a link "See all Editorial Reviews."
Here is that page for Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman.

Boys of Steel
had the good fortune to earn starred reviews from three publications. On its "See all Editorial Reviews" page, you can scroll to a one-line excerpt from each of those reviews (submitted in that tidy format, I believe, by the publisher).

In other words, good marketing—short, bolded, positive.

However, the review listed first (and therefore visible before clicking "See all Editorial Reviews") is longer and not starred. While it does come across as positive, and while I do greatly appreciate it, actually only its last line is subjective; the rest is summary.

So I asked Amazon what I thought was an easy question with a win-win answer: Would you please move those three starred review excerpts to the top so customers will see them on the book's home page? (Many customers, I'm sure, don't click through to "See all Editorial Reviews" and instead go straight to the customer reviews.)

I felt my request was clearly expressed, yet at least four Amazon reps either misunderstood or gave me misinformation.

One said we cannot edit or delete any reviews; I clarified that I'm asking only to rearrange them.

One duplicated two of the starred reviews and inserted them above the original three. (It may be the only time in my career I can point to five starred reviews in a row, so I won't quibble.)

One did say, essentially, no problem, but then did precisely nothing.

Finally one told me that, if I understood correctly, the publisher needs to enroll a book in the Advantage program before the author could make such changes.

This request had already taken too much time and I didn't want to bother my publisher with such a small issue. However, because I figured it would be a one-time procedure, I did ask.

Random House kindly looked into it and reported back that we can't change the order.

This means Amazon told me to involve the publisher even though Amazon knew (or should have known) that the review order must stay as is (almost certainly due to contracts certain publications have with the site).

What this seems to say is that Amazon prioritizes doing what's best for a review publication over doing what's best for the products to be reviewed (and sold).

Above I mentioned that every Amazon page is packed with sales tools and incentives. It can overwhelm a customer, and the more incentives they add, the harder it is to focus on any one of them. Yet here is an obvious one that they dismiss.

I realize that, for many books, simply leading with excerpts from starred reviews is not going to stimulate a dramatic spike in sales. But it will most likely make some difference, and certainly have more of a positive effect for any particular book than negative effect for any particular review publication.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Spontaneous interview about Bill Finger

At the Southern Festival Books in Nashville on 10/10/09, the Bill Finger Appreciation Group kindly did a brief, off-the-cuff interview with me that touched on Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman and my research on Bill Finger. They were kind to let me post it here as well:

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Biography vs. pathography

When I first blogged about biography, I didn’t imagine I would be able to come at the same subject from as many angles as I now have, including the following:
  1. dialogue in picture book biographies
  2. picture book biographies for all ages
  3. picture book biographies on lesser-known figures
  4. the morality of writing biography
  5. picture books for older readers (as an “official” category)
  6. how libraries shelve picture book biographies
  7. biography vs. storyography
Now for another head-to-head, this one between the sanitized biography and the warts-and-all one.

In “A Biography of the Biography,” an article in the 11/9/09 Newsweek, writer Malcolm Jones examines the examiner, the quintessential English man of letters, Samuel Johnson, with particular reference to biography.

Several of Johnson’s quotations have been in my file for years, but I’ve never read a book that he wrote. Still, this article confirmed that I like Johnson beyond his witty one-off observations.

In 1773, Johnson said, “If a man is to write A Panegyrick, he may keep vices out of sight; but if he professes to write A Life, he must represent it as it really was…”

I touched on this idea in the fourth link of that bulleted list above, and I agree. The goal of a biography is to approach the truth about a person. That truth must also be provocative, but in an organic, not sensationalistic, way.

Some say a story is only as good as its villain. Some people profiled in biographies play both the hero and villain role, at different times. All hero, noble as it is, can get boring. We like to see the dark side in others because it helps us confront our own dark sides.
And when a person doesn't seem to have a dark side, we tend to mistrust him, or at least the biographer.

The Newsweek article claims that “the story of a life has been our most durable and most enduringly popular literary form.”

I would’ve said fairy tale, but perhaps I’m misunderstanding the author’s definition of “popular literary form.” Then again, I’m not all that surprised. Most of us are, on some level, people-watchers, and all of us are influenced by others. We aspire to others’ good behavior and we view bad behavior as a cautionary tale.

This overlaps with another point I made in that fourth link:

In our time alone [biography] has multiplied into a dizzying number of forms—authorized, unauthorized, oral biography and autobiography, the group biography, the biographical novel, not to mention the online biography. What is Facebook, or most blogs, but a slew of autobiographies constantly in progress?
As I'd written, the more we post online about ourselves, the more raw material future biographers will have to refer to (though not all of it will be useful). Thanks to the Internet, more people than ever before (or so it seems) have been converted into autobiographers.

The article states that

the history of biography can be said to parallel, where it does not overlap, the history of the erosion of private life. There's no denying the proliferation of what Joyce Carol Oates defined as “pathography”—works in which a biographer fastens on to every loathsome detail of a subject's life, with the result that the subject is not cut down to size but simply cut down.
Apparently, this is a modern approach: “Nineteenth-century biographers weren't interested in flaws or the interior lives of their subjects.” This surprised me. Haven’t we all read multiple times that our ancestors (of most any era) were just as prurient as we are?

The article credits Lytton Strachey’s 1918 book Eminent Victorians with “proving that biography could aspire to art.” This, too, surprised me, because I would’ve thought that any book would’ve had that potential by 1918; by that year, literature was already enlightened, relatively speaking.

More than one of my biography posts have already concurred with this statement: “There is no longer any such thing as the definitive biography.”

Great figures (whether great in a positive or negative way) earn multiple biographies. Today there are also biographies (or memoirs) of people who were not previously well-known. Not all of those books are good, but this development is. Isn’t the best story the one you haven’t heard yet? If so, that means there are many best stories.

Yet when it comes to the lives of others, great or ghastly, famous or anonymous, “we will never know all we want to know.”

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Biography vs. storyography

Life is not simple.

Writing a book about a life is not simple.

Now even determining what word to use to describe a book about a life is not simple.

It used to always be “biography,” end of (true) story.

Then, to quote the sharp blog Fomagrams, “In a 1998 article for School Library Journal Julie Cummins proposes the word storyography as a way of differentiating whole-life biographies from those that choose to focus only on a section of the subject’s life.”

The term is intriguing, though it hasn’t gone mainstream. (Maybe that’s partly why it’s intriguing.)

Fomagrams cites the elements of storyography, according to the Continuum Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature:

  • picture book format
  • incident-focused
  • possessing child appeal, or from a child’s perspective
  • not part of a series
  • shaped by traditional story components

Fomagrams sees two problems with storyography.

First is “the necessity of omission.” However, as I mentioned in a post about library shelving of picture book biographies, a biography is but an interpretation of a life. It’s not a birth-to-death live blog—it can’t include even a fraction of the incidents that added up to the actual life of the subject.

If something occurred in person but is omitted in print, does that reduce the book’s truthiness? And that’s just deliberate omissions. What about events that remain unknown to everyone (or most everyone) besides the subject? Given these inevitable and understandable limitations, all biographies are, on some level, fictionalized, or perhaps I should say stylized.

Second is accuracy: “Nowhere in the definition of storyography is there any mention of the accuracy of the details.” With storyography, if story is the priority, is that at the expense of facts? In other words, do storyographers tweak the truth if the truth does not suit their narrative flow?

I assume many people writing picture books about real lives aren’t familiar with the term “storyography.” They’d describe their books as either biographies or fictionalized biographies; either label makes clear where the book stands with regard to accuracy.

Fomagrams concludes, “Biographies are nonfiction. Storyographies are semi-nonfiction.”

But that seems too sweeping. Take, for example, Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman. From conception to publication, I considered it, without pause, a biography,
and not just because that’s easier to pronounce than “storyography.”

Yet here are those storyography elements again, now with a check where
Boys of Steel qualifies:

  • picture book format - check
  • incident-focused - check
  • possessing child appeal, or from a child’s perspective - check
  • not part of a series - check
  • shaped by traditional story components - check

Regarding the second bullet, my story proper (meaning the illustrated portion) covers roughly only ten years, 1930-1940. A librarian noted the following: “Your book contains biographical information, but is not a biography, per se. It contains biographical info about the two men as it specifically relates to the subject of their cartoon, but not a great amount about other parts of their lives.”

That seemingly puts it in storyography territory. Point: storyography.

Yet the book ends with a three-page, text-only author’s note exploring what happened after Superman (the merest mention is made of their lives before him). Its word count almost equals that of the illustrated portion’s. Though that hardly makes the book comprehensive, perhaps it nonetheless nudges it back into biography, even if some kids will not read the author’s note. Point: biography.

Yet that story proper is told in a narrative, not journalistic, style. Point: storyography, even though I don't believe the definition of biography precludes narrative style.

That leaves Fomagrams's astute point about accuracy as the final factor.

Since I can back up every fact I used in Boys of Steel, I stand by classifying it as a biography. Point: biography.

Yet if there is (as I believe) such a thing as a factual storyography, Boys of Steel is also that. Point: storyography.

Match: storyography?

Actually, when taking into account one other point, maybe a tie.

Boys of Steel is currently the only standalone book on Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

Being the only book on a topic does not automatically entitle it to whatever status its author wants, but I do feel that if such a book, however short, is factually sound in all that it does include, then it’s the closest we have to a (point:) biography, and therefore becomes our de facto one until further notice…

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Three things you don't want to hear... an author appearance, all of which a kind (and honest) host recently told me just before I began an evening book fair presentation:

“This is a disease school.”
“I don’t think the turnout will be good.”
“Cheerleading practice is next door.”

Still, the microphone worked, people did show up, and I did not get sick.


11/8/09 addendum: Now I did.

Friday, November 6, 2009

A core title for New York City middle schools

On 11/3/09, I was one of the authors appearing at the New York City School Library System’s annual fall conference. The night before, a librarian who’d been before said it’s a “madhouse.” My take? Well-attended, yes. Chicken feathers in the air, no.

I gave a workshop on drawing readers into a story from the first line. With a crushing amount of titles competing for readers’ attention, sometimes the first sentence is the only chance a reader will give a book. The stakes are too high for it not to be compelling in some way.

While I was signing, one librarian pitched me a curious question. In the author’s note of Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman, I mention that in the 1970s, Joe Shuster lived in Queens, New York. The librarian asked me for his former address. I didn’t know offhand but could think of at least one source from my research that might narrow it down; if not, she could always go through the phone book microfiche at the New York Public Library.

However, I ended up sparing her that and being astounded at the same time. The newspaper article I had in mind did give Joe’s address—his exact address, down to the apartment number.

It was jarring to see that printed in a paper, though I think that may have been a more common practice at the timeand again, it was probably in the phone book anyway. Though Joe was in a bad place then, he was still a celebrity of sorts, and though he was an unrecognizable celebrity to most of the population, people even further from the public eye are entitled to privacy. Yet I doubt that article prompted even one person to show up at Joe’s place. On one level, that’s relieving. On another, it’s sad.

The same librarian also told me wonderful news that I had not yet heard: the New York City school library system had selected Boys of Steel as an English Language Arts (ELA) core title. As she explained, that means that every city school that includes grades 6, 7, or 8 had to order the book!

Each title selected falls into one of four themes that the Department of ELA believes “will motivate middle school students to read more”: Empowerment and Resilience, Love, Taking Action and Changing the World, and Creativity and How Things Work.

I feel what Jerry and Joe did fits all four categories, but guess which one they placed it in? Answer on page 45.

I didn’t take photos at the conference (it was the standard landscape—books on tables, people behind tables), but I did take one en route. It is an ad that just so happens to be part of my life philosophy. It's also a sentiment that most modern authors—well, most modern anybodies—might do well to keep in mind:

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A little site that's outlasted GeoCities

Ten years ago today, I launched my first site, MTN Cartoons. I had already published two books and did give mention of that on the site, but as the name suggests, it was primarily an online cartoon portfolio. I remember thinking that the way I enabled viewers to scroll through the selected inventory I posted was especially efficient. Looking at it now, or even then with a right mind, it was/is so, so not.

The site is still up, though I have not updated it since 2005, which was already a year or two beyond when I began focusing mostly on writing. The past two summers I intended but failed to give it the overhaul it needs. It would’ve been good to do it this year, to capitalize on all the 10th anniversary festivities surrounding it (totally kidding), but northeast summers are just too sweltering for work of that intensity (kind of not kidding).

When I do revamp it, I imagine it divided into three sections: writing, cartooning, and speaking. This blog will somehow be migrated. And the name of this blog will become the name of the site as well. In fact, it already is, even though the site itself does not yet reflect that. Try, give it a.

Curiously (to me anyway), the date that site launched, November 3, 1999, has a connection to two and possibly three of my current projects, all on the same subject. The year before, November 3, 1998, Bob Kane, the only man credited as the creator of Batman, died. The myth that he was the sole creator had died decades earlier, though that still has not led to an official change on the credit line. I hope to be able to announce some Bill Finger news here shortly.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Vocabulary Cartoon of the Day: a prequel?

In 2005, the only book I've both written and illustrated came out: Vocabulary Cartoon of the Day (grades 4-6).

It was the result of a Scholastic editor I'd already written several books for asking if I'd like to update a book of the same name that had been published during the Space Race. It wasn't that the words defined then were no longer in use and it wasn't that the cartoons were no longer funny (though there was some of that). It was that the cartoons included things that are no longer considered "kid-friendly." Guns. Cigarettes. Sixties hairdos.

So I came up with a new list of 180 words and a kid-friendly cartoon built around each of them. No weapons. No carcinogens. No cars, either, but that's just because I don't like drawing boxy things.

Then I built a presentation around the book for professional development seminars. For three years, educators asked if I'd do a similar book for grades 2-3. Each time, I passed word to Scholastic. Apparently vocab books were not selling, so each time, they said no. Except the last time.

Only this time, I only wrote. My drawing style was deemed not cutesy enough for kids that young, which is sometimes true. They hired cartoonist Mike Moran, and the book looks great. He handled revision requests speedily and graciously. I asked if his name could also be on the cover but that is not house style for this Scholastic imprint.

Two other noteworthy differences in this book: one, we provide an index, and two, teachers provided the words. Last year, I put out a call for entries to second and third grade teachers, soliciting words they would like their students to learn; I received hundreds of suggestions. Every vocabulary word defined in the book came from the lists the teachers e-mailed me. So it is co-authored, in a sense, by its audience.

The book is due out in February and the cover recently went online:

As with the first book, I would have chosen a different cartoon for the cover (one in which the gag is more visual), but otherwise, I'm thrilled with how it came out.