Friday, October 29, 2010

Favorite school slogans #1

Cos Cob School, Cos Cob, Connecticut:

Note: This is not a ranking but rather a list in order of discovery.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Ten favorite picture books

Author/illustrator Sergio Ruzzier asked a group of picture book creators, among others, to name their top ten picture books. I named ten favorites but can't guarantee they are my top ten. That's too much pressure. Besides, such a list would likely change from week to week.

Sneak peek: two of my nonfiction pics are The Day-Glo Brothers and The Man Who Walked Between the Towers. And a fiction pic that just missed making the list is any title from the George and Martha series. When I start thinking about just how many more I wanted to cram on the list, I get antsy, so best not let the mind wander that path.

Here's the rest of my list and here are others' lists

5/1/15 addendum: a new list I made without remembering this list.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Houston 2010, week 1 of 2

Earlier this year, Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman was nominated for Texas's Horned Toad Tales Award:

This led to a stellar author visit invitation to the Cypress-Fairbanks ("Cy-Fair") school district: 4 presentations a day among 16 schools over 10 days. (Forty presentations in two weeks is equal to 10 naps over 10 days.)

Upon arriving I found that the district, on top of organizing this complicated schedule down to the restaurant we'd have lunch at each day, had also sent each school a Power Point about me to prepare the students:

Here's a photo-montage of my first week. You'll notice that my author visit outfit is not the most dynamic, but I do sometimes go untucked to add just a bit of spice:

A fun display greeted me at Matzke:

These schools went above and beyond with book sales:

A few observations that stood out:

These are some of the nicest librarians one could hope to meet.

A joke in my presentation about frozen lakes goes over big here, even though 'round these parts, frozen lakes are as rare as lousy Mexican food.

Teachers here ask fidgety students to sit not on their bottoms but their pockets.

One school had a dress code with flexibility: students must wear a collared shirt but it can be blue, red, green, or white. While I used to be against dress codes, I now see the benefit, and I like this approach. Kids are held to a certain standard of appearance but are still given some choice.

Many schools in the district are open classroom, meaning the classes are separated only partially by partitions and don't have doors. They surround the library, where I have been speaking in most cases. This means I'm on a microphone while students in adjacent classrooms are trying to concentrate on whatever they're doing. It made me uncomfortable at first but librarians have been assuring me throughout that students (and teachers) are used to it. I'm far from the first author to work in this arrangement.

A few comments that stood out:

After one Q&A, a librarian asked me if green is my favorite color. I asked why she asked and she said because the first five students I called on were all wearing green. (My favorite is currently blue but was green when I was a boy.)

Before one presentation, a girl near the front where I was standing asked me if I had written anything else besides Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman. I said yes and she said something to the effect of "Good. Because that book was boring." (I was amused by that, and then heartened that two nearby boys came to the book's defense.)

Lastly, I have been telling each group that I took a plane to see them, given that I'm from up north. After one presentation, a boy came up to ask me if I flew in on a private jet.

Ah, the endearing naïveté of youth.

Houston 2010, week 2 of 2.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Book inspires boy to make life change

An old friend whose son attends a school I recently spoke at sent me this story:
[My son] has been reading your book 365 Things to Do Before You Grow Up nonstop. This morning, as we were about to leave for the bus, he called me into his room.

"Look, mom, I rearranged the furniture!"

"What are you doing?” I said.

"Marc Tyler Nobleman said I should rearrange the furniture in my room!" He showed me the page in your book [the activity called "Rearrange Your Room"which, I believe, specifies to involve a parent!]. Even better, he conveniently moved his bookshelf next to his bed for easier access to his books. Now he has to climb over other furniture to get into the bed. It was so funny, but now I have to figure out a way to get him to move it all back...

Monday, October 25, 2010

Houston Chronicle blog coverage

To promote my 10/25/10 talk at the Jewish Community Center of Houston, the Houston Chronicle blog "Iconia—Wherever faith meets art" kindly interviewed me about Superman's religion and a Hitler "rumor," for lack of a better word.

It started off well: Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman was featured on the cover of their fall brochure:

But then due to a printing problem, the JCC was told only several days before the event that the copies of Boys of Steel they planned to sell would not make it, and only after I finished my presentation did the JCC tell me that as of the Friday before, nary a soul had registered. So they had a stressful week.

Yet the books did arrive (the day before) and at least 70 people showed up at the door. I was told this was good. I felt it was, too. Attentive throughout and challenging questions.

And you can't beat the hospitality down here.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Boys of Steel and Asperger's syndrome

The librarian in New Orleans who arranged the Skype visit I did on 9/11/10 shared how her two sons reacted to Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman, specifically to the personalities of the Boys of Steel themselves, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster. (I believe one of her sons is in middle school and the other in high school.) In turn, she kindly gave me permission to share that special connection here:
Both of my boys have Asperger's [syndrome]. They both are highly intelligent. The combination of high IQ and Asperger's makes their lives more complicated. It is a challenge for them to fit in socially and to relate to other people. What makes it worse is that they know they don't fit in.

When my [older son] read Boys of Steel, his first comment was that he was very much like the boys who created Superman. He was very excited that this was a true story. It meant that there were other people like him. He even made a list of the ways he was similar to Jerry and Joe (quiet, wears glasses, doesn't fit in, likes to write, and likes to draw). He then read the [author’s note at the] back of the book. He was not happy about how their lives turned out. He said it was a lesson for him to try harder to overcome his anxieties and try new things.

My younger son also read the book later. He also related to the characters. He said that they were just like him. He had not heard my conversation with my older son. He said that now when he gets pushed around he is going to remember Jerry and Joe and how they made Superman!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Untold tale of Bill Finger #4: A little night music

Bill had a Crosley radio on his desk. Going on Charles Sinclair's description, I tried to pinpoint exactly which by combing through images of dozens of models. You'll see the result in the book, but in any case, it would have been compact and stylish. Even the logo indicates that:

Bill's composer of choice was Mozart and he would listen while writing. He liked the Clarinet concerto. But his favorite was what is commonly known as "Eine kleine Nachtmusik."

A fitting choice for the maestro behind Batman.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Writers helping writers

On 10/15/10, I conducted my first writing workshops of the 2010-11 academic year, with 3rd-5th graders in New Jersey.

That same day, I got great news: a friend got great news, and it was also related to writers-in-the-making. My friend sold her first book shortly after landing an agent. This was especially gratifying to hear because earlier this year, I'd helped her refine her query letter (though with her commercial idea and impressive credentials, she would have gotten to this point without my help).

I have tried to help many as-yet-unpublished writers, and this is the first I know of who got an offer. (Either I'm doing more harm than good or it's as tough as they say to get published.)

The next day, I participated in the 40th annual Rutgers (NJ) University Council on Children's Literature's One-on-One Plus Conference. The purpose of this event is to pair publishing professionals (writers, editors, agents) with green writers one-on-one so the experienced can try to help the aspirants produce something publishable.

In addition to the 45-minute individualized session, the conference groups five aspiring writers with five publishing professionals for 45 minutes of group counseling. This, perhaps not surprisingly, is called the Five-on-Five segment.

In my One-on-One, I was mentor to a woman who has already published a book for adults. Mentors were given a piece of writing by their mentees that morning and had some time to read it and prepare comments in advance. My mentee had written a nonfiction picture book manuscript about a president.

Both in terms of subject choice and execution, it seemed to need an overhaul. Yet to my pleasant surprise, when I later met with the writer, she already had that overhaul. Between the time she applied for the conference (at which time she submitted the manuscript I ultimately read) and the conference itself, she'd reworked her approach. She just didn't resubmit it.

The revised version was short enough to read right then and there. It was so significantly better that I had little specific feedback. (I did have a few general comments about the state of nonfiction picture books these days.) She had transformed her topic from a fairly standard biography with little to distinguish it to a sharply envisioned storyography on the same subject. She showed that a figure I took to be unremarkable was in fact much grander.

My mentee was gracious, intuitive, and appreciative. I think she'll get a children's book published, if not this one than something else. And she certainly deserves it. I found it quite a special experience to see this writer developing before my eyes, or at least between application and attending...

Before long I hope I will be able to blog in more detail about the book of both my friend and my mentee.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Sometimes complicated schedules work out

From 10/7/10 to 10/30/10, I’m on the road. Organizing even a single school visit can be time-consuming, let alone 56 talks over three weeks, but ultimately, the scheduling for this long time away from home worked out rather well.

Somehow I managed to book six school visits in three adjacent states (Connecticut, New York, New Jersey) during six consecutive school days. I call attention to this because these were all unrelated visits that were booked at various times over the past six months, and thanks to flexibility on the schools’ part, I was able to book them in a way that would minimize my backtracking: the three Connecticut schools were in a row, then the New York school, and finally the two New Jersey schools (both of which happened to be in West Orange). One of the Connecticut schools and the New York school were ones I’d been trying to book for a while.

Bonus: A good friend who lives in Philadelphia and whom I rarely see just so happened to be speaking at Yale one town over from my first Connecticut school visit and two hours after it. Plus two old friends were parents of kids at the New York school, and both came to a presentation.

What’s more, this time frame also overlapped with the Rutgers University Council on Children's Literature’s One-on-One Plus Conference on 10/16/10, the day after my other New Jersey commitments. I was one of the participating author mentors.

Finally, that night I become a teenager again, on some level, when I attended my high school reunion in Connecticut. The next morning, I flew to Houston for two more weeks of presentations.

Whirlwind, yes. Yet I was thrilled how the schedule came together like a puzzle you thought you were missing a piece for but ultimately assembled intact.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Jerry Siegel's birthday

Here's a kind mention of Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman on a blog that recommends a biography per day based on birthdays. Yesterday Jerry Siegel, co-creator of Superman, would've been 96.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

International school visit

The International School at Dundee in Greenwich, Connecticut, that is.

I visited this impressive school on 10/8/10 and a photo featuring Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman in both foreground and background ran in the newspaper.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Red, blue, yellow, and West Orange

The West Orange (NJ) Patch, a community news site,
interviewed me in conjunction with my two school visits in town.

Of note: the kind writer of the piece, Joyce Kaffel, is the daughter of longtime Superman editor Mort Weisinger.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Todd School, Briarcliff Manor, New York

Many authors know about Todd. This hard-working school brings in an author per grade every year. This year, I was fortunate to be the author for third through fifth grade.

They clearly know what they’re doing. Their preparation was an author’s fantasy.

Here are two activities some classes did in conjunction with Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman:

Here is an activity some classes did in conjunction with my two Vocabulary Cartoon of the Day books:

The school sold a cornucopia of books:

They have a tradition of having each visiting author customize a unique wooden book for display in the library. Here’s my before and after:

And even before I left the building, one class delivered thank you notes. Some of them contain requests too precious not to share (and yes, these are all from different letters and are all bona fide verbatim real):

“I hope you can dedicate a book to me.”

“Do you think you can write a book about our school?”

“Can you write a book about a girl?”

And the inevitable contrast:

“Can you make one book about a boy who is better than a girl at everything?”

Other choice comments:

“Are you going to be an author forever?”

“You taught me so much, like to have persistence and [that] your parents are smarter than you.”

I also liked how one student said he is looking forward to my book Behind Batman. That’s not what it’ll be called, nor did I reveal the actual title to them, but I love that he extrapolated that.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Untold tale of Bill Finger #3: Bromance with Alfred Hitchcock

At times Bill was influenced by the suspense films of legendary director Alfred Hitchcock. Bill’s friend and fellow writer Arnold Drake claimed that Hitchcock may have likewise been influenced by comics including Bill’s. (I never said all of these would be long tales.)

Hitch cameo'd in many of his films. If only Finger cameo'd in some of his Batman stories...or even one. Well, he kind of Detective Comics #80. The explanation will be in my book.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Eating, speaking, and 'rithmetic

On 10/12/10, I spoke to K-8 at Ridgefield Academy in Connecticut. They'd souped up the flyer I send each school I'm booked at prior to the visit, converting it to a snazzy poster:

The school had a wonderfully warm, almost cozy, feel to it. Two aspects of the school stood out to me.

One, the cafeteria food. All freshly cooked and plenty of vegetables. Not only that, but the kids ate the vegetables. No sweets that I could see offered for dessert. I was told they never serve hot dogs (though I do like an all-beef hot dog when opportunity exists) and the pizza is homemade.

Two, the emphasis on public speaking. Given the reason I was there, it won't be a surprise to learn I value the skill of presenting before an audience. This school begins to build students' confidence in that regard from the youngest age. Of course, this positively affects kids even when they are not standing in front of a crowd.

The 'rithmetic? Well, I didn't ask but I'm sure their kids are good at that, too.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Untold tale of Bill Finger #2: His scripts couldn't hide

My picture book on Bill Finger (uncredited co-creator, original writer, and costume designer of Batman) is due out in 2012. It seemed especially apt to tell Bill’s story in that format. Among his peers, he had the reputation as the most visual writer of his generation.

He wrote scene after scene that was plain fun to draw. For example, he had a penchant for setting action scenes on oversized props. Not all were food-related, but some of the funniest were:

Batman #146 (3/62)

Detective Comics #222 (8/55)

Batman #87 (10/54)

A list of oversized props used is here, but it's not complete. (No giant toaster.) And while Finger was the mind behind this big idea, other writers came on board. (There was plenty of room.)

Artists could identify Bill's scripts even when they didn't contain a gargantuan globe and even when his name wasn’t on them.

“I got out of the comic business for a living in the mid-50s,"
artist Lew Sayre Schwartz told me in 2006, "but I remember those [Finger] scripts like it was yesterday.”

Monday, October 11, 2010

Last book standing

On 10/7/10, The New York Times ran an article about the decline of the picture book. The writer attributed this, in part, to parents pressuring their kids to read "big kid books" before they are, in fact, big kids.

Sorry I'm late to adding my voice to the kidlit backlash (not that I have anything more profound to say than the preceding wave of articulate responses), but these past few weekdays, I was busy speaking to hundreds of elementary students and their teachers...about picture books. (Among other things.)

Though I wanted an alternate allegory, the militant one does fit here: There is an army already mobilized to fight this war. We may not have the numbers of lawyers, bus drivers, or pastry chefs, but gaze at the children's section of a good library and I'd say we've got enough enlisted wordsmiths.

With every bookstore or school or library visit, authors are bolstering the picture book to an eager audience. And teachers generally need no persuading on the value of picture books.

In the press, something is routinely dying or dead: Innocence. Irony. Film musicals. Yet most manage to return before long.

And, of course, of late, much ink has been dedicated to the imminent death of ink. Now
we are told that not only print text is dead, but print images as well. At the risk of sounding naive, perhaps the press should call for the death of hastily-written death proclamations.

For some time now, I've said if not the opposite than certainly an opposing notion: Picture books will be the last book standing. As digital options continue to overpower print ones, I do believe the type of book that will last the longest (as a printed book) will be the picture book (and, to a lesser degree, the photographic coffee table book, though they are rarely bestsellers). To be clear, though I do feel conflicted about it, I am all for progress and evolution...because I know storytelling will be a part of it no matter what.

So without being ignorant of the changing culture, I'd say this is enough said about this, for now anyway. Authors know our time is better spent creating books...and continually reminding people why we do that.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Untold tale of Bill Finger #1: He almost won wheels

Okay, so not quite untold, but that sounds more enticing than "once-told."

Much as I'd like to, I can't expedite the 2012 publication of my book on Bill Finger (say it with me: uncredited co-creator and original writer and primary visual architect of Batman). To get your Finger fix in the meantime, I'll be sharing tidbits about Bill that didn't make it into the manuscript.

First is one of my favorites.

Jack Liebowitz, onetime and longtime head of DC Comics, promised to buy Bill a car if he would submit his scripts on time. Bill continued to be late—and apparently never got his license anyway. He didn’t seem to need one. For most of his life, he stayed in or near New York. When he went to Texas for a seder, it was most likely by train. (He also didn’t fly.) When he and his wife Portia vacationed in Provincetown, Massachusetts, she probably drove.

Writer Will Murray turned me on to this anecdote in 2006, though he couldn't recall where he'd seen it. Thanks to Will and to the unstumpable John Wells for locating the source (Gil Kane quoted in The Comics Journal #186, April, 1996).

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Boys of Steal

Not a typo, unfortunately.

The secret origins of both Superman and Batman revolve around theft. While this crime connection may seem like a cosmic joke given superheroes’ raison d’être, in real life, no one laughed about it.

Some fans still rail against the company now known as DC Comics for neglecting Boys of Steel Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster for decades. Some fans also rail against DC for not giving Bill Finger equal credit for Batman alongside Bob Kane. Siegel and Shuster versus DC is David versus Goliath. Kane versus Finger is Cain versus Abel.

Of course, neither story is that simple and both have been debated extensively across the years and the web, including elsewhere on this blog.

The purpose of this post is to make a few brief and sometimes quirky comparisons of the men, not the melodrama.

Siegel and Shuster were both shy, though Siegel would go gregarious—sometimes to the annoyance of others—when his passion (namely science fiction) came up in conversation. Finger was not shy but has been described as reserved. He was a bright man who would’ve had an informed opinion about a range of topics, yet he was not the liveliest bat in the belfry. He may have been an example of a person who speaks less in groups so that when he
does open his mouth, people listen.

Siegel and Shuster had loving relationships with their parents, though not particularly intimate, partly due to the culture of the era; hence neither mentioned his parents in any interviews I’ve seen. Finger dislike and possibly resented his parents and became estranged from them; I don’t know exactly when but the latest it would’ve been was soon after Batman debuted. Kane’s father was instrumental in Kane securing legal advice that made him rich.

Prior to marriage, Finger and Kane were both ladies’ men, though their styles differed. Kane showed off as a wooing strategy whereas Finger would’ve downplayed his career (which, to some of the time, was not impressive anyway). His approach would’ve been more rakish and cerebral. Even shy Shuster blossomed and had an affinity for tall, showgirl-type women.

Siegel and Finger were both married twice. Both have been described as flawed fathers (Siegel with respect to his first child, Michael, from his first marriage). Shuster married once late in life, and it lasted briefly.

Shuster and Finger were both interested in physical fitness as young men; Shuster took to lifting weights and Finger was an avid golfer. Later in life, Finger also began working out at a gym.

Siegel, Shuster, and Kane all enjoyed minor celebrity—Siegel and Shuster at the dawn of Superman (they even garnered a
swank spread in The Saturday Evening Post) and Kane most prominently in the 1960s and again around the time the first Tim Burton Batman movie came out (1989).

All four were Jewish yet none mentioned Judaism in any interviews I’ve seen.

And all four were, in their own ways, thieves.

In creating Superman, Siegel and Shuster mined elements from books (including, some argue,
Gladiator by Philip Wylie and the Bible itself), pulps, strips, and movies (though I believe it was often done subconsciously, and besides, all characters are variations of ones that have come before). Finger admitted to cribbing from the Shadow, the Phantom, and other characters when building Batman, yet he combined these elements with some of his own design in such a way that the result seemed startlingly fresh. And Kane for all intents stole Batman from Finger.

This leads to perhaps the most frustrating difference between the Superman and Batman men: Siegel and Shuster fought back. Finger did not—or if he did, it was not documented. Growing up, Siegel and Shuster were not fighters. As with the secret origins of many heroes, perhaps most notably Batman, it was a gross injustice that brought out the warrior in them. Some underestimate the strength it took for Siegel and Shuster to do all they did—over the course of 30 years—to reclaim some stake in Superman.

Hence Siegel and Shuster, the underdogs, are now forever linked to their creation, the ultimate overachiever. Their names are on every Superman story in every medium
and they lived to see it. Whereas Finger died in 1974 with no official connection to Batman, as it still stands today.

He was inspired by the Shadow and the Phantom, and then he became them.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The three scripts of Bill

A career spanning thirty years and thousands of stories yet pages from only three Bill Finger scripts are known to still exist?

source: William Breman Jewish Heritage & Holocaust Museum superhero exhibit catalog

source: Alter Ego #20

source: Alter Ego: The Comic Book Artist Collection

More must be out there. Check your grandparents’ attics.