Thursday, December 29, 2011

Author Edward Ormondroyd in 1969

Edward wrote one of the most beloved novels of my childhood, David and the Phoenix (published 1957, though my childhood came later).

This year, I interviewed Edward.
To my disappointment, he had almost no photos of himself.

Then I met him in person, and surprised him.

Now a friend, Connie Rockman, has unearthed some material on Edward that even Edward did not seem to remember existed, and luckily it includes a photo:
It's from the Third Book of Junior Authors (1972), but because Edward said he was still getting letters about David and the Phoenix "twelve years later," it's apparent that he wrote this in 1969.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

This looks like a job for Superman…fans

In August 2011, a crime was committed in Illinois, home state of Metropolis. (Metropolis? True story.)

Not only did Superman not stop it, he was the cause of it.

Mike Meyer, a 48-year-old part-time McDonald’s employee described as having a mental disability, let a new acquaintance into his home. While the acquaintance’s girlfriend distracted Mike, the acquaintance switched to his secret identity: a thief.

He stole from a collection of at-times rare Superman memorabilia that Mike had been amassing for decades.

Though I read a few articles about this (it was all over the news), I don’t recall learning how word of this reached the fan community. In any case, people connected to Superman around the world took a page from his playbook and lent a hand in the form of sending all sorts of Superman merchandise to Mike to help him rebuild his collection.

But even before I read of this, I was honored to be asked to send a copy of Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman, and promptly did. Then I was tickled to read the following in one of the articles:

A California fan group has contacted actress Noel Neill, who played Lois Lane opposite George Reeves in the original TV series, for an autograph. Neill in fact met Meyer once, Howard said. When Meyer attended the Metropolis Festival several years ago, he got to meet her and stand in Superman’s place beside her for a few minutes.

Other celebrities, including Tracy Lewis of the Superboy series and Mark Tyler Nobleman, author of Boys of Steel, are sending autographed items.

Obviously, and not just because of the “k,” they’re not talking about me.

And, of course, they caught the jerk
as all classic superhero stories end.

Monday, December 19, 2011

"Vanished" Reading Group Guide

When I was first asked (in 2008) to write the book that became Vanished: True Stories of the Missing, I said no, feeling it would be too tough to find age-appropriate stories.

Today I discovered that Scholastic has produced a Reading Group Guide for it.

How far we've come.

The guide is strong. Someone spent time getting to know the material and teased out substantial questions and suggestions.

When parents or teachers nervously ask about the content, I say that none of the seven stories contain any gruesome actions, three of the stories are about people who did not remain missing, and two of those stories are about young people who weren't just found
—they saved themselves. And I do mean young—second grade and kindergarten.

I did not write the book with a lesson in mind but there's a fine takeaway in that.

See also: Vanished curriculum ideas.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Jerry Siegel as a young man

Rather a young man as Jerry Siegel.

This is AW, who read Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman for a school biography project:

This project required students to pretend to be the people they read about, and the photo here shows AW as Jerry.

I'm still beaming about a series of Siegel and Shuster board games some Texas students created, and now I have the privilege of seeing this—an occurrence unthinkable only a few years ago.

I only wish Jerry (who died in 1996) could have seen it, too.

6/29/13 addendum: Another young man portrays another comics legend, Bill Finger.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Favorite school slogans #3

F.B. Leon Guerrero Middle School, Guam:

Love the humility and conviction of this one.

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

Friday, December 9, 2011

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Jerry Robinson, pioneering Batman artist, 1922-2011

It was my great honor to know Jerry Robinson (early Batman artist; co-creator of Robin and the Joker; brave advocate for Superman creators Siegel and Shuster), who passed away on 12/7/11. New Year’s Day would’ve been his 90th birthday.

Many others have already paid tribute to him knowledgeably and beautifully, including Ty Templeton (artist for Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman), so all I can add is my brief personal experience with Jerry.

From 2006 (over the phone) to this summer (on camera, for a documentary), he selflessly spent hours telling me about his old friend Bill Finger. One of the most poignant surprises (and fluky twists) in my upcoming Finger book is thanks to Jerry.

At times Jerry would call me—to ask for my address to invite me to an exhibit opening, to ask if Bill’s second wife should be invited to the Bill Finger Awards. I was always surprised he remembered who I was. I suspect dozens of new people thrust themselves into his life each week, and somehow he managed to keep them straight and make time for all of them. I’ve speculated more than once that Jerry probably gave at least one interview a day.

He was a class act in every direction, to all of us whose paths were lucky to cross his. His contributions were not only artistic but altruistic. He didn't need a cape to be a crusader.

You'll still be expected at my book's launch party, Jerry, and now I'm counting on you to bring Bill, too.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

"Boys of Steel" interview for B'nai B'rith

In high school, I was an eager member of the B'nai B'rith Youth Organization (BBYO).

Recently, B'nai B'rith Magazine
interviewed me about Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman, and about superheroes and Jews in general. This was a supplement to the cover story of the winter 2011 issue of the print magazine, which showed Boys of Steel:

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Edward is the Phoenix: surprise for an author

Finding out that Edward Ormondroyd, author of the 1957 YA novel David and the Phoenix, was still with us (at age 86) was a highlight of my summer.

Contacting him and convincing him to let me interview him for my blog was as well.

Yet in terms of moving experiences, both turned out to be mere prologue to the Edward-related event that unfolded in Trumansburg, NY, on 12/2/11. I believe it is unprecedented in the known history of author visits at schools.

Like the fabled Phoenix of his book, Edward (as author) has risen again, and it didn’t require a pyre or fire of any kind.

In the interview, Edward said that, but for two “unofficial” (my term) exceptions, he never spoke in schools, as many children’s authors do today.

A humble and happy man, he didn’t say this with any discernible hint of regret or longing, but I saw an opportunity just the same.

By pure, freakish chance, at the same time I had been tracking down Edward, I was also booking an author visit at Trumansburg Elementary in Trumansburg, NY…which, I would soon learn, happens to be the town in which Edward lives.

Yet apparently, the fact that he is a published author is largely unknown among the townsfolk.

More broadly, David and the Phoenix remains beloved by certain adult readers yet largely unknown among the current generation.

I believed kids and Trumansburgians alike would be most interested in Edward’s books and in Edward himself.

So I asked Purple House Press, the exclusive publisher of David and the Phoenix, if they would discreetly donate copies of it to the school so the kids could take turns reading it in the month leading up to my appearance. The publisher kindly obliged and sent 30 paperbacks at no charge. The kids were not told that their assignment to read Edward’s novel had any connection to my upcoming author visit.

Edward had already planned to attend my talk—anonymously, he thought. But about halfway through, I ambushed the whole room.

I flashed a picture of David and the Phoenix, citing it as a childhood favorite. I innocently asked the kids if they knew the book. As I suspected, their reaction was excitement—and disbelief: what are the chances this guest author would mention the very book by an unrelated author that they all just so happened to read?

Then I announced that Edward just so happened to be in the room. I gestured to him to “introduce” him to the crowd—a surprised author greeting surprised fans...for the first time. He stood and endearingly bowed.

For the Q&A segment with which I close my program, I encouraged students to ask questions of either of us (not having cleared this in advance with Edward). To my great pleasure, upon hearing this, quite a few kids turned to Edward and shot up their hands.

Here are both segments on filmthe intro (unfortunately, Edward is cut off, except for his bow) and the Q&A:

Edwards wife and friend had accompanied him; later, his wife said Edward was touched and his friend said seeing Edward get such long-deserved attention brought tears to his eyes. Edward told me he had not thought I would involve him in my presentation, let alone even mention him.

After the presentation, Edward and I posed in front of an important word:

Edward requested this pose.
His wife shrugged and said authors of books for children
never fully grow up.

As if this weren’t memorable enough, the Ormondroyds kindly invited me to their house for dinner (featuring vegetables they grew themselves) that evening. Adding to the honor, fellow author Bruce Coville (whom I’d run into online but never in person) joined us.

Taken in Edward’s library, this photo shows (as Bruce commented) “three generations of
David and the Phoenix”—the author (holding the lone first edition hardcover he owns), a fan from circa the first edition (Bruce), and a fan from circa the 1981 Scholastic edition (me):

Let’s recap the surprises bundled into this story:

  • surprise on me: that Edward lives in same town as a school I was booked to speak at
  • surprise on Edward: that I was going to shine the spotlight on him during my presentation and that the kids read David and the Phoenix in prep
  • surprise on the kids: that Edward was there and that they'd read David and the Phoenix because Edward was going to be there
  • surprise on the people of Trumansburg: that Edward lives in town

The press release I'd sent began with this plea: “Due to the surprise nature of this event, please do not run story (or even discuss locally) until after!” The Ithaca Journal (the region’s daily paper) covered it; the Fox TV affiliate WICZ told me they would be there, but they were a no-show.
The day prior, I had seen the film Hugo, in which a younger person shows an older person (silent era filmmaker Georges Méliès) who had a creative influence that he (the older person) is still fondly remembered. I felt like this Edward Experiment was a Hugo moment of my own.

Special thanks to Trumansburg Elementary librarian Gail Brisson who eagerly agreed to take on this additional effort and who managed to keep the whole thing a secret for a month, even from Edward’s wife…who, it just so happens, volunteers in the school.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A warm hometown school vi

On 11/30/11, I had the pleasure of speaking in my hometown at Garrett Park Elementary in Bethesda, MD.

Their welcome sign made my surname gender-neutral. (I know it was simply a space issue so it didn’t bother me—in fact, I smiled at it—but a kind school staffer apologized for it as soon as I walked in.)

They had booked my presentation for a mere two weeks before the entire school will move to its new facility, so obviously they like a challenge!

A good number of parents volunteered to supervise the kids during the presentation. Though I do encourage it in my contract, parents other than the PTA liaison rarely attend my school presentations, so this was a treat for me.

Bonus: the school sold a good number of Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman beforehand and are now going to feature some of my books at their upcoming book fair.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Searching for Gordon from “Sesame Street”

Thanks to their new movie, the Muppets are back at the forefront of pop culture, but I remain a bigger fan of Sesame Street…even more so once I learned that the show has gone to the web to find the man who played Gordon only once, in the unaired 1969 pilot.

This is a kind of thing I love. This is a kind of thing I’ve done. So I feel their hope.

t’s been two weeks since the Sesame Street search went public and I haven’t seen any follow-up. This seems the kind of thing that, if anyone knows, the details would be forthcoming immediately. So this episode is brought to you by the letter W, for worried—if even the mighty and beloved Sesame Street can’t find their man, then what chance do the rest of us mere Muggle/Muppet handlers have?

12/10/11 update: I knew they'd find him. Frustratingly, first reports said no details about him would be revealed to respect his privacy, but it appears that he died in 1984. To me, that is all the more reason details should be revealed.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The title of my 2012 picture book on Batman is…

Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman. Twitter-unfriendly, but still on schedule for a 7/1/12 release.

On 11/22/11, I was thrilled to learn that the book was named a Junior Library Guild selection. (Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman also was, but I didn’t find out about that until the March prior to publication—in other words, four months later than this time!)

What this honor means, and could mean (graphic from the JLG site):

Batman’s in charge; I’m just the sidekick.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Vanished: The Movie Trailer

I was thrilled to stumble across a trailer for a (nonexistent) movie based on my nonfiction compilation book Vanished: True Stories of the Missing. I didn't know the person who made it but introduced myself!

Those glimpses of Indiana Jones and the Little Prince are not false advertising; both do figure into a story in the book. I especially love the text treatment at the end.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Original research for picture books

Before Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman, few of the books I’d written involved original research. And while I was writing Boys of Steel, I don’t think I stopped to think about the fact that I was doing original research. Now I find myself choosing projects because they’d require original research. It’s a good kind of addictive.

By “original research,” I mean digging up previously unpublished information, typically by looking in places no one else has before.

It takes longer. It often leads to more dead ends (how can you be certain you’ll find something useable in any given direction if you’re the first to check?). But it’s also more fulfilling, and not only for the writer.

Just because a subject has never been the focus of its own book before doesn’t mean the research for that book is original. (The reverse, of course, is also true.)

For example, my 2012 book on Bill Finger, uncredited co-creator of Batman, is the first book to focus on Bill, but not because no one before me could find enough material on him. I could’ve written it using only published books such as Batman: The Complete History by Les Daniels (who passed away 11/5/11) as my source material. But that wouldn’t have told the whole (to the extent that’s possible) story. It certainly wouldn’t have told some of the most interesting parts of the story.

While I did refer to Daniels’s book, among others, I also interviewed dozens of people who had not been interviewed about Bill before and tracked down documents no other writer had referred to before.

I don’t know how recently authors of nonfiction picture books began doing original research but this development has gotten some attention lately in the publishing media. The fact that it’s a topic at all is a symptom of the myth that books for young people are (a) not “real” books, (b) easier to write than adult books, and (c) simplistic in both subject and prose. (Can you imagine seeing an article focusing on how the author of a biography for adults did original research?)

In creating nonfiction (or fiction, for that matter), I feel original research is as critical as original writing. It’s not enough to have a good story. We should strive for a good story that is also a fresh story. Adding to the record gives meaning and lends permanence.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Gone South Carolina

A lovely time of year to visit the Lowcountry. On 11/17/11 and 11/18/11, I spoke seven times at four Charleston area schools. It was so tight because I had to book my flight before knowing how many bookings I would get, and when more came in afterward, I had to ask each school for their understanding with regard to the juggling act that ensued.

At both of the 11/17/11 schools, I happened to know the mom of one of the students, and got to see both. At one of the 11/17/11 schools, I also got to see this:

At the other, I happened upon this cheeky way to recycle an old card catalog:

This took one person two full days!

On 11/18/11, my schedule was so tight that I had to cut short the last presentation to have ample time to refuel and return the rental car and make my flight. Of course, this was the first time in forever where a school's laptop froze during my PowerPoint...meaning we lost even more time while they retrieved and booted up a replacement. Luckily, the kids and staff were most patient and I felt I still fit in most of the material.

Friday, November 18, 2011

My PSA for PBS Guam

This was one highlight of many on my recent two-week author trip to Guam.

I talked extra slowly because they told me to. I didn't smile because they didn't tell me to. And upon seeing this finished cut, I wish I had talked slightly faster and flashed teeth more.

But overall, it was fun and I am pleased, especially with the zooming-backwards-through-bookshelves effect, which was not a typhoon (common in those parts) but rather just some movie magic. Thank you, PBS!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Metro Man usurps Superman?

On 9/22/11, I kicked off the 2011-12 year of author visits at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, MD. The students in attendance had all met or exceeded the summer reading book quota the school had set forth in a challenge.

When speaking at Jewish venues, I like to share a brief, anonymized version of the Moses story and ask the audience who I’m talking about. They always get it.

Then I ask who else I could be describing and usually someone answers as I am hoping by saying Superman.

However, it appears we’ve reached a dispiriting shift. For the first time, a student did not say Superman…but rather Metro Man (technically, the student said Megamind, who is Metro Man’s enemy and the star of the 2010 film of the same name).

The linked origin of hero Metro Man and villain-turned-hero Megamind is a parody/homage of Superman’s rocketed-from-a-dying-planet backstory. It’s hard for me to accept that these two characters from a derivative, forgettable film (whose cast, nonetheless, I do love) now loom larger in some young minds than the world’s first superhero.

This looks like a job for Superman. I just hope we don’t reach the point where a student responds “Super who now?”

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Turning the Page #3

On 11/9/11, I took part in my third Community Night event for the Washington D.C. organization Turning the Page. The format is this:
  1. I show up on time, thanks to the Metro. (This is compared to last year, when I showed up with mere minutes to spare, thanks to the traffic.)
  2. I eat.
  3. I speak for 20-30 minutes to an audience of families.
  4. The kids break go to different rooms for mentor-run activities.
  5. I answer questions from the parents for 30 minutes.
  6. I sign books that the organization generously purchased for every attending family.
  7. I try to find my way back home.
At Tyler Elementary, whose students, parents, and hallways all impressed me, I had an opening act, and they blew me away. Accompanied by a slide show, three young ladies read a short poem entitled "If I Could Be a Superhero," which I later learned is by Steve Lazarowitz. Superman is the only DC hero name-checked in it, but I liked it anyway. Here are murky shots of the last lines:

The books that Turning the Page donated to attendees:

And courtesy of Lee Ziesche and Turning the Page, a few presentation shots:

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Just over thirty days after "Thirty Minutes" posted

In late September 2011, I posted a pitch for a nonfiction picture book I've written that has generated humbling praise from editors but no offers:

Several days ago, a Denver mother (and librarian) kindly messaged me that her son Owen, age 8, had drawn a picture inspired by
Thirty Minutes Over Oregon. She told me that they had not discussed the story since the post went up.

In her words: "Just another reminder that this topic is very compelling to a young person!"

I love the drawing; it depicts two key scenes from the book. I should note, however, that the book (nor the true story behind it) does not contain a scene of a plane crashing and burning. That's Owen's creative license!

Thank you, Owen, for the thought, and thank you, Owen's mom, for sharing. Keep them coming!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Looking for elderly females

If you’re a heterosexual male who (when young and single) thought finding a young female was hard, it’s nothing compared to finding an old female.

Sweet lord no, I don’t mean that lasciviously. I mean research.

Finding anyone old is hard since elderly people are not likely to be on social media or have much other trace online. Finding anyone old and female is especially hard, especially if you don’t know her married name. (At times I have had to look for a woman who intersected with the subject of my book when they were both young, meaning that, to start, I know only her maiden name.)

For my 2012 book on Bill Finger, uncredited co-creator of a fella you mighta hearda called Batman, I found myself interacting with a large number of people over the age of 80. (Bill was born in 1914 and I’d set out to speak to as many of his contemporaries who knew him personally as I could.)

Once I covered the essentials, I dug into the wild cards. One of those had a perfect name for a wild card—Dorcas. In 2006, Charles Sinclair, Bill’s longtime friend and writing partner (on radio, TV, and film, but not on Batman comics), amazingly remembered that a woman named Dorcas had once invited Bill to Thanksgiving.

(I’d normally say you don’t forget a name like Dorcas, but when you’re talking about an event going back at least 50 years, you just might.)

The reason I was so keen on finding Dorcas is because Thanksgiving is a holiday and holidays are when it’s more likely than usual for people to take photos. (So few photos of Bill had been published that I zealously followed any lead that might turn up a “new” one.)

While Charles remembered the first name and the holiday, as well the church through which she and Bill met, that was it—no last name, no state. Yet from those meager roots, I was able to find Dorcas. Here’s how:

  1. I contacted a former priest from the church who allegedly had great memory of church members from from that era. Indeed he did remember Dorcas and gave me both her last name (Young) and last known address, in St. Petersburg, Florida. This was a huge first step in the right direction.
  2. I Googled her—no one by her name in St. Petersburg but one in Davenport, Florida. Even though the phone number for that one was out of service, I figured this was a more current city for her than the St. Petersburg one.
  3. I checked PeopleFinder where I found my Dorcas Young in both St. Petersburg and Davenport, living with a man named Norman (it was indicated that she was 85, he 88).
  4. I Googled Norman in both cities and called info for both cities and both their names. I called a few of the phone numbers this generated. Some were wrong numbers; others were answering machines on which I didn’t bother to leave a message.
  5. I Googled for obituaries and found one listed on a pay site. Much as I wanted to find Dorcas, she wasn’t essential so not worth spending $70 for the one-year subscription required.
  6. I figured out what newspaper covers Davenport. I searched for obits for either and found that Norman did die, in 8/05 (see below).
  7. The obit listed their daughter Kaorin so I tried to find her on Google and People Finder. Neither listed anyone with her unusually spelled first name (love when that happens) in St. Petersburg (or even Florida), but one did list another unusually spelled similar name—Kaaren—age 64, in St. Petersburg. The number I found online was out of service, so I called information and got another for her. I called and got the machine but she sounded the right age.
  8. The obit also listed two churches Norman was affiliated with. I called both. Neither answered. (It was a Sunday.)
  9. The obit also listed the place that held the memorial service for Norman. I called there and it turned out to be a retirement home and…a big “and”...Dorcas lived there! Clair, the woman who answered, told me that Dorcas was totally lucid and that she would ask Dorcas about this. When I told Clair that the Dorcas I’m looking for had invited a lonely acquaintance from her church (who I’m now writing about) to her Thanksgiving one year, Clair said "That sounds like her."

All that, however, was for nothing. Clair (super nicely) reported back that Dorcas remembered that Bill had come to a Thanksgiving, but nothing more. And she had no photos.

By the way, given that my Dorcas quest was five years ago, I should point out that in recounting this story, I am not going on memory (even though the name Dorcas is, as mentioned above, memorable). I recorded this research strand immediately after I did it or else I surely would have forgotten it.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

First-ever guest on the Superman Homepage live radio show

In which I got to talk about my "Super '70s and '80s" blog series (100 interviews with "lost" stars of superhero pop culture), my 2012 book on Bill Finger and Batman, and the never-before-revealed connection between the Superman Homepage and Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman. My segment starts at 12:16 (though the whole show is worth listening to):

Listen to internet radio with SupermanHomepage on Blog Talk Radio

I've known Steve Younis, the gracious ringleader of the Superman Homepage, since 2005. At around 8 p.m. on 11/7/11, Steve messaged to ask if I'd like be a guest on the SH Internet radio show. The first-ever guest, apparently, hard as that was for me to believe! I said I'd be honored and asked when. He said they do the show Monday nights at 11:30 p.m. EST. I said I was already planning to be up that late for other obligations, so we spontaneously scheduled the interview for that very night.

Thank you again, Steve, for the opportunity.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

How I became a published author

In 1995, I was working my first job after college—a marketing assistant at Abbeville Press in New York.

The company was known for its coffee table books (particularly art monographs) but had recently launched a children’s imprint.

One of the most popular titles in that imprint was Letters from Felix, a picture book translated from German.

Before I started, the marketing department had developed a simple promotional series of activity sheets based on the book that they sent to bookstores. The publisher wanted to create an entire book of activities. He announced this at a marketing meeting.

I volunteered to write it. Somehow, no one sniggered.

I forgot what happened next (though I did keep a journal at the time, I am relaying this story solely on memory).

Six or so months later, on the Friday before Labor Day weekend, the publisher called me into his office.

“Remember when you offered to write the Felix activity book?”

I said yes.

“Well, if you were serious, the job is yours.”

“Are you serious?” I was 23 with no credits to my name. I now know why at least in part why that was actually attractive: it meant I came cheap.

I was partnered with a friend who also worked in the marketing department. We were hired independently of our day jobs and were not supposed to work on the book in the office. Because my friend was also one of my bosses, she had more responsibility and therefore could devote less time to the book. I (gladly) ended up writing the majority of it and at her prompting (she was a good egg), we adjusted our financial arrangement accordingly.

I remember doing my research, all the old-fashioned way: books only. The Internet (at least as a significant research tool) was still a couple of years off.

Once we had some activities done, I focus-grouped them at Long Lots Elementary in Connecticut at which the sister of another of my bosses taught.

That sister is now a principal and I did an author visit at her school in 2010.

The Felix Activity Book came out in 1996.

I did my first bookstore signing that fall, and a couple more afterward. In 1999, the sequel Felix Explores Our World came out to zero fanfare (except in my mom’s condo).

Then Felix and I parted ways, amicably. But I will always be grateful to him (and Abbeville) for giving me my first break in publishing.

Felix may have been the one writing letters, but I was the one who became an author.