Saturday, January 29, 2011

My Disney turnaround

At one point I denounced Disney.

It was, simply, everywhere, which is far too many places to be at one time. Anything that challenges breathing room becomes an eyesore. The orgiastic merchandising prevented me from taking a step back and considering Disney in parts rather than as a whole.

However, seeing Tangled has enabled me to do that. Did I feel it was the best animated film ever? No. Not even the best Disney animated film. (My favorites are Beauty and the Beast and Tarzan.)

But it has an ample supply of charm and is (as usual) divine to look at. The script was not too hectic and when the action scenes hit, they were rollicking. More to the point, the script was clever. Most live action adventure films don’t have the same zip. Despite Disney’s sometime reputation for being squeaky clean, the subject matter here is not too sanitized. The songs are weak, but given the rest, that gets a pass from me here.

Yet what stands out most of all is that the film’s humor derives from character, not culture. I didn’t pick up on a single pop culture crutch—I mean reference. Many (all?) other contemporary animated films rely heavily on the trends of the day to create “humor.” (One of the worst offenders is Shrek.) Which means in just a few short years, if not months, the humor will be painfully dated. Tangled does have a bit of anachronistic sass, but given the rest, that, too, gets a pass.

Disney’s high-quality animated films don’t completely excuse the company for the glut of kitschy product they smother kids with. But at least the source material is, on some level, good for them.

And while it's something of a tangent, Disney's Hyperion does publish some handsome (non-licensed) picture books.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A nice "Spot" to visit

I recently discovered the 2004 picture book On This Spot: An Expedition Back Through Time, written by Susan E. Goodman and illustrated by Lee Christiansen. (I did not discover it in an actual time capsule, though it would be ironic to include it in one.)

That cover is like a scene out of Night at the Museum: The True Story.

On This Spot is one of the few picture books I’ve bought impulsively based solely on the concept, without first investigating the quality of the execution.

The micro-gamble paid off.

In focusing on the landscape of a single spot over millions of years (if not pages), the book a quiet but standout approach to nonfiction. There’s not much reaction to it online, most likely because of its publication date. (The mid-2000s seem just on the cusp of when everything began to get over-covered online, due mainly to blogs.) But it’s a captivating book.

It starts in present-day New York City. The thought did cross my mind that the author could’ve depicted Bloomingdale’s or Barney’s in that spread, guaranteeing at least some glitzy special sales, but she obviously has integrity.

The next spread startlingly jumps back not a half-century as I would’ve guessed but nearly 200 years. The spreads after that—European colonization and indigenous population—are my favorites. Those two spreads show most dramatically how quickly an environment can change.

Then the flux capacitor really begins to spark as the book gobbles up thousands and eventually millions of years with each turn of the page.

It becomes somewhat abstract for me as I began to wonder how we know what the terrain looked like so far in the past. Animal and plant life re-creation I understand; we have fossils to go on. But the rest seems almost like wild fantasy. In that sense, at least in my mind, it is not quite nonfiction but rather speculative nonfiction.

In any case, it’s an essential book for any library and a fun way to blow the mind of your own elementary schooler.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The illustrator of my Bill Finger book is...

...Ty Templeton, fan-favorite artist of, among others, The Batman Adventures (the first of multiple comic book series based on Batman: The Animated Series and its subsequent incarnations).

Besides loving Ty's style in general, I love that he was tapped into the tragic legacy of Bill Finger before we approached him. He is clearly bringing that passion and knowledge to his work on the book.

Ty's first sketches arrived in an envelope cleverly customized, courtesy of Alyssa Pusey, my wonderful Charlesbridge editor:

Much more Ty the Guy to come!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Geek vs. nerd

Here is one of my favorite entries from my book What's the Difference?: How to Tell Things Apart that Are Confusingly Close, modified only slightly from its publication version:

What’s the difference between a GEEK and a NERD?

You probably use the words interchangeably, most likely in reference to your boss or your brother-in-law or both. Take note, Judgmental One: this kind of labeling does a disservice to both species. It surely will not be surprising to learn that the Internet is brimming with message board posts debating this subject. Equally unsurprising, consensus is elusive.

A geek seems to be any smart person with an obsessive interest. Despite widespread misconception, that interest does not have to be computers or Star Trek. While those are two of the most visible kinds of geeks, there are also comic book geeks, reality TV geeks, World War II geeks, motorcycle geeks, organic food geeks, politics geeks, and even sports geeks. As such, most of us are geeks of one kind or another, whether or not we admit it. Yes, geeks are more mainstream than previously believed. If you’ve got a passion and a serviceable IQ, you’re loving proof. Geeks like to talk about the object of their affection, sometimes far more than anyone is willing to listen.

A nerd, too, seems to be any smart person with an obsessive interest, but also a lack of social grace. (This correctly implies that geeks can indeed have social grace.) Nerds are uncompromisingly pure, often more comfortable with themselves than non-nerds. They are not wimpy. In fact, they are courageous because they do not give in to the expectations of a superficial society. They are driven to excel academically: nerds are promiscuous studiers. It’s a generalization rooted in truth that they gravitate toward math, science, and technology.

Geeks can blend in, nerds stand out
, though neither craves acceptance. Except for a few stressful teenage years, geeks and nerds have no shame about their classification. While both words were at one time insulting, nowadays they are routinely used as terms of endearment. Geeks and nerds would go so far as say they take pride in these monikers.

Geekdom is a lifestyle choice
and nerddom is quite possibly genetic, though even a cursory check of any decade-old high school yearbook will invariably turn up a nerd who has since beaten biology and blossomed into hunkdom or babedom. Geeks interact with non-geeks, sometimes quite successfully. Nerds prefer to—or have no choice but to—hang with their own kind. Both geeks and nerds can be extroverted, but the effect is different: geeks annoy and nerds elicit (unneeded) sympathy.

There is less diversity among nerds than among geeks. The many geek factions do not necessarily get along, but nerds have the potential to be a unified front. If nerds ever do choose to seek revenge as the 1980s movie imagines, they’d be a formidable force, with or without pocket protectors.


The word “geek” used to have a far more unappealing connotation. Compared to its original definition—a carnival performer who bites the heads off live chickens or snakes—most anyone would be fonder of today’s version.

A commonly cited first appearance of “nerd” is Dr. Seuss’s 1950 book If I Ran the Zoo.


A dweeb is a nerd with an extra piece of tape around the nose bridge of his glasses—in other words, a “mega nerd.”

A dork is a person you don’t even pretend to like, with good reason. Unlike most geeks, nerds, and dweebs, dorks are often stupid, grating, or otherwise unpleasant.
Check back for more on What's the Difference?...

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Bill Finger: 37 years ago today

Following most any creative crucible, there's bound to be some room for interpretation as to who did what. For all of the mystery that Batman embodies, the stroke-by-stroke of his genesis has been fairly well delineated by both Bob Kane and Bill Finger, the only two who were there.

They didn't do it at the time, however. For all we know, neither of them took notes that fateful day in the cold beginning of 1939. More than two decades would pass before the story would begin to unfold publicly on paper. (The real story, anyway.)

And when it did emerge, so did friction. But by the 1980s, some of the alleged discrepancies seemed to evaporate. The truthful center of the story began to solidify. The creations of certain supporting characters and villains were and still are disputed, but the who-did-what on Batman himself very nearly lined up, from the iconic cowl to the chilling origin. Bill never claimed he chose the name Batman. To our knowledge, Bob never claimed he chose the name Bruce Wayne.

There was one thing Bob did choose, a choice that has also never been disputed, which seems to me to be the most important thing for which he should be remembered. To quote a 1989 letter written by Bill's second wife:

"If Bob Kane called Bill in to write Batman, he certainly made a good choice, didn’t he?"

Thirty-seven years ago today, on January 18, 1974, Bill passed away. It would be some years before he passed into legend. Yet his legacy remains in limbo.

Lest ye forget, there is a way out of limbo. Tip your head even farther back, focus on balance, and keep moving forward.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Bat-Blog spreads the word

The Bat-Blog kindly announced my 2012 all-ages picture book about Bill Finger, uncredited co-creator (and visual architect) of Batman.

The man behind the Bat-Blog called this the "definitive" biography. I don't know about that, but it is the first!

Thank you, Bat-Blog. I appreciate your support.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

"Track of the Moon Beast," AKA "Full Moan Tonight"

In 2009, I put a kind blogger in touch with onetime and longtime Bill Finger writing partner Charles Sinclair (with Charles’s permission). The result of that connection is a winning interview about a Charles/Bill collaboration: the script for the 1972 B-movie Track of the Moon Beast. The interview includes several previously unpublished aspects of Finger that didn’t make it into my forthcoming book.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

You make a living at that?

I’m all for candidness. Yet I find it strange when, upon learning I’m a writer, a stranger asks “You make a living at that?” It’s a valid question, of course, but it seems rather personal for a person meeting me for the first time. (In any case, I do give a candid answer.)

Viewed another way, I find this question not only strange but also surprising. I would not have expected so many laypeople to know how hard it is to make a living as a writer. Before I tried it, I sure didn’t! That’s not to say I na├»vely expected to earn a certain amount. It simply means I didn’t think about it one way or another.

In my humble experience, kids tend to think that all authors (even ones they’ve never heard of) rake it in. Many adults, however, develop a more accurate sense of the reality.

Once I read an article claiming that of the untold thousands of people who write books, only 200 make a living at it. In my estimation, it’s far more who survive on their craft (and I’m not talking only about the household names).

One reason is that many full-time writers don’t earn solely from writing. I recently read that Mark Twain made more from speaking than from advances and royalties, and I know many writers today can say the same. (Hey, words is words, though presentation is king.)

I’ve heard a perception that some writers become writers because they don’t want to interact with people. Writing is typically a solitary endeavor. And surely some writers do tense up at the thought of standing before a crowd, even a small one. But other writers love the speaking aspect of the job.

This thought stream prompted me to look up the definition for a term batted around quite a bit in my arena: “honorarium.” Merriam-Webster describes it as “a payment for a service (such as making a speech) on which custom or propriety forbids a price to be set.” Macmillan is a bit more explicit: “an amount of money that someone receives for work that would normally not be paid.”

This shocked me. Not be paid?

In any given industry, time committed + expertise rendered = service deserving of compensation. It’s bad enough that some people expect writers to write “for exposure” (meaning instead of payment), but some also believe that writers should speak publicly about their work as a courtesy (or as a cultural obligation) rather than a source of income.

A common defense of parties who don’t wish to pay authors to speak: “But you earn money from book sales.”

However, first of all, sometimes we don’t. Some books don’t sell enough copies to plunk even a single dime beyond the advance into a writer’s account.

Second, I for one don’t require books to be sold in conjunction with my speaking engagements because that can involve quite a bit of extra work. Therefore, when a paying venue is willing to also run a book sale, I’m all the more grateful; besides, I have found that when a sale accompanies a speech, both the venue and the speaker usually make out better anyway.

Yet writers charge speaking fees because generally speaking, speaking—no matter how well—doesn’t guarantee book sales. (And if I speak at an event where books are not sold, I will never even know if that translates into any books sales.) So if people get something out of one of my talks and I am paid for my efforts, that, to me, is time well spent.

We don’t question when others—from rock stars to televangelists—get paid to perform in front of an audience, so why should writers be any different?

So yes, I make a living at this. And it’s a bonus when others understand what it takes to do so.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Adults like pictures, too

I was curious to discover a six-minute New Hampshire Public Radio segment (posted 11/29/10) about picture books for grown-ups.

In the intro, the host refers to them as “children’s books for adults.” The segment cites a growing trend of adults buying picture books for adults.

Technically, two types of books are under discussion here:
  • illustrated books marketed primarily to children but also of interest to adults
  • illustrated books marketed to adults but designed to (at first) resemble children’s books
No matter the angle, any coverage of picture books for older readers is good by me.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Who’s afraid of public speaking?

I once heard a comment that a reason some people become writers is because they don't want to interact with others, let alone give presentations to them. Yet most writers I know do like it.

Or at least they do it.

I’m reading a book called
Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun. Early on, he addresses the fairly common claim that public speaking is among the top fears of human beings.

He quotes Mark Twain (and I’ve seen more than one version of this online, but regardless of which is the accurate one, the gist remains the same): “There are two types of speakers. Those who are nervous and those who are liars.”

Under no other circumstance would I be capable of proving Twain wrong, but here, I have found an exception to his theory: me.

I simply don’t get nervous before speaking to an audience—so long as I know what I’m talking about.

I wonder if I should get nervous because I'm supposed to get nervous but don't!

I think the reason I don't get nervous is because I love it, but more analytically, because I've got the floor with (under “normal” circumstances) little likelihood of interruption. Audiences want to like speakers—no matter the topic, they want to be entertained—and I try to channel that positive energy. I believe that some people send silent goodwill in proportion to how fearful they are to speak in public: they emphasize with and admire the speaker at the same time.

Perhaps oddly, sometimes I do get nervous talking in smaller groups or even casual conversation; I can feel rushed, like I have to get it out fast or else I won't get to finish my thought.

In the end, we all speak. And, as Berkun notes, we all publicly speak. We just don’t always remember that we’re allegedly afraid of it.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Fiction picture books on sensitive issues

A friend has written a picture book manuscript about a child with a kidney disease. She asked my opinion and as part of that, I suggested she read other fiction picture books that involve a sensitive issue including diseases, conditions, or other difficult situations.

But I could think of only two offhand, so I asked some librarian friends to pad my list. Thanks to Betsy Bird, Paula Willey, Kristen Monroe, and Linda Williams, I amassed a selection so good that I didn’t want to keep it to myself. (In some cases, they understandably had not read some of the books they directed me to. And I am sure there are many other titles that belong here. Please add them in the comments.)

Disclaimer: I have not read most of these books. So while I can make no guarantee for individual quality, I can say that if you are also writing a sensitive issue picture book, I’m sure most any of these books would be worth checking out, for one reason or another. (Apologies to the artists but in the interest of time, I’m listing only the authors. Luckily, anywhere else one looks up these books, both names will be there.)

Punk Wig by Lori Ries – cancer
Now One Foot, Now the Other by Tomie dePaola – stroke
My Little Grandmother Often Forgets by Reeve Lindbergh memory loss
The Pirate of Kindergarten – George Ella Lyon – double vision
My Brother Charlie by Holly Robinson Peete – autism
We'll Paint the Octopus Red by Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen – Down syndrome
The Purple Balloon by Chris Raschka – terminal disease in a child
Trudi & Pia by Ursula Hegi dwarfism
Taking a Bath with the Dog and Other Things that Make Me Happy by Scott Menchin – depression
My Buddy by Audrey Osofsky – muscular dystrophy
Dancing with Katya by Dori Chaconas – polio/losing full use of legs
Michael Rosen’s Sad Book – grief over losing loved ones
My Travelin' Eye by Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw – strabismus, a condition in which an eye moves irregularly
In Jessie’s Shoes by Beverly Lewis – special needs
I Get So Hungry by Bebe Moore Campbell – obesity
Catherine's Story by Genevieve Moore – West Syndrome


The Hickory Chair by Lisa Rowe Fraustino
Apt. 3 by Ezra Jack Keats
Cakes and Miracles: A Purim Tale by Barbara Diamond Goldin
The Sound of Colors: A Journey of the Imagination by Jimmy Liao


Dad, Jackie, and Me by Myron Uhlberg
(the similarly named) Dad and Me in the Morning by Patricia Lakin
the “Moses” series by Isaac Millman


Zoom! by Robert Munsch
Best Friend on Wheels by Debra Shirley

Also, the American Librarian Association gives an award for books that skillfully address a disability, some of which surely overlap with the list above:

Friday, January 7, 2011

Wisconsin State Reading Association 2011 convention lineup

In February 2011, I will be among the guests at the Wisconsin State Reading Association in Milwaukee. On this convention booklet page, you can win tic-tac-toe with the authors/illustrators photographed outside:

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

"The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy)"

After more than two years with nary a literary reference on this blog to the author formerly known as Clemens, I'll be mentioning him several times over the next several posts. I am starting by proclaiming my enthusiasm for a certain 2010 picture book biography.

The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy), written by Barbara Kerley and illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham, examines a popular subject through a new lens. But technically, the lens is actually old. And young.

It's not really that confusing. Let me explain.

The book is a look at Twain through the eyes of his daughter when she was 13, circa 1885. This was made possible by a journal/biography she wrote at the time. Bravo to Barbara for sensing the gleeful picture book potential in this.

The book is often cheeky, often incisive, and consistently ingenious.

Susy’s words are presented verbatim (spelling mistakes and all) and blown into the book on small “journal entries” (single sheets folded into simple leaflets). Generally I am averse to novelty formats or features in books. I feel Susy's entries would’ve been no less effective as part of the two-dimensional page design because that would not distract from content with cuteness, however thematically appropriate. Also, Compulsive Me says, because that would be less likely to tear. In this case, however, the rest of the book is so strong that I don’t mind it.

Historically, I've been one of the most zealous anti-smoking blabbermouths I knew, yet I'm also a pundit for authenticity and a frequent opponent of PC. Therefore, I applaud the bookmakers for showing Twain smoking at times. This is nonfiction. Twain smoked. Doesn't mean kids will follow. Case closed.

The book is not a storyography, an incident-focused variation of biography. However, it feels like one because it tells about a whole life through the device of a girl commenting in her journal on said life. In other words, the incident could be a girl keeping a journal.

As mentioned above, this is hardly the first book to spotlight Twain (though to my surprise, it does seem to be one of the first picture books). I have often said (usually only to myself) that I will never write a picture book on a textbook figure—meaning a person who is already widely known by name as well as accomplishment. (While Superman is recognized worldwide, his creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster are not household names.)

However, thanks to the extraordinary Barbara Kerley (according to Marc), I’m now more open-minded to the possibility. It's all in the approach.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Picture book festival at the Pequot Library in Connecticut

On 11/21/10, I had the honor of participating in what I hope will become an annual event, a new, well-organized picture book festival in Southport, Connecticut. Thank you to Susan Hood for her tireless efforts.

It starred twelve authors and author/illustrators including New York Times best-sellers, award-winners, a poet laureate, an Illustrator of the Year, and me.

We signed books in a handsome 100+-year-old hall and took turns speaking in 30-minute slots.

It’d been a while since I’d seen friends including Brian Floca, Peter Brown, Tad Hills, Jennifer Berne, and Keith Bendis. It was fairly crowded so I often could not see them, even if they were only one table over.
But when I could, it was a treat to silently observe a fan nervously and/or eagerly approach one of them to pay a compliment.

(You can see the whole sparkly-eyed crew in the previous photo and a close-up of Tad and Peter immediately below.)

Something else I saw, and for the first time: some of Ross MacDonald's original art for Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman. Paintings done for picture books featured at the festival were on display and, in some cases, for sale.

It was a rush to be physically close to images that have had such personal meaning to me for almost three years. I realized that, until that moment, I hadn’t even known the actual size of Ross’s stunning work for the book.

At the cocktail reception afterward, some of the authors drifted into a conversation about which of us “resembled” our books. Unfortunately, we were interrupted, but it would’ve been wild to follow that curious path a bit further.

Next time.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Attack of the non-automated spam comments

Lately this blog has been infested with “comments” from various V!agra sites (though they are most likely all the same “company”). I thought that drug was supposed to increase, well, something else.

While most of those comments do indicate that a human being has indeed read the post s/he is commenting on, many also indicate the commenter’s failure to grasp some English grammar basics. They need to develop a
V!agra for syntax dysfunction.

I delete the comments as they pop up, just as you do with any weed. Yet not before saving the best ones. I won’t leave them
strewn across my blog as comments with active hyperlinks, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want you to see them.

They are, after all, hilarious.

And I am, I hope, not really this mean. But here is a sampling, unedited aside from a probably ineffective spam-foiling exclamation point, and with my comments on the comments:

really your book could be used as a educative material? because if this is true you can assure that I gonna take this into a count for my child.

MTN: Yes, but apparently not educative enough to teach you that the word is “educational.”

I agree in the sense that nonfiction could be very interesting, and actually it is! I think it is important to take into account real issues

MTN: Please elaborate. No, I think it is important to take into account fake requests.

I remember when I lived at the same house in New Jersey with my grandmother, I like the infprmation because it is so funny and I hope you live happy in your next house.

MTN: Um…huh?

Interesting post, he was a huge celebrity I dont care what people say, he was amazing.

MTN: Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel was many things, including possibly amazing, but he was far from a “huge celebrity.” And besides, the post is about Jerry’s father, who was even further from being a huge celebrity.

I don't know what to say because this title reminded me Christmas eve, because white day is when snow is falling, sorry if I was a bit out of sense.

MTN: A bit? Also, if you don’t know what to say here, please don
t try.

Vanished is a very interesting book , I remember when I was in the school and I read a similar book in the bookstore of the college.

Ah, yes, I can see how that would be a distinct memory. I suspect it was the only book you read in college. And I sure wonder what “college” this could have been.

the most part of this book has passed for my hands, except titanic, I don't like that history, I knew it how end before I started to read the book.

MTN: Except Vanished does not mention the Titanic. So I guess you learned about that obscure story in

I think Hitler had a deep hatred towards everything that causes great pleasure to people such as reading Superman comics! If he tried it now people would kill him right away. Superman comics are still very appreciated.

MTN: Hmm. I wonder if our leading WWII experts have ever considered this view of Hitler.

Bill Finger must be considered an idol for having created Batman! I've liked Batman since I was a kid because it looks so powerful and mysterious that he must be the best superhero.

MTN: Okay, I do gotta agree that Finger is that cool.

My son made some somolar drawings , I felt so happy when he gave me it , I have a question? Why you do make more blogs like this? It blog is so nice friends congratulations.

MTN: I don’t make more blogs like this because I can handle only so many spam comments, mangled or otherwise.

Really cool blog brother. I've been coming here for quite some time, but I've never commented before. This blog is a constant inspiration like Generic

MTN: The one that made me laugh out loud. Guess which two words were a hyperlink?

And never commented before? They need to develop a V!agra for memory dysfunction.

I can’t wait to see if you comment on this post.