Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Not quite "Boys of Steel"

Near the beginning of this blog, I shared some things Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman had been called (at school visits, in e-mail, by people's moms) besides, well, Boys of Steel.

That list has grown.

Boys of Tomorrow

Men of Superman

Boyz of Steel

Steal Boys

Men of Steel

Brothers of Steel

Kids of Steel 
Books of Steel
Wonder Boys
Steel Boys

Metal Men

your Spider-Man book

ones I've used (mainly as blog post titles):

Boys of Steal
Boys of States

Boars of Steel

Jews of Steel
Bar Mitzvah of Steel
Boys of Secret

Blog of Steel

Baby of Steel

While we're on the subject, just a glimpse of some of the ways my last name has been "reinterpreted":


4/8/13 addendum: A similar list for Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The only two ingredients every story needs

The 11/22/10 Newsweek featured an article “Amazing Race” by Malcolm Jones, about Laura Hillenbrand, author of the 2001 bestseller Seabiscuit and the critically praised 2010 book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. Admittedly, I’ve read neither, though the latter sounds more like my thing. (And Hillenbrand’s personal story is fascinating in its own right.)

A line in the article glowed for me: “Unbroken is wonderful twice over, for the tale it tells and for the way it’s told.” This almost word-for-word recalls something my college film professor said circa 1991 and which burned a permanent brand on my brain: “It’s not enough to have a good story. You need a good story, well told.”

This is why a story that may feel dramatic as a person lives it, and may seem dramatic when that person retells it, won’t necessarily translate into a dramatic story on the page. In making the transition from an anecdote or an idea to the permanent record, every story needs a special touch, to refine it so it shines all the way through, not just when the light hits it just right.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

"Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grandmothers" cartoons

Releasing today, Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grandmothers contains 13 cartoons.

All of the cartoons have three things in common:

1. They star grandmas.
2. I wrote/drew them.

3. They are not based on true stories (that I know of).

Here's one of my favorites:

Here are two versions of one that didn't make the book:

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Classic vs. contemporary picture book characters

The 11/9/09 issue of The New Yorker ran a letter by Presvytera Elizabeth Tervo of Oakland in response to an article about picture books: “...while many contemporary picture books encourage children to believe that their potential is enormous, and that they can do or be anything they want to be, classic books written for my parents’ generation describe characters who break the rules and have adventures, only to find that the world is too big and scary and that they actually prefer life to be circumscribed and tame.”

When I first read this, it didn’t quite ring true for me. Revisiting it now after more than a year, it still doesn’t, and now I can better pinpoint why. With any statement as broad as this one, you’re bound to turn up more than a couple of exceptions.

Take the classic character Ferdinand the bull. That book was mostly about what he did not want to be—a bullfighting bull. (So what that means, ironically, is that he wanted a tame life—the alleged province of contemporary characters.)

And take the contemporary character Olivia the pig. In all her precociousness, she gives no indication that life scares her. Rather she is one pig who seems to be able to take any bull by its horns. These are but two offhand examples.

But more to the point: it feels like the letter-writer is trying to compare opposites. Yet rather than contrasting, the two qualities she describes can co-exist in the same character.

You can believe in yourself and play it safe at the same time. Put another way, you can be confident and cautious simultaneously. Doesn’t this sound like any character whose arc involves him/her coming out of his/her shell?

The letter-writer is clearly talking about fiction picture books, while my professional picture book experience is largely nonfiction. But before we’re anything, we’re readers. And whether as a reader or writer, I don’t feel either the “classic” or “contemporary” era of fiction picture books can be predominantly characterized by either of Tervo’s observations. It makes for a great conversation, though. Can you think of examples besides Ferdinand and Olivia?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

An argument FOR author visits

In the 11/8/10 Newsweek educational article “Class Action,” Sehba Ali writes,
[W]e shouldn’t spend all that extra class time only teaching academics. With budget cuts affecting schools nationwide, fewer are able to offer music and extracurriculars, but if kids are drilled in math and reading all day, they’ll lose interest in learning. Schools should extend their hours if they have the funding for both academics and extracurriculars. They need to provide time not only for remediation but also for sports, languages, performing-arts groups, and clubs for activities like debating that improve creativity and leadership skills.
I do agree with the overall sentiment, of course, but find one aspect worded a bit unfairly: “…if kids are drilled in math and reading all day, they’ll lose interest in learning.”

For starters, the word “drilled” is loaded. But the bigger point is that a good teacher can spend all day (or at least all school day) on any given topic and make it engaging.

Like with the telling of a story, the teaching of a subject requires finesse. I am realistic. I know not all teachers are of the caliber our kids deserve. Yet I take issue when the very idea of teaching in a school is equated to any degree with causing apathy. We are all in a constant state of learning. School is just the place that makes that overt, so it’s the one that bears the greatest stigma.

Yet this is not the point worth focusing on. The article wisely reminds that learning does work best as a potpourri. We need well-rounded kids, not just so they may know a little about a lot but so they will always have something to look forward to in school. That makes them happier in general to be there, and motivates them to do better at least some of the time, if not all.

Simply put, there is value in learning things that will not be on the test. Because a school test is not always the most effective preparation for a life test.

Monday, March 14, 2011

First round of illustration revisions arrive

In January, I was treated to the initial sketches (by the titanically talented Ty Templeton) for my upcoming book on Bill Finger, uncredited co-creator, original writer, and visual architect of Batman. I can't show them yet, but I was excited enough to show how they arrived:

Today, I received the first revisions:

Special thanks to my un-bat-able editor, Alyssa Pusey, for taking a break from poring over every last detail (verbal and visual) of this book to create another memorable envelope.

I bet now she's worried that she's set a precedent that I won't easily let slide...

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Great ideas for schools #8: Teacher trading cards

Pleasant Ridge Elementary in Overland Park, Kansas, has a clever system in place to reward positive behavior. The values the school emphasizes are displayed here:

A teacher who observes a student demonstrating any of these traits can randomly commend that student by awarding points, and when students accumulate a certain amount, they can trade them in for goodies (kept in a special room that is all decked out with stars, streamers, and the like):

I especially liked how every teacher in the school is depicted on his/her own trading card, which the kids are given copies of:

And the traders—the kids themselvesare also put on trading cards!

I don’t remember exactly how the cards relate to the points system, but no matter—teacher trading cards, while labor intensive for sure, is a wildly stimulating idea that other schools can adapt and make their own in any number of ways. They can help bring into focus the teacher coolness the kids are exposed to every school day but may take for granted.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Author with kidney stones! Race to the airport!

After the Franklin County (KS) Children’s Literature Festival on 3/9/11, I had to drive straight to the airport. The night before, I’d gladly agreed to take a jovial fellow author who kindly gave me permission to name him here: Steven Krasner. He was longtime sports journalist in the Boston area; I have virtually no knowledge about the Red Sox (or any other team) so I’m sure I disappointed him in that I couldn’t hold up my end of that part of the conversation during the 1.5-hour drive.

We did, however, have a great discussion about the current state of education and childhood in general, as we see it.

And for me, underlying the whole ride was a very real sense of concern.

You see, at 2:30 a.m. that morning, Steve had been awakened by pain. He couldn’t sleep for most of the rest of the night but did manage to wait till 7:30 before accepting that he needed to go to a hospital. Luckily, one was near the hotel all the authors were staying at.

Steve was diagnosed (and not for the first time) with kidney stones. They took care of him and he was discharged within a couple of hours; though that was quick, he still missed his first two sessions with the students.

Being a trooper who earned the admiration of the event organizers and other authors, Steve insisted doing his last two sessions, even though everyone thought he should just take it easy. He assured us that the medication was working. Yet…

…the ride to the airport would be just Steve and I down a long stretch of highway with no medical facility nearby. I told him, as if it wasn’t already clear, that I have no medical training. When I found out that one of the other authors is also an EMT, I asked her if she would please come with us or at least follow us. I wasn’t totally kidding.

But Steve was right. He was fine. He made it not only to the airport but home with no further pain. This is one story I'm glad doesn't have a dramatic ending.

Franklin County Children’s Literature Festival 2011

I was honored to be one of the authors invited to present at this 10th annual event, which took place in Ottawa, Kansas on 3/9/11.

Each author spoke to four groups of 3rd-5th graders back-to-back for nearly an hour apiece; I believe an epic 1,400 students participated. The day was well-run and full of warmth despite the rawness outside.

The previous evening, the authors were treated to a dinner at which we got to meet community members who sponsored the event. I was seated with my sponsors, the most kind owners of a store whose name is right up my small-town alley: Country Mart. It was a pleasure to hear them articulately praise the benefits of living in a town of 12,000.

Speaking of small town, this one has one of those main streets that make me yearn for the 1950s (because the street could almost be passed off as one from that decade). Three things caught my eye as I drove through town:


This ATM, adrift alone in what appeared to be a vacant lot. Obviously not because it's reminiscent of the 50s but because I can’t recall ever seeing a free-standing ATM like it.


This store, which sells lawn machinery. One of the more memorable store names I’ve seen.


Another store that was a smorgasbord of collectibles, from 1970s Star Wars toy vehicles still with their boxes to 1980s freestanding arcade games, plus comics, DVDs, and the very nice owner’s two young children running around the joint (in socks) at 8 p.m. on a school night. Small-town color at its finest.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

I think we’re in Kansas again

On 3/8/11, I had three Kansas kommitments. First, NBC affiliate KSHB interviewed me about Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman.

It’s always fascinating to be reminded how a news show runs; no time for small talk before you go live, barely time for introductions. You’re just nudged onto the soundstage without knowing where exactly to go or even if you can move without screwing up a shot. Within seconds, you’re seated, miked, and thrown into an interview with a person who most likely has done almost no prep on you. In this case, the interviewer, Christa Dubill, got the details correct, was very sweet, and seemed genuinely interested. It was fun for me to get another chance to play up the
Superman-Kansas connection, and the (aptly named) Action News team seemed tickled by it.

From there, I jetted to Pleasant Ridge Elementary in Overland Park, a hearty school with an inventive dedication to nurturing and challenging its students.

It’s also the only school I’ve been to that has a bathtub in its library.

After Pleasant Ridge, I headed to a children's literature festival.

Untold tale of Bill Finger #9: Creator has muscles, too

The second (and final) wife of Bill Finger, uncredited co-creator and original writer (plus visual architect) of Batman, kindly put me in touch with one of her three children, who knew Finger when he (the son) was a boy. Here is one of the sweetest of his recollections, dating to the late 1950s, and a side of Finger that has appeared nowhere else:
Another thing I remember is Bill showing me his muscles. He worked out. He was a short, not short short, but relatively short guy. But his muscles, I’d always brag to my friends about how strong his muscles are. He’d make a muscle and me and my young friends would all go—this was when we were 13 or 12—we’d all go feel his muscle.
(The full version of this image will appear in my book, due out July 1, 2012.)

Monday, March 7, 2011

Last one picked for basketball

A short story I wrote for Scholastic's Action is in the issue dated today. The magazine is aimed at middle schoolers who read below grade level.

The story was inspired by a 7th grade gym class experience of mine.

Except the scoring part.

Scholastic has kindly given me permission to post the story here:

Sunday, March 6, 2011

“365 Things” for sale at Wegmans

My chunky little anti-boredom book 365 Things to Do Before You Grow Up is coming to a checkout line near you (if you live in one of the following states: New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland, or Massachusetts).

I pitched the book to popular supermarket chain Wegmans, and to my pleasant surprise, they placed an order.

Actually, I don’t know for certain if it will be an impulse-buy item at the cashier, but I suggested that, including the word “little” to perhaps increase the chance.

The reason I thought the book might be a good fit for Wegmans is that the store markets itself as a place for healthy choices (its site says “Eat well. Live well.”) and the book contains a good number of family activities related to healthy living:

activity #8—grow a salad

#56—make a meal for your family

#114—try new foods

#149—create a menu

#159—stay healthy

#167—toss a rainbow salad

#232—dry fruit

#243—clean naturally

#249—make your own potato chips

#250—run a taste test

#305—mix up your meals

#324—invent a stew
#343—make your own granola

#360—make a lunchtime surprise

The Wegmans rep was responsive and even collaborative, asking me for ideas on marketing the book in the store. Always like to hear that!

Normally, it’s not authors who pitch buyers of big chains. But publisher sales reps can cover only so much ground, and sometimes it takes more than one voice to get a buyer to notice a product. In my experience, as long as a pitch is brief, relevant, and professional, it couldn’t hurt.

Part of the reason a buyer might not mind a pitch directly from an author is it’s often hard to find out who the buyers are; I suspect most buyers rarely get pitches from authors. (To be sure, some buyers and/or publishers discourage authors from doing this. In this case, my publisher, Sterling, was supportive.)

In the end, and from the start, the publisher and the author are a team. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter who catches the attention of a buyer. If it leads to a sale, both benefit.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Picture book tips and tricks, part 5 of 5: Let the story breathe

Part 4.

In the term “picture book,” the “picture” comes first. Some argue the same should be true in the execution. Some have said that however long a picture book manuscript is, it’s always too long. There’s always a little more that can be cut to further demonstrate the economy of words.

Authors are sometimes afraid to let a wordless scene speak for itself. Fears: Will it seem out of place? Will the story lose momentum? Will my meaning be clear? Even if so, will smaller details be lost?

To that I say an emphatic no. A purely visual scene can have great impact and often approaches poetry without the usual tools of that trade (i.e. alpha-numeric language). Most such scenes that I can recall come toward the end of the book, and often are the climax itself.

Two of my favorites are from Green Eggs and Ham and Hubknuckles (one of my favorite ghost stories, period, and a rich name, too):

You have to learn the significance of this scene. So you have to read this book.

Before closing this series, I want to mention a picture book I recently discovered even though I don’t believe it uses any of the tricks I’ve discussed here. It’s called When I Am Old With You, and though technically nothing sad happens in the course of the book, it’s one of the most bittersweet picture book stories I’ve come across. In fact, if you're like me, you'll feel some of that bittersweetness from the title alone. I heartily recommend it.

In closing, and in honor of Dr. Seuss’s birthday today, I’ll end with what may be my single favorite picture book page to read aloud. For me, it begs to be read fast, until the last sentence, which I feel should be delivered with a dramatic pause after "tip."

(All book text and images shown in this series are copyright their respective creators.)

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Picture book tips and tricks, part 4 of 5: Playing with the form

Part 3.

Many movies and TV shows employ a cold open—a short scene before the opening credits designed to draw you in immediately. I love when a picture book does, too. It adds urgency.

Here’s the cold open from The Enemy, a thoughtful, bold book that looks retro but reads as a product of the present day:

(The three cold open pages are actually halves of spreads, but for this purpose, I scanned only the half with the text.)

In a typical picture book image, each illustration equates to a single incident. However, exceptions exist.

To wit, consider The Luck of the Loch Ness Monster, a book that deftly combines humor, myth, a bit of suspense, a pinch of history (albeit twisted history), and, at its core, an unusual and touching friendship.

Look at this evocative spread:

Thanks to the kind Scott Magoon for voluntarily sending me this continuous image
to replace the shoddy scan-and-weld job I had here previously.

The left-hand page shows the protagonist (in red) and the right-hand page does, too, yet they are the same scene. A person can’t be in two places at once unless she’s a time traveler—or a picture book character. Yet the reader doesn’t feel anything is askew. This tweak to the laws of physics passes muster in a picture book. And, in this case, adds playfulness.

Some books play with form beyond the traditional boundaries of the narrative. The endearing The Curious Garden uses its endpapers to trace the dramatic arc of its story.

The inside front cover:

The inside back cover:

Without reading a word or seeing any other image or even a character, you get a sense of what this story will be about.

Sometimes it's not theme addressed on the "outskirts" of a picture book, but actual plot. The Bravest of Them All, a strong little adventure, pulls off a neat and quiet effect.

Here's the last page (showing it won't give away the details of the central set piece of the story):

This is the first the reader is learning of a "new" horse tank. And since this is the last page, you close the book figuring the fate of the old one won't be shown or explained.

Then you see the back cover:

That's the (obviously old) horse tank that has an important role earlier in the book; as noted above, the author did not explicitly state that it was a casualty of the climactic tornado.

Yet when processing the mention of a "new" horse tank with this final image, the reader makes meaning. (Of course, given that it's clear from the cover that the story is about a tornado, it's not hard to assume that lots of stuff would've been damaged. But still, it's a clever—and haunting—way of conveying information and leaving the reader with a reminder of the scary power of nature.)

Another example of playing with picture book form doesn’t involve the illustrations at all but rather their borders.

Take the real-life adventure The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, a triumph on multiple levels.

This acclaimed 2003 book commemorates the World Trade Center without directly addressing the tragedy of 9/11 (as I write this, the word “tragedy” seems as small to the event as we do to the towers themselves). That alone is a deft feat, yet the book manages to do it by featuring a criminal protagonist! “Criminal” is too strong a word here, of course, but Philippe Petit is not the traditional picture book role model figure. Or is he? His ambush tightrope performance was illegal, yes, but also daring, inspiring, and even unifying.

Back to the borders. Look how the book sets the mood using not just the images but the color of the commonly nondescript edges of the page.

The images themselves convey, respectively, “night” and “day,” and the coloring of the borders accentuates that. An argument can be made that Mordicai Gerstein’s art doesn’t actually end with his hand-drawn frames, but either way, the background of the background matters here.

Not only the color but also the size of borders can make a statement, as demonstrated in the timeless and wordless The Snowman.

The borders around the final panel (SPOILER ALERT!) of art are an emotional device. The boy is discovering his loss dominated by white all around (more snow?).

One’s first instinct might be to present this poignant scene as a full page, to emphasize the intensity of the boy’s sadness. However, I think it is much more powerful this way. The shrunken size of the panel signals that he now feels shrouded in loneliness.

I suspect my next observation has already been addressed in countless dissertations, so I’ll simply state it without analysis. In Where the Wild Things Are, the art starts off in a fairly small box, and the size of each subsequent box increases as the story moves Max closer to his fantastical encounters.

When in the land of the wild things, the art is pushing the boundaries, whether letterboxed or full-bleed.

Then when Max returns home, he is no longer boxed in artistically or spiritually.

(All book text and images shown in this series are copyright their respective creators.)

Part 5.