Monday, May 30, 2011

Blog mob

Beginning 5/24/11, my blog saw a spike in visitors, and it seemed that all of them came via searching the phrase “Superman’s first home.”

I figured this must be because of a stumper posed by some crossword puzzle, radio challenge, or other contest.

Two days later, the stampede was still going strong.

That ruled out radio contest, since those don’t tend to last longer than an hour, or even a commercial break. But I still didn’t know what it was. (Of course, googling it did not help.)

So on 5/27/11, I posted this temporary message at the top of the post getting all the love:
Hello kind person who just Googled "Superman's first home"! For some reason, you are one of hundreds of people who have come to my blog in the past few days after searching for that phrase. Why is this happening? Is it a question in some kind of contest? Will you please take a moment to email me the reason? I'm mad with curiosity! As thanks, I will mail the first person to do so a signed copy of one of my books!
Yes, I realize my incentive is barely that, but it was worth a try. And though the hits kept on coming steadily, it took about three hours before someone did write in.

All she wrote: “I’m working on a crossword.”

Several hours later, a second person responded and elaborated. It was the TV Guide puzzle, which,
given how many were searching, I should've guessed.

So I went back and changed the message, to this:

Welcome, TV Guide crossword puzzler!

I haven’t seen the crossword, but I can help. Superman’s first home is one of the following:


And before you go back to the puzzle: If you or someone you love loves Superman, you will also love a book I wrote called Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman, a picture book for all ages that tells the true, inspirational—and heartbreaking—story of the two young men who dreamed up the world’s first superhero. The book made the front page of USA Today.

A hardcover you can find for less than $7, it makes a great Father’s Day—or graduation—gift. Every generation has its Superman!

Click here to check it out on Amazon!

Shameful? Of course. But it's not every day I'm the first search result for hundreds of TV Guide readers...

And when I looked up the crossword, I was surprised to see this:

8 DOWN: Smallville state. The clue was actually not Supermans first home. This astounded me because none of the search terms I noticed were Smallville state. How could literally all of the people doing such a search know that Smallville is Superman's first home yet not know the state in which the fictional town was located?

Soon after, the plot thickened and the pulse quickened. The kind soul who told me the source was TV Guide then told me the issue. It was not the 5/23/11 one, as shown above. It was the 5/30/11 one.

Check 22 ACROSS.

What are the odds of these clues running in consecutive puzzles?

Sunday, May 29, 2011

"Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Dog’s Life" cartoons

The second Chicken Soup book to feature my cartoons is newly out, and like the first, it’s about cuddly and devoted creatures.

Last time was grandmothers. This time, dogs.

I'm bypassing a watermark. So please don't take, okay?

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Day 4 of filming

Sketching for the camera on 5/24/11.

(Can't see the camera? Look closely in the shadows on the right.)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Bill Finger, the creator of…Bob Kane?

The comics-posterity-preserving magazine Alter Ego #98 (12/10) features an interview with Alvin Schwartz, longtime writer of comics and beyond (including the creation of Superman’s archnuisance Bizarro); Alvin's 95th birthday is in 2011. This issue also reprints the first known professional photo of Bill Finger to be published, in Green Lantern #1 (1941)even though it’s “more than a wee bit blurry.”

It’s not the photo itself that is prompting me to mention it, since it already has been disseminated elsewhere (including here). Rather it’s the reason it was used. So says an editor, most likely the editor, Roy Thomas: “…we’d grown tired of showcasing the same handful of Finger photos over and over…”

He means these two.

But what I am most taken by is a comment by Schwartz that may be most profound with no further comment: “Without Bill Finger, there wouldn’t have been any Bob Kane.”

Monday, May 23, 2011

Top five: "Boys of Steel"

Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman earned a post on this blog with a clever angle: a top-five list inspired by each book. However, the blog itself barely lasted past five entries; perhaps it will be revived.

Sunday, May 22, 2011


Ty Templeton’s illustrations for our upcoming book on Bill Finger and Batman (Charlesbridge 7/1/12) will thrillkill readers just as they have me. He is a crazily good fit for the material, and not just because of his respected years working on Batman comics. He is not only professionally connected to the Dark Knight but emotionally connected to the Wronged Writer. It meant a lot to me that he knew more than the basics about Bill Finger before I pitched him this idea.

As he wrote me in March 2011 (and gave me permission to share), “This is a book I’ve wanted to be a part of since before you thought of doing it.”

He also made a quirky observation: the logo of our publisher, Charlesbridge, looks like the head of Batman.

So perhaps not only Ty was predestined for this book, but Charlesbridge, too.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A new way to buy "Vanished"

Previously on "How to Order Vanished"...

My Scholastic Book Club book was for sale
only via the Scholastic Book Club (order forms in schools) or by calling Scholastic and paying with a credit card.

I just learned that the book is now also available for purchase on the Scholastic site. (Searching Vanished on the home page brings you to the Teacher Store.)

So what?
, I hear you think. Any book can be bought online, I hear you think.

Not so, my friend, though before
Vanished, I, too, thought that.

What does this change for organizers who so kindly wish to sell this particular book at events where I am appearing/speaking?

Schools/educators with a Scholastic account: You can now order the book on the Scholastic site and without a credit card.

Non-schools: You can also order the book on the Scholastic site, but first must register, and you must still pay with a credit card.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

When Marc Met “When Bob Met Woody”

Author Gary Golio (full disclosure: he’s a friend) and illustrator Marc Burckhardt (full disclosure: he spells his first name the right way) are the composers of a new picture book biography (full disclosure: it’s actually more of a storyography) When Bob Met Woody: The Story of the Young Bob Dylan. I think it’s the first trade picture book treatment of the man formerly known as Robert Zimmerman.

I am thrilled someone is introducing this pop culture icon to a new generation in picture book format. It is very likely that many kids will now discover Dylan via Gary's book before the songs themselves. Which, to me, is a whole other kind of beautiful.

The passion Gary has for this subject gives this book bass. I have long pondered the special skill it might take to write successfully about a musician. I think many of the best books on music have a rhythm like music. It takes a true multi-hyphenate to pull that off.

The book reminded me how little I know about Dylan. Part of that seems to be his intention; he always strikes me as one of our more reclusive modern legends. But maybe I don’t even know that much for sure.

My favorite scene in the book shows Bob playing guitar outdoors during evening snowfall in his small mining town in Northern Minnesota. Serenity then.

Segueing from cold to hot, Gary kindly answered some of my burning questions:

This is your second published book on a musician. Did you feel any special challenges in writing about musicians?

Actually, my first three books are about musicians (Hendrix, Dylan, Coltrane), with When Bob Met Woody written right after Jimi. I love music, and have been playing guitar for a long time. But I think of musicians simply as artists, and don’t discriminate much when it comes to the medium they use. Since I was a kid, I’ve looked to artists for guidance in learning how to live a creative life. When I write about people like Bob and Jimi—and especially because I’m writing for kids—the challenge is getting to the core of that person and their artistry. I need to fill out a portrait with facts and ideas, to develop themes and a story line, but also not get caught up in or distracted by sensational details or controversies. From the beginning, a lot of people were concerned about my writing a picture book on Jimi Hendrix, but I saw it as a non-issue since it was a book about him as a child, and about the roots of his creative life. While complex as a person, Bob is less controversial in that way, and the story focuses on his youthful passion for music, leading up to his life-changing meeting with mentor and hero Woody Guthrie. Still, Bob was influenced by a wide variety of musical forms (pop, rock, blues, jazz, folk), and it’s important for kids to see that becoming an artist is about educating yourself and learning all you can about what you hope to be good at. It’s also about learning to be who you are.

What are you most proud of about this book?

I wanted to tell a tale that I felt was timeless, about a young person’s search for his own guiding star, and how that search inevitably leads—if we’re lucky—right back to ourselves. And while I feel very good about the text, I really love Marc Burckhardt’s illustrations for the book. There are several, in particular—like the one of Woody seen against a field and setting sun, or Bob playing for Woody in his hospital room—that accentuate the heroic or tender notes in the story. The cover, too, pulls together so many of the elements in the book—Bob’s boyishness, his looking to Woody (seen in the clouds above) for inspiration, the almost bird-like movement of musical notes crossing the road that Bob’s standing on—and evokes the period of the 50’s/60’s with the feel of classic Americana. I had hoped for an illustrator who could bring both emotion and realism to the images—a hard balance to achieve—yet still hint at the universal aspect of the story. For me, Marc did just that.

What was a highlight of your research process?

That’s easy: I got to listen to a lot of great music—not just Woody’s and Bob’s songs, but the musicians and traditions that influenced them—and it was a tremendous pleasure as well as a great education. One of the most important things about Bob and Woody is that they sought out musical ideas everywhere. Woody played with Lead Belly, Cisco Houston, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Pete Seeger and the Weavers, at campsites, union rallies, on merchant ships and in concert halls. His songs incorporated the blues, country music, traditional ballads and gospel, and were infused with ideas from books he’d read and what he’d seen in his own life. Bob—even as a boy—listened to Johnny Ray, Hank Williams, Muddy Waters, Lead Belly, Elvis, and Little Richard, but drew on films and books (like Woody’s Bound for Glory), newspaper articles, and even radio plays (like The Shadow). So while I read a lot about Bob’s life, I also got to hear the sound of his life and his thinking through all that music. And really, that’s all you need.

Do you think Bob Dylan likes Batman?

Have you ever seen the cape that Bob wears in concert? I think that kind of says it all…

Some questions that will have to wait for another day:

Did you encounter any resistance in trying to sell editors on a picture book about two musicians that many kids today are not familiar with?

Did you have say in who would illustrate the book? Did you want a certain type of art?

Did you contact Bob Dylan or Arlo Guthrie during your research, and if so, did they respond?

Either way, do you plan to contact them upon release of the book?

On a side but related note, did you hear what the Jimi Hendrix estate thought of your picture book about him?

Does WBMW book contain any anecdotes that (to your knowledge) have not been published before?

Because Dylan is still alive, did you feel any additional pressure in writing about him versus Guthrie (or Hendrix)?

Do you know of any instances where Dylan has discussed what influence (if any) Judaism has had on his career?

Describe a scene or even just a line you wanted in the book but had to cut, for whatever reason.

For more on When Bob Met Woody, check out the rest of Gary Golio's blog tour:

5/17/11 Margo Tanenbaum
5/19/11 Gail Gauthier
5/23/11 Anastasia Suen
5/24/11 Jone MacCulloch
5/24/11 Jama Rattigan

…as well as a write-up in some newspaper called the New York Times.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

“Can I See Your [Review of] I.D.?”

In March 2008, writer J.L. Bell suggested I contact a not-yet-published-but-already-under-contract writer named Chris Barton. Chris's first published book was more than a year off, and Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman wasn't out yet, either, but John (that’s what the “J” stands for) thought Chris and I would get along based on the kind of nonfiction we liked to write about: unconventional. No textbook names here.

I barely even knew John at the time; now I consider both he and Chris my friends. One perk of my friendship with Chris: an advanced reading copy of his third and most recent publication, Can I See Your I.D.?

Well, it was advanced when I received it, but the book has since come out. So I’m late out of the gate in covering it here. As penance, I now must compete with the mob of other reviews, most of which are giddy about I.D.

I wonder if it’s too soon to say that this book is vintage Barton. His subject matter: quirky in the best way. His writing style: breezy and controlled.

This is what I especially liked about the book, in order of appearance:

  • page 5—the wink to his first book The Day-Glo Brothers
  • page 33—the last line about Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, bringing even more poignancy to the story
  • the entire Solomon Perel story, my favorite in the book; chilling and skillfully done
  • page 83—the nerve-racking finale of the Ellen Craft story; even though good cliffhangers are hard to come by, it must’ve been tempting to continue the story there rather than in the brief “What happened next?” postscript
  • pages 87-88—the diverse, quick-cut vignettes that set up the John Howard Griffin story
  • page 96—that conversational “like” slipped into the third or so line of the Riley Weston story; the reviews I’ve seen that comment on Chris’s bold choice to write this book in second person single out the repeated use of “you,” but here is an instance where second person goes past mechanics and reveals character—that one word is enough to convey “teen,” which is the falsely assumed identity of the story
  • Chris’s approach to the Frank W. Abagnale, Jr. story—thanks to the Spielberg/DiCaprio/Hanks movie, Abagnale is probably the most widely known figure profiled in the book, so in lieu of a condensed version of Catch Me If You Can, Chris wisely focused on only the first step of Abagnale’s astounding con career

I found the Riley Weston story interesting in another way. I almost certainly read the exposé about her in Entertainment Weekly in 1998, yet I don’t remember it in the slightest. As I often say, memory is unreliable, which relates back to Chris’s book because he clearly meticulously researched it via both original interviews and primary sources. I wonder, though, if a person has two or more identities, does s/he have multiple memories, too?

Here’s a little “Can I See Your I.D.” story that didn’t make the book but
should make every bookstore employee handbook.

(Coincidentally, one of the people who commented on that post is the talented Paul Hoppe—the illustrator of
Can I See Your I.D.?)

In a sense,
Can I See Your I.D.? reminds me of my book Vanished: True Stories of the Missing, which came out in 2010.

Both are compilations of short, high-interest nonfiction about people who disappear (in my case literally). At school visits, I have found Vanished to be far more popular than I anticipated; it’s not gory or otherwise exploitative, but it is, nonetheless, creepy. If there’s one thing kids love, it’s candy. And iCarly.

And creepy.

So even though kids don’t typically read reviews and therefore won’t know the praise Chris’s book has gotten, I have a feeling that he will experience similar reactions, if he hasn’t already.

Speaking of reactions, I would love to see a blog post sharing
reactions to the book from people in it, several of whom are indeed still alive.

Don’t worry—Chris wouldn’t post any without first checking I.D.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Three lessons I learned from Janet Schulman

My Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman editor passed away in February 2011. Here are three things she said or did that continue to resonate five years later:

Judge each work on its own. Some months after Janet bought Boys of Steel, she asked me if it was the first book I'd written. Even though my query clearly stated I’d published before, it apparently didn’t factor into her decision to make an offer on the manuscript. All that mattered to her was the quality of the manuscript in and of itself. Credits can help you, for sure, but it was nice to be reminded that a lack of credits won’t necessarily hurt you—if you are lucky enough to find a certain kind of editor.

Quantity does not equal credibility. When I wrote my author bio for the back flap, I included how many books I’d published to date. (Yes, this is somewhat related to lesson 1.) Janet suggested I take that figure out; she said it would make it seem like I wasn’t “serious” about writing. At first I was miffed; of course I was serious! But I thought deeper about it. I came to see that throwing out a number may impress some but may indeed trigger skepticism in others. (Of course, if most of my previous books had been bestsellers, I’m sure this wouldn’t have concerned Janet!) Though I've long felt that an author blurb should reveal a quirky aspect about you or your book, I now also try to avoid using any of that limited space to convey the kind of thing a simple Internet search would reveal.

Avoid the phrase “eyes on the floor.” A variation of this was in the first line of certain drafts of Boys of Steel, but Janet reasoned that we should rewrite it because Jerry Siegel’s eyes were not literally on the floor. Some idioms or turns of a phrase don’t adhere to this level of exactitude, but since it was Janet who felt the wording was distracting, I felt wise to agree.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Surprise! You’re in a book

My book Vanished: True Stories of the Missing relays seven harrowing stories of people who went off the grid.

Three of those seven are still with us (meaning they were found); one more might be (but probably isn’t) and, if supernatural power exists, a fifth might also be (but almost certainly isn’t).

Aside from a straightforward institutional Rosa Parks biography years ago, this was my first experience writing a book in which a "starring" figure in the story was still alive. It got me thinking about the increased responsibility inherent in that.

Of course, serious writers of nonfiction strive to be as accurate as possible no matter who they are writing about. But when the subject of a book or story is still around, certain mistakes could lead to more than just a tsk-tsk from a librarian. Certain mistakes can be embarrassing or, worse, damaging to the person in question.

What do writers owe the people they write about? I asked myself this as I was researching Vanished, particularly after I encountered some friction from one of the people the book would feature.

I feel a writer must be fair to his subject but not overly protective—because that would not be fair to his readers and to the "record." I don’t know if there is a formal definition of what makes a person a public figure, but I have been told that it is legal to write about anyone. (That doesn’t mean a person unhappy with your portrayal can’t sue you.)

But I am no journalist. I like to think I’d stop at nothing to get a story, and in some ways I can be relentless, but I’m not ruthless. I’ve found ways to tell unpleasant truths (or at least truths that a person wants to keep hidden) in ways that don’t completely expose a person. But there have been a couple of times I have held back on publishing a fact because I feel it’s not my right as a stranger to share it. Some writers would call this cowardly. I get that, but to me it’s more about conscience.

One of the more nerve-racking moments in my career was sending a copy of Vanished to the three people in it who survived their ordeals.

Normally during research for nonfiction, I try to speak with people I am writing about, or, if they’re deceased, people who knew them. But this book had different parameters and a tight deadline, plus the more recent incidents I was including had been well covered in the media. Therefore, two of those three people did not know that they were in a book until I asked for their addresses, and the third was
the one mentioned above.

I was prepared for a disapproving reaction from all three, not because I knew a lot about their temperaments but because I would understand if they felt violated that someone had written about them without their permission or input, especially given the sensitive subject matter.

With one exception, I needn’t have worried.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Fiction readers want familiar, nonfiction readers want new

Author Susan Campbell Bartoletti writes in The Horn Book (March-April 2011) that in her teaching experience, fiction-reading kids would hold up a favorite book and ask for another like it. But nonfiction readers "wanted to read [books] about things they didn't [emphasis mine] already know.”

As one who writes nonfiction about people and events that most readers don’t already know, I say exactly!

I've written several nonfiction picture book manuscripts on subjects not commonly addressed in curriculum or widely known in general. Various editors have turned down one (or more than one) of them with a comment like this: "Fascinating story but not one kids will be familiar with."

But isn't that why we write books? To introduce new stories to young minds?

Several esteemed authors have had similar experiences. Over at Interesting Nonfiction for Kids, Gretchen Woelfle posted this:
There are THOUSANDS of great stories about unknown events in history and unfamous people who did great things. But for years now, (and just last weekend,) editors have told me that "we don't buy and can't sell books about people no one has heard of." Catch 23 or what???? Nevertheless, I am still writing books about unfamous people who did great things. Bit of a masochist, I guess.
Rosalyn Schanzer also weighed in:
Regarding Gretchen's comment, I have also tried very hard but without notable success to get my publishers excited about the amazing lives of the not-so-rich-and-famous. Unfortunately, this wonderful but sometimes frustrating business is all tied directly to the publisher's bottom line and to the limits of the school curriculum.
I understand how tough the market is, but there is a danger in not taking risks. There is a danger in feeding our young minds a steady diet of unoriginality.

There is a time for revisiting beloved stories or beloved types of stories, but to stay vital, we need to continue to supply stories that take us somewhere we've not visited before. After all, the saying is "the great unknown," not "the great known"...

Friday, May 6, 2011

Great ideas for schools #10: College reminders

On 5/2/11, I had the pleasure of speaking at Johnson Junior High in Las Vegas. Even though I've seen
year-round outdoor lockers at desert schools before, I still can't get my head around them.

Something I had not seen before was this kind of screen setup:

Nor had I seen this, a main office counter bedecked with names of colleges:

Every time a student comes to the office, s/he is reminded of college and exposed to an ample choice of colleges. I realize that some young people probably don't notice the little signs, or don't notice them after the first time, but it still seems like a good way to perpetually reinforce the importance of higher education. And it's so easily done.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Nonfiction picture book timeline

Author Deborah Hopkinson has done something on her site that I find immensely clever. She displays her nonfiction (and historical fiction) books along a timeline.

This extends the education and even fuses it seamlessly with marketing! If I eventually publish enough picture book nonfiction to do the same, I may brazenly copy this.