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.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

November is Picture Book Month

The first annual Picture Book Month is in progress, and I'm honored to be one of 30 authors and author-illustrators who are a part of it.

Actually, more than 30 are a part of it.

Regardless of who is on that list, everyone who writes and illustrates this longstanding art form is a part of it.

And you can take part as well, in any number of simple ways:

  • Read a picture book to a young person.
  • Continue to support the form by buying picture books and checking them out of the library.
  • Revisit a picture book you loved as a child but haven't seen since then.
  • Look behind-the-scenes at some tips and tricks picture book creators use.
  • Check back every day in November to see what picture books mean to the people who create them, and the people for whom they create them.
  • Consider that picture books are at once the first books, movies, and stories that we all experience, yet they are for all ages.
  • Go back to the first suggestion. Repeat daily.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Great ideas for schools #12: Book club and grub

On Guam, I learned of a program that ran for several years. I don't know what they called it, but I'd call it Book Club Plus.

The idea was this: every month, the Guam chapter of the International Reading Association chose a book club book that included a meal of some kind. The meal would not have be a big part of the book, just enough to be noticeable.

The monthly get-together would take place at the Hard Rock Cafe. The kids would not only discuss the book but share a meal—the meal from the book they'd just read, specially prepared by the restaurant.

Linking reading and eating is but one way such a book club could go. The club could vary the Plus part every month. It could be read a book about baseball, then play baseball before discussing. Or read a book about someone who gets sick, then volunteer reading to kids at a hospital before discussing. The possibilities are as vast as book choices themselves.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Baskin-Robbins' 31 Favors

1. Surely the Health Commission doesn't want to be bothered about one little rat.

2. We can escort you to your car if you find another customer to watch the register.

3. Swing by in winter, too. We do have heating, you know.

4. Try our new B-r-r-reakfast B-r-r-rurito. Maybe you'll disagree with the focus groups.

5. When slipping on spilled malts, throw up your arms to protect your head on impact.

6. The tip cup is for tipping, not spitting. It may seem obvious but you'd be surprised.

7. Refrain from bringing your own meat-based toppings.

8. Not another sundae. They're such a pain.

9. Be patient. We're still reviewing your suggestion to add rum to non-raisin flavors.

10. If we accidentally sell you one of the fake cakes, return it after your practical joke.

11. Understand that because we provide them gloves, our staff isn't required to wash their hands.

12. We'll stay open a half-hour later than Starbucks as long as you don't trash the place.

13. Shirts and shoes are required for service, meaning you must be wearing them.

14. Yes, pants too.

15. Before holding us up, consider that fudge sauce binds most of our bills together.

16. Have pity on our Deuce Bigelow-fat Rocky Road. We never get the good licenses.

17. Note that ice cream samples are still free but we now charge $0.99 per taster spoon.

18. Remember that we're closer than select Häagen-Dazs.

19. Wipe off sticky fingers before touching restroom door handles and toilet seats.

20. When deciding where to get your RDA of trans fats, keep us in mind.

21. Enough with the "Does the ice cream cost only 31 cents? Har har!"

22. Order Rainbow Sherbet every once in a while. We always make too much.

23. Don't ask again about vanilla and French vanilla. We also don't know the difference.

24. Don't ask to speak with Mr. Baskin or Mr. Robbins. One or both may be deceased.

25. Don't flick ice cream when in the store. Parking lot is okay.

26. You didn't see anything unusual in the Dumpster out back, right?

27. Ask us about our month-old ice cream specials.

28. Excuse the blinding pink.

29. Don't forget the hyphen.

30. Enter our contest to come up with the 31st favor!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Less cool

Because it’s become so trendy to admit you’re a geek—and because you can now be a geek of things that were formally considered 100% cool (a sports geek, a rock music geek, an organic food geek, etc.)—the word has lost a lot of its meaning.

So there’s an opening for a word to describe people with south-of-mainstream taste. (Nerd doesn’t qualify.)

While you mull over that, mull over this: over the years I’ve come to notice that, whatever else I am, I am also a certain subset of geek—someone who tends to prefer the weaker, lamer, less edgy, or simply less cool member of a famous pair.

It started, appropriately, with me preferring vanilla to chocolate. But in pop culture terms:

Superman vs. Batman – I like Superman better
DC Comics vs. Marvel Comics – DC
Beatles vs. Rolling Stones – Beatles
John Lennon vs. Paul McCartney – McCartney
Fonzie vs. Richie – Richie
Simpsons vs. South ParkSimpsons
Brandon vs. Dylan (90210) – Dylan
Seinfeld vs. Friends Friends
Bruce Springsteen vs. Billy Joel – Joel (I don’t think many actually size up these two together but I did read a comparison at least once)
The Empire Strikes Back vs. Return of the JediJedi

This brings me to one pair in which I do prefer the cooler of the two:

Luke Skywalker vs. Han Solo

I trust you can guess which is which.

If you can add any such pairs to the list, please do so in the Comments.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Going, going, Guam, part 4 of 4

Part 3.

Snorkeling with one of my kind hosts Vickie and (not pictured) her husband Richard:

Walking out to the island:

Once there, a paddleboarder who passed by took a few photos for me, one with the (pink) hotel I walked from in the distance and another with part of the (very small) island in the background. In both, my shirt shows how high the low tide was.

Halfway back: