Friday, May 31, 2013

International Reading Association 2013: nonfiction lives!

That “lives” could be a verb or a noun; we discussed both.

Me, two other cowboys, and two fine cowgirls (AKA Brian Floca, Chris Barton, Meghan McCarthy, and Shana Corey) moseyed on down old San Antonio way for IRA, where we did a panel called “‘But Kids Haven’t Heard of That!’: Why Teaching Unconventional Nonfiction Is Important.”

Moderated by the tireless Susannah Richards, Associate Professor of Education at Eastern Connecticut State University, each of the five authors did a fifteen-minute presentation, then collectively took questions from Susannah and the audience. (Duration of session: 2 hours, 45 minutes. You read that right.)

I was as much an avid audience member as a participant. Adding to my excitement was the fact that I’d proposed the panel—twice actually (it was rejected for 2012)—stocking it with four of my favorite nonfiction picture book writers, not to mention friends.

 Brian Floca, Meghan McCarthy, me, Shana Corey, Chris Barton

Here is feedback on the proposal from IRA decision-makers:

  • The panel of authors should draw a big audience.
  • Appropriate subject matter for this symposia. The panelists are authors and have significant information to share with the audience.
  • This proposal presents a clear evidence base and also is convincing and motivating. The content was detailed and gives a clear idea of what will transpire in the session. The objectives align with the content. This is an excellent proposal.

Here is feedback on the panel from an attendee:

I attended a panel meeting of nonfiction authors. One author in particular, Marc Tyler Nobleman, stuck out to me. … Mr. Nobleman’s book [Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman] is a must read. [He] is an excellent storyteller; it’s just, he’s not telling you a story—he’s telling you facts. I have never seen nonfiction this cool and interesting before now.

Panel’s-eye views:

After, as we unwound at the River Walk, another author ally, Erica Perl, joined us. I, however, was the only one who wanted homemade ice cream.

For diehards and readhards, here is the meat of the proposal:

Educational Significance

For some students, nonfiction has a stigma: boring. This is perplexing: why would a true story inherently be less intriguing than something made up? In years past, nonfiction was often written in a dry manner. In addition, there was less risk in subject matter and style.

Today, however, the authors writing nonfiction for young people recognize the dual responsibility they have. First, they must continue to present accurate (and, when possible, new) information. And now, they must do so in an engaging fashion. The marked shift from “textbook” to narrative nonfiction is a considerable benefit for young readers.

In exercising creative freedom with respect to tone, chronology, perspective, and subject matter, contemporary nonfiction writers are boosting the excitement of teachers and kids alike. Such fresh material lures reluctant readers and further stimulates active readers.

We’ve seen an increase in nonfiction picture books described as a “first of its kind.” We’ve seen an increase in picture books subjects that have never been the focus of even a book for adults (The Day-Glo Brothers, Strong Man, Surfer of the Century, Boys of Steel). We’ve seen a rise in the level of sophistication of—and the amount of pages devoted to – back matter. The reason: there is an audience and an educational missive to support it.

Yet with library budgets in crisis, it can be difficult to get unconventional nonfiction into schools—and with test preparation time increasing, educators may struggle to make time to introduce it. In our increasingly blended world, however, it is critical to re-emphasize a diversity of subject matter. (No slight to Benjamin Franklin, Muhammad Ali, Babe Ruth, or the Obamas’ dog, each of whom has starred in multiple picture books.)

This panel may include but is not solely about multicultural subjects. Rather it focuses more broadly on subjects generally not taught in curriculum.

2012 IRA attendee feedback:

  • Very appropriate subject matter! Nonfiction needs to be addressed, especially with Common Core being the focus!
  • Informational text deserves greater attention, especially unconventional informational text. The panel format will be appealing to the audience. The panelists have valuable information to share. The topic is grounded in literature that is relevant and substantial. I believe this session will be of interest to a broad cross-section of IRA members.

Evidence Base

Forty-five states have adopted the Common Core Standards.

Publishers Weekly (7/18/12): “By the 2014-15 academic year, the initiative calls for 50% informational text (including…nonfiction trade books) in elementary school and 70% in high school-on average, across all curricula. … [A]ccording to the Core: dull-looking nonfiction is out. … ‘Visual elements are particularly important in texts for the youngest students and in many informational texts for readers of all ages.’”

New York Times (3/11/12): “Children in New York City who learned to read using an experimental curriculum that emphasized nonfiction texts outperformed those at other schools.”

School Library Journal (4/1/12): “‘The advent of Common Core presents school librarians with both a great opportunity and a great challenge,’ says kids’ book editor and author Marc Aronson. ‘The emphasis on nonfiction from elementary school on puts them front and center, since few current homeroom teachers know nonfiction in their grades as read-alouds, as pleasure reads, or as opportunities to compare different narrative approaches.”

Horn Book (March-April 2011): Author Susan Campbell Bartoletti writes 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 already know.”

Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook, stated that an unconventional nonfiction “panel is a super idea and one that will draw a top audience.”

Increasingly, picture book nonfiction includes an author’s note about the author’s research process—a process that every student must learn in English class. And the best of these authors’ notes read like detective novels.

Sites such as promote picture books in the classroom—even in middle and high school. Neither “short” nor “illustrated” automatically makes a book only for young people.

Reading nonfiction capitalizes on existing interests and generates motivation. Reading unconventional nonfiction challenges perspectives and brings fuller, often cross-disciplinary understanding to any historical period.

Reading nonfiction helps to build schema and vocabulary knowledge. Reading
unconventional nonfiction empowers students to experiment with topics they may not presume to like or understand, and often enlightens them when they can make a connection between that material and curriculum.

- end of proposal excerpt -

Oh, and circling back to the cowboy theme: the last morning, I was almost trampled by a stampede…of teachers and librarians…headed to a booth for a free bag featuring Superman on one side and (for them) the bigger draw, Wonder Woman, on the other.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Cartoons for "Publishers Weekly"

BookExpo America opens today. 

At BEA eleven years ago, my cartoons appeared in the Publishers Weekly Show Daily.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

A clever thank you from a Rhode Island school

As often is the case, I find myself thanking for a thank you. Thank you, Cluny School of Newport!

The Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman source page:

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Plausible nonsense

In a 3/18/13 New Yorker “Talk of the Town” piece by Rebecca Mead resides this gem:

The books of Dr. Seuss, the pen name of Theodor Geisel, depend on what Donald Pease, a professor of English literature at Dartmouth, refers to in his biography of Geisel as “plausible nonsense.” “Children will grant you any premise, but after that—you’ve got to stay on the same key,” Geisel told one interviewer.

So much more could be written about this, but I don’t know that I yet have the experience to be one to do so. However, I’m shopping around a manuscript that may set me on that path. It’s a departure for me—picture book yes, nonfiction no.

It’s funny, too. I need some way to redirect the energy I am not putting into cartooning at the moment.

I hope to be able to elaborate here soon.

You—or someone—may be shocked…

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Bill Finger’s sole Batman credit in his lifetime

In 25 years of writing Batman stories, including some of the most popular ever, Bill Finger was officially credited as a writer (or co-creator) precisely zero times. (By that I mean in a credit box within a first-run story. In the 1960s, editor Julie Schwartz, bless him, did sneak Bill’s name into the backmatter at least a couple of times.)

One time only, Bill did get to see his name prominently displayed on a Batman story—but it was not in print. Bill was the only writer of Batman comics who (with Charles Sinclair) also wrote an episode of the 1966 TV show...the show that made Batman’s popularity go mainstream. (It was the two-part episode introducing the villain the Clock King.)

Small screen was big time on one level, but in the grand scheme, small solace for a marginalized career.

Speaking of TV credits, here is what the credits for the landmark Batman: The Animated Series could’ve looked like if things had played out differently…fairly:

courtesy of @hrguerra

Note the order.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

“Boys of Steel” book report by an author's son

It’s always an honor when a young person chooses a book you wrote for a school project. It is a special honor when that young person happens to be the child of a fellow author. (Not every writer passes on genetic code for a talent in writing but I suspect all writers hope we pass on at least refined taste in writing.)

The young man’s name is Max. The fellow author, his mom, also happens to be my friend. Her name is Jennifer Allison. She also gave birth to Gilda Joyce via a series of mystery novels for young readers.

Here is Max’s report, which I find both flattering and factually sound:

Here is Max:

Thank you Max! You are now a Boy of Steel, too. And Jennifer will be featured on this blog again later this year. I won’t say why yet but will give this clue. Maybe this is one for Gilda Joyce herself to solve...

Monday, May 20, 2013

Sandy Hook Elementary author variety show, 2/12/13

More photos from the author variety show (contributed by and used with permission of the school):

  me fumbling through emceeing with the other authors in the wings

   taking bows: Mike Rex, Susan Hood, Meghan McCarthy, Vincent X. Kirsch, 
Tracy Dockray, Bruce Degen, Katie Davis, Daniel Kirk, easel,
Alan Katz, projector, Bob Shea, Tad Hills, me


Sunday, May 19, 2013

One way to spread the word about Bill Finger

When my daughter was four, and I was in the thick of Bill Finger research, I interviewed her on camera about her life thus far. A transcribed excerpt (insert giggles after most of her answers):

MTN: What do I do all day?

daughter: Work.

MTN: What’s my job?

daughter: (pause) Bill Finger.

MTN: What do I do?

daughter: Bill Finger.

MTN: What does that mean?

daughter: Bill Finger.

MTN: Who’s Bill Finger?

daughter: Bill Finger.

MTN: Is that my friend?

daughter: Yes.

MTN: What’s your favorite color?

daughter: Bill Finger.

So yes, I scarred her.

When she was eight, I spoke at her school and showed this 40-second clip. Her classmates, not surprisingly, loved it. (It is always fun to see home movies of one of your own.)

She later reported that some kids (mainly boys) had adopted “Bill Finger” as a catchphrase under the same conditions. In other words, no matter what question was asked (by friends, not teachers), the answer often given was “Bill Finger.”


MTN: What’s for lunch?

random kid: Bill Finger. 

Bill Finger is now a meme—a verbal, regional one, anyway.

I didn’t orchestrate it or even expect it, but I am thrilled by it. 

Anything that gets people talking about Bill is a good thing. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Dinobunnies dominate

On 3/8/11, I spoke at Pleasant Ridge Elementary in Overland Park, KS, notable for being the first school in which I sat in a bathtub in the library. (Also notable for being a great school.)

More than a year later, the school shared some flattering news about its Battle of the Books competition. A group of 4th graders who had lost the previous year changed their team name and tried again as 5th graders. In 5/11, they won. The team name?

The Dinobunnies.

 posted with permission (two stuffed animals were harmed in the making of that mascot)

During my presentations, after polling the audience, I sketch a couple of characters. Invariably, one ends up being a dinobunny (sometimes rabbitosaurus).

(not taken at Pleasant Ridge but he always looks the same)

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Bill the Boy Wonder: The Unused Covers of Ty

Ty Templeton, artist magnifico of numerous stories including Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman, permitted me to show sketches of cover ideas for the book.


 Including notes by Ty.

These were homages to early Batman comics. While I liked that idea on one level, ultimately I wanted our book iconography to stand on its own—to avoid referencing existing images. I also didn’t want to represent Bill as Batman himself. Though there are parallels (life in the shadows, namely), it seemed inconsistent with the tone of the story. Bill is the hero of the story, but not quite heroic; his fatal flaw is a lack of self-defense—emphatically not Batman-esque.


I loved the angled, almost subverted silhouette. But I felt the cover overall was too colorful for Batman. I specifically did not like orange. I also did not prefer vertical type treatment for our names.


Dramatic improvement in color. But I wanted my name and Ty’s to be on equal footing. And I wanted the subtitle, which contains the most marketable word on the cover, to be higher. Also, the bow tie seemed too twee; besides, several I asked said Bill did not wear them.


Names look much better. Bow tie gone but top-buttoned shirt not much less twee.


Finally we get a bat! And a loose collar! But the red is Superman, not Batman. For a replacement color, I suggested purple as a nod to the original color of Batman’s gloves.

The winner:


Saturday, May 11, 2013

Superman honored in both native and adoptive homes

In October 2012, Cleveland, the city in which Superman was created, installed a permanent exhibit about him in the airport.

In June 2013, Kansas, the state in which Superman crash-landed, will induct him (as well as Clark Kent) into its hall of fame.

What is your city doing to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the world’s first superhero?

Friday, May 10, 2013

Persistence at—and before—school visits

Several years ago, I emailed Marjorie Cohen, a teacher at Cold Spring Elementary in Potomac, MD, introducing myself as an author who speaks in schools. I’d come across her name in the alumni magazine of our alma mater, Brandeis University.

I didn’t hear back. I tried again.

I didn’t hear back again.

In 2012, the school booked me through another channel. I had forgotten the Marjorie connection but she reminded me after I got there.

The theme of my standard school presentation is persistence. I don’t come in and announce this; I work it in gradually, stealthily, narratively. But the takeaway is clear: persistence (perhaps even more than talent) is essential to success.

After I spoke at Cold Spring, before the kids were dismissed, Marjorie stood up and asked for their attention.

Then she confessed.

She told them how I had emailed her and how she dismissed me twice. But now that she’d heard me speak, she admitted she should’ve paid attention.

I don’t fault her. Regardless of what we do, many of us are pitched a lot. We don’t have the bandwidth to fully consider each pitch.

She said she was glad I was persistent. She was glad I came. And now that she saw my focus, it all made sense.

In fact, it worked out better this way because Marjorie was able to reinforce my assembly-long message with a short, real-life anecdote. “The guy who just tried to persuade you to adopt persistence actually walks the walk—and it got him here, despite me.” (Paraphrasing, of course.)

It’s one of those spontaneous moments that make it all even more worth it.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Where art tells the story in "Bill the Boy Wonder"

One of my last steps in writing a picture book is to go through and pinpoint areas where I can cut text. Yes, that is a writing step. Because I’m not cutting meaning. I’m merely eliminating redundancy in instances where the art can show rather than the words tell.

Here are examples from Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman.

The name of the pivotal character is revealed not in the text but rather in the picture. Yes, it is done with words, but the words are part of the art.

The text says that Bill sneaked his son Fred into the American Museum of Natural History, but doesn’t say how. This means readers must look to the art for the explanation, and kids especially love figuring it out.

“Fitting shape” is deliberately vague. It forces the eye to the picture where the impact is greater than if I’d simply stated that Fred arranged the ashes into a bat.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Rules I broke in “Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman”

Superman is the ultimate law-abider. So it’s borderline traitorous for me to write a book about him that breaks some of the “rules.” Luckily, none go so far as to be criminal.

broken rule #1—Do not write nonfiction picture books on pop culture figures.

At first this may seem invalid because plenty of others have also broken this rule (and, for that matter, all of the other rules I’ll list). Yet this still comes up. It’s a commentary on commerce, not content. There can be editorial resistance to historic figures who are not part of traditional curriculum. Teachers are pressured to stick to material that will come up on tests; anything else can be perceived as a waste of time. Therefore, some editors worry that this situation will doom sales for a book on an unconventional topic. I am happy to report that the fact that Superman and his creators, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, are typically not covered in social studies has not hindered classroom use of Boys of Steel. In fact, the book has multiple applications to curriculum, even if the Man (or Boys) of Steel will not be on the test.

broken rule #2—Do not write picture books about writers.

It does seem that a book featuring illustration after illustration of a person sitting at a desk would quickly become visually boring. But writers do far more than sit at desks. In writing any book there are challenges, and in writing any picture book there are additional challenges, and one of them is varying your images no matter what the subject. Boys of Steel contains only one image of Jerry at his typewriter. The rest is other kinds of adventure.

broken rule #3—Do not use dialogue in nonfiction picture books.

I’ve already written on this, but the recap is as follows: if you treat it like any other fact and source it appropriately, why not? In Boys of Steel, I include statements the Boys made in interviews but present it as dialogue. It livens up the text as dialogue tends to do, and it brings the reader closer to the protagonists. Yes, the lines of dialogue may have occurred at different times in real life than when they appear in the book, but this is a convention we regularly accept in nonfiction. No nonfiction is “pure” nonfiction—not even autobiography.

broken rule #4—With biographies, start with birth, end with death…or at least mention birth and death.

We are living in the Golden Age of Picture Book Biography, which allows writers unparalleled freedom in how we tell our true stories. Everything in the book must be factual, but not every fact must (or even can be) in the book. We need not present our tellings chronologically or wholly. Sometimes the birth and/or death of a figure are simply not essential details in our approach. (To the subjects, they were, of course, notable milestones.) I start Boys of Steel in roughly 1930, when Jerry and Joe met, and end it in roughly 1940, soon after Superman’s stratospheric rise. (In
the author’s note, I do briefly address the rest of their lives.)

broken rule #5—Refer to your main character by name.

Perhaps this is not quite a rule, but it certainly is the standard. Not counting the subtitle and author’s note, Boys of Steel contains the word “Superman” precisely zero times. This was not because I was hindered by copyright/trademark restriction or because I made an oversight. This was simply because I could. In my structure, the Boys create Superman toward the end of the story proper, which means I got pretty far without using the word; it then became a fun challenge to see if I could get to the end without it. Readers come away thinking I’ve used the word, but they are extracting that thought from images alone.

broken rule #6—Have a happy ending.

Real life sometimes doesn’t, so books about real life sometimes can’t. Kids can handle the truth (relative to their age, of course). It does no favors to sugarcoat—or omit—certain tragedies. Every biography addresses struggles the protagonist faced en route to success, so why can’t the book end on a struggle? The illustrated portion of Boys of Steel does end on a high note, but the author’s note reveals that the Boys went on to face considerable suffering. Learning about injustice or misfortune or other unpleasantries may sound depressing, but often it is empowering. It can get kids fired up to help prevent similar situations in their own lives and to go do good in the world.

These are the kinds of rules even Superman would condone breaking.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

National Cartoonists Society

In 1999, the way I partied like it was, well, that year was by joining the National Cartoonists Society.

This entitled me to a copy of the NCS membership album from 1996—the 50th anniversary edition. 

It also entitled me to an entry in the next edition. Rather than copy and submit my high school yearbook entry, I cobbled together something new:

That site is defunct but the cartoons live on.

Happy National Cartoonists Day. You are convincing in your act that you did not already know it was today.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster are not heroes

Some reviews of Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman called writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster heroes. These guys created arguably the most iconic superhero of the 20th century. But does that make them heroic?

I feel the word “hero” is overused. This dilutes its potency. The more people we call heroes, the less impact the word has.

It is a natural transference to refer to superhero creators as heroes themselves, but that is a disservice both to more traditionally defined heroes (firefighters, police officers, rescue workers, everyday people who surprise even themselves by risking their own lives to try to save another) and to the creators themselves.

True, dreaming up a character who becomes an industry unto himself is something few have done; there are fewer such creators than heroes. So there is certainly prestige and distinction in it. But that doesn’t mean there is bravery and selflessness in it. Superhero creators deserve praise, but to call them heroes for their visions is giving them the wrong kind of praise...or praise for the wrong aspect. (More on this in a moment.)

Another word tossed around too liberally is “genius.” Were Jerry and Joe creative geniuses? I consider “genius” a classification that can be measured, and I don’t believe you can measure artistic ability. It’s subjective. So if you ask me, not only were Jerry and Joe not heroes, but also not geniuses.

So what were they? They were creative for sure. Innovative. Risk-taking. Persistent.

And it is in this last regard that they came closest to being, yes, heroic.

Their cultural contribution was undeniably seismic, but it was their blind determination to see their idea through despite three and a half years of rejection that shows just how strong they were. (The book is called Boys of Steel for a reason.) They endured nos ranging from the unembellished to the borderline cruel. Yet none of that stopped them, because they were convinced they had a good idea.

Then after they sold all rights to Superman for $130, they went through 35 years of hardship trying to get them back. They genuinely believed it was their right to do so. They were the underdogs. They were demoralized, ignored, insulted—yet they were not deterred from their goal.

To me, that is heroic. Your ideas may be peerless but it’s your actions that determine your hero status.

6/16/13 addendum: I forgot that I touched on this point earlier.