Wednesday, April 30, 2014

More dispatches from the United Arab Emirates

Last week I shared some of what I have learned while in the UAE.

Since then:

  • Though some aspects of the culture are ancient, the country itself is only about 40 years old. Before that, a lot more of the region was desert.
  • Some schools have been pressured into removing World War II books or blacking out mention of Hitler and the Holocaust (not to mention Israel, which, if it must be mentioned, is referred to as “the entity”). I said the word “Jewish” in a presentation and was later advised (but not forced) to omit it in the next presentation. I did not...and afterward got a most enthusiastic reaction anyway.
  • All pig products (and sometimes even mere mention of pigs) are forbidden. However, some food stores have a back room just for expats…and just for pork.
  • One international school was reprimanded for inviting the students to dress up for Halloween because the government education counsel saw no educational value in that.
  • The country seems to be struggling with its identity. On the one hand, residents maintain great respect for Muslim traditions, some of which seem dangerously outdated by some non-Muslims. On the other hand, Emiratis want to attract tourists and foreign business so find themselves compromising (as a culture) at times. In the malls, you see fully covered Muslim women walking side-by-side with Western-looking women in tight T-shirts and short shorts. At airports, you may see women preparing to travel to a more religiously diverse place by shedding their abayas (coverings) to reveal contemporary fashion underneath.
  • When multiple fully covered women are in one area, children can identify their mothers by their handbags.
  • At several schools, teachers asked students to welcome me by saying “Have a clap” rather than “Let’s have a round of applause.” (But that may be British rather than local custom.)
  • Dubai is more liberal than Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi has more trees and green space (which must be vigorously watered) than Dubai.
  • Crime is virtually nonexistent here. (The consequences, including deportation, are severe.)
  • License plates are status symbols. The lower the number, the closer the owner is to the royal family.
  • Everyone (in schools, hotels, restaurants, taxis, and so on) has been lovely to me.

Also, April 27 was a milestone in my author visit history: the first time I spoke at a school on a Sunday (when the school/work weeks begins in the UAE).

Friday, April 25, 2014

Adventures and observations at the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival

Dune bashing was only the beginning.

On 4/23-24/14, I participated in the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival in the United Arab Emirates; I was here for four days of the two-week event along with other American children’s book authors/illustrators including Peter Brown, Meghan McCarthy, and Stephen Messer.

Our appearances consisted of two types: morning talks at schools in Sharjah and an evening panel with academics from the Arab community.

Both were considerably different than any previous author experience I’ve had, and my compatriots had similar reactions.

Both of my Sharjah schools were all-girl and Arab; some authors spoke at Australian or Indian schools and/or all-boy schools. My students were about 12 and 13 years old.

Simply getting to the schools was an adventure. In my first week in the UAE, I’ve been in a lot of cars (not to mention three hotels), and none of the drivers have used GPS. I don’t recall seeing traffic lights in Sharjah. (And the hotels don’t have addresses in the sense we’re used to—no street number. Just “Corniche Street.” Or sometimes even just “near the Expo Center.”) Drivers seem to be guesstimating how to get to places.

My two schools were not only all-girl but also all-shy. I understand. I get the impression they rarely if ever have guest speakers, and almost certainly never a foreign, male guest speaker. I was surprised and impressed that the schools were open to a visitor like me.

Al Noof Government School

Shyness aside, the students were very sweet, and at the first school, the girls did come around by the end of my hourlong talk; a few asked questions, in part thanks to their teacher’s words of encouragement (in English). She invited me to come back and even gave me her cell phone so I could give her notice.

Using humor in this context was tricky. Different culture, different sensibility. The one time I remember the girls at the second school laughing was at the end of my presentation. I was trying to make them feel comfortable enough to ask questions so I said I have children of my own and they ask me lots of questions:

  • “May I please stay up later?”
  • “May I please have another cookie?”
  • “Daddy, would you please stop talking?”

It was that last one that elicited some giggles.

Action at A Ta'la School.

On 4/23/14, Peter and Meghan were on a panel with two Arab speakers. The topic was something like “reading and media.” Each of the four panelists spoke for about 10 minutes each. (We were told in advance that some panelists would not be sticking to the already-vague topics. It’s a cultural thing.)

One of the others on their panel was, I believe, a children’s book author as well. The last was an Egyptian psychiatrist whose focus was the prevention of predatory behavior online. Certainly important, and she was certainly well-spoken, but a strange pairing with children’s authors.

The highlight of that panel (for me as an audience member) was what turned out to be one of many “incidents” during panels at the festival. While the psychiatrist was explaining the gravity and prevalence of child endangerment via the Internet, a man in the audience began to call out at her (in Arabic). Everyone—panelists and audience members alike—had small Star Trek devices in our ears for translations (English to Arabic or vice versa, depending on what you needed).

But the translator in the back of the room could not clearly hear the shouting audience man, who continued to interrupt the psychiatrist to the point that the translator began to plead “Peter Brown, Peter Brown, I can’t work like this! Please intervene!”

Though Peter was sitting next to the psychiatrist, what he (or anyone) could have done to remedy the situation was anyone’s guess. (I was surprised and saddened to later learn that the man was challenging the notion that there could be such abuse in Arab communities.) Luckily, the psychiatrist seemed to shut down the shouting man by saying “There is a fine line between commenting and insulting.”

The translator was either psychic or cybernetic. He translated almost simultaneously as the words came out of a panelist
s mouth, meaning he was both speaking himself and listening to what was being said without missing a syllable. We were in awe.

On 4/24/14, Peter, Meghan, and I went from Sharjah to Dubai to see the Dubai Mall, currently the world’s largest in terms of area, and Burj Khalifa, currently the world’s tallest building. When in a foreign country for the first time, ordinarily none of us would likely go to a mall, but in the UAE, it’s another story.

The mall is indeed a spectacle. It is home to a huge, shark-filled aquarium in which you can scuba dive; presumably the sharks aren’t the human-chomping kind. The mall also includes almost any store you’ve ever heard of and probably at least a couple twice because the second one didn’t know the first one existed.

 Meghan and Peter looking tough in front of a model of 
the mall and the tallest building.

 We are American. Sorry, this is not enough.

The first Häagen-Dazs I have seen that has a menu. 
A hardcover one, no less.

Five times a day in Muslim communities, the call to prayer goes out. I haven’t heard it five times a day—it depends on where you are—but when I do, it’s quite lovely. And it was even piped into the mall.

 At the bottom of “At the Top” (the observation deck, 
which is the highest point paying customers are allowed to go).

 By association, this must be the world’s longest shadow. 
(Longest manmade shadow?) 

 View from the 124th-floor observation deck up the rest 
of the 163-floor building (and up my nose).

 You could pose against a green screen to be superimposed on a scene 
of peril atop the building. Fun to watch people get in position.

 For a fleeting moment, not counting people in planes, 
we were the highest children’s book creators in the world.

 Babies may not be accompanied by adults.

That night was my panel. It was supposed to be me and two Arabs in the field, but only one showed. The topic was equally vague as the night before; it involved the importance of the book and also the development of curriculum.

Due to the disruption, Peter and Meghan’s panel didn’t get to audience questions, but mine did. However, it was not like Q&A during American panels. A woman asked a question that the moderator didn’t turn to us to answer—instead the mic was passed immediately to another audience member who made a statement, then another. Only then did the moderator ask me a question—but it didn’t seem to be a question that had come from the audience. I was confused but did the best I could, and some people were nodding so I guess I didn’t waste their time completely.

A view from the panel.

It was a curious honor that anyone who came to a panel about education with a focus on the Middle East would care what an American author with no Arabic experience had to say. But I am all for bridging gaps between cultures however possible.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Dune bashing and camel bonding with Peter Brown

Author/illustrator/friend/adventurer Peter Brown and I (and, joining us a day later, Meghan McCarthy) are in the United Arab Emirates for the Sharjah Children’s Book Festival…and for dune bashing. Which means treating the desert like a roller coaster.

It is not for the faint of stomach.

The race is on to see who will be first to change his Twitter handle to @dunebasher14.

 Not in the desert quite yet. Maybe the strip mall in the background gave that away.

Peterama. Including oil rig. Or drill. Not sure.

 One of the cutest things I have seen in a while: 
a girl of about three taking a photo of her mom.
Our dune-bashing ride is in the background.

Hawkman. Actually, it is a falcon.

Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger.

This guy spun in a circle for what must have been at least five minutes straight...
and did not show any dizziness.

Still in the desert, though you have to take my word for it.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

MTN in UAE (United Arab Emirates)

After graduating college, I lived in New York City, which to a guy who grew up in small-town Connecticut felt exotic, almost mythic. If only I would have known then that one day I’d be setting up shop for two weeks in the United Arab Emirates.

In late December, I was invited to the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival and gladly immediately accepted. I recommended author friends and the festival invited three of them, two of whom (Peter Brown and Meghan McCarthy) accepted. I also managed to set up author visits at eight schools (five in Abu Dhabi, three in Dubai) for the surrounding days.

Then I packed sunscreen, slept lying down on a plane for the first time (no, not on the floor), and landed amidst a fantastic cultural experience.

Among the tidbits I have learned so far:

  • The United Arab Emirates consists of seven emirates, of which I will see three (Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah), and as an entity, it’s only a little over 40 years old.
  • The school week is Sunday to Thursday.
  • There is virtually no crime. Most locals are wealthy and 70% of the population is from other countries. Those who are here as laborers would get deported if they broke the law, so they don’t. I ran at night along a long, sometimes dark path along the water. It was lovely.
  • As many know, some Arab women in public wear covering to varying degrees. Laborers who’ve come from other countries are typically men who leave behind their wives. Therefore, some Westerners with exposed shoulders or legs stand out to laborers and report discomfort at their “male gaze”; however, because of bullet #3 above (if not their own morals), laborers do nothing more than look.
  • Abu Dhabi is home to what I was told is the world’s only 7-star hotel. Apparently there are others but this one (resembling a palace) is a stunner.
  • Little fruit grows in the UAE and some report that the imported fruit loses its taste in transit.

 Pristine Corniche Beach, Abu Dhabi. Only minutes by foot from my hotel.

An entrance to the beach. Note the unusual blue brick.

Every beach could use a library.

After the beach library and the banner promoting reading, 
a third writing-related sign near my hotel.

The two crosswalk signs are not synchronized. 

Hotel room ceilings are marked with an arrow 
indicating the direction of Mecca. 

My first school visit in UAE was the wonderfully welcoming 
American Community School of Abu Dhabi, where I was greeted by a 
larger-than-life banner and spoke to six dynamic groups over two days.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Interview with Ross MacDonald, illustrator of "Boys of Steel"

I consider myself lucky that Ross MacDonald illustrated Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman

He was exceptional to work with and is now a friend.


But the book came out in 2008. Why interview him now?

Because I should have done it then. With respect to Bill Finger, I often say “Justice has no expiration date.” Same is true with good content.

Besides, the book is still a book... 

What attracted you to illustrating Boys of Steel? 

It’s a great story about the guys—boys, really—who [created] arguably the first, and certainly the most iconic, superhero.

I had grown up reading the Superman comics of the ‘60s. They were fun when I was young. The art in those was clean and accomplished, but a little bland. [But] the stories had devolved (degenerated?) into these convoluted yet simplistic plots involving time travel, Superman trying to keep Lois from finding out his secret identity, Mr. Mxyzptlk, and an ever-expanding rainbow of Kryptonites.

As an adult, I came to really appreciate the artwork and storylines of the early, dark comic books and Sunday comics of the ‘40s. Joe Shuster’s art and the dark gripping plots of the early Superman comics came as a huge revelation. 

You used brown for Jerry Siegel’s clothes and green for Joe Shuster’s. Did you incorporate any other recurring visual motifs? 

Jerry is kinda tubby and Joe was rail thin. But they almost looked like brothers in many ways. Both had similar glasses and hair, and like every single male American of the time, they wore suits. All the time. They even have the same initials, so keeping their names straight is difficult, too.

They looked similar enough that just making one heavy and one skinny wasn’t quite enough to tell them apart. So I gave them each their own color scheme. That was something you saw in the old comics—the characters often only had one suit (I guess that was probably true in real life at the time, too), and it helped make the comic panels a quicker read. Villains often had purple or orange suits, and Clark Kent’s was always true blue.

Another thing I tried to do was to make the illustrations that showed Joe and Jerry’s real life have a nice muted color scheme but the scenes they imagine are bright, pulpy, comic colors. 

What is your favorite piece of art from Boys of Steel? 

Much as I liked drawing Superman, my favorite piece is Joe sketching on the back of wallpaper scraps in the unheated kitchen of his mother’s apartment while she washes dishes in the background. 

What piece of Boys of Steel art was the most challenging to create? 

Another fave—Jerry sitting at his typewriter in front of his bedroom window while the neighborhood kids play outside. 

What was the most annoying request I made? 

All of them—just kidding. I don’t remember any requests, frankly. Maybe they were so annoying I blanked them out! 

Do you have any unused art you can share, especially cover sketches? 

Like most of the book, the cover was a one-sketch kinda deal. There are a couple of alternate versions of the title page, though. 

Any particularly memorable feedback you’ve gotten for your work on the book? 

Charlie Kochman, formerly an editor at DC Comics, now at Abrams Image, really loved the book. It felt good getting praise from someone who worked at the house that published Superman comics from the very beginning. 

Anything else about the experience you’d like to add? 

Great working with you on this, and it was fun helping to tell the interesting creation story of one of my childhood heroes.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Naming your kids after Superman

My daughter’s name is Lara. It was one of the few female names my wife and I agreed on. I don’t remember who proposed it, but I know it was on the list I started in my early twenties. (Yes, I am that guy.) And I know my wife latched onto it after being swept up by Doctor Zhivago (which I still have not seen).

Though my wife might never believe me, and I can barely believe this myself, in deciding on the name for our baby girl, I did not remember that the name of Superman’s biological mother is Lara. In other words, I didn’t secretly propose/go along with the name because of my fondness for the Man of Steel.

My son’s name is Rafael. It was, I believe, the only male name my wife and I agreed on. (One of my first choices—Clark—was nixed even faster than I nixed one of her first choices…Fritz. Cut some slack. She’s German.)

I’m Jewish and because my wife is not, she gave her blessing for our son’s Hebrew name to be “Kal-El”—which is Superman’s Kryptonian name. Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman was not yet out so my life was not yet so linked to Superman, but even then I felt going this route would be too fannish. I did not want our son—who may not care a whit about Superman—to be saddled with a Hebrew name he would not be able to say without a sigh.

So instead, we chose “Emet”—“truth” in Hebrew. (This was inspired by the motto of my alma mater, Brandeis University: “Truth even unto its innermost parts.”)

And just like I had a revelation only after naming our daughter, I had one with our son as well. I recently realized that, perhaps subconsciously, I did saddle him with a Superman name after all:


Sunday, April 13, 2014

Publishing worlds collide and create "Iggy Loomis"

In 2010, my book Vocabulary Cartoon of the Day (grades 2-3), illustrated by Mike Moran (whom I have still not met), came out. 

In 2012, my author friend Jennifer Allison (whose son portrayed Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel for a school project) asked for recommendations for good cartoonists.

I suggested Mike.

And he was the one hired to illustrate Jennifer’s 2013 book Iggy Loomis, Superkid in Training.

I love when this happens!

(It’s the first time this has happened.)

(For me, anyway.)

Good luck with Iggy, Jennifer and Mike!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Those who work, those who take credit

On the Barnes & Noble in Bethesda, MD is a quotation that could have been the subtitle for Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman. (What? The one I ended up using is long, too.)