Monday, September 25, 2017

"Chupacabra" art in Society of Illustrators annual exhibit

¡Felicitaciones! to Ana Aranda, whose delicious art for The Chupacabra Ate the Candelabra will be featured in the Society of Illustrators annual exhibit "The Original Art" at its Museum of Illustration in New York City from 11/1 through 12/23/17. 

The exhibit "showcases the original art from the year's best children's books."

The full list of distinguished participants is here.

Congrats to all honored!

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The problem with mentioning sexual orientation in an elementary assembly

In my hourlong author presentation for grades 3 and up, I say that Bill Finger's only son Fred was gay.

It is an essential point in the story because it misdirected researchers for years into thinking Bill had no living heirs after Fred died in 1992.

It is a part of life and always has been.

And as of 2015, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay marriage, it is a legally sanctioned part of life in the United States.

Yet unfortunately, none of this means that all accept it as part of life. 

This month, I spoke at eight elementary schools in multiple Illinois towns and, as usual, had a blast. The audiences rode the emotional roller coaster of a story the whole time, laughing, getting angry, and getting sad on cue. The principals, teachers, and librarians said kind things. A local paper wrote a nice piece on one of the visits.

Then I got an email from the principal of one of the schools (not the one in the article), who copied the superintendent, assistant superintendent for early childhood and elementary education, and that school's library media specialist. Here it is, anonymized:

I wanted to share a concern from a parent about the presentation you gave to our students. As you were sharing your story about meeting the son of one of the creators, there were comments made about his sexual orientation. This parent's daughter was very uncomfortable about the comments and the parent expressed her displeasure at this being included in a school assembly for 1st-5th graders.
I wanted to make you aware. As a building administrator I want to have information about the content of presentations and I want assurance that the content is suitable for the audience. You were recommended to us through the school system. Prior to the assembly I reviewed your website and was excited about the connections we would make to encourage reading. I didn't have reason to be concerned, however this parent's concern has increased my resolve to ask direct questions and avoid potential issues.
Thank you again for your time at [our school].

In my seven years of telling some form of this story to students from kindergartners to high school seniors in more than half the 50 states and almost a dozen countries, there have been ignorant and disrespectful reactions from audience members (which I immediately tamp down on), but this is the first time I have heard from an administrator. 

But then, of course, I'm not really hearing from an administrator. The principal is passing along a parent's concern. I want to believe that the principal does not agree with the parent. (After one of my talks at this school, this principal paid me a compliment, though I don't remember if it was the assembly in which I mentioned Fred's sexual orientation.) Because the principal is not asking for any action from me, and because the principal copied top-level administrators, it seems clear that the principal is simply covering for him/herself. Otherwise, now that the assembly is over, there would be no reason to involve me.

This is not the appropriate response to this situation. 

The only appropriate response is to address the problem.

The problem is not that an author mentioned a person's sexual orientation to students but rather that a parent reported the topic as inappropriate.

There was a time when mentioning sexual orientation to elementary students would have been provocative…but it never would have been inappropriate because it never would have been inappropriate to mention that a man loves a woman or a woman loves a man. 

There is so much to criticize and combat in this world, but when any two people love each other is not one of them.

After my talks, most school staff say nothing about my mention of Fred's sexuality. As I said, it's part of life. And some have commented to the contrary of what some in their community believe. One librarian in a southern state told me "They need to hear about this."

I would hope that this is what a principal would say to a concerned parent.

To address specific points in the principal's email:

  • "comments made about his sexual orientation": As already explained, it was comment, singular, a simple statement of fact: Fred was gay. For the people who were not at the assembly but who were copied on the email, this phrasing could imply I was soapboxing or even going into detail that would indeed be inappropriate for the age of the audience. But referencing sexual orientation is not referencing sex.
  • "This parent's daughter was very uncomfortable": The child was uncomfortable because the parent—whether through modeling or explicit instruction—taught her to be. Children are not born intolerant.
  • "school assembly for 1st-5th graders": I did not mention Fred's sexual orientation (or Fred) to grades 1 and 2—but only because I cut out a lot of the detective story for kids that age. It's purely logistical. I'd happily address homosexuality (and the nuances of other points I omit) in an age-appropriate way to kids of any age, but presenters always have to weigh the value of including a point versus the time it will take to sensitively explain it when compared against other points we want to make.
  • "I reviewed your website and was excited about the connections we would make to encourage reading": Yet the principal did not indicate to the administrators that this is precisely what the kids got. (See the last line of the article above.)
  • "increased my resolve to ask direct questions and avoid potential issues": I hope this does not mean that the principal will be asking potential future presenters in advance if they will mention a person's sexual orientation (or religion, or race, or...). Denying kids the benefit of a good author talk because of one issue that the unenlightened may object to (and that is not the main topic of the talk) is a colossal disservice to our future leaders, and to ourselves as well. 

In short: it's prejudiced. 

Every adult has a responsibility to model empathy for every child.

There may be kids at this school who have an openly gay parent or two gay parents. There are definitely kids at this school who are gay themselves, even though they may not know it yet. I am equal parts disappointed and enraged that they are in a school system where simply mentioning this aspect of themselves could be a "potential issue." But based on my experiences in schools in all parts of the country, I am confident in the ability of 21st century youth to be proud of who they are and to speak up against injustice.

Still, when doing so, they need the support of adults.

I debated replying to the principal and others copied on the email with some form of the above. But ultimately I decided that short is best. The point here is not the one point one person disliked (an opinion that probably won't change no matter what I say) but rather the merit of the experience as a whole for the majority. So this was my reply:

Thank you again for having me at your school. I had a lovely time; the kids were enthusiastic and engaged. In case you missed this, here is how the local paper covered my visit. [hyperlinked]
What did you and your staff think of my presentation?

As of this writing, I have not heard back.

But if I do, and the response is along the same lines as the initial email, I will direct the person responding to this post.

9/27/17 addendum: I directed the principal and the principal's colleagues to this post. The principal thanked me. That was it.

Saturday, September 23, 2017


On 9/18/17, two years to the day of the Bill Finger credit announcement, I spoke twice about the man: during the day at a school in Reston, VA and at night at Alley, a New York-founded company that recently opened a DC office.

daughter of friend/fellow author Kwame Alexander attends the Reston school; Kwame kindly sat in on one of my talks and joined me and librarian Kim Sigle for lunch.

The Alley talk was open to the public and free of charge.

My host told me that two of the women who attended have come to previous free events he's spearheaded. He believes they leap-frog night-to-night from free event to free event, partake of the free booze, then leave. In this case, one had a couple of beers and walked out in the middle of my talk. The other stayed...wearing sunglasses, indoors, the whole time.

Oddity and all, a more than nice way to spend the anniversary. Thank you again to Kim, Kwame, and Alley.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

My first Amazon orders

In the publishing community, is a polarizing topic. I see both sides. We can discuss. But not here.

This is purely nostalgia.

I was working as a marketing associate in book publishing when Amazon launched in 1995. I remember a group huddling around a blocky computer to catch our first glimpse of the home page, which looks so quaint now:

That's the standard "Amazon home page 1995" you can find around the internet. I wish I had documented it myself but didn't because (like most) I had no inkling what it would become.

I use Amazon and have since 1997 (a year before its offerings expanded beyond books). By that point, at age two, it looked only slightly more polished:

Number of times I ordered from Amazon during my first five years as a customer (not counting gifts for others):

2000—13 (some with multiple items, often books for research)

The first four:

 No surprise the subject of my first purchase. 
(A friend had the 1988 book when we were in high school. 
That must've seemed like a lifetime ago when
I bought my own copy in 1997.)

 I loved The New Yorker almost as much as superheroes. 
Weirdly, this devotion began in high school (because of the cartoons)
and continued into college.

the Gatorade commercial song about Michael Jordan.
Not proud.
(But still have in my music library.)

Another New Yorker book.

Now Amazon may sell nearly everything but it's not the original Everything Store. This is.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

A week of school visits in scenic IL

I kicked off the 2017-18 school visit year by returning to the lovely part of Illinois I first experienced exactly a year ago. From 9/11 to 9/15/18, I spoke at eight elementaries in Crystal Lake, St. Charles, and Woodstock, IL.

Librarian Gayle Johnston of Glacier Ridge Elementary in Crystal Lake first heard me speak at Northern Illinois University in 2016. She took thorough notes—and repurposed some of my sound bites on signs in the hallway and library.

I loved the statement posted outside the Glacier Ridge art room. The art teacher confessed that she found it online but that makes it no less touching.

Speaking of Glacier Ridge signage, I signed a healthy amount of books...

...and a Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice display.

But this was my favorite display at Glacier Ridge (and, possibly, ever): every student in the school drew his/her own version of the star of The Chupacabra Ate the Candelabra. ¡Ay, caramba!

The kids of Husmann Elementary also flexed their buy-my-books muscles.

Husmann's librarian Tina Serra simultaneously honored Bill Finger's legacy and boosted my spirit by asking her students to create their own gimmick books.

Greenwood Elementary in Woodstock boasts something I have not seen in my 13 years of author visits: a fireplace. The school was built in 1949 and the fireplace has since been converted to gas...but it's still in use (Christmas storytimes).

Thank you again to the eight schools who took time out of your regularly scheduled programming to bring me in, and special thanks to Terry Jacobsen of Canterbury Elementary for tirelessly ringleading this trip. 

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Allusions to one of my books in another

At times, I nod at one of my books in another of my books.

Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman features a silent cameo by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster of Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman

They're standing behind the seated man, Jerry Robinson.

Brave Like My Brother (is fiction but) mentions Jerry and Joe several times as the story's stateside scenes take place in Cleveland.

Brave Like My Brother also winks at Bill the Boy Wonder's Bill Finger in that the diner where one of the main characters works is called Milton's (Bill's given name).

The Chupacabra Ate the Candelabra pays small tribute to Fairy Spell (which isn't even out yet!)...but not by me. 

In fact, I did not even know about it till the day the Fairy Spell cover was revealed online (8/7/17), when Chupacabra illustrator Ana Aranda shared with me a fun revelation of her own: among the adorable spot drawings on the Chupacabra endpapers, you can see the chupacabra playing with dolls of various myths—including a fairy. Thanks again, Ana!

The Chupacabra Ate the Candelabra also contains a cheeky if unofficial appearance by another superhero (and without Jerry and Joe, we might not have any). The lead goat is named Jayna…as was one of the Wonder Twins on the 1970s cartoon Super Friends. Her power? To transform into any animal...

Surely more to come…

Sunday, September 10, 2017

People showing off their Bill Finger T-shirts

In the final scene of the documentary Batman & Bill, I am wearing a Bill Finger T-shirt. (I have also forced a shirt on each member of my family.) Since the film premiered in May 2017, I have been tweeting where to get one for yourself. Some have, and tweeted a photo of it. In some cases, I meet Finger people in person.

If you want to buy one of your own, you have a choice of background colors and ever-changing choice of styles; order here.

If you tweet at me or email me a photo of you wearing one, I will add it here.

11/25/18 addendum: The shirt that says only "Finger" is no longer available due to a copyright claim. But the other Finger shirt is...and hopefully other artists will create more options. Perhaps the artist of the one that was removed could redo it without Batman's face, which I think should be legally passable.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

"Batman & Bill" screening at AASL 2017

Two months from tonight, at the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) 2017 national conference in Phoenix, AZ, please join me for a special screening of Batman & Bill, the first documentary based on a nonfiction picture book for young readers. It will be followed by a Q&A.

The film is currently screening on Hulu (which offers a free trial if you don't subscribe and won't be at AASL); this is a rare chance to watch the film the way films are intended to be experienced: among a live audience. 

Yes, it is smack dab in the middle of extended happy hour (shout-out to librarians who par-TAY), but I guarantee you it will be worth the interlude. After you see the surprising twists of the story, you will want to go out to celebrate the power of children's literature and toast the underdog...

If you are the emotional type, bring tissues.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

A third Bill Finger letter uncovered

In my Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman research, I found only two (but still two!) letters written by Bill Finger.

I know there are more out there.

And now I know where one is: amidst a trove of info on the 1966 Batman show in the William Dozier archives at the University of Wyoming.

Though undated, it was written in early 1966 to producer Howie Horwitz. It is part of a series of letters regarding Bob's (non-)role on the show and in particular the inclusion of the Clock King as a villain. Apparently at one point Bob was to be involved with this particular script. However, according to Bill's letter, when it came time to execute, Bob was out of pocket, so Bill and writing partner Charles Sinclair (who, according to Charles, was the one who scored them the gig) forged ahead as a dynamic duo.

Considering Bob never wrote a single Batman script—for TV or comics—it is unclear why he was even part of a discussion about writing this particular script. Perhaps Bill still felt obligated to maintain the charade that Bob had written Batman scripts.

Interesting to note that in three of the four times Bill mentions Bob, he refers to him as "Bog." At first it may seem a typo, but you can see how he fixed most of the other goofs in the letter. So either he missed this misspelling (three times)...or he did it on purpose as a dig. The tone of the letter (and the fact that, again, the word appears three times) would seem to support the latter. Also, while "B" and G" are adjacent on the typewriter, it seems less likely a person would make a mistake when typing a word with a repeated letter, like "Bob." With experienced typists, the fingers (in this case, Bill's fingers) stay in position anticipating that imminent second strike...

Thanks to Batman & Bill story producer Alexandra Orton for this excavation!

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Carmine Infantino on Bob Kane's income

In 2006, in research for Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman, I phone-interviewed the uncompromising longtime DC Comics artist Carmine Infantino. In 2011, for Batman & Bill, we interviewed him on camera. The next year I hand-delivered a copy of the newly-released book.

I'm so glad we/I did what we did when we did. Carmine passed away in 2013.

Every time I talked with him, the man was a delight, saying many things I found fascinating—one in particular. It came out during the filmed interview but did not make it into the documentary, so here it is:

I had already heard that it was the 1960s Batman TV series that made Bob Kane wealthy. The story went that he sold his stake in the character as part of the deal to get the show on air.

But Carmine, who was the Batman artist when the Batman show morphed the character from superhero to supernova, knew specifics. According to Carmine, Bob agreed to $50,000/year for 20 years—that may be the rumored $1 million he supposedly got (though it would not, of course, make him an instant millionaire, which was the impression I had).

However, in an archival clip in our film, which I believe is from the late 1980s, Bob says that he still had a piece of the pie.

I've done no further verification on this. I'm simply reporting what a person on the frontlines at the time remembered and reported.

Friday, September 1, 2017

"Batman & Bill" documentary: the public response, part 3

Part 1.

Part 2.

Thank you yet again to all who have supported and spread word about the film. 

Round 3 of the most humbling (or funniest, or otherwise notable) reactions on Twitter: