Friday, April 27, 2018

Kids speaking up…and apologizing

In February, after I indicated that Bill Finger's son Fred was gay while speaking at a Maryland elementary school, a few kids snickered or recoiled. I made clear that we treat all people with respect and the intolerant behavior immediately stopped. 

Later that day, Joe, the father of twin girls who were at that assembly, came in to meet with me. He's in a same-sex marriage and was understandably upset that his daughters heard peers react insensitively to an aspect of their family dynamic. Along with the vice principal, we had a difficult, important talk about how to continue to be inclusive in a school setting without putting anyone like Joe's daughters in an uncomfortable situation like that. There are no simple solutions. 

I posted about this and Joe (whom I originally called Matt to protect his privacy) commented.

On 4/23/18, Joe sent me a follow-up and gave me permission to post (slightly edited). 

This is going to make you cry. In both ways.

What an amazing day and moment. We had a homophobic incident at an author presentation at school. Many students reacted to the word "gay" in a very ugly way. Both my girls were there. They took it pretty rough. 

Today, thanks to the leadership and the concern of our wonderful principal and vice principal, and thanks to my friend Jill and her daughter for giving us the idea, my daughters wrote letters to their classmates letting them know how their negative reaction to the mention of LGBTQI people and same-sex couples made my daughters feel. In writing the letter they also were able to express how they felt about being adopted in regards to their classmates' expressions of sadness and questions regarding us as their parents and us as a family. They read their letters to all four fourth grade classes this afternoon.

As their dad I was nervous for them, and this morning I panicked and wanted to put a stop to it. But they both insisted on reading their letters. I can't say enough about how brave I [feel they are] and how much I admire them. And [about] the fact that our school, their teachers, our county, and our state support us as a family and as members of the community. It was a very emotional afternoon. And of course I couldn't help connect it to my experience as a boy in elementary school, afraid of being found out, having no resources to help me understand, and feeling/fearing no support or acceptance from even favorite teachers. I think of the little boys and girls on that carpet today and I feel happy for them. It is a different world, with its problems still, but today is a hopeful day and I'm feeling pretty damn great!

Afterward a girl talked about her gay sister in high school. Then a boy said he was one of the kids who said "Yuck!" when the author [said that Fred Finger was] gay. This boy said he felt bad knowing that he hurt my daughters' feelings. He said he [now] feels different and is sorry for what he said. Another boy said there is no such thing as normal. WOW! All the comments were positive. Fingers crossed that there will not be much parental backlash for the school! I am amazed! Like I said, I'm feeling very hopeful and good about our little part of the world today!

In addition, we may be speaking as family on this incident and its ripples at Howard County Live in June. And our school has decided to have an ongoing policy of letting students write letters about their uniqueness and differences and reading them to their classmates. I think this is a great thing!

I second that. 

Joe also allowed me to share the (again lightly edited) letters his daughters bravely shared.

Letter of Joe's daughter A: 

I want to talk to you about something that happened a few weeks ago at school. I want to talk about when the author came in and was talking about one of the guys that invented Batman [who] had a gay son who had a daughter. A lot of kids gasped, some people said ew, some people said yuck, and other people started whispering. That made me feel sad and it made me want to cry a little. Afterwards I did cry. I just wanted my daddy to come get me and take me home. Someone in our class said that gay was a bad word. That made me want to cry even more because I have two dads. 

On that day in lunch line, three kids were laughing and joking and teasing each other about being gay. That made me feel even sadder and I wanted to yell at them and tell them that they were being very mean and I was really wishing that I could leave school, but I couldn't. When I told a grown-up in the cafeteria about what those kids were saying, she just said OK and she walked away and didn't do anything. I really wanted her to stop them and I really wanted to go home and not come back for a week.

At school some people have told me when they find out that I'm adopted that it is sad that I don't have a mom, or that it's weird that I have two dads. Some people ask me how it is possible that I have two dads and no mother. My sister and I were adopted when we were born. I've seen photos of my mom but I've never met her. I just want all of you to know that it is a little sad, but I love my daddy and my papa and my family and I feel like I am a very happy person. I love when we all hang out together playing family games or watching TV. When other kids at school or on the bus make fun of gay people, it makes me sad, but it also makes me angry and I want to yell at them and tell them there's nothing wrong with it. I want people here to change, to not think it's weird or wrong to have two dads or to be adopted. 

I am OK if you ask me questions about my life, I just don't like it if you ask in a way that makes it sound like it's weird or bad or if your response is negative. I am really happy we moved here. I like this school. I have lots of friends and [the] teachers are great. I want to say that my friend J has never teased me or made me feel bad that my family is different.

Thank you for listening to this. My papa says that just because someone is different it doesn't mean that different is bad. He says it's our differences that make life interesting. My daddy says that he wishes he could protect us from all mean people, but he can't, [and] if people ask me questions, I should answer them and try to explain to them. I just hope we can all treat each other with respect and see that if you say something is weird or yucky out loud you might be hurting someone's feelings.

Letter of Joe's daughter G:

I want to talk about the author that came to school. When people made those noises and said things like yuck and ew, it hurt my feelings. I wanted to ask you guys why you would say that because I don't think that being gay is a bad thing. I feel good about having two dads. Sometimes I wish I could meet my mom but it's OK that I have not. I know that in the future I can meet her if she wants to. I feel really nice to be a part of my family, we are a fun family, I mean happy. We are mostly always nice to each other and we take care of each other.

I really don't like it when people make fun of people like my daddy and my papa. I don't think it's the right thing to do. Everybody is different.

I have two dads because I'm adopted. One of my best friends, A, is adopted and she only has a mom, no dad. We have friends that are adopted that have two dads and our neighbors on the next street are two moms with one daughter they adopted. 

I wish there were more families like mine at school. Adoption isn't bad or sad. My daddy says there are all kinds of ways to make a family. He was raised by his grandma and grandfather. My papa has a mother and dad and he also has a stepmom. She is one of my papa's best friends. They talk to each other every week. 

It's not a nice feeling to be teased or to hear people say bad things about your family. I want everybody here to treat each other nice even if someone is different or their family is different.

Thank you for listening to me.

Note from Dr. Tiffany Tresler, the principal: 

Heather [Moraff, the vice principal] and I both agreed that [the letter-sharing] experience was one of the most rewarding and heartfelt moments that we have had in our careers. We both became a bit teary as the [two sisters] shared their letters with their classmates. We told the students that they were tears of joy in how proud we were that they could be so brave to share something so personal to them. 

The response from the other students in that moment was so supportive and understanding. We feel so blessed to be a part of this moment of making a difference. The ending was nearly perfect—a student spoke up and said, "I was one of the students who said eww, and now I reflected on that."

As you wrote to us before, "the story continues." We can't wait to see what's next!

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Especially proud of this debut nonfiction picture book author

In October 2017, I heard from Laura Dershewitz, a friend-of-a-friend who was inspired by a recent obituary to try to write a nonfiction picture book for the first time. I stammered out some halfway incoherent advice and wished her luck. 

It was just announced that she and her writing partner SOLD THE BOOK. See what can happen when you just go for it? 

Congrats Laura Dershewitz, Susan Romberg, and Meghann Rader! I can't wait to read about the self-cleaning house...and not just because I'm a neat freak.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Inaugural speaker for Pat Scales lecture series at University of Montevallo

On 4/19/18, I had the honor of being the inaugural speaker for a lecture series at the University of Montevallo. It's outside Birmingham, Alabama, a city I'd visited for the first time only a month before, for (elementary) school visits. The university used to be all-female; males began to attend through the G.I. Bill (apparently all-male and coed campuses did not have enough slots to accommodate the number of men returning from WWII).

The lecture was part of a larger event called the Forte Festival of Creativity. Its theme was "Heroes and Heroines."

In a case of near-perfect timing, the day of the lecture was 80 years and a day after Superman debuted in Action Comics #1 (April 18, 1938). A lovely group of educators, students, and other community members attended.

I've not met Pat Scales but I hope to. She attended Montevallo and went on to become an advocate for intellectual freedom and a crusader against censorship. I delivered the lecture in a room in the library newly created to house Pat's generous donation of papers and children's books.

The room was bedecked with fantastic vintage Book Week posters. I wanted every one of them.

I was further heartened to learn that Montevallo attracts students who did not feel they could be themselves out loud in high school in the South, such as those who identify as LGBTQ. The campus was clearly open-minded and artistic.

And not-so-clearly haunted. 

Around 9 p.m. the night before my lecture, I was taken to where I'd spend the night: the King House.

Note: This is not what it looks like at night.

Built in 1823, it was one of the first houses in Alabama with glass windowsIt sits in the middle of campus where it has developed a reputation for being a hotbed of paranormal activity. One of those ghost-hunting shows filmed there…and picked up readings.

The woman who showed me around the house did not bring this up on her own, but when I asked, she was more than happy to share stories…even though I was about to stay there by myself. Again, I brought it upon myself!

She said grown men have refused to step foot in the house. One guest saw a black faceless humanoid form hovering over the very bed I would sleep in. A notable author called campus police at 1 a.m. and asked to be taken to a hotel (the nearest of which was, I believe, about 30 miles away). Some have reported seeing Mr. King himself walking his former property with a lantern, perhaps looking for the gold he'd allegedly buried centuries ago.

I was told I may see Mr. King (the gentleman behind me) later that night…and not in a painting.

Even though I am interested in ghosts and have written about ghosts and have long wanted to experience something ghostly, I was a bit spooked staying alone in that house. I admit I left on the downstairs hall light and the bathroom light on the second floor, adjacent to the room in which I would sleep. Scaredy-cat and Mr. King.

Around midnight, when I was still up, I heard one unusual bang downstairs, as if someone had dropped something heavy or slammed a book against a wall. I did not go investigate. 

Morning came without other additional incident—at least any I was aware of. In the light of day, I did a walk-through and did not see anything on the ground that could have fallen and made the sound I heard.

This was both fortunate and unfortunate.

One of the students who heard me present saw my social media post and reacted in charming disbelief.

King House is not the only campus location with ghost sightings. In 1908, a student named Condie Cunningham caught on fire in her dorm room and ran down the hallway in panic, later dying from her injury. Some have reported that she is still around—and that her face "burned" into the door of what was her room. The door has been removed and is now stored in the campus archives.

Wondering about the possible implications of taking a photo of it, I hesitated at first. Then I figured that because I survived King House, maybe I'm not an unwelcome presence among the unexplained of Montevallo.

Thank you again to Anna Mary Williford for inviting me to Montevallo. Your introduction humbled and tickled me; thank you for allowing me to quote part of it (lightly edited):

I have been at the University of Montevallo for just over a year now. Prior to that, I was a librarian at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg in Pennsylvania where I had the pleasure of coordinating their annual children's literature conference, which is where I met Marc. About a year before the conference, I received the first of what would be many emails with subject lines like, "Batman at Pitt Greensburg in 2015?" or "Batman, you know. Superman, you know. Nobleman, you will know." And I would think to myself, "Who is this guy who will not stop emailing me?!" I booked him as one of our keynote speakers for May 2015, a decision that I've never regretted!

But I will admit that at the time, I assumed his persistence was simply because he was doing his job, part of which was promoting the books he'd written. After hearing Marc speak, though, I realized that presenting his work was so much more than "part of the job" to him. Sharing his research with a wider audience was an essential part of his quest for the truth about Batman to finally be acknowledged. For a lot of authors, simply publishing Bill the Boy Wonder might have been enough—the book was out there now, people could read it and learn about what happened for themselves. But that wasn't enough for Marc, who wants to personally deliver his message to as many people as possible. I'm pretty sure that he set out to turn every student, teacher, librarian, or conference attendee who crossed his path into a soldier in his army for justice for the legacy of Batman, and I think that's exactly what he's accomplished over the past few years.

So when I watched Batman & Bill, I had to laugh at the fact that the first word Marc's wife uses to describe him is "persistent," as he is definitely one of the most persistent people I've ever met, but in a good way! That persistence is why he's here with us today, in more ways than one.

That's the passion Marc has for his work, and it will come across when you hear him speak in just a minute. On the subject of passionate folks, Pat Scales unfortunately couldn't join us this afternoon. However, she is familiar with—and a fan of!—Marc's work, and I am certain she'd be pleased with the fact that the inaugural speaker in the lecture series named for her is someone who shares many of the same values she's championed throughout her career: the desire to see the truth prevail; the importance of literacy and education; a calling to correct injustice, whether that injustice comes in the form of a banned or challenged book or a buried legacy just waiting to be uncovered and brought to light.

And thank you again to the plethora of Montevallo staff and students for extending me such a warm welcome.

If I come back, I want another shot at the King House…

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

"The Joe Shuster Story: The Artist Behind Superman"

Today is the 80th anniversary of the first appearance of Superman. In honor of that...

Comic book creator duos often mirror their creations: one is the star, one is the sidekick. In the Bob Kane/Bill Finger dynamic, Bob hoarded the spotlight—until recently. In the Jerry Siegel/Joe Shuster partnership, Jerry has tended to overshadow Joe, but in a less contentious way than the Batman boys. Joe was simply the more soft-spoken of the two, always in Jerry's wake in their efforts to receive more for Superman. But unlike Bob and Bill, and despite intermittent frictions, Jerry and Joe remained a unit for most of their superhero saga.

That makes a new graphic novel written by Julian Voloj and illustrated by Thomas Campi especially inviting. It takes an atypical approach by unspooling Superman's real-life origin story from Joe's perspective. In most tellings, including my own (Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman), Jerry and Joe are presented on equal footing. In The Joe Shuster Story: The Artist Behind Superman, the sidekick speaks up.

That voice is largely fictionalized. Though meticulously researched, the book is heavy on dialogue, much of which had to be imagined. However, based on what I remember from my own Siegel and Shuster research (way back in 2004), most of it reads as authentic. Joe sounds here like he sounded in my head. And though tragedy recurs in both men's timelines, Joe suffered in ways Jerry didn't (namely, his eyesight deteriorated for most of his adult life—particularly brutal for a visual artist). 

Voloj cleverly frames the story with a 1975 incident in which a police officer rouses a downtrodden Joe resting on a bench in a Queens, New York park, then treats him to soup at a nearby diner. It's a woefully low point for one of the minds behind a high-flying hero—the opposite of the way many would expect such a story to start. And that's why it works. It punctures the skin immediately. In Joe's passivity is a pathos that is painful to observe. 

Like Joe himself, the book has a gentle aura. The lettering is small and delicate, the colors a wash of muteness. This has the effect of lulling the reader, which gives certain turning points (even if small) more kick, such as when Joe meets Jerry—but not the Jerry you're thinking of.

The book does a deft job of weaving in historical context from World War II to the machinations of the sometimes shady characters who called the shots at the company that would become DC Comics. This is especially well done with respect to the softcore artwork a conflicted yet desperate Joe agreed to do in the 1950s, and the paranoia and fear he felt when it was revealed that the Brooklyn Thrill Killers, prior to their murder spree, had read some of the lurid stories Joe had illustrated. One choice that I feel is a cliché is the way Bob Kane morphs into the Joker when he betrays Jerry and Joe in their first attempt to sue National.

I loved seeing scenes I have read (and written) about and places I have visited come to life in this format, which allowed for a good but not overwhelming amount of depth. This was no easy book to illustrate. Though at its core a story of two people at desks, in execution it is much broader than that, requiring scenes in grand-scale settings such as the 1940 New York World's Fair. Campi has clearly done thorough research and it's a joy to absorb the details he includes throughout. 

In terms of text and pace, a standout passage is a sweet seven-page scene where young Joe takes lead (Jerry is there, too) in welcoming a similarly young female model to his apartment so he can sketch from life. That model, Jolan Kovacs, would be one of the inspirations for Lois Lane, would later reinvent herself as Joanne Carter—and would become Jerry's (yes, Jerry's) wife. Joe left in the dust again. 

Being stringent about accuracy, I was disappointed to see that Joe can see—he is depicted without eyeglasses. To an extent this is defensible because in most if not all photos of Joe from the early days of Superman, he is not wearing glasses. But he did wear glasses then—except when being photographed. I don't believe it was a stylistic choice to leave out the eyeglasses, but this oversight (pun not intended) can be overlooked if interpreted thematically—Joe was "blind" to dominance (first Jerry's, later National's) insofar as he let both steer his course.

I also felt the ending was underwhelming. Again like Joe, it was too quiet for its own good. I craved a more trenchant emotional payoff. The material is there; perhaps a slightly more dramatic breakdown of the text or a more memorable final image would've done the trick. 

Despite my few quibbles, I highly recommend The Joe Shuster Story. I'm happy that Joe, like Bill Finger not long ago, is finally getting his chance to be the hero, or at least the heart, of the story.

Note: Julian Voloj is a friend and I was sent an uncorrected advance review copy.

Sunday, April 1, 2018