Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Every student reads with the principals, every student donates a book

When Paulette Torpey became the librarian of Vienna Elementary in Vienna, VA about five years ago, she told the principal, John Carmichael, that many of the books in the library collection were old and worn. Paulette estimated it would take quite a few years with the budget from the county to get the collection in better shape.

John Carmichael

Paulette Torpey

This gave John had an idea.

Every other year, John and Eben Montaquila, the assistant principal, request funds from the PTA for Paulette to buy books—to be precise, the same number of books as students in the school. This school year it was around 500 books. 

Eben Montaquila

A couple of times a week throughout the school year, students (four at a time, starting with 6th grade and moving down the grade scale) are invited to read with both administrators—meaning the ones doing the reading are the students (except kindergarten; they are still read to).

Plus every student gets to select one of the newly purchased books and sign her/his name inside before it is added to the collection. Students are so excited to check out the books that they and their classmates have "donated" to the library.

This way, both the collection and the community actively grow at the same time.

Earmarking dollars to improve a library collection is, of course, wonderful. Kudos to John and Eben for going even further in their commitment to literacy. The fact that the heads of the school personally share books with kids on a weekly basis sends a powerful and consistent message about how important it is to read. 

And kudos to Paulette for helping inspire the idea (and for allowing me to share it here).

Monday, May 14, 2018

Meanwhile, at the (real) Hall of Justice…

I suspect I am the first person who has taken a photo like this:

The explanation will tickle some and scare others.

The first line of the opening theme of season one of Super Friends (1973) is "In the great Hall of the Justice League, there are assembled the world's four greatest heroes, created from the cosmic legends of the universe." 

This was tweaked slightly for the second incarnation (The All-New Super Friends Hour, 1977): "Gathered together from the cosmic reaches of the universe, here in this great Hall of Justice, are the most powerful forces of good ever assembled."

In both cases, the first name-drop is not any of the characters but rather their headquarters, created for the show. That great Hall of Justice was so great, it became a star in its own right. 

And it's based on a building in Cincinnati: what was originally called Union Terminal, a distinctive Art Deco train station built in 1933.

Soon after, the dominance of rail service waned. Union Terminal was then repurposed multiple times (once as a mall and currently as a multi-purpose facility including museums, a library, and an IMAX theater). In between reinventions, it remained unoccupied. It evaded demolition at least once and is now protected with landmark status (granted only a few months before Super Friends debuted). 

You may think me batty (or not), but not only did I make a special trip from Dayton (where I spent a week for school visits) to Cincinnati (one hour one way) to see it, but before the Dayton schools brought me to Ohio, I even tried to book speaking engagements in Cincinnati (where I'd never been) so I could go to Union Terminal. 

I did so the warm weekend afternoon of 5/12/18. The site is under renovation so I did not get an unobstructed view. Therefore, unfortunately, my photos have fences and equipment in the background—but no people, because the place was deserted. It was surreal enough to be standing before the real-life Hall of Justice and even more so to be there alone. 

But then around 5:30 pm, people began dropping off kids with sleeping bags…turns out the Girl Scouts were holding a sleepover there that night. Gathered together from the city limits of Cincinnati…

Side note (literally): the building is adjacent to Kenner Street, which I found apropos in that Kenner was the toy company that produced Super Powers action figures. The line launched in 1984, a tie-in to the last two incarnations of the Super Friends cartoon.

I owned the first two waves of figures, and as you saw at the top, I still have them. I dug them out so I could bring the original five Super Friends for this geeky photo shoot. (I even remember the order of some of the purchases from when I was 12. The first figure I got was Joker. The next two were Green Lantern and Aquaman at the same time. I also remember other pairs I got at the same time—Superman and Flash one day, Hawkman and Penguin another.)

Another side note: Ohio is also home to the creation of Superman, but I'd already been to Cleveland.

Farewell, great Hall.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Scholastic's "50 Magical Books for Summer"

Although summer and fairies go together, that is no guarantee that a book about fairies would make a list called "50 Magical Books for Summer."

In this case, however, Fairy Spell: How Two Girls Convinced the World That Fairies Are Real, has, and I'm honored. Thank you, Scholastic! 

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Double honor in joining this Wall of Fame

At the top of the 2017-18 school year, librarian Marcie Atkins at Belvedere Elementary in Falls Church, VA began curating a Wall of Fame consisting of placards indicating authors who have spoken at the school. Effective 5/4/18, that included me.

I'm honored to be on it, and doubly honored that my placard, like the others, was wonderfully illustrated by Marcie's daughter, who is currently 13.

Thank you again to both of you!

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

May 4 is now Bill Finger Day in Massachusetts

Bill Finger was born on February 8, 1914.

He died on January 18, 1974.

His first biography, Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman, released on July 1, 2012.

DC Comics announced on September 18, 2015 that the company would be officially adding his name to the Batman credit line.

That credit line first appeared in print (in an ad) on October 10, 2015.

The corrected credit first appeared on TV on October 19, 2015 (Robot Chicken DC Comics Special III: Magical Friendship) and first appeared in the credits of an ongoing series (Gotham) later that same day.

Two days later, on October 21, 2015, the co-creator credit first appeared in the credits box of a comic book (three series that day).

Batman & Bill, the documentary about him, began streaming on May 6, 2017.

New York City renamed a street for him on December 8, 2017.

So many dates worth acknowledging...and now...

Massachusetts has declared May 4 "Bill Finger Day."

Bill's granddaughter Athena grew up in Massachusetts and was in the state on May 4 to attend the premiere of the second production of Co-Creator, a play about Bill, after which she was surprised with a live announcement of the proclamation.

Thank you to Dave Almeida (co-director of the play) and all others who had a role in establishing this honor. Congrats and best of luck on the play! I'm disappointed I could not make it this time.

What's next? Bill Finger leisurewear? Limited Edition Bill Finger Butterfingers? Will Bill become the mascot for a NFL team? (The Buffalo Bills would not have to change their merchandise...)

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Lyn Simmons (Bill Finger's second wife), 1922-2018

One of the last of Bill Finger's generation who knew him personally has left us: his second wife, Lyn (originally Edith) Simmons. On 5/2/18, she passed away at age 95.

Lyn in the 1960s

She was a mother, a grandmother, an artist, an advocate, and other things I don't know about. To me, she was first and foremost a critical living link to an important and emotional untold story.

When I started my Finger research in 2006, we knew Bill had been married…to a woman named Portia. We did not know that Bill and Portia divorced and that Bill remarried Lyn later in life. Bill's second wife was the second person I found in my research (after Charles Sinclair, Bill's longtime writing partner, who died in November 2017 at age 93). 

Surprisingly, I was the first author to reach out to Lyn about Bill.

But I was not the first writer.

While making the documentary Batman & Bill, I was asked who the heroes of the Bill Finger story are. One of the first who came to mind was Lyn. In 1989, in the run-up to Tim Burton's film Batman, Lyn almost single-handedly lobbied Warner Bros. to include Bill's name in the credits. She apparently also contacted some journalists.

As that paper trail shows, her son Steve helped and she got close…but was ultimately unsuccessful. That made it no less inspirational because Lyn did it solely for Bill. She wanted no money and offered to sign a waiver to that effect. 

What makes this even more admirable: by the time Bill died in 1974, Lyn was his ex-wife. They'd met in 1954, married in 1968 (no photos were taken, alas), and divorced in 1971. Another of Lyn's three children, Andrew, had a serious car accident in California at age 22; Lyn decided to move there to help take care of him but Bill did not want to go. (In fact, he was averse to flying and never went on a plane in his life.) Perhaps there were other factors contributing to their separation, but Lyn told me that she and Bill stayed in touch, regularly speaking on the phone. Had he lived, she felt they would've gotten back together. Lyn stayed to help her son for 12 years.

Lyn's oldest child, Steve, and her youngest, Eve, proved invaluable in my research. 

I found Lyn via Eve via her high school in Great Neck, NY. (The person I spoke with there said they are not at liberty to provide information about their graduates, but when I said this was about the secret history of Batman, he made an exception.) I left messages on the answering machines of more than one Eve or E. Simmons in New York and by chance one of them was the one I needed—and by chance she took the time to call me back. I asked what she remembered about what her mom told her about Bill, and she shared a recollection or two. Then she said "Why don't you ask her yourself?" I said "Oh, I didn't think she was still alive!"

Lyn and I first spoke almost immediately after, on 6/23/06. She was a delight from start to finish, each time we spoke. And though I did not need further motivation to pursue this story, Lyn sure infused me with a greater sense of urgency (and poignancy).

again in the '60s

She told me that Steve had a great photo of Bill that Steve had used in a birthday slide show for Lyn, so I emailed Steve to ask if he could email me a scan. He kindly said he'd first have to look for it. Seven months later, he found it. I was so excited that I emailed him several questions including "Where do you live?" Turns out Steve lived in…the exact same town as I did at the time. Meaning the photo was five minutes away from me the whole time.

That photo is of one of the clearest (and definitely the quirkiest) of the 12 "new" Bill Finger photos I uncovered: Bill fertilizing the lawn at Lyn's house in Roslyn, NY—topless (the photo is in Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman). Lyn told me "One of my neighbors objected to Bill not having a shirt on even though the temperature was about 100 degrees. We ignored [that person]."

In that first talk, Lyn expressed gratitude that I was doing this. I told her I'd like to get Bill a proper burial; she didn't know he didn't have a headstone. She later said she'd like to cover the cost for one.

A few days later, in our second talk, she said she'd found her Bill file, which included a letter she'd written him (most likely in the early '70s) in which she said she was on her third Scotch. "If you publish the book," she said, "please change it to 'second.'" (No mention of alcohol made it into the final draft of the picture book aimed at young readers.)

On 7/30/06, she emailed "How old are you, Marc? I'm just curious because you're involved now with the 80s generation [meaning people in their eighties] and you seem to be handling it all very well." It wasn't hard, Lyn. Certainly not with you.

Lyn remembered Bill's scarab paperweight that Charles had given me. She had bought it for Bill (or possibly the other way around) at a New York museum gift shop.

Thanks to Lyn, we learned Bill's birth name was Milton, which enabled me to find his high school yearbook photo, the earliest known Bill Finger photo in existence. Knowing his given name also confirmed that his family does indeed appear in the census. At first I missed them because I was looking for a Bill (not Milton) Finger but saw none. And in confirming which census listings were his, I discovered that he had not one but two sisters, Emily and Gilda. 

For all Lyn knew, there were two big things she did not know. One: Bill had siblings. It appears he never told her. Two: Bill had a granddaughter. But that makes more sense as Athena was born two years after Bill died.

In 1974, after Lyn had not heard from Bill when she expected to, she asked Charles (whom she called Charlie) to look in on him. The way Charles found Bill dead is devastatingly recreated in the documentary. Charles asked Lyn if she was psychic.

I met in Lyn in person for the first time on 6/7/07, at a Starbucks. She said she hoped she'd still be alive when my book came out. (At that point, I had not even sold it—and wouldn't for three more years.) We filmed her twice for the documentary—first in 2008 (for an attempt that would implode), next in 2016. Clips from both interviews are in the finished film and the difference in Lyn in those eight years is striking.


Bill the Boy Wonder is dedicated to three people: Athena, Charles, and Lyn. I called her the "heart" of Bill Finger. She was also the heart of my book, and I am one of many who will miss her.

2014, the last time I saw Lyn in person

Thank you, Lyn. It took 25 years longer than you had hoped, but mission accomplished.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Machu Picchu: my third of the Seven Wonders

On 4/29/18, my bucket list got a little lighter. 

After speaking for a week at an international school in Lima, I visited Machu Picchu, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World (and the third I've had the privilege to see, the other two being the Colosseum in 1993 and the Taj Mahal in 2015).

It earns that distinction.

A trip to Machu Picchu starts with a stop in Cusco (once the capital of the Inca Empire) followed by a stone-skip in the much smaller town Aguas Calientes (also called Machupicchu, one word). Think of them as base camps 1 and 2.

Moodily nestled in a cloud forest between highlands and jungle, Machu Picchu is lower in elevation than Cusco (and higher than Aguas Calientes). Some people develop altitude sickness in Cusco, symptoms of which can include headache and nausea.

So going from Cusco to Machu Picchu can alleviate that discomfort—due not only to elevation but also elation.

Glimpses of Cusco:

 Chewing coca leaves (yes, coca as in cocaine)
allegedly helps alleviate altitude sickness symptoms.

 So does drinking coca tea, 
offered for free in many hotels.

For me, the highlight of Cucso was the large stone Incan 
fortress/complex Sacsayhuamán. 

Getting to Machu Picchu, step by step (though not as many steps as hiking there on the Inca Trail):

  • 1 hour, 20 minute flight from Lima to Cusco
  • 2-hour private bus to Ollantaytambo
  • 2-hour Inca Rail train to Aguas Calientes 
  • 20-minute bus to the gate of Machu Picchu

That last leg is mundane on the surface but exhilarating as you are so close to entering one of the most legendary locales in human history.

I did all but the flight in one day, meaning about eight hours of travel for three hours of tourism. But again, as I keep saying: Machu Picchu. Mucho worth it.

My timeline:

  • 3:30 am—alarm went off after an altitude-impacted night of half-sleep: dry mouth, cold-like congestion, mildly feverish; all that remained as I set out was head pressure (not quite a headache)
  • 4 am—picked up at hotel by rep from the travel agency, but he did not have one key item he was supposed to: my train ticket (note: when I entered the dimly lit hotel lobby, two hotel staff member who were sleeping on the vinyl couches awoke with a start); though I was not told why, I was driven to another hotel where lots of people were waiting and where, after at least 20 minutes of bumbling, the travel agency rep managed to produce the train ticket 
  • 4:50 am—private bus with about 20 others to Ollantaytambo; sure enough, as our altitude decreased, my head pressure dissipated 
  • 7:20 am—Inca Rail to Aguas Calientes
  • 9 am—arrived at Aguas Calientes; I felt like I'd already traveled a full day and it was only the start of work according to the traditional schedule 
  • 10 am—after tooling around the tiny town (which is mostly tourist restaurants selling pizza but also has several discos and even a soccer field), I took the bus to Machu Picchu
  • 11 am—met my guide Anibal and entered Machu Picchu; his best line of the day: "Welcome to my office" (perhaps you've had a tour guide somewhere who's said the same)
  • 12:50 pm—after exploring from one end to another, we began to hike the portion of the Inca Trail that leads to the Sun Gate; I'd been told it would take 45 minutes one way so we hauled (because I could not miss my train back) and made it in 25
  • 2 pm—after hiking back down, we left Machu Picchu
  • 4:12 pm—train back to bus back to Cusco
  • 8:30 pm—I arrived in Cusco, but to the departure hotel from that morning; apparently the travel agency forgot to provide a ride for that last step (10 minute drive to my hotel); luckily, other travel agency people who were there (I don't know exactly who they were) kindly drove me

 Catching the train in Ollantaytambo.

 I don't know if the "mystic experience" refers to 
the train ride or to the small meal included.

 Aguas Calientes is essentially one angled street.

 Though small and somewhat claustrophic, 
Aguas Calientes is home to a proper soccer field 
that took me by surprise when I stumbled upon it.

 The central plaza displays what appears to be the 
gay pride flag but is actually the flag of Cusco. 
(Thank you to those who corrected me.)
Some theorize this pattern also appeared on an Incan flag,
though others say that is unlikely.

 Follow the train tracks just a bit and the town simply ends.


One of the buses that leave every few minutes to/from
Machu Picchu. Looked like this one was about to back 
up right into the river...

Up until somewhat recently, only morning tours were offered. Due to demand, they added an afternoon option ("secondo turno"). That's what I chose for several reasons:

  • rain/fog are more likely in the morning (and the sun rises behind a mountain)
  • best light for photos is around 4 pm (though it turns out I was not able to stay that late)
  • crowd thins after 3 pm (ditto)
  • it's the only way a day trip from Cusco is possible

Total steps for the day: 18,000. Though I exceeded my 10,000-a-day goal, I thought it'd be more. (Plus each step to and from the Sun Gate should count as two.)

The expansive citadel of Machu Picchu was—staggeringly—built and abandoned within about 100 years (mid-1400s to mid-1500s). This is even more incomprehensible given how many stone structures are there and how painstakingly they were built—without mortar (more than 400 years later, you cannot fit a thin blade between the bricks). Incan construction has survived earthquakes better than more modern techniques. All of the rock used was quarried on site.

Animals you might see at Machu Picchu include llamas, monkeys, and hummingbirds. Animals I saw included llamas. That's it. Oh, and butterflies.

I asked Anibal why most of the AC cafés offered pizza, which isn't Peruvian and certainly isn't Incan. He said because it's easy and quick to make. I suggested he start a place called "Machu Pizza." I think he's considering it.

Glorious glimpses of Machu Picchu:

 Hiram Bingham was the American explorer who
(re)discovered Machu Picchu in 1911 
and publicized it to the world.

 In the 1980s, a luxury ($1,900/night when I looked)
hotel was built just outside Machu Picchu.

 Round this corner and...

 ...first glimpse of Machu Picchu.

 Temple of the Sun, a centerpiece of Machu Picchu and
the only structure there with rounded walls.

 Room of the Three Windows, 
another religiously significant highlight. 

 See that small white line of stone on the grass right of center?
Once there was a larger stone there, but when the King of Spain
requested to land his helicopter on that spot in 1978, it was removed. 
As if the Spanish hadn't already done enough
damage to the Incas!

 To give a sense of the depth/steepness.

 To give a deeper sense of the depth. 
Note the river far below.

 Llamas and alpacas graze and roam the site.

 Spot the resting tourist.

 Take this stretch of the Inca Trail from Machu Picchu
to the Sun Gate, a majestic and astronomically pivotal site 
on the crest of that mountain in the distance.

 Except for my clothes, this scene could have
been 500 years ago.

 A view of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate.

 A view of me at the Sun Gate.

 Thanks again, Anibal!

 You can get a free Machu Picchu stamp in your passport.

And a free Machu Picchu stamp on your spirit.