Monday, December 19, 2022

JEWS NOT WELCOME scrawled on Maryland high school entrance sign


Late on 12/16/22 or early on 12/17/22, which was Shabbat, someone spray painted those words on the entrance sign of a high school in my Maryland town. The high school my daughter attended and son attends. Two days after the students had an antisemitism seminar.

credit: Montgomery County (MD) Councilmember Kate Stewart

This could be hate. This could be ignorance. Either way it's a sucker punch.

Over the years, I've tried to do my small part to support other marginalized groups and honestly did not think I would ever find myself posting so personally about my own minority tribe (less than 3% of the U.S. population, less than 1% of the world population).

Of the 289 kids in my own suburban Connecticut high school class, 15 or fewer were Jewish. I never directly experienced antisemitism there. Or, luckily, anywhere. At least not that I recall or was aware of.

On the first page of Bill the Boy Wonder, Milton Finger looks at a sign in a 1930s New York City store window. 


His response: change his name to Bill. Keep his Judaism under a mask.

Changing one’s name is not the answer now, though change is, of course, imperative.

The Jews I know do not need me or anyone to assure them we are just as welcome as anyone else. 

We JEWS are NOT WELCOME to accept intolerance.

Words wound. Words also work wonders. An aggression happened here. A miracle can, too.

The next night, hundreds—some of whom were not Jewishgathered at the freezing point at the sign (ugliness blacked out) for the start of the Festival of Lights.

Happy Chanukah for those who celebrate. Peace for those who identify as human.

my bar mitzvah and former hairline

Friday, November 11, 2022

Kevin Conroy, iconic voice of animated Batman, 1955-2022

The Bat-Signal is at half-mast.

Kevin Conroy, the actor who iconically voiced Batman/Bruce Wayne for decades, died yesterday at the terribly young age of 66.

Starting with the debut of Batman: The Animated Series in 1992, I was a fan. Starting in 2014, we became friends…and I became an even bigger fan.

Like his Juilliard classmate Christopher Reeve, Kevin was a superhero not only for a living but also in real life. 

Before the Bill Finger credit change, I did all I could to bring about a Bill Finger credit change. That included pitching the Paley Center in New York a panel to celebrate Batman’s 75th anniversary. We booked four Batman notables and I inserted one Batman nobody—me, so I’d have a high-profile platform to spread word about Bill.

One of those notables was Kevin, who then became a fellow Finger advocate.

When the Bronx renamed a street for Bill in 2017, I invited Kevin to attend/speak. It was frigid, it was unpaid, it was far—but he came. 

When I asked Kevin if he would ask his colleague Mark Hamill (who voiced the Joker to Kevin’s Batman) if he would add his autograph to a thank-you gift for Derek Wolfford, who runs the Bill Finger Appreciation Group, Kevin (and then Mark) obliged—even though people like them are likely asked for favors like this far too often. Both agreed partly for Derek—and largely for Bill.

But these are not the heroic acts I’m referring to.

At the Paley event, the other Kevin on the panel (Smith) told the audience that Kevin Conroy had volunteered to do what he could after 9/11. Smith had not cleared this story in advance with Conroy, but Conroy was gracious. His role? Cooking for first responders in a makeshift kitchen near Ground Zero—for two weeks. And, appropriately for Batman, Kevin took the night shift.

I knew nothing of another aspect of Kevin’s heroism until this year when a story he wrote about his past was published in DC Comics anthology honoring Pride Month. (Kevin was the first openly gay actor to portray Batman.) 

Please read it

My last email exchange with Kevin was about that story, on June 8. I did not know he was sick. His last words to me: “stay safe and see you soon.”

Thursday, November 10, 2022

Introducing “Songbook,” a Kennedy Center web series starring nonprofessional kids

I’m thrilled that I can finally announce a project I’ve been working on for more than two years—and it’s unlike anything I’ve done before.

During the lockdown of the first COVID summer—2020, not that anyone could forget—my friend and fellow author and Newbery recipient Kwame Alexander asked if I would like to brainstorm virtual programming ideas for young people that he and I could pitch a beloved cultural institution 20 minutes from where I live—the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC.

Of course I did.

So I prepared ten concepts to start, and more after the initial batch. All were an attempt to blend education and entertainment, and all prominently featured nonactor kids. 

We narrowed down the ideas to three. On 2/11/21, by Zoom, Kwame, fellow author Mary Rand Hess, and I presented the selected ideas to the Kennedy Center Director of Education David Kilpatrick and Director of Music Education Jennifer Bowman—truly stellar people. The idea they chose to produce:

logo designed by Piumi Perera

It’s unlike anything the Kennedy Center has done before.

Each episode, a middle schooler who wrote a poem inspired by a book of her choice works in person with a professional musician to set that poem to music—then performs it with the musician. And a surprise guest (different each time). 

In short, it’s a musical comedy reality show for kids. 

More precisely, it’s an unscripted/scripted hybrid. The child (and special guest) are just being themselves—no formal scripted lines. The host and musician are partially scripted but have the freedom to adlib throughout. 

We’re launching soon with three episodes, each running about 10 minutes. They will stream for no charge on the Kennedy Center site, YouTube, and Facebook.

The host is the indomitable Vaughn Ryan Midder. He and I had not met before. I liked him instantly and he is a collaborator’s dream—clever, reliable, quick-witted, great with children.

The professional musician is a perpetual mensch—Randy Preston, who often works with Kwame (and who has also worked with Vaughn Ryan). Randy is the full package—talented, warm, flexible, great with children. 

In addition to writing the scripts, I was honored and challenged to take on roles that I didn’t envision at the start—director and producer. (They even gave me a director’s chair on set…but I ended up standing the whole time.)

Throughout the rest of 2021, we developed Songbook remotely (and once, in August, in person). We originally planned to shoot all three episodes over one weekend in December, then moved it to January 2022, then to June, due in large part to Omicron. 

We did a full-court press to solicit submissions from kids in early 2022, primarily in March. I asked DC-area education leaders and literacy organizations including PEN/Faulkner Foundation, An Open Book, and Turning the Page to blast out to their networks and they kindly obliged. 

I also contacted teachers directly, asking them to “hand-deliver” the opportunity to the avid writers (and musicians) among their students. Occasions like this often require an adult to encourage a child one-on-one; sending a flyer home in a backpack often results in nothing more than a crumpled and forgotten flyer at the bottom of a backpack.

The submissions we got were pure gold. 

In May, we had the immense pleasure of notifying the young poets whose work we selected and clandestinely confirmed our special guests. 

Originally we planned to film episode 1 on June 11 and eps 2 and 3 on June 12. This would give us a full-day cushion for the learning curve of the first shoot. But due to circumstances beyond our control, we ended up having to do two eps on our first day and schedule the third for another week entirely.

Those circumstances included a Pride celebration and an anti-gun rally, both of which would take place nearby. I didn’t want our talent to get stuck in traffic or to have to get up extra early to avoid the crowds.

I was a bit nervous to commit to shooting two—in particular, the first two—eps back-to-back on the same day. 

Film dates were set for June 12 and July 11. Each episode took three hours to shoot (and additional time, of course, to set up and break down, then later edit). 

Our primary filming location was Studio K in the REACH, the gorgeous standalone extension of the Kennedy Center that opened in 2019. We also shot a key scene in front of and in the Grand Foyer of the original building. We filmed the outdoor scene at different times of day, which lent each show different light.

The songs Randy and his young partners crafted for Songbook are truly fantastic—catchy and distinct. What makes this even more impressive is that the duos met for the first time on camera and had to begin converting the poems to lyrics almost immediately after—plus had less than an hour to bang it out. The only other person I’ve seen create musical magic in such a short time (though, of course, I was not in the same room) is Paul McCartney...

The special guests have a role related to the song…but not as singers. 

Estimating how long it would take to shoot each ep was essentially a shot in the dark, but I was proud that we managed to stay on schedule.


episode 1 (shot)/episode 3 (numbered): 6/12/22 morning

young poet: Alexandra from Virginia
special guest: ?


Due to light rain, we could not film the opening scene in front of the Kennedy Center as planned. Luckily, Plan B looks good, too!

The plan was to shoot in sequence, with one exception. Both the opening and closing scenes take place in the Grand Foyer so I intended to film both of those scenes at the start. But I forgot about the second scene so we went back and squeezed it in before lunch.

episode 2: 6/12/22 afternoon

young poet: Samaya from Washington DC
special guest: ?


For the first scene, we needed a copy of the book that inspired Samaya’s poem…but due to minor human error, we didn’t have it. I learned this 10 minutes before we were supposed to start filming. Because we had so many wheels in motion, we were able to get a copy only 30 minutes later. 

episode 3 (shot)/episode 1 (numbered): 7/11/22 evening

young poet: Isabel from Virginia
special guest: ?


Nothing! Learning curve navigated!

These last three photos are a sequence.

All three episodes shared certain highlights: the joy exuding from all the on-camera talent, Vaughn Ryan’s ace improvisation, the beauty of watching the creative process, the heartwarming look on each child’s face when the surprise guest showed up, the big finale... 

As you will see, a centerpiece scene in each episode involves an unexpected interruption—well, unexpected to one person. (No spoilers yet!) However, we filmed at least three takes of most scenes, just to be covered. That meant that this person did expect the interruption the second and third time…but by then we’d already captured the person’s genuine (and priceless) reaction the first time.

Speaking of surprise, the final form of the show almost exactly matches my original pitch. 

Comments from parents of the young stars:

  • (when I described the show) That sounds amazing! Such a wonderful opportunity for the kids. Any opportunity to get kids seeing all the ways that music can be part of their life and their career is always a win in my book.
  • This girl will have a ball! You guys are awesome. Thanks for creating this unique opportunity.
  • (after filming) Thanks for a truly special day. What an incredible experience. We are so grateful.

I can’t thank Kwame, Mary Rand Hess, the cast, the crew, and the KC staff enough for singing this song(book) with me. Special mention (again) to David Kilpatrick and Jennifer Bowman, both of whom greenlit and nurtured us, as well as Tony Donghyuk Yoon, Regis Vogt, Harry Oakes, and Rachel Hahn.

The nimble and patient crew.

A space transformed, approximately 10 minutes after we wrapped.

Fingers crossed for a season two!

Monday, October 31, 2022

Saturday, October 8, 2022

OELMA 2022 keynote

Thank you again to the Ohio Educational Library Media Association (OELMA), in particular Kris Kronik, Karen Gedeon, Lisa Barnes-Prince, and your team, for inviting me to keynote (along with my friend Donalyn Miller) your first in-person conference since 2019. It was a privilege!

photo: Donalyn Miller

Donalyn is every bit as great a speaker as you've heard.

Questions that can come up when your talk is during lunch.

I happened upon two of my Junior Library Guild books 
on a table in front of the JLG booth.

This was the sixth state library conference I've had the opportunity to keynote; the others were in Tennessee, Virginia, Maryland, Michigan, and (virtually) Pennsylvania.

Feedback on my keynote:

  • LOVED Marc Tyler Nobleman!
  • I went home and watched the Marc Nobleman documentary. Loved it!
  • Nobleman is an excellent speaker. His connection to research as solving a mystery would be an excellent way to introduce research to students of any age. Would definitely like to see him return to OELMA.
  • Uplifting.
  • Marc was amazing!
  • I adored them both. (Donalyn) Miller reminded me why I became a librarian; Nobleman gave me more tools as a teacher librarian assisting with research.
  • Loved MTN's connection to research and primary sources.
  • multiple responses of passionate, inspiring, informative

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

The third and fourth stage plays about Bill Finger

Even before Bill Finger's name was officially added to the Batman credit line on 9/18/15, two stage plays about him (that I know of) were mounted. 

The first, Fathers of the Dark Knight, was written by Roberto Williams and debuted in 2014 in New York (specifically, at Bill's alma mater, DeWitt Clinton High School). 

The second, Co-Creator, was written by Lenny Schwartz and debuted in April 2015 in Rhode Island.

Now there are (at least) two more. 

Bill Finger: Rise of the Bat, a reimagining by Schwartz, was produced over the past month in Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and New York, with the same cast each time. Thanks to Lenny, I had the honor of attending opening night in NYC. (Warning: in this play, a character says I won't stop talking about Bill Finger. I guess this post helps prove him correct.)

If you look not so carefully, you may spot me here:

The Mark of Kane, written by Mark Pracht, will run in Chicago starting later this month. I hope bats align and I can see this one, too.

Friday, August 12, 2022

Stupid war, wise book

My book Thirty Minutes Over Oregon: A Japanese Pilot's World War II Story is the true story of Nobuo Fujita, a Japanese pilot who became the first foreign power to bomb the U.S. mainland during a war. (Next month marks the 80th anniversary of this unprecedented event.)

After the war, he regretted his actions and returned to America to apologize. "What a stupid war we made," he said.

I just discovered a review of the book in Friends Journal (published by the Quakers) that ends on a line that not only humbles but also chills: "What a wise book it has made."

Friday, July 15, 2022

Nerd Camp PA - superheroes and illustrated books

On 7/15/22, I had the privilege of participating in a Justice League of Authors panel for Nerd Camp (AKA nErD Camp) PA—second Nerd Camp, first time virtually.

My four famous co-stars *:

  • Kirsten W. Larson 
  • L.L. McKinney
  • Annie Hunter Eriksen
  • Tom Bober, who stepped up to moderate

The topic: comics are real books. Would that we need not have to keep justifying this! Still, there is fun in the fight.

I have not met any of my fellow panelists in person and had been in touch with only Kirsten prior to this panel formation. I look forward to seeing everyone again, hopefully with no screen between us.

For years, at school visits, kids have asked me if I would follow up my Superman and Batman books with one on Spider-Man. I always said that I'm not enough of a Marvel fan to take that on, but surely and eventually someone will. Annie has fulfilled the prophecy! She's written a picture book on Stan Lee and an upcoming one on Steve Ditko, and while Spider-Man is not the sole focus of either book, he is, of course, central to both. So now I can finally direct kids to published books and not only the possibility of books.

Thank you again to Kirsten for including me, Ariel Franchak for your organizational efforts, and Tim Smyth for stepping back when the panel grew. We missed you!

* Can you identify the source for this graphic? Hint: Batman 1972.

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Bill Finger's ashes

On 3/7/07, I got good news about a bad situation.

Bonnie Burrell, ex-wife of Bill Finger’s son Fred Finger, told me what really happened to Bill after he died. Prior to that, the only info I could find about Bill’s final resting place was this: he was buried in a potter’s field (AKA a pauper’s grave). 

Seemed plausible. But turned out to be merely a rumor, one whose source I didn’t trace (if that’s even possible). 

Bonnie said that Fred went to the beach in Manzanita, an Oregon coastal town within driving distance of Portland, and spread Bill’s ashes at the shoreline in the shape of a bat.

Poignant, visually striking—and relieving. The thought of Bill Finger ending up in a potter’s field after his hard life was heartbreaking.  

Since then, at least two others have independently verified the ashes story—or at least their memory of it. But since it’s so specific, I believe it has only two possible explanations: either Fred (or someone else) made it up after Bill’s death and the false story spread, or it is true. I see no incentive to make up something like that, especially because Bill was hardly known to the public, so I have considered the story to be true from the moment I heard it.

It took me years to be able to describe the scene to audiences without choking up a bit.

It was first depicted five years later, in Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman, courtesy of Ty Templeton:

It next appeared, animated, in the documentary Batman & Bill:

Then it was interpreted for a Brazilian graphic biography, Bill Finger—A verdadeira história do Cavaleiro das Trevas:

It was most recently seen in Bill Finger, dans l'ombre du mythe, a French-language graphic memoir illustrated by Erez Zadok:

This was such a fabled image in my mind from the moment I learned of it, and it’s been a moving experience to see each new interpretation. It’s also been surreal because for years, the scene existed only in memory and imagination.