Anyone who has influence over a developing child, whether a parent, teacher or otherwise, has faced the distractions that put an emphasis on the wrong things, whether it be from social media or the many ego-driven celebrities that steal headlines in the world of politics, sports, or entertainment. One minute we are explaining what our world leaders shouldn’t be doing, the next we’re clarifying the meaning behind someone’s actions as an opposing group tries to twist it into something else.
We battle the benefit gained from social sharing, understanding its effectiveness and usefulness and sometimes overlook the harmful effects. In a short, we need real heroes again and a real world that is tangible, that is connective across generations and celebrates knowledge, discovery, creativity, and bravery.
Since 2014, Brad Meltzer‘s New York Times bestselling children book series with artist Christopher Eliopoulos, Ordinary People Change the World, have been providing a salve for this problem. Starting with I Am Amelia Earhart, the series looks at true inspirations, people of good character with stories about these heroes when they were youths that resonate with and continue to inspire kids and adults.
Now the 18th and 19th books in the series features two pioneers, I am Marie Curie is about the innovative twice Nobel Prize winning Polish-French physicist and chemist, and I am Walt Disney highlighting the life and work of the legendary American animator and entrepreneur, are available at bookstores and comic shops.
We spoke with Meltzer about these new releases, how they fit in the series as well as how the books are inspiring a new PBS Kids cartoon Xavier Riddle and The Secret Museum that begins in November.
Monsters & Critics: Brad, in the more recent releases, the books are more dense, more packed with information. Where do you and Chris feel like you’ve packed enough that inspires readers to dig for more?
Brad Meltzer: It is the supreme court definition of pornography. You know when you see it. The truth is in the early books, I am Amelia Earhart and I am Abraham Lincoln are minimalist books. They had very little detail beyond the big picture and one or two amazing stories when they were kids. As we went forward in the series, I felt like we should add more.
Monsters & Critics: There was a pivotal shift in the series, wasn’t there?
Brad Meltzer: I Am Harriett Tubman was such a big, important book for us. It’s one thing to deal with slavery with Abraham Lincoln and you’re telling the good part of what happened. Here’s the ending. But when you’re doing I Am Harriett Tubman, we were taking on the entire story and the story of enslaved people.
I felt a moral need to get (the amount of story) right and probably could’ve used a little bit less story, and kids still would’ve got the point. After that book, I started paring it back so that you’re finding the perfect balance of getting kids interested in it, but not so much that it becomes a higher reading level.
Monsters & Critics: How has the response been with the later releases because you continue to leave room for these stories of their youths that maybe new for people to read?
Brad Meltzer: The later ones have sold the best. Two of our best sellers are I Am Jane Goodall and I am Neil Armstrong. You have to find the sweet spot, what I find people respond to are not that they want more important dates, or know when this important piece of legislation was signed. It’s pulling apart these people’s lives so you understand them as people, which is what I think people resonate.
It’s Neil Armstrong falling out of a tree and climbing back up again. It’s Jane Goodall sneaking into a hen house, hiding in the hay, because she wants to observe where eggs come from and say, ‘Look at what I learned!’
There’s something curious, something childish in the best way about that. That’s what people, what my kids lock onto.
Monsters & Critics: The addition of Marie Curie is great–a timely one–just for the adversities she faced at every moment of her life by living in a man’s world, whether it was the gatekeeping or the equal pursuit of knowledge she was determined to get.
Brad Meltzer: That wasn’t an unconscious choice. It was not about her being a two-time Nobel Prize winner, it was not about her inventing radioactivity. It was about throughout her entire life, everyone kept trying to deny her of what she wanted because she was a woman and she never let that stop her.
I need for my daughter to have that lesson and I need my son to have it too.
Monsters & Critics: “Education would be dangerous,” is the line in the book which strikes me and it’s so timely to today.
Brad Meltzer: That’s the best line, right? It’s my favorite one of the book. The Russian government says if they educate girls they worry if they become scientists they’ll become super powerful. You know what? They’re right, it will!
I wrote that with today in mind, for the generation of us who are seeing what’s going on around us. A friend of mine told us a story who wanted to take his daughter to a dojo to learn karate. There was a female sensei, and his daughter looked sideways at it and then it was normal and great, hey, I can do it!
Marie Curie has none of that. No one will teach her science, only her dad has faith in her, which is a common story now, but not back then. When she gets to college, no one will teach women about science.
She finds this university that secretly teaches science to women, and my gosh, how amazing is that?
Monsters & Critics: The Flying University is the thing in the Marie Curie book that made me want to know more and spark an interest to learn more.
Brad Meltzer: That’s the one, right? Chris (Eliopolous) killed it and made it look good. That’s the secret sauce. That’s enough for you to go, ‘what is that?!’ But not to the point where we said and then she did this, and then she did that and this is who started it… It’s just the right amount to trigger more investigation on the reader’s part.
Monsters & Critics: Let’s move onto Walt Disney. How long have people been requesting a book on Walt?
Brad Meltzer: Right from the start. Walt Disney was the #1 most requested hero we were getting. Little kids, by the way, don’t make requests, they make a list of demands at every book signing.
Look, when it’s little kids, it’s because they like Disney World. They like getting merchandise and mouse ears, but we were also getting requests from adults. It was a fascinating thing to watch.
Monsters & Critics: Your own kids requested Disney too?
Brad Meltzer: As always I took my own kids into account. Just because they ask a lot, doesn’t mean we’re going to do it, but when I looked at this one, there was a lot of overlap with our youngest one.
When I did I am Jackie Robinson, it was because our older son was into sports, I have a daughter who loves her dog, so I did I am Jane Goodall because of her love of animals. But my youngest, who is the dreamer, the creative LEGO master builder, I did I am Jim Henson and I am Walt Disney for him.
Monsters & Critics: You’ve made it known that you surprise your children annually with a trip to Disney World. How surreal will it be the next time you go that you’ll see your book in the stores there?
Brad Meltzer: That might be truly the only thing that will impress my children. Nothing I do impresses them, but if we can get the book in Disney World then they might be impressed for once. Our last trip we took them to the Millennium Falcon and we got to go to Galaxy’s Edge early, and we were drinking blue milk. It was a good day.
Monsters & Critics: How much fun was it for Chris to portray Walt as an artistic inspiration but also put his art alongside the work of Disney?
Brad Meltzer: To show you how versatile Chris Eliopoulos is, to see those pages where we talk about the Disney movie releases and everyone who has seen the book thinks that’s Disney art. It’s not. He drew them. He’s just that good. He totally found another gear that’s the Disney gear.
When he first starts drawing Mickey, we kept telling Chris that we wanted him to draw his Mickey. But Mickey is so iconic, and he was drawing him as a part of the cover, you want to make sure it’s the real Mickey. You’re trying to have Chris draw Disney draw Chris, like this snake swallowing its tail.
For me, the best part of this book is that Chris is like Walt Disney, he was that kid who could draw and that hits home for him. Walt Disney is one of the great American success stories and is the creator of the “happily ever after” belief. The magic kingdom so to speak.
I love that I am Walt Disney, pulls apart that fantasy and shows you that it was hard. His dad was never excited that he could draw so well. It was his aunt that kept encouraging. Whatever our passion is in our lives, we all have that one person who believed.
For Chris, it’s one thing to do Abraham Lincoln, Jackie Robinson and Amelia Earhart, but to do an artist who makes his living bringing pictures to life, that becomes a different story for him.
Monsters & Critics: These two books dovetail nicely into your upcoming PBS Show, Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum, which is inspired by the books and will premiere November 11, how did the books inspire the show?
Brad Meltzer: We started working on the TV show soon after the books started coming out. The pitch was no different than the pitch for the books. We are starving for heroes today and I’m tired of my kids looking at people who were famous for being famous.
I wanted to give my kids heroes of kindness and compassion. This wasn’t pitched as a history series. We didn’t pitch the books as that, nor the TV series as that. It was always with our one goal in mind, which is to create social, emotional learning for our kids that are value-driven, character-driven.
There was a Harvard study done when you and I were little, the great commodity that parents taught their kids were to be smart. What we’re teaching our kids today is, whether we like it or not, through social media is that it’s important to be popular–which is horrifying. So the books and the show were meant to be an antidote to that. It’s not your popularity that matters, but your moral center.