Friday, July 24, 2015

Casting a “Fairy Spell”

I started writing Fairy Spell in 2008. I stopped writing it in 2008. I started it up again in 2014. I sold it in 2014. And now I can finally announce it by sharing the Publishers Weekly announcement.

Thank you Jennifer Greene at Clarion (also publishing my upcoming nonfiction picture book about a Japanese WWII pilot’s unprecedented journey) and illustrator Eliza Wheeler for returning with me to this thrilling day of yesteryear.

From capes (Boys of Steel) to planes (Thirty Minutes Over Oregon) to wings (Fairy Spell)…these books fly. Hopefully they will also fly off the shelves. (Sorry, couldn’t not.)

Frances and the fairies, 
Cottingley, England, 1917

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

My 1991 college paper on “The New Yorker” magazine

I discovered The New Yorker (specifically the cartoons) when I was in high school (specifically in the waiting room of my dentist’s office). Like most teenage boys, I got a subscription and hung some of the covers on my bedroom walls. I did not read any of the articles. That awareness would come later.


For Chanukah my senior year, I got this coffee table book and swam through it for hours:

(I still have it. And got my daughter her own copy.)

In college, I took a course on the history of journalism. I wrote one of my papers on the New Yorker. I remember being surprised that there were books about a magazine. Though the paper was originally ten pages, double-spaced, it seems shorter here. In any case, it is a fascinating story, even more so if you are a grammar geek.

The Century of the Comma Man: The Journalism of Harold Ross’s New Yorker

December 4, 1991
AMST (American Studies) 137B
Professor Whitfield

Harold W. Ross, founder and editor of The New Yorker from 1925 until his death in 1951, once found out that a writer who worked for him, James Thurber, had done an impersonation of him at a party. Ross called Thurber into his office and growled, “I hear you were imitating me last night, Thurber. I don’t know what the hell there is to imitate
go ahead and show me.” Ross was a man who was so intriguing that he was ripe for imitating; the same can be said for his magazine, which has, inevitably, outlived its creator. An imitation lends itself to a definition, and a definition of the style and the appeal of the New Yorker is as complex as Ross himself.

The periodical that debuted on February 21, 1925 consisted of—and still consists of—that which “is commonly called sophisticated.” However, as many a
New Yorker employee has noted over the years, the admirable level of sophistication towards which Ross intended to strive was in direct contradiction the actual level of worldliness he himself possessed. He was aware, and not ashamed, of this fact. As editor he felt his job was “encouraging people more talented than he to do their work better than they had hitherto known how to do it.” He combined a nurturing stance with a mildly belligerent one in a system that has been dubbed “benign despotism.” This is not to say that he was an ineffective editor; in fact, Ross “dearly loved a superlative,” and they were frequently used to describe him. Thurber said:

There were so many different Rosses, conflicting and contradictory, that the task of drawing him in words sometimes appears impossible, for the composite of all the Rosses should produce a single unmistakable entity: the most remarkable man I have ever known and the greatest editor.

It is interesting that Thurber revered Ross in a way that almost rendered Ross indescribable to him, particularly because, as Ross attested, “Nothing is indescribable.” Alexander Woollcott called Ross “the best editor in the world.”

Compliments were paid to Ross in strange ways. Many comments started off as insults, but before the sentence was completed, they had somehow turned into the most sincere forms of flattery. Ogden Nash reported, “He was an almost impossible man to work for—rude, ungracious and perpetually dissatisfied with what he read; and I admire him more than anyone I have ever met...” John Duncan Miller, in less than a half-hour after meeting Ross, revealed, “I felt that Ross was the last man in the world who could edit the
New Yorker. I left there realizing that nobody else in the world could.” Harpo Marx’s character study worked in reverse: “I loved Ross, he was wonderful company and his friendship was warm and personal. It was always a wonder to me that such an unworldly man could originate and edit the sophisticated New Yorker.

Ross set out to produce a magazine with a “chatty, informal quality.” He wanted to avoid serious issues; he equated the word “serious” with “grim,” and the
New Yorker was to be anything but. Subjects he dismissed as unprintable were anything of an arty, literary, or (gasp!) intellectual nature. Perhaps the only exception was humor; the humor of the New Yorker was permitted to be intellectual, and most times, it was. In fact, on many occasions artists submitted cartoons that were beyond Ross’s level of comprehension. Part of the reason that the jokes of the cartoons often escaped Ross was because he was so meticulous in his portrayals in the magazine; he allowed no “indirection or physical implausibility in the text” and “exercised a similar strictness in respect to drawings.” His literal-mindedness blocked his capability to accept slightly eccentric ideas; unfortunately, cartoons depend on such eccentricity, and usually are not funny without it. Overheard at the Players Club, a man supposedly said, “[Ross’s] mind is uncluttered by culture.” An enlightening anecdote corroborating this claim: one day, he asked, in complete sobriety, “Is Moby Dick the whale or the man?” Ross was a cunning, concerned man in terms of the content of the New Yorker; arguably, his sensibilities tapered off after that.

Ross was an organizational maestro; he insisted on nothing less than a flawlessly prepared magazine every week, no exceptions. The first two years of publication were confusing and financially disappointing, and ultimately were instrumental in Ross’s thrust to improve the efficiency and clarity of everything. (Although the
New Yorker was the “outstanding flop of 1925,” it was “the only flop that kept on going.”)  The principal tactic that Ross adopted to insure that there would be no mistakes was his overhauling of the checking department. One worker there once quipped, “If you mention the Empire State Building in [the magazine], Ross isn’t satisfied it’s still there until we call up and verify it.” Ross was notorious for accuracy; perhaps this explains his passion for facts over fiction. If a piece of information was factual, it was accurate, according to Ross.

The Rossian crusade for perfection was nearly synonymous with the Rossian preoccupation with punctuation. He shuddered at the staggering overuse of the words “little” and “pretty” for modification: “the building is pretty ugly and a little big for its surroundings.” Meanwhile, he was also known for his frequent insertion of phrases like “and such” and “otherwise” in copy to “achieve ease.” The biggest gripe that both he and his successor, William Shawn, had with respect to grammatical impeccability was the elusive comma. When questioning a particularly enigmatic application of a comma in a writer’s work, Shawn, a reserved and conservative yet brilliantly creative man, was likely to suggest that maybe the comma was not the mark that would best serve to convey the meaning of the sentence, although his gentle manner implied that he realized “what a lot of time and thought [had] gone into the comma.” Predictable were the days when Ross would barge into a writer’s office “deeply worried by the state of the world, or a comma, or something...” Typically, if it had to be one or the other, the
New Yorker featured an excess of commas as opposed to using them sparingly (or, at the very least, only when appropriate). An English journalist once said that an apt title for Ross’s autobiography would be The Century of the Comma Man.

Since Ross’s goal was to provide his readers with a periodical of the highest quality, it would be helpful to indicate exactly what Ross did think of his readers. The
New Yorker was meant to attract upper class, affluent customers who would be satisfied with the clever folly Ross wished to print. He got nervous not when the circulation plummeted, but rather when it thrived. Oddly, he felt that he could have too many followers. The readers were “diffident about writing letters”; no matter—the New Yorker would not print them anyway. Ross assumed that the potential letter-writers “[had] reached a level of sophistication...that [caused] them to avoid pressing a personal claim upon an author; they [withheld] the admiration...that less sophisticated readers would be apt to give.” Ross tended to win reader loyalty by approaching them subtly. In a verbose early advertisement seeking subscriptions, it was explained that although most of the paper for the New Yorker came from trees, the material best suited for the work was “an oblong sheet of green paper issued by the United States Government, and bearing the words: ‘Five Dollars.’  From this single scrap, enough paper can be procured to print 52 copies,” and have them subsequently mailed to one’s home.

Duplications (or striking resemblances) in the captions and content of cartoons were prevented by monitoring each new sketch. An office accountant was hired solely to “determine whether a just balance was being maintained” among the fact, the fiction, and all other categories of contributions. Several topics were essentially taboo: blatant sexual reference, profanity (despite Ross’s incessant oral spewing of it), and for a while, controversial or political issues. Ross was “inherently cautious” and shied away from taking stands; gradually, however, he became less rigid in his prohibitions and began to run the “long short story” and war coverage, most notably the expansive John Hersey article on the bombing of Hiroshima. Ross sacrificed his exclusively metropolitan focus when he found the world, including his readers, was changing, broadening. He then claimed, “This isn’t a magazine—it’s a Movement!” The
New Yorker, around the time when Shawn inherited it, was poignantly summarized as “a humorous magazine that, holding up a mirror to life, everywhere reflects the darkest shadows and yet manages to make us laugh.” Although Ross was positive that the world was designed for the sole purpose of wearing him down, he still longed to amuse its inhabitants.

For a man short on phone etiquette (he announced who it was by a single, gruff “Ross”) and intolerably long on prejudices (he did not view women, homosexuals, and other minorities in a thoroughly favorable light), he proved to be an endearing and responsive editor who had a genuine interest in his writers’ work. Despite his limp handshake and morbid, “invariable morning greeting”—“One day nearer the grave”—he was an assertive, motivating figure who demanded the very best from authors and rarely got anything less. He cultivated a magazine really had no definite style because he urged each writer to develop his or her own style, each of which would be welcome in the
New Yorker, as long as it was interesting, or funny, or both. His criticisms and opinions, even if volatile, had a way of refreshing one’s knowledge of himself or herself and renewing one’s interest in his or her work. Both he and Shawn were fond and proud of praising the work of any of their writers or artists, thereby restoring the confidence that surprisingly was not characteristic of some of them. The journalistic reputation of the New Yorker was of the utmost importance to Ross, yet he was humble enough to apologize if he pushed someone too hard to meet a deadline or to pursue a story.

Oliver Wolcott Gibbs felt that the average contributor to the
New Yorker was semi-literate, and would “use three sentences where a word would do.” He devised a list of 31 Commandments of Editing, New Yorker style. All of them are blunt, and most of them are just as witty as the articles and illustrations of which they are designed to guide. The most notable of them follow: refrain from excessive use of adverbs, do not use alternatives for the word “said” (grunted, snorted), no clichés, no funny names (“Mr. Middlebottom”), do not begin sentences with “and” and “but,” do not write about other writers, do not spell words phonetically for local effect (“trubble”), no triple adjectives (“thin, sweet, gorgeous Melissa”), no awkward division of quotations (“I am going,” he said, “downtown.”), no humor at the expense of a drunk, adulterer, or homosexual, no “vaguely cosmic” last lines (“Suddenly he felt tired.”), no puns, no patronizing or “Godlike” tones, no French unless it is correct French, and “make dialogue sound like talk, not writing.” The very fact that such a list exists (and is no doubt enforced) underlines the idea that everything at the New Yorker is done for a reason, and every fact that is printed has been checked and rechecked. Every paragraph is examined, every sentence is scrutinized, and every word is selected with precision and delicacy.

Ring Lardner said, “I would rather write for the
New Yorker at five cents a word than for Cosmopolitan for a dollar a word.” What lofty ideal or sacred tenet did this magazine represent to so many distinguished writers and artists, and why were they attracted to it practically unconditionally? Ross and then Shawn after him set such high standards for the New Yorker, and paid well for work of distinction. Once Ross offered Thurber $70 a week if he wrote anything. Later that same afternoon he phoned Thurber, informing him that the price had been upped to $90 a week. Thurber’s first check was for $100. Ross, a newspaperman then and always, explained, “I couldn’t take advantage of a newspaperman.” Ross’s first major endeavor in the world of journalism was editing the Army newspaper, the Stars and Stripes. Despite his undying love for the New Yorker and the prosperity that it would eventually find, Ross still insisted that the Stars and Stripes was “the only place I ever really enjoyed working.” Judging by the effort that he put into and by the legacy that he left at the New Yorker, it is hard to believe that Ross could have meant what he said.

The impact of Ross’s magazine on America has been astounding; countless forms of journalism flood the newsstands, but only a select few are influential in any significant way. Among other things, the
New Yorker was responsible for the switch from colored to white lights in the Empire State Building and for the cancellation of broadcasting commercials in Grand Central Station. The magazine that was created to present a “sharper satiric view of contemporary society than the established humorous magazines” succeeded in cementing a firm cornerstone in the foundation of twentieth century American journalism. Shawn credited Ross for the “literate, observant,...light-handed, timely writing that was to revolutionize the American magazine article.” Although it unmistakably caters to a wealthy clientele, it has matured into a publication that confronts issues of all classes and people in general. Although it was constructed around “the desperate and yet somehow joyous difficulties of ordinary daily New York life,” it has extended its scope to cover the entire world.

Ross “was married three times to women, and once, for keeps, to the
New Yorker magazine.” Shawn, when naming those people who had contributed heroically over the years, said, “But at the source, abounding in promise, was Ross.” By January, 1951, Ross had seen many go, and many die. In January, 1951, he said to Thurber, “All of my friends are dead.” Less than a year later, so was Ross. Fortunately, however, his truest friend in the world, and perhaps his truest friend ever, was still alive then, and it is still alive today.

Works Cited

Here at the New Yorker by Brendan Gill, 1975.

The Years with Ross by James Thurber, 1957. 

Cartoons [not posted in full here to respect copyright]

The following cartoons have been taken directly from the pages of the New Yorker and span seven decades, from the 1930s to the 1990s; I was unable to attain cartoons from the 1920s. I did not select them on the basis of their humor. Although most of them here are funny, they were all chosen because I feel that they exhibit the unique wit and style of the magazine, despite the fact that it claims that it does not represent any one distinctive style. Note the recurring themes of selfishness, subtlety, stupidity, arrogance, greed, and superficiality. Most of all, enjoy them.


(woman to firefighter) Bring down the little blue georgette with the white piqué collar cuffs.

(tour guide to elderly group) It’s a thousand years old, as some of you may recall.

(at newspaper printer) My God! They’ve left off the ‘New York Evening Journal’!”


(soldiers in a bar) Would you care to step outside and call my friend what you just called me?

(meeting where adman shows sign “Gimbel’s Hates Macy’s”) No, that isn’t quite it yet, Judson. We want something a little more subtle in its approach.

(house in French countryside with tank tracks leading up to it, bumping into it, reversing, and going around)


(man to another, stuck in traffic) Suppose you try to start my car. I’ll stay here and blow your horn for you.

(boss to couple kissing in hidden spot at company party) You’re fired! You, Preston, that is.

(editor to alien) It’s very interesting, but I’m afraid we only publish science fiction.


(woman with husband, looking at expensive car, to salesman) We’re just kidding ourselves, thank you.

(man to woman at party) You’re stupid. I like that in a woman.

(man to another holding gun to his own head at roulette table) Watch where you’re shoving that elbow, Mac!


(waitress to grouch) Let me see if I have it correctly, sir. To hell with the appetizer. A chopped sirloin that damn well better be rare. No goddam relish tray. Who cares which salad dressing, since they all taste like sludge?

(young man to young woman at party) You’re very cute, as am I.

(couples at party) And this is Mr. Kolkov, who...Heavens, Mr. Kolkov, I’ve forgotten what’s interesting about you!


(businessmen meeting) I would’ve recognized you anywhere, Mr. Davis. You look exactly like your corporation.

Son, you’re all grown up now. You owe me two hundred and fourteen thousand dollars.

(waiter) Is everything satisfactory here—I mean as befits our one little star in the New York ‘Times’?


“How to Delegate During a Recession”: You’re fired. Pass it on.

(sleazy-looking businessmen speaking in front of plummeting profits chart) But, hey, what is ‘recession’ but a word? And the same goes for ‘money,’ right? And how about ‘human beings’?

(Christmas) It’s a check for a hundred thousand dollars. Do you like it?

(end of paper)

Oh, and now my daughter hangs up New Yorker covers.

But classier, as befits a magazine of its stature—note the frames:

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Super chupacabra

DC Comics recently launched its first-ever Bizarro series, in which Bizarro has a companion chupacabra. Bizarro is a reverse of Superman, so I guess he adopts a chupacabra because Superman hasn’t?

I am mentioning because it is the closest we may come to a Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman/The Chupacabra Ate the Candelabra crossover.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The bigness of Batman, in short

Batman’s adventures were larger than life, literally.

On comic book covers in the 1940s and early 1950s, his villains were sometimes shown as giants.

 This time, it was literal.

Inside, he sometimes fought those villains on oversized props

Even his ears were bigger (sometimes extremely so).

Bats may be small but Batman has never been.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Super-Team Family: The Lost Issues blog

Superheroes are already fantasy, but why stop there?

As a kid, I was, no surprise, the biggest Super Friends fan going. One of the show’s hallmarks (like the Justice League comics that inspired it) was the way in which the larger assembly of heroes would divide into smaller groups to tackle simultaneous crises. I loved seeing who went with who each time, and made up my own mental wish-list sub-groupings. 

Today, I still love this about the medium—and its inventive derivations.

My first online stop of the day is Super-Team Family: The Lost Issues, a daily dose of fictional meetings of fictional characters (as opposed to the “real” meetings of fictional characters that play out in comics, movies, and TV shows).

A labor of love by Ross Pearsall, it combines characters who (usually) haven’t co-starred in an actual published story. Ross doesn’t limit himself to superheroes; his covers also tap popular figures from science fiction, action-adventure, comic strips, rock music, and more.

Many of the pairings are inspired (Dr. Mid-Nite and Moon Knight) and sometimes batsplat crazy (Vibe joins the Monkees). The digital mojo on display is seamless, plus Ross has a gift for clever wordplay; the titles of his fake stories are spot-on.

Ross may rue the day I discovered his work because I regularly send him unsolicited suggestions. A guy who teamed up Huntress and Darkman and Godzilla and Boba Fett and Peanuts and Tiny Titans is obviously is not lacking for inspiration.

Still, he humors me, and sometimes even runs with one of my suggestions. (Sometimes it turns out that he beat me to it—either a team-up that was already up but I missed or one already in the works. Geek minds think alike.)

Ideas I proposed:

(though the main co-star is the other Thing)

 James Kirk and Han Solo 
(both space captains)

(namely Sword of the Atom) 

(both archeologists)

(hers and his hyphenates)

All work copyright its respective original creators. All team-up alchemy credit to Ross. Keep it going, Ross!

Monday, July 13, 2015

Bill Finger in “amNY,” a free daily newspaper

Cristian Salazar at amNewYork contacted me with questions about the connection between the Grand Concourse and the creation of Batman. This led to a nice mention of Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman in a 7/7/15 article about the storied history of this major Bronx thoroughfare.

My theory is that Bill Finger and Bob Kane were not on the GC when they created Batman, but weren’t far. And they were there—specifically Poe Park, at 2640 Grand Concourse—to brainstorm later Batman stories.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Jay Emmett, negotiated Siegel and Shuster’s Superman settlement, 1928-2015

Twice in a two-week period, I was too late.

My list of pop culture figures to track down and interview was reduced by two with the deaths of actress Amanda Peterson and former Warner Communications (now Time Warner) executive Jay Emmett, who passed on 6/22/15. (Yes, this is the world
s only post that mentions both of them.)

I’ve already quoted Jay here (in 2014), and that quotation is worth reposting at any time, not just in light of the circumstances. In 1975, when Jay was Executive VP of Warner Communications, he said of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster: “Legally, nothing has to be done. Morally, I think something should be done, and we will do it out of compassion.”

And they did. And ever since, fans have debated how fair the settlement was. In one of my earliest blog posts, I sketched out ways (according to me) in which Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were “right” and “wrong” and the ways in which the company that is now DC Entertainment was “right” and “wrong.”

When I quoted Jay last year, I also asked out loud where he had gone. Then I immediately tried to answer my own question, surprised that it took me that long to think to do so. Thanks to fellow Superman author Larry Tye, I did reach out to Jay with an interview request, but did not hear back. I followed up, but again, no reply. I now know that he was not well of late, though perhaps he would not have responded in any case; another Superman author/friend, Brad Ricca, said it’s possible Jay was bound by a NDA.

Whatever you think of the Siegel and Shuster settlement, it was something—far more than Bill Finger got. If you’re a Superman fan, you owe Jay a debt of gratitude. Apparently he was a heckuva guy in his own right.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Amanda Peterson of “Can’t Buy Me Love,” 1971-2015

Like many people my age, I saw Can’t Buy Me Love in 1987 and then an untold number of additional times on cable. I even bought the DVD probably five or six years ago, though I did not watch it till this week when news broke that its female lead, Amanda Peterson, died at age almost-44.

In my self-appointed role of “pop culture archeologist,” I keep a list of people I want to track down and interview, and Amanda was on that list. Her last appearance in a film was in 1994. Over the years, I’ve  seen more than a couple of posts by people asking whatever happened to her.

Now we know she had rough patches. This is always upsetting to learn, but in this case more so because she seemed to fall victim to some of the traps she presumably left Hollywood to avoid.

Upon rewatching CBML for the first time in more than 20 years, I felt it hasn’t aged particularly well. But Cindy, the character Amanda played, is the least clichéd part of it. Her performance is charming and assured.

The world learned of Amanda’s death on 7/6/15, and the morning after, I contacted Ryan Hartsock, the Colorado photographer who took the last known professional photos of Amanda, in 2012. They’d been online since then, apparently, but didn’t come up when I searched for Amanda a year or so ago.

photos courtesy of Ryan Hartsock of KR Productions/

Unsurprisingly, at least one outlet much larger than me also interviewed Ryan, and beat me to posting it. But I am running mine anyway, as a tribute to the star of a movie that meant enough to me at one point that I wanted to own it. Thank you for your time, Ryan. If you were suffering, Amanda, I’m glad you aren’t anymore.

How is it that you met Amanda?

I met Amanda through a friend while planning an event to help models and photographers in May 2012.

Did you meet her family, too?

I never had the opportunity of meeting her family other than her daughter.

What was her initial response when you asked to photograph her?

We spent quite a bit of time on the phone leading up to the event and never once mentioned taking her photo. On June 3, 2012, she and I talked and it was decided that she was willing to shoot on the conditions that she choose the photos and “don’t Photoshop the hell out of me.” The images I took that day were only released at her discretion and on her time frame. She was very careful as to how they were released.

The snake...was she immediately cool to pose with that? Or nervous?

She loved the snake, as did her daughter. She spent a great deal of time playing with it and I think had a genuinely good time.

Why did you photograph her? How aware were you of her movie past?

She wanted to get back in front of the camera on her own terms and I accepted. I jokingly say it took convincing but in reality, although she was hesitant because it had been so long, she was totally open to the idea. I knew of her role in movies but to date I still haven’t seen them, other than Annie when I was young.

Updates on Amanda were virtually nonexistent online, but apparently you’d posted the photos back in 2012? Before she died, did anyone stumble upon them and ask you about her?

We had agreed to post the pics and just see the response without advertising the shoot. People were able to send emails through the website that she and I would read when we were able to meet up. She didn’t have her own email so she would sit with my computer and read through the fan mail that had been sent to me. That always brightened her day. There have been several people that have been in contact over the years with various interview offers and requests but she wasn’t ready and had hopes of starting her own blog and website that unfortunately we never finished.

Did you ask why she left the film business and/or if she had plans to try to break back in?

No, it was kind of a non-issue. I base my opinions of people on the present and how they treat me and those around them. I was there to listen to various stories as she brought them up but her past to me is irrelevant, she was a great person while I knew her and that’s what matters.

Did you see/communicate with her after the impromptu shoot?

We did stay in contact every few months over the years but it definitely wasn’t all the time. We would go months without any contact and then spend hours at Starbucks while she read the latest gossip about herself or spend time texting back and forth regarding offers or ideas. I was a go-between basically, I would send her the info and she would go over things with her manager and get back with a yes or no. She was cautious to keep her whereabouts as private as possible.

Anything else about Amanda you’d like to add?

I would love to get all of the photos from that day to her family but the only number I have is her cell. If they could contact me, that would be great. [MTN: They since have.] She had an effect on so many people and I think it would be nice to get all these emails and messages to them so they can see the good versus all the media spin and gossip that seems to flood the headlines. She was a great individual and it’s disheartening to see how cruel people can be. She had also sent me cell phone pics of her and some of her friends backstage at concerts, etc. Although she wanted them to be seen, I don’t feel that this is the time now and I’d like to pass them off to her family.

In the time I knew Mandy, she always treated me with kindness and respect. Although I was just breaking out in photography at the time, I’ll always feel honored that of all the great photographers she could work with she chose lil ol’ me.

“Boys of Steel” on NYPL summer reading list

With the summer reading theme “Every Hero Has a Story” in full swing, I was honored to hear that Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman made the summer reading list (nonfiction, grades 2-3) of the New York, Brooklyn, and Queens Public Libaries.

I was bummed Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman didn’t, especially since it’s a New York story. However, as Betsy Bird kindly explained, only paperbacks are eligible. (They didn’t know about this.)

I suppose you could say both books are New York stories. Metropolis and Gotham, the fictional cities of Superman and Batman, respectively, are both analogs for New York (some say Metropolis is New York during the day, Gotham is New York at night).

Semantics aside, thank you, NYPL!

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

“Bill the Boy Wonder,” Scholastic Book Club edition: “I cried”

In 2013, Scholastic produced a Book Club (paperback) edition of Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman, which I’ve previously mentioned only in passing (in 11/13). I guess this mention is not much more than in passing, either. But at least now I give a link.

Bill with my other SBC exclusive to date,  
Vanished: True Stories of the Missing
And now I get to quote “The hero we deserve, the humbling 5/1/14 post on the Scholastic blog On Our Minds:

…a book came across my desk to catalog that ROCKED my world—Bill the Boy Wonder by Marc Tyler Nobleman. … I was impressed by the comic book style presentation of the facts in Nobleman’s book, and his use of primary sources brings a tear to the eye of this librarian! It’s a great nonfiction title to use in the classroom, considering the Common Core; there are comprehensive author’s notes and a bibliography. Seriously, though, I have to admit—I cried (beach scene, page ~35).

Thank you, Deimosa Webber-Bey, for writing those kind words, and thank you again, Scholastic, for publishing my words.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Your life is nonfiction

Some kids think nonfiction is boring.

I don’t blame them. Some adults think so, too, and some nonfiction is boring. Then again, so is some fiction. So why do kids more commonly dismiss nonfiction?

At least part of the reason is that children’s nonfiction was often written without regard for prose. But starting a book with the date and place of a notable figure’s birth is, in most cases, a thing of the past (historically and literarily). Now some readers don’t give writers (nonfiction or fiction) till the end of the first page to engage us. We don’t even give them to the end of the first paragraph. We expect to be grabbed by the first sentence.

We are strict. Or we should be.

Modern readers want writers of any kind of book or article to wow us not only with complex characters and a propulsive plot but also with lyrical language. As I have written here before, it’s not enough to have a good story; you need a good story, well told. (Source: my college film theory professor Tom Doherty.) Nonfiction, like life, is more interesting when it’s nonlinear and unpredictable. Yes, that makes it messier, but messy makes for better drama. Messy is not boring.

Fact-after-fact nonfiction: out.

Narrative nonfiction: in.

So when kids tell me that nonfiction is boring, I ask them what they do first thing Monday morning, in school but before class starts. They all say the same thing: we talk to our friends. I ask about what. They all say the same thing: what we did over the weekend. Then I always say the same thing.

That’s nonfiction.

What you do is a true story. Your life is nonfiction. And if you’re talking about it, you must like nonfiction more than you think you do.

The unpredictable (yet welcome) thing about that is that they see that they agree.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Monsoon, Gandhi’s final walk, and the Taj Mahal

In January 2015, I spent two eye-opening weeks speaking at the American School of Bombay, my first time in India. I was fortunate to be invited back to teach creative writing during summer break (what they call intersession), bringing my total number of 2015 weeks in India to five. 

Teach. Play. Love.

Speaking of three monosyllabic words, the school divides their intersession offerings into three buckets: Body, Mind, and Soul. I was curious—and not in disagreement—to see that they put my program (“Thrills, Chills, and Spills: The Adventure of Creative Writing”) under Soul.

Last time, I was only in Mumbai (including a boat trip to Elephanta Island), a city so historic and vast that it felt like I’d explored a lot more area than I physically did. This time, I was exposed to three additional aspects of India: monsoon season, Delhi, and the Taj Mahal.

I arrived in Mumbai on 6/13/15, during a brief spell of not rain. But then for almost the next two weeks, the rain was daily, often all day, and often heavy.

On June 19, all school activities were canceled due to the monsoon. For some reason, I saw that as a good opportunity to venture out on foot.

I walked 15 minutes and back (with umbrella), returning looking like I’d swum laps in my clothes.

It turned out to be Mumbai’s wettest June day since 2005.

As before, I found Mumbai to be a nonstop barrage of stimuli, some lovely but the majority a difficult reminder of the struggle so many go through daily just to get clean water, food, and shelter.

To help people get out of the slums and off the streets, the Indian government erects residential buildings. Through a lottery, families are selected to move into a new apartment, free of charge. However, some don’t move in; instead they sell it or rent it out. Money trumps comfort.

On June 27, I flew to Delhi (the flight is just under two hours). There I visited several sites including...

 ...Humayun’s Tomb (sometimes described as an inspiration for 
the larger and more well-known Taj Mahal)...

 ...and Qutb Minar (the world’s tallest brick minaret, 
a category I did not know existed).

  The writing on this pillar on the expansive grounds of Qutb Minar 
is inscribed with a language whose meaning has been lost.

In India, squirrels look like chipmunks.

The most moving stop in Delhi (if not all of India) was Gandhi Smriti, the site of Gandhi’s 1948 assassination. It was all the more emotional because in a city of 11 million, I was practically alone there.

 Visitors follow this yellow line to reach the spot 
where Gandhi was fatally shot.

When you force yourself to temporarily forget what happened there,
the serene beauty of the place envelops you.

Gandhi himself took a different route, hauntingly marked as shown. 

Footsteps worth following.

From Delhi, I set out by car to Agra, the city home to the jewel of India and a Wonder of the World, the Taj Mahal. The tour company who packaged the weekend for me (highly recommended: Elephanta Tours) said the drive would take 4.5 hours. Both there and back, we did it closer to three. My driver was another jewel of India—a very kind man. He witnessed firsthand one of the 2008 bombings in Mumbai; the people in his building were forced to stay there for four days.

Agra from the car:

Also spotted upon entering Agra:

monkey on the highway

three vibrantly dressed women on a motorcycle

the official image of “This Is Not America”

the tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah, which the driver referred to as the “Baby Taj” 
and which has been described as “a draft of the Taj Mahal” (Wikipedia)

my first glimpse of the Taj Mahal, from the moving car

the doorman (right) at the Hotel Howard Plaza in Agra

my comfortable room at the hotel

the view from my hotel room; I particularly liked the figures 
painted on the nearest red-brick building

To beat the crowds (and the 100-degree heat), I left at 5 a.m. to see the Taj, which was less than five minutes from my hotel. When the Taj first comes into view, it is ghostly.

It was sparsely attended for the first 30 or so minutes, then the traffic picked up, but it’s off-season so it was never packed. It felt like I stayed there most of the day so when I left I was shocked to see that it was only 7:15 a.m.

The Taj sits on the Yamuna River, and a story goes that on the opposite side, a Black Taj was to be built. It seems this is most likely a myth—but if there is a way to make the Taj Mahal even more intriguing, that is it.

My guide said the Taj was built to withstand an earthquake and could weather one as strong as 8.5; the minarets tilt slightly out so if they were to topple, they would not hit the Taj itself.

The administrators of the Taj allow film production on the grounds, but not with sound effects—nothing to risk damaging the structure.

Only a week before my visit, the Taj installed free wifi. A key moment in its timeline? Hardly, but still felt historic. And I’m proud to say I didn’t log in; some selfies should not be shared in the moment. But now is okay:

 long runway to line up

 the entrance to the entrance (but first, security)

 sign for the three entrance gates

 west gate, which is the main entrance; you can see the top of the Taj

 To quote Lonely Planet, “Its raised position means that 
the backdrop is only sky—a masterstroke of design.”

My guide directed me to do this pose.

 This bench has supported the rears of many world leaders and celebrities 
including Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Julia Roberts, and Katy Perry. 
(Full disclosure: though all of them have visited the Taj, and thought this bench 
does offer perhaps the best view of a person and the Taj, I can’t say with 
100% certainty that all of them did indeed pose there. But it seems a safe bet.)

 minaret head

 Blows my minaret head that this makes it look
like I was the only person there.

 Note stylish shoe covers. (Actually, some
would say they were more stylish than the 
shoes I wore.)

 Spot the hawk.

 panorama from the entrance gate

 sunrise panorama from the side of the tomb 

 Look closely and you can see visitors posing for a photo 
in one of the typical ways, with arms forming a tent over the dome.

 No food and only water bottles are allowed in.
Unfortunately, I saw more than a few water bottles
not in trash cans.

 View of the main gate from the Taj.

 Guards along the river behind the Taj. Closer up, guards and cameras 
prevent people from chipping off a piece of the building, 
among other more obvious infractions.

 The only aspect of the Taj that is not symmetrical are the two (replica) tombs: 
one for Mumtaz Mahal, the wife of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan 
(reigned 1628–1658), who in his grief had the Taj built in her honor; 
the other added later for the emperor himself. 
(It should be noted that Mumtaz Mahal was one of three wives, 
but his favorite. Obvs.)

 Joined hearts. I was surprised that this symbol was used for
love a) in India and b) back then.

 detail 1

 detail 2

 the first food stand outside the Taj


 more monkeys

 the entrance to the entrance to the Taj...small and modest

You can be picked up right in front. No vast parking lot.
No parking lot period.

Weirdly, the Taj reminded me of the monster in the movie Cloverfield—a large thing in the distance you feel you can never get close to (though in the Taj’s case, you want to).

And you can.

After I went through the Taj once, I returned to the entrance gate, turned around, and repeated the walk to shoot a time-lapse film of the experience.

Time it took me from the main gate of the Taj Mahal grounds to the Taj itself, where you cannot enter directly (traffic is directed all the way around the back, ending up on its front step, from which you can turn around and see the main gate): about 7 minutes.

Here’s the trip in 20 seconds (watch in HD):

As you can see, the Taj is breathtaking from any angle. More than any other place I’ve been in recent memory, it makes me want to travel to the past.

The total for this one-night trip to Delhi and Agra (all-inclusive except for the cab to/from the Mumbai airport, my lunches, and tips for my guides) was 31,536 rupees—less than $500.

In closing, pickles. If traveling to India, don’t leave home with them.

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