Thursday, August 27, 2009

Love at a luncheon

I made my shortest trip yet to Cleveland—about five hours on Ohio soil—to deliver my first keynote address. It was for a lovely luncheon sponsored by a small business resource organization called the Council of Smaller Enterprises (COSE). I was told they are part of the largest Chamber of Commerce in the country. I was also told to try the cheesecake, but didn’t have a chance. (I prefer chocolate anyway.)

Like any public speaker, I adjust my presentation approach depending on the audience. With Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman, I emphasize the Jewish aspects when speaking at a Jewish museum or school and emphasize the Cleveland connection at Cleveland venues. I even pitched a science museum a talk on the scientific side of Superman. (They said no. Good thing. I have a feeble grasp of science.)

The COSE angle was Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster as small business owners—or perhaps it’s more accurate to say home-based entrepreneurs since they (famously) did not retain full ownership of Superman.

A smaller first for me at this event: After the talk, I did a book signing and a woman asked me to make out a copy for her husband Frank. I usually sign "Best, Marc Tyler Nobleman” but in her book I absent-mindedly signed "Love, Marc Tyler Nobleman." I offered to fix it but she and I decided it would be funnier to see if he even notices. Love ya, Frank.

Check out the sharp artwork they used to promote the event.





last three images courtesy of Kurt Shaffer Photographs

Friday, August 21, 2009

"Nobleman: Writerman, Superman"

Interesting Nonfiction for Kids (I.N.K.) kindly posted a piece on my book Quick Nonfiction Writing Activities That Really Work!

(I am compelled to reiterate from an earlier post that the exclamation point is not my punctuation but part of the title—a part I didn't choose.)


Fellow author Karen Romano Young, who wrote the piece, asked challenging questions. In one way or another, those tend to lead to the most engaging answers, at least in my mind!

(That time, I
did choose the exclamation point.)

Thursday, August 20, 2009

10 Most Memorable School Visit Moments: epilogue

This series could've been a lot longer. I could've shared a story from nearly every school I’ve been to (in some cases, after looking at my notes).

I could’ve told how, though school visits, I’ve bumped into an old friend of my sister’s, the former director of my summer camp, and a kid who (erroneously, it turned out) claimed his father was the nephew of Jerry Siegel, co-creator of Superman.

I could've told how, at a Manhattan school, I fumbled through selling my own books (on behalf of an independent bookstore that I said didn’t have to bother sending a staff member). I am not great with math under everyday circumstances so imagine how I was with kids crowding around a table, their hands crammed with crumpled bills and coins, and dismissal imminent.

I could've told how during a delightful lunch with a young writer’s club at a Kansas school, I became convinced that at least one of them would be a published author one day.

I could've told how a Connecticut school set me up in the gym with the screen for my PowerPoint on stage—directly behind the basketball net. I asked if that could be raised out of the way and was first told that the kids wouldn’t mind if it stayed as is!

I could've told how the PowerPoint wasn’t working at a Bronx school and the kind staff endeavored to fix it—spilling twenty minutes into my allotted hour. Ultimately we couldn’t figure it out so I did a shortened talk with no visuals—luckily, the only time that’s happened (so far).

I could've told how, at a century-old school building in Ohio, a tile plummeted from the ceiling—luckily not hitting anyone.

I could've told how, after a presentation in Nevada during which I said the name of their state several times, a student delicately informed me that the “vad” syllable rhymes with “bad,” not “pod.”

But instead I will look forward to hearing about other authors’ cameo appearances in pre-adolescent academia. And I suspect I will update my list after another eighty or so schools.

Read the whole countdown.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

10 Most Memorable School Visit Moments: #1

Every school I've had the privilege of speaking at has given me a great experience. Some have given me a great story, too.

“Dork in High School”

year: 2004
state: Connecticut





In the closing Q&A portion of my presentation, a student asked what inspired me to be a cartoonist.

I said that the first character I remember drawing is Scooby-Doo. I was seven and copied a picture of the detective dog from TV Guide. That opened the Doo floodgates. I began to draw Scooby relentlessly, and when kids today ask me what my favorite cartoon is, the first Scooby-Doo season from 1969 still gets my nod (tied with Super Friends).

1980

From the back of the room, an eighth grader raised his hand. “Were you a dork in high school?”

The room, of course, rippled with laughter. You know how crowd sound can have a personality? The pitch of that laughter was between “that’s hilarious” and “that’s humiliating.” I wasn’t wearing my glasses (and the only time I’ve worn contacts was on my wedding day), so I couldn’t discern the expression of the boy who asked. I couldn’t tell if—but did assume—he was making fun of me. All I could make out was that his tie had a colorful design.

Answering specifically could endorse labels, so instead I tried to be funny. I asked “What’s the difference between a dork, a geek, and a nerd?” This got more laughter—and also became an entry in a book I would write the following year, What’s the Difference?

After the presentation, as the kids filed out, some stopped to say hi or ask a quick question. One nervous-seeming boy was lingering behind the others, waiting for his chance. Finally, he was last man standing and he stepped forward.

Without trace of irony, he asked for my autograph. “Your talk inspired me.”

His tie, a blur of color to me before, was now clear—pictures of Scooby-Doo.

When people ask what I like about school visits, I tell this story.

Read countdown epilogue.

Read the whole countdown.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

10 Most Memorable School Visit Moments: #2

Every school I've had the privilege of speaking at has given me a great experience. Some have given me a great story, too.

“The First Time Someone Got It Right”

year: 2008
state: Nevada






My first time in a Nevada city besides Las Vegas brought another first.

At a Reno middle school, I combined my standard presentation with another I do called "The Language of Cartoons: What's So Funny?" It’s not a how-to-draw workshop—I don’t do those. Rather it’s a look at the (visual but also verbal) tricks cartoonists use that add up to a language we all learn without being formally taught—and without realizing it. Think of it as the special effects of the printed page—or PGI (pencil-generated imagery).

I show kids that when we read cartoons, we’re being detectives. The mystery, though always the same, is not always obvious: why is this funny? The clues are the words and the art. How do they work together to give meaning, but not quite all the meaning, letting the reader figure out some of it on his own?

In one segment of this presentation, I sketch various types of word bubbles one at a time and ask the kids what each means. They all know the standard oval speech bubble and the cloudlike thought bubble; many also know (or guess) the shout bubble:

Then I draw this:

And it stumps them. Of course they have guesses for that, too, some of which have been so clever I really should remember them. Yet I did remember that of the dozens of times I’d asked what that bubble means, no one (student or educator) had yet answered it correctly.

Until Nevada.

Jason (let's call him) knew that the slight difference from a shout bubble—the more angled points—makes it a static bubble. It is shown coming from devices that transmit sound electronically—a TV, loudspeaker, cell phone. I told Jason that he was the first ever to give me the right answer.

I went on, I finished, the students left. Then a teacher came up to me and said something to the effect of, "You have no idea how cool it was when you told Jason he was the first to know that type of word bubble." She explained: Jason kept to himself. When I praised him in front of his classmates, it was a huge boost for him.

The teacher was so moved by how this positively affected Jason that tears rimmed her eyes and she said she was about to cry.

For that alone, yet another worthy nominee for Teacher of the Year.

Read #1.

Read the whole countdown.

Monday, August 17, 2009

10 Most Memorable School Visit Moments: #3

Every school I've had the privilege of speaking at has given me a great experience. Some have given me a great story, too.

“Underdogs Over Time”

year: 2008
state: Ohio






Superman was created around a sprint.

To be precise, Superman's characteristics were created before a sprint and his appearance was created after.

All though one summer night in 1934, 19-year-old Jerry Siegel was kept up with a torrent of ideas for a new kind of hero, one with powers (and abilities) far beyond those of us mere mortals. The next morning, rather than collapse, Jerry ran 9½ blocks to ask his friend Joe Shuster to draw what he'd imagined.

I spoke at the school situated along those 9½ blocks. When I reached the sprint part of the Siegel and Shuster story, I got chills telling the students that Jerry very likely ran down the same sidewalk many of them walk every day. The sidewalk literally right through the doors of the gym we were in.

Even though we were a short distance from that sidewalk (and a long stretch of years away from what happened on it), I still felt the rush of that starry-eyed boy sprinting from his humble home straight into history.

NOTE: What follows is a companion story to the above. It is also a tweaked version of a post from September 2008. My first rerun! (But the last line is all-new.)

Two days after Election Day 2008, something happened in a small room at the Cleveland Public Library, Glenville branch, that made me more excited about politics than I think I'd ever been. Except it wasn't really about politics at all.

Glenville is the neighborhood where Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster lived when they created Superman in 1934. At the time, it was predominantly Jewish. Today it is predominantly black and poor.

Earlier that day I had spoken at the main branch, downtown. The audience was mostly young black people. I was expecting the same in Glenville. Instead I was ushered into a room where about 35 or 40 members of the adult community leadership organization were finishing up a meeting. They, too, were almost all black. Some of them were holding Obama signs—two days after the election. The purpose of the signs had switched from tool of persuasion to badge of honor.

I gave my presentation, hoping they would feel pride for the seminal event that had occurred in their neighborhood. They did seem moved by the story, which some had not known before.

Then my friend Tracey Kirksey, head of the Glenville Development Corp. and almost certainly one of the ten kindest people in the world, asked if she could say something. I said of course.

She proceeded to emphasize how Jerry and Joe were underdogs who had a vision and worked hard to see it come to pass. In succeeding, they bucked the odds and made history. Then she unexpectedly compared them to Barack Obama in spontaneous words so eloquent that I wish I had recorded them. The essence was that she felt she could tell her children that they could be president one day—only now, she finally fully believed it to be true. The others, of course, reacted with jubilation.

Of all the Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman experiences I'd had since the book came out, that was by far the most profound. I felt so lucky to be in Ohio, in Glenville, for that moment.

It is interesting to note that the two colors in competition on Election Day are also the two most dominant colors of the American flag, the flag of Ohio, and Superman's costume.

Read #2.

Read the whole countdown.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

10 Most Memorable School Visit Moments: #4

Every school I've had the privilege of speaking at has given me a great experience. Some have given me a great story, too.

“Texas Board’em”

year: 2009
state: Texas






During school visits, authors are often treated to works of art created by students who were inspired by one of their books. For me, that had been either letters or drawings…until the Lone Star State.


A highlight of my five-school trip to Texas was seeing (but unfortunately not playing) four different board games based not on Superman but on Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the real-life stars of Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman. I wish they could have seen this:

One of the most important aspects of a writer’s job is to know when not to use words. In this case, I think the photo alone tells the rest of the story gloriously.

Read #3.


Read the whole countdown.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

10 Most Memorable School Visit Moments: #5

Every school I've had the privilege of speaking at has given me a great experience. Some have given me a great story, too.

“My First Alma Mater”

years: 2005, 2007
state: Connecticut






I was invited to speak at Norton Elementary in Cheshire, Connecticut—my elementary school. That’s the kind of thing that sure makes you question pride being one of the seven deadly sins.

(In this series, Norton will be the only school I’ll identify by name. My intention with this series is not to rank in the competitive sense but rather to reflect in a fresh way on a range of unexpected experiences I have had on the school visit circuit. I’m hoping to convey a sense of universality among authors and specifying schools could distract from that, plus it could make it seem like I’m slighting some schools when singling out others. However, in the recap posts I often write immediately after school visits, I do name names.)

Actually, Norton wasn’t my first alma matter; it was my third. But in most respects, it was my formative one, and the one I graduated from.


My 2005 presentation at Norton was the first time either my mom or my sister had seen my author presentation. Of lesser significance, my 2007 presentation marked the first time I used PowerPoint instead of a slide projector. (Yes, I know. But hey, I’ve had a web site since 1999. Does that make up for it?)


One student came up to me afterward and told me that I had been the answer to a question (rather the question to an answer) in the school’s customized version of the game show Jeopardy! (Please note that the exclamation point comes with the title; it is not punctuation I chose.) The topic: who created the school’s first mascot?


1983

Another student, age 10, asked me if I knew a Lori Adams (name has been changed to protect the alumni). I said sure, I’d gone from Norton through high school with her. The girl burst into smile and said, "She’s my mommy!" That blew me away because Lori and I were the same age and my oldest child was only one at the time.


After my second Norton visit, the principal said the school was celebrating its 50th anniversary and was inviting back alumni to speak. She asked if I knew anyone (from any field) who might be interested. I e-mailed everyone from grade school I’m still in contact with. I was so hoping some of them would seize the opportunity.


After all, it’s not just authors who should be sharing their careers with elementary students.


Read #4.

Read the whole countdown.

Friday, August 14, 2009

10 Most Memorable School Visit Moments: #6

Every school I've had the privilege of speaking at has given me a great experience. Some have given me a great story, too.

“More Than Principal and Nun”

year: 2005
state: Connecticut






Once upon four years ago, schools would send back my signed contract in the postal mail. (Now most scan and e-mail.)


One Catholic school principal also sent back something extra—a two-page letter to confirm that the school understood my terms and to provide my schedule for the day.

But it wasn’t all business.

First there was a curious line embedded on the schedule between two of my presentations:

"11:30 a.m. Enjoy lunch with the Sisters in the convent"

I loved how she didn’t ask me. She told me—I would not only be eating, but also enjoying, lunch with the sisters.

(And I did. I only wish I’d taken a photo or, better yet, a video. Me and twelve nuns spaced evenly around a rectangular table, eating home-cooked food and talking about my Jewish upbringing.)

Then near the end of the letter, she wrote, “Besides being a principal and nun, I also am an author and cartoonist, as well as a professional magician and an honorary assistant football coach of an NFL team.”


Checklist:

principal - check
nun - check
author - check
cartoonist - check
professional magician - check
honorary assistant NFL coach - check
Olympic bobsledder - oo, so close...

I'm kidding, of course. I was already impressed with principal and nun.

And she wasn’t kidding. After my presentations, she told me how she became each of those things, with visual aids.

The fun of this school didn’t end when I left. Several days later, I received (again in the postal mail) the following photo (8x10):

Even the protective interior envelope the photo was in was addressed with heavenly care:

Read #5.

Read the whole countdown.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

10 Most Memorable School Visit Moments: #7

Every school I've had the privilege of speaking at has given me a great experience. Some have given me a great story, too.

“Why He Won”

year: 2008
(swing) state: Ohio






I need to set up this small moment with a big moment that happened the night before—Election Night 2008.


For the first time, I was in a swing state on Election Day. And it made me feel as giddy as if I was on the playground kind of swing.

I’d arrived in Cleveland the Sunday before. A fleet of supersized white vans dominated the motel parking lot. Each of them was marked with exuberant red and blue slogans supporting Barack Obama. I soon learned that students from Morehouse College in Atlanta had driven the vans up to try to swing Ohio their way.

On Election Night, a bunch of the students had gathered in the motel lobby to watch the returns. I happened to be there when it was announced that Obama had won Ohio.

The students, of course, erupted with joy—the next closest swing state could’ve heard them. I felt like I was witnessing history on a deeper level than I would’ve if I had been home.

It wasn’t just because I was the only white person in the room. It was also because I was the only non-campaigner in the room, the only outside observer to their profound sense of accomplishment, which was nonetheless dwarfed by their profound sense of optimism.

I gestured to the TV and said (inadequately) to the student nearest to me, “That’s because of you.” We’ll never know exactly how many votes they influenced, but I like to believe that it was this particular group that pushed Ohio to blue. It reminds me of that Margaret Mead quotation that is some variation on this: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Now to the school visit moment. The next morning, I was standing in the gym of an elementary school. As kids were coming in and filling up the floor, row by row from front to back, two third grade boys sitting two paces from me got my attention.

“Did you know that Barack Obama was elected and he’s our first black president?” the white boy said to me.

I smiled and nodded, but before I could speak, the black boy did. And his response was far wiser than whatever mine was going to be. “Yes,” he said, “but that’s not why he won.”

Read #6.

Read the whole countdown.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

10 Most Memorable School Visit Moments: #8

Every school I've had the privilege of speaking at has given me a great experience. Some have given me a great story, too.

“Eleven in Two Days”

years: 2008, 2009
state: Connecticut






No, not eleven schools—but eleven presentations.


After a January 2008 school visit that a newspaper covered, I got a call from a librarian who asked if I could do a cartooning workshop at her public library. (I spend most of my work hours writing, but I do also continue to draw single panel cartoons for magazines, something I was devoting much more time to in the early 2000s.)

Though I wish money and distance were never factors, the reality was that this library was too far to drive for a single appearance. However, I did ask her for a preferred date and said I’d come if I could book a school or two around it.


I ended up booking four.

Now this is rare, at least in my experience. It’s rare because it’s tough to do. Between testing, vacations, field trips, other assemblies, and so on, a school typically has a limited number of possible dates for an author presentation. So it's a long shot when an author contacts a school and says “I will be in town only on May 7. Are you interested and available?”

I scheduled two schools for a Wednesday and the other two schools plus the library for the next day. The night between, I'd stay at an old bed and breakfast.

First school was a 9 a.m. start—and was nearly two hours away. I like to arrive at least 20 minutes in advance to allow time to both set up and fix any possible problems. So this meant leaving by 6:30 a.m. That’s early for the average writer, normal for people with salaried jobs—or small children. Luckily, I have one of the two.

Day 1, school 1: presentations at 9, 9:45, and 11 a.m.
Day 1, school 2: 12:45, 1:20, and 2:10 p.m.
Day 1, after school: matinee of Iron Man

I was the only guest at the bed and breakfast, it was not haunted, and I was in bed by 9 p.m.

Day 2, choice of shampoos: kiwi, green apple, or carrot root
Day 2, school 1: 9, 9:50, 10:25 a.m.
Day 2, school 2: 12:45 p.m.
Day 2, library 1: 4 p.m.
Day 2, after library: interviewed by newspaper

Each school was gracious for their flexibility in working out this schedule. And, as always, I didn’t feel tired while presenting—but on the ride home, I do often pull into a rest stop or parking lot for a 20-minute nap.

Eleven months later to the very day, elsewhere in Connecticut, I had another five-in-forty-eight-hours. This time, all five were schools and I presented only a single time at each. It was as fun as the previous two-day stamina-tester, yet slightly less exhausting…and mercifully, the schedule was arranged entirely by someone else (an arts center).

Read #7.

Read the whole countdown.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

10 Most Memorable School Visit Moments: #9

Every school I've had the privilege of speaking at has given me a great experience. Some have given me a great story, too.

"Theme Song"

year: 2009
state: Kansas






Because Clark Kent grew up in Kansas, I made my first trip there to promote Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman. The media dubbed it the "Superman's First Home on Earth Tour."
("Media" is misleading. I mean me. No dia. Though two papers did cover it: here and here.)

The final school of my four days in Kansas did something no school I'd spoken at had done before (or has done since).

My presentation was set up in the gym. The 250 or so middle school students filed in and sat on the bleachers. I was the lone man on the floor before them, with the expanse of the empty gym behind me, except for some kind of sound system in the back. When my kind hosts (the principal and media specialist) were ready to introduce me, they surprised me in two ways.

First, someone scurried to the back of the gym and pushed a button on that sound system. The theme from Superman: The Movie filled the room. That music transports me in the cocoon of my iPod, so to hear it blasted in that space for that purpose was, simply, super cool. I had no opening move grand enough to match it.

Then the music stopped. The media specialist, with whom I’d arranged the visit, stepped up to introduce me. In my experience, most school visit intros, regardless of length, are built on the basic facts—where he’s from and what he’s written.

But this one was different.


The media specialist told the story of our “evolution”—how I e-mailed her the previous spring, how she politely but not definitively deflected me, how I tried again, how she had given me a closer look but no commitment, and how I contacted her a third time…at which point, she realized she had some fondness for my efforts…but still thought I was a little too dedicated.

However, she went on to say, something did compel her to take a chance on me. And she came to see that what I was doing was consistent with what I do in all aspects of my career, and what I was about to talk about with the students—the importance of persistence. Only she said it so much nicer.

I was moved that she thought about the process in that way. My presentation added another level to the topic: I mention (as does the book) that Superman was rejected for more than three years before a publisher said yes.


To wrap, back to the music: I find it funny (in a good way) that they played the Superman theme not for a guy who played Superman or even a guy who wrote Superman stories but for a guy who wrote about the two guys who created Superman. Is that six degrees of super-ation?

Read #8.

Read the whole countdown.

Monday, August 10, 2009

10 Most Memorable School Visit Moments: #10

One of the greatest privileges in writing for young people is interacting with young people. I began speaking at schools in 2001 through a New York City volunteer program called Authors Read Aloud and launched my own school visit program in 2004.

It did not get off to an auspicious start, as you are about to see.

Since then, I have visited around 80 schools across 13 states and, like any author, have had experiences from sublime to strange (but mostly sublime).

In honor of those kids heading back to school this week, hot as that is to believe, so begins my first TEN-part series: Most Memorable School Visit Moments.

For the first year or so, I didn’t take photos, but I did take notes. Of course, I have loved something about every school visit. And in a year, this list may be completely different. But for now…

Most Memorable School Visit Moment #10

"Snow Days, Long Drive"

year: 2004
state: Connecticut






To introduce myself to schools, I made my own mailing list. In October 2003, using a school directory web site, I went town by town in my county, calling every public elementary school and asking for the name of the person to whom I should address such a mailing.


In case you missed that word, it was every.

My list ended up including close to 400 schools. Took me the full day every day for a work week to compile.

Then I spent two more days stuffing envelopes and sticking on not one or two but four adhesives—school address, return address, a “teaser” label, and the stamp. The teaser was about a writer and cartoonist wanting to visit their school…so, not such a tease (and therefore, not such a good use of time).

I mailed off those 400…and got one call.

That school, praise be, booked me for January 27, 2004.

Which ended up being the first snowstorm of the season.

We rescheduled for February 6, which—no joke—became the second storm of the season. Look it up.

So we rescheduled for February 25 at 9:30 a.m.

Then one of my best friends had his first child, a son, and scheduled the brit milah (commonly known as the bris) for February 24.

At 5 p.m.

In Washington, D.C.

So my wife and I drove down to D.C., stayed for several hours, then drove the four hours home, arriving in the middle of the night.

The next morning, when I actually could’ve used a snow day, was perfectly clear. So I lugged the slide projector I’d bought on eBay (for $60! Who knew they’d be so expensive?) and did my first official school visit in a state of exhaustion so strong that I came home after and napped for almost as long as the drive from D.C.

A first is always memorable, and that one even more so.

Read #9.

Read the whole countdown.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

An urban (and suburban) legend exposed as real

Picture books for older readers do exist:

Well, some in publishing aren't questioning that picture books for older readers exist—rather that a market for them exists. But would there be this many books if there was no market?

Perrot Library, Old Greenwich, Connecticut; you know photo
is not manipulated because my book is not face out


Not pictured: the rest of the section.

For more on the subject, see here.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Joe Shuster’s little sister

Joe Shuster, the artist who co-created Superman with writer Jerry Siegel, was in his seventh year when sister Jean joined him (and other brother Frank) in 1921.

Here’s the Shuster family in their new digs after the success of Superman (plus a photo of Jerry in his new digs):

Saturday Evening Post 6/21/41

Today, Jean is Joe’s closest surviving relative. Last fall, I sent her a copy of Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman. Prior to that, she and I had not connected.

In October 2008, she wrote me a lovely thank you (and, when I recently asked if I could quote from it here, she gave me permission). Not only was I honored to have my first direct contact with a member of the Siegel or Shuster family, but I was touched that her handwriting reminded me of the only grandparent I had growing up, my dad’s mother, who passed away in 1998. (However, I am not saying this with any deeper significance. It seems almost all women of that generation have a shared penmanship.)

Excerpts from her note:

In early 2009, I mailed Jean the two photos I had discovered of the Shusters's apartment building of 1934. She had no photos of the building herself. Excerpts from her February 2009 response (which was typed, so not as fun to scan):
Thank you for your letter and especially for the pictures of our old apartment building. If you say you were exuberant in finding them, then I was thrilled.

The 1974 picture shows our front entrance on the side of the building. The upper left windows were where Jerry and Joe sat at the dining table where they created Superman. Those pictures bring back treasured memories of those days in the 1930’s where Joe and Jerry spent every day together creating.
With regard to a screen version of Jerry and Joe's story:
...will offer [Brad Pitt] a look at the screenplay to see if there is interest in playing the Joe Shuster character and/or in production. He would make a good looking Joe.
I’m glad my handwriting reminded you of your grandmother’s. Our generation is your history.
That last line struck me. And I loved her sign-off:
With good wishes for our future, Joe Shuster’s sister,
In July 2008, Cleveland hosted a joyous tribute to (and family reunion of) Jerry and Joe, dedicating Jerry’s newly renovated former home and unveiling commemorative fences at both that house and at the site where the 1934 Shuster apartment stood.

The fence at Jerry’s includes a sleek metal “S” done in Joe’s original style.

The fence at Joe’s features a blow-up of the first Superman story, from Action Comics #1.

I tried for months from afar to convince the committee in Cleveland to also include the photos of Joe’s former apartment building on his fence, since fans who make pilgrimage there most likely will never have seen the humble little structure in which Superman was first drawn. I was disappointed when (and still don’t know why) that didn’t happen.

However, the comic book pages do not fill the entire span of the large fence, so I am holding out hope that we may yet be able to add another panel with those photos. I feel it is the single most important piece of Shuster iconography to display there, since that is the actual site and those photos have not been published anywhere else except on this blog last summer and now in Craig Yoe’s book Secret Identity.

A final, somewhat related image: In 2008, Jamie Reigle of Super Collectibles (who’s generously been a nonstop promoter of Boys of Steel) asked any member of the Siegel and Shuster families he met to sign the title page of the unbound copy of Boys of Steel we’d sent before the book was released. I can’t read most of the names from the scan he sent me back, but here it is, visible only here and in Jamie’s private collection:

Friday, August 7, 2009

Your life, my book: the morality of writing biographies, part 2 of 2

(First read part 1 of 2.)

In her book about writing biographies, Meryle Secrest describes talking to a source about a subject’s possible connection to organized crime. The source said, “If you quote me, I won’t kill you but I’ll get you killed.”


Makes the threat of a lawsuit seem like an offer for a free chocolate milkshake. No one has threatened to kill or sue me. The worst so far: a few have been testy and one wanted a cut of any profit. There’s that vampire feeling again, even though writers do not need to compensate people they write about. (If they did, newspapers could never have existed.)

The purpose of biography, Secrest says, is “not just to record but to reveal.” That’s what many people would say: that there’s no point in writing, or reading, the life of a famous person if it doesn’t uncover some previously unpublicized piece of personal information.

One exception to this is the picture book biography. They may—but do not need to—contain a bombshell. They do need to tell the person’s story in a compelling way. Most new picture books about Benjamin Franklin don’t overturn previously held beliefs about him, but any new one should come at the subject with a fresh approach. That may be focusing on a little-known incident in an otherwise famous life, or telling a person’s story non-chronologically, or presenting a life in a stylized (but still factual) manner—using, say, rhyme or humor.
…a biography that did not use events in its subject’s personal life to explain his or her renown is almost unimaginable. Still, the premise poses a few problems. For one thing, it leads biographers to invert the normal rules of evidence, on the Rosebud assumption that the real truth about a person involves the thing that is least known to others. A letter discovered in a trunk, or an entry in a personal notebook, trumps the public testimony of a hundred friends and colleagues.
This is why I feel every picture book biography doesn’t need to emphasize—or necessarily even mention—the person’s childhood. The early days of a notable adult are often fascinating, but if not, don’t force it. In some cases, adult greatness simply cannot be traced back to moments in childhood, at least not explicitly. Besides, as the article later states:
People like the notion that a little luck is involved in success—that becoming famous could be sort of like winning the lottery. One day, you’re riding along on your donkey or in your Honda Civic or whatever, a voice speaks to you, and suddenly you are on the way to being St. Paul or Leonard Bernstein.
The essence of the turning point is that it is retrospective. No one realized at the time that when little Johnny Coltrane put down the duckie he would go on to create “A Love Supreme.” But all biographies are retrospective in the same sense. Though they read chronologically forward, they are composed essentially backward. It’s what happened later, the accomplishment for which the biographical subject is renowned, that determines the selection and interpretation of what happened earlier.
Biographies, strictly speaking, are not true stories. They are approximations of true stories. They are true moments strung together in between many more true gaps. Any life is too large for any one book. Every biographer must decide what to put in—and what to leave out. They are separate processes.

In Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman, I chose to include the fact that Joe Shuster used his mother’s breadboard as a drawing surface, but within that fact, I chose to leave out the claim that he could not use it on Thursday nights because that’s when his mother needed it to make the challah for Shabbat.
…only a sliver of what we do and think and feel gets recorded...
…and even less makes it into a biography.
A biography is a tool for imagining another person, to be used along with other tools. It is not a window or a mirror.
True. It is more like a fraternal twin—it has some relation, but is not, and never can be, the exact same.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Your life, my book: the morality of writing biographies, part 1 of 2

At one point, August was National Biography Month. I wrote it down a while ago, which means I got it from somewhere. However, Googling it (in quotation marks) now reveals that few sites mention it and only one puts it in August.

Did they discontinue it because the greeting cards didn’t sell?


In any event, now is still an appropriate time (as appropriate as any) to talk about the (print) lives of others.

In 2007, I saved an article from The New Yorker about the process and perils of writing biographies. Just as biographers dissect their subjects, I have dissected this fascinating analysis of people who write intimately about other people they (oftentimes) never met.

This is how the article starts:
At a time when instruments for recording and disseminating information about people’s intimate behavior are cheap and easy to use, and when newspapers and magazines and television programs and Web sites purvey that kind of information without restraint, and when even ordinary people apparently can’t do enough to tell the world everything about themselves, a defense of the professional biographer’s right to pry does not seem something that civilization stands in dire need of.
Even more so now than just two years ago when this was published, our privacy is trading its protected status for status updates. Quite often, the more one says about himself, the less others are interested, yet that isn’t stopping many of us from tweeting our every twitch.

Future biographers of anyone who came of age in the Digital Age will have it both easy and hard. Easy because so many of us are over-documented. (Their lives are already stored online!) And hard because so many of us are over-documented. (Is there anything left to discover?)


About Meryle Secrest, who has written biographies of people including Frank Lloyd Wright and Salvador Dali, and who wrote a book about writing biographies:
Many of her stories about getting the story involve figuring out ways to…massage the relatives, friends, ex-friends, lovers, ex-lovers, work associates, lawyers, dealers, executors, and agents…who obscure a clear view into the private world of famous people.
Anyone who knows or knew the subject of a biography-in-the-making—and who is still alive, of course—is a biographer’s research priority. The conundrum about that is that memory is unreliable, and even if it wasn’t, people lie. Biographers sometimes present a seemingly trustworthy person’s recollection as fact without backup proof because there simply isn’t backup proof—consider, for example, an anecdote from a long-ago cocktail party that (as far as we know) no one recorded or journaled about immediately after. People I’ve interviewed more than once, with months separating the interviews, have contradicted themselves about events they personally experienced.

Secrest:
“The older I get the more sympathy I have for families who discover that some stranger has decided to write about their famous member without, as it were, so much as a by-your-leave. Prurience titillates…leading to bigger sales and better royalties for the writer who is, not to put too fine a point on it, making money from others’ misfortunes.”
So are biographers vampires, feeding not on the blood but on the feats and flaws of others? When I first read what Secrest wrote about "others' misfortunes," I was startled by how uneasy it made me feel—I get paid to write about people who will not get paid. But the U.S. Constitution does grant us the right to speak and write freely. And as Oscar Wilde apparently said (see, I wrote "apparently" because I wasn’t there): “There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

(By the way, I had to look up “by-your-leave.” It means “request for permission.”)

Part 2.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

A great cause in a caring city

In October 2008, I was one of 800 volunteers to participate in Read Aloud Day, a program in which those volunteers scatter to every public elementary classroom in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on the same day and read a book.

The sponsoring organization was the School Volunteer Association of Bridgeport. If you are local, please consider becoming a volunteer this year. You will be happy you did, plus there are donuts.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Jerry and Joe, small business owners

Thanks to Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman, I've branched out beyond schools and libraries in booking speaking engagements. The new (to me) venues have ranged from Jewish museums to historical societies. Soon I will add my first luncheon keynote address to the list. And to deliver that address, I'm making my third trip to Cleveland (fourth to Ohio) in nine months.

The Council of Smaller Enterprises (COSE), which I've been told is part of the largest Chamber of Commerce in the country, kindly invited me to speak at their Home Business Network Annual Luncheon, held on 8/26/09. This year's theme is "Spotlight on Success."

To promote the event, COSE set up this radio interview with me:


All professional artists must also be, on some level, businesspeople. Like the interview, the keynote looks at Jerry and Joe's creation of Superman as a home-based business success story. When you know a body of material well enough, you find yourself able to mold it to fit angles you didn't think you'd ever be asked to speak about.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Why so much Siegel and Shuster these days?

Last Son by Brad Ricca.

Men of Tomorrow by Gerard Jones.

Secret Identity by Craig Yoe.

The Book of Lies by Brad Meltzer (plus the triumphant 2008 campaign he spearheaded to renovate Jerry Siegel's former Cleveland home).

Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman by golly.

To name only five.

A friend asked me why I think the last few years have seen a surge in interest in Siegel and Shuster. Good question, and it also begs a more specific one: is this increased interest only within the comics community or also among the general public?

Either way, I don't think it has as much to do with Michael Chabon as some might say. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (which came out in 2000) wonderfully helped bring a certain mainstream validation to comics, but I don't think the book inspired the average reader to then pick up, say, Men of Tomorrow. And despite its popularity, it didn't make Siegel and Shuster household names (not that it was necessarily trying to). To comics people, Kavalier & Clay was an engaging new lens through which to consider the Siegel and Shuster story. To non-comics people, it was just another good book.

My friend wondered if the surge in interest might relate to the litigation between the Siegel family and DC Comics. But that is not on the radar of most people beyond the industry, at least not those I talk to.

I think the interest is at least in part because of a suddenly urgent sense of posterity—the last of the Golden Agers are dying now, so people are scrambling to document them while those original creators (or people they knew) are still around to speak for themselves.

I think it also has to do with the timing of the formative years of our generation. Many of the people researching Siegel and Shuster today grew up in the 1970s and 1980s. The superhero culture of that period has had a distinct influence in what has been happening recently at DC:
  • the acclaimed mini-series Justice written by Jim Krueger and Alex Ross paid tribute to the Legion of Doom from the cartoon Super Friends (which debuted in 1973)
  • the Hall of Justice and Wendy and Marvin, also from Super Friends, have been brought into print "continuity"
  • other characters created for that cartoon (the Wonder Twins, Black Vulcan, Samurai, Apache Chief) are getting the action figure treatment (strange, when you think about it, that it took as long as it did)
  • artists are drawing Superman to resemble Christopher Reeve (the first Reeve Superman movie came out in 1978)
  • the animated series Batman: The Brave and the Bold is based on a comic whose glory days were the 1970s
The 1970s were also the period in which Siegel and Shuster became known to a wider public. In 1975, they won the settlement from Warner Communications, which made the New York Times and the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. In 1976, their names were restored to all Superman stories in all media, starting with Superman #302 and culminating majestically with Superman: The Movie (see at 2:45). They (especially Jerry) began to attend comics conventions and at least one movie premiere.

In terms of comics, we are the first generation fueled less by the clinical nature of precedent and more by the emotional nature of nostalgia. We are creating superhero content by deepening the superhero content of our youth, and I think at a certain point, it's natural for that interest to extend from the fictional history to the real life history of these characters.

Though I loved Super Friends and Superman: The Movie and Superman comics, I wrote my book on Jerry and Joe without reflecting consciously on any of the thoughts above. (And at the time, none of the Siegel and Shuster projects listed at the start of this post were out.)

I simply found a surprising gap in the market and wanted to try to fill it with a book for both kids and adults that could do its small part to spread the word about two visionary guys (long gone) and their grand achievement (here to stay). It has been so gratifying that so many others have simultaneously helped bring the men behind the Man out from behind their glasses.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

"Nonfiction Is Non-Boring"

That was the title under which I proposed a book on writing vivid nonfiction.

The book, published by Scholastic with the longer, less cheeky, more literal title Quick Nonfiction Writing Activities That Really Work!, is newly available.


Though it will be marketed to teachers of grades 4-6 for classroom use, I wrote it for all writers. It consolidates every tip I've thrown in my mental backpack over the last decade and features often funny writing exercises on each page. Some have answers, most don't.

It also includes spot art—some quite surreal—drawn by yours truly. (Note: I am not saying that is a selling point.) Its back cover calls me a "nonfiction expert and humorist." (Note: I admit I like that but swear I did not write that.) And, as always, it is loaded with name-dropping of my friends.

Here is a close approximation of the introduction to the book:
In a batch of thank you letters I received after one of my school visits, a comment from a girl named Shannon stood out: “My teacher told us you wrote nonfiction and I thought ‘Oh, great!’ But I was wrong!”

I’ve written books or articles about the creators of Superman, the invention of the telephone, foxes, ghosts, the planets, the Liberty Bell, Kwanzaa, Greece, the history of junk food, the origins of everyday pets, the reasons we laugh, myths about pirates, Rosa Parks, Juan Ponce de León, the Great Chicago Fire, and more. As a whole, those topics don’t have much in common, but most of the material I wrote about them does.


In each case, I strove to make my nonfiction come alive. All writers owe it to their readers to do this. If writers are bored when writing, how will readers feel when reading their work?

Shannon wasn’t the only young person I’ve met who felt that only made-up stories can hold her interest. Therefore, I was thrilled I helped her realize that nonfiction means non-boring. And I did it without saying “Truth is stranger than fiction.” For starters, that’s a cliché, and clichés, of course, spoil good writing like mold on cream cheese. But more to the point, truth can also be more exciting, scarier, funnier, or sadder than fiction.


This book is designed to demonstrate that by giving students tools to create strong nonfiction. Loaded with reproducibles both fun and functional, it breaks down nonfiction to its many components, letting students strengthen their skills one sentence at a time. While the approach includes some grammar, it is largely concerned with content, style, and structure. Sprinkled throughout are “Quick Tips” for adding a little extra life or lyricism to writing.

Just because a true story is compelling does not mean it is easy to put into print or memorable once it’s in print. One of my professors used to say it’s not enough to have a good story. You need a good story, well told. Sometimes, a good writer can take even a story that at first seems unremarkable and type gold from it.


Whether your students are writing descriptive, expository, narrative, or persuasive nonfiction, they are usually assuming several roles at once without even realizing it: storyteller, detective, reporter, historian, teacher, maybe even rebel. Tell them that and they may feel empowered. They may see that with a mix like that at work inside them, it is hard to imagine not writing something intriguing. The difference between non-exciting nonfiction and exciting nonfiction is a well-equipped writer.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

One author, five questions

Michael Spradlin, a fellow author with a diverse range of offerings, has a feature on his blog called "Five on Friday." It's not about cocktails.

Rather it's about other authors. Every week, Mike generously invites another one onto his property to answer five rapid-fire questions about his books, past and future. My Q&A is up. Thanks Mike!
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