Monday, May 6, 2013

Rules I broke in “Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman”

Superman is the ultimate law-abider. So it’s borderline traitorous for me to write a book about him that breaks some of the “rules.” Luckily, none go so far as to be criminal.

broken rule #1—Do not write nonfiction picture books on pop culture figures.

At first this may seem invalid because plenty of others have also broken this rule (and, for that matter, all of the other rules I’ll list). Yet this still comes up. It’s a commentary on commerce, not content. There can be editorial resistance to historic figures who are not part of traditional curriculum. Teachers are pressured to stick to material that will come up on tests; anything else can be perceived as a waste of time. Therefore, some editors worry that this situation will doom sales for a book on an unconventional topic. I am happy to report that the fact that Superman and his creators, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, are typically not covered in social studies has not hindered classroom use of Boys of Steel. In fact, the book has multiple applications to curriculum, even if the Man (or Boys) of Steel will not be on the test.

broken rule #2—Do not write picture books about writers.

It does seem that a book featuring illustration after illustration of a person sitting at a desk would quickly become visually boring. But writers do far more than sit at desks. In writing any book there are challenges, and in writing any picture book there are additional challenges, and one of them is varying your images no matter what the subject. Boys of Steel contains only one image of Jerry at his typewriter. The rest is other kinds of adventure.

broken rule #3—Do not use dialogue in nonfiction picture books.

I’ve already written on this, but the recap is as follows: if you treat it like any other fact and source it appropriately, why not? In Boys of Steel, I include statements the Boys made in interviews but present it as dialogue. It livens up the text as dialogue tends to do, and it brings the reader closer to the protagonists. Yes, the lines of dialogue may have occurred at different times in real life than when they appear in the book, but this is a convention we regularly accept in nonfiction. No nonfiction is “pure” nonfiction—not even autobiography.

broken rule #4—With biographies, start with birth, end with death…or at least mention birth and death.

We are living in the Golden Age of Picture Book Biography, which allows writers unparalleled freedom in how we tell our true stories. Everything in the book must be factual, but not every fact must (or even can be) in the book. We need not present our tellings chronologically or wholly. Sometimes the birth and/or death of a figure are simply not essential details in our approach. (To the subjects, they were, of course, notable milestones.) I start Boys of Steel in roughly 1930, when Jerry and Joe met, and end it in roughly 1940, soon after Superman’s stratospheric rise. (In
the author’s note, I do briefly address the rest of their lives.)

broken rule #5—Refer to your main character by name.

Perhaps this is not quite a rule, but it certainly is the standard. Not counting the subtitle and author’s note, Boys of Steel contains the word “Superman” precisely zero times. This was not because I was hindered by copyright/trademark restriction or because I made an oversight. This was simply because I could. In my structure, the Boys create Superman toward the end of the story proper, which means I got pretty far without using the word; it then became a fun challenge to see if I could get to the end without it. Readers come away thinking I’ve used the word, but they are extracting that thought from images alone.

broken rule #6—Have a happy ending.

Real life sometimes doesn’t, so books about real life sometimes can’t. Kids can handle the truth (relative to their age, of course). It does no favors to sugarcoat—or omit—certain tragedies. Every biography addresses struggles the protagonist faced en route to success, so why can’t the book end on a struggle? The illustrated portion of Boys of Steel does end on a high note, but the author’s note reveals that the Boys went on to face considerable suffering. Learning about injustice or misfortune or other unpleasantries may sound depressing, but often it is empowering. It can get kids fired up to help prevent similar situations in their own lives and to go do good in the world.

These are the kinds of rules even Superman would condone breaking.

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