Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Jerry Siegel in Word [sic] War II

For what will most likely be my last post of 2009, I'll take an approach common this time of year: looking backward and looking forward at once.

As for looking back, here is a scan of a photograph a friend recently forwarded, asking for any background I might know about it:

A Stars and Stripes photographer took it and it is his son, Tony Ebert, looking for information. The photo was labeled "Siegel and Green 'Super GI" and dated 12/1/44. Superman co-creator and original writer Jerry Siegel (the darker-haired one in the photo) was drafted in 1943 and didn't ship overseas. Though I do have a few more details about his military service in my research notes, I don't believe I have much if anything on his work for Stars and Stripes. (It wasn't an aspect I planned to include in Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman.)

Unfortunately, my friend did not save Tony's e-mail address. I wanted to contact Tony before posting this, both simply to talk but more importantly to ask permission. I did contact everyone I found
online with his name, but as of yet have not heard back from the one in question. Hopefully I still will, and in the meantime, I decided to post the photo with this explanation. If I can't find the right Tony, perhaps this way he can find me.

Please do not repost or publish this photo without including some form of this explanation, and check back here for a possible update, if I get one.


As for looking forward...in my last post of 2008, I teased that 2009 would be the year of a Bill Finger announcement. I was close. I think it will instead come in January.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Searching for the “Vanished”

My book Vanished: True Stories of the Missing is newly available, and with a slightly different subtitle than shown here:

As of now, the book is available in one of two ways: by ordering via the Scholastic Book Club or by simply calling Scholastic directly. (If it does well, it may then become available in stores.)

I’m told that these are the three book clubs in which it will be offered to start:
  • The Arrow (grades 4-6), January 2010, which shipped to schools in early December
  • The “special offer” history-themed catalog, January 2010
  • The TAB (grades 6-9), March 2010
To order directly:
  • Call Scholastic at 800-724-6527, push prompt 3, then prompt 1.
  • Using a credit card, order item #514472; price $4.95.
  • Wait by your mailbox nibbling on your nails.
The 118-page book consists of seven true and often terrifying text-only stories. Here's how I found family members and other key figures mentioned in each (to send them a copy):

Erica Pratt, second grader—“Escape from the Basement”

The event occurred in 2002, so Erica is now roughly 14 years old, and still in Philadelphia. She lives with her grandmother, whose name is somewhat common. I couldn’t quickly find a phone number for her grandmother so I searched for other relatives with less common names. I found one—a cousin—on Facebook. He kindly gave me an address to send a copy. Erica’s grandmother has been contacted enough times about this that she chose not to speak with me directly, which I understand. However, through the cousin, the grandmother did thank me for the book. I also sent a copy to a kind woman I quoted; she said Erica would be an inspiration to others. I found her on Facebook.

Percy Fawcett, explorer—“The Real Indiana Jones”

Percy disappeared in 1925, the story in the book that dates back the furthest. Even though I’m sure there are descendants, I didn’t invest the time to try to find them.

Grant Hadwin, woodsman—“The Golden Tree Killer”

John Vaillant, author of the compelling The Golden Spruce, kindly told me the city where Grant’s ex-wife was living, last he heard. (She and Grant had divorced about six years before he disappeared.) A search of the Canadian white pages instantly confirmed she’s still there. I left a message, figuring I would not hear back. But she did return my call and was most kind. I also sent a copy to the Council of the Haida Nation, since the Haida people play a prominent role in the story.

Henry Grimes, musician—“Play That Song Again”

He was the easiest. He has a site and I’d already contacted him through it during my research. His manager kindly vetted my draft for accuracy. I also sent a copy of the book to Marshall Marrotte, the man whose impressive detective work led to him being the one who rediscovered Henry after more than 30 years.

Everett Ruess, nature lover—“I Leave No Trace”

Luckily for me, Everett’s story made the news this summer—75 years after he disappeared. Bones had been discovered which matched certain traits of Everett’s. However, after testing, the family learned that the bones are not his. I found the family spokesperson (whose name was in some of the articles) on Facebook.

Hannah Klamecki, kindergartner—“Very Harder Than I Thought”

Her father is a pastor and I reached him via his church. At the same time, I found her mother on Facebook. They have kindly reported that Hannah (now about seven) was thrilled to see her name in a book. I spoke with her father. He's the first person I've written about (in a work already published) whom I've then spoken to. (Most I've written about so far were gone before I started.)

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, aviator/author—“Pilot, Poet, and Prince”

He’s the most famous name in the book so this is not his first time. For that reason, and because I believe most of his family is in France, I didn’t do more than e-mail the (French language) site dedicated to him. I haven’t heard back. But I didn’t write in French. C’est la vie.

my cousin—"About the Author” (last page)

Read this to learn the “Vanished” story from my family.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Book fair checklist: author – CHECK; Sharpie – CHECK; books – uh...

On 12/4/08, I had the honor of appearing at the annual holiday book fair of the Union League Club of New York. It was first described to me as the “mother of cool book fairs.” It's open only to club members and their guests. We’re told the money goes to its scholarship foundation.

It’s the first and still-only book fair for which I’ve had to wear a tie.

NOTE: Photos are from 2009 fair. However, sometimes accuracy is irrelevant.

Past members of the Union League Club include Ulysses S. Grant (post-presidency) and Theodore Roosevelt (pre-presidency), plus two lower wattage presidents. Non-president alum include cartoonist Thomas Nast and philanthropist J.D. Rockefeller. Neil Armstrong and Margaret Thatcher are honorary members.

None of them came to the book fair, but in fairness, everyone’s crazed during the holiday season, and some of them are dead.


Last year it was so easy to participate. The Union League asked me, I graciously accepted. Smooth signing.

This year proved to be a bit trickier.

They invited me on 11/16/09 for the 12/3/09 event. The relatively short notice wasn’t a problem in terms of my schedule. It was a problem because it became even shorter notice…without notice.

That was because my affirmative reply went unanswered, as did my two follow-up e-mails. Finally, on 11/30/09, the member who’d invited me checked in with me, and it turns out he had not received any of my replies.

The Union League was still willing to have me and I was still eager to be had. But I was the easier part of the formula. (I don’t charge for expedited shipping. I just take Metro-North.)

The harder part was the books.


Rule #3 for authors: when you promote, you must be flexible. (Rule #1: you must write good books. Rule #2: you must promote.)

Therefore, given the tight window, I volunteered to find a way to get my books there myself.

The sponsoring bookstore, my old reliable Just Books in Old Greenwich, Connecticut, could not get them in time. So I called my other best (bookstore) friend, Books of Wonder in New York, but they also could not. (Part of this depends simply on how many books are available from the distributor.)

Then I called a Barnes & Noble, somewhat arbitrarily the one at 555 Fifth in New York. I was relieved when the Events and Special Projects Coordinator said I called the right place—for some reason, that city location apparently can get books faster than any other. They were able to get both titles I wanted, Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman and What’s the Difference?, which happens to be published by Barnes & Noble. To comparison shop, I also called Random House and was indeed able to get the Union League a better deal on Boys of Steel.

The Union League even trusted me with the digits to order the books myself. Another first.

Then all I needed to do, according to the member who invited me, was “show up and have a drink.”

And hopefully sign enough books to justify their kindness.

Without speculating on that, I can objectively report that What’s the Difference? sold out and Boys of Steel sold at least as many, even though it was offered last year. I also displayed a “sneak preview” copy of Vanished: True Stories of the Missing (due 1/10), which multiple people asked to purchase.

When I was a kid, my League was Justice, not Little. It’s still Justice, but now also Union.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Superman for $130

As widely recounted, including in Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster transferred all rights to Superman to Detective Comics for $130.

Here is a copy of the agreement. It shows the signatures shot 'round the world.

The date is hard to read but according to Superman: The Complete History, it would have been sometime between December 1937 and February 1938.

Monday, November 30, 2009

You all had my job

One or both of my jobs may seem atypical, but you all have had them, too.

We all start off as writers and cartoonists (cartooning, of course, comes first). Only the reckless few stick with it beyond lower elementary (cartoonists) and college (writers).

In other words, in our youth, we all scribble. But the relative majority of us never experience d
octoring, or financial consulting, or astronauting, or just about any job besides the one we have chosen (or the one that we unintentionally settled into).

Authoring is not only one of the few "jobs" everyone gets some practice in early on but also one of the few jobs that many who are accomplished in other fields will eventually come back to, often in a biographical capacity.

Pro athletes write tell-alls. Politicians, chefs, CEOs, and dog whisperers do, too. But few of them also record a song,
perform with the ballet, star in a movie, or formulate a perfume.

The only one of the popular and/or fine arts that almost everyone in the public eye (or so it seems) dabbles in at some point is the writing of a book.

The ever-increasing draw of the "non-famous" memoir (and its cousin the blog) means that more than ever fame is not exclusively the catalyst of writing about oneself but also, if done well, the result.


With so many non-"professional" writers (whether famous or civilian) getting published, it may seem to dilute the specialness of writing. Yet it also speaks to the survivalist urge to commit words to paper.

To some, writing is an exercise in vanity. To all, it's a shot at immortality. But to true writers, it's actually akin to all of those other endeavors that most never get to.

Writing is like composing a melody in that a certain flow of words can compel the reader and even the writer himself to dance (if only in their heads).

Writing is like performing before the camera, only the writer plays every role.

Writing is like engineering a fragrance, hoping to attract others by beauty great or terrible, yet intangible.

Writing is the best of all words.

That is something that remains special no matter how many give it a go.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The last issue of Nickelodeon Magazine

Number of years in print: 16
Number of years I freelanced for Nick: 7
Number of times I tried to break in before I was given the chance: 3
Number of months that took: 12
Number of final issue: 159
Number of the page with a tiny excerpt from one of my pieces: 29 (about pirates)
Number of kids disappointed that this is it: tens of thousands including some you know
Number of Nick Mag staff who will go on to even greater greatness: all of them

Show of hands: who thinks Nick should convert its sixteen-year inventory of content (most of which is already in compact form) into iPhone apps?

Yes, it certainly was, even from way out where I sat.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Sherman's Marc

On 9/21/09, I kicked off the school (visit) year in Sherman, Connecticut. It was the first school where I announced the sad news of the end of Nickelodeon Magazine. Other than that, it was a spirited way to begin an aspect of my job that I love dearly.

The local paper, The (Danbury) News-Times, kindly covered it and this week finally got around to running the story (posted here with permission):

Friday, November 20, 2009

A reunion of one

As I mentioned in my 11/18/09 post, I returned to my alma mater Brandeis University to participate in a "Meet the Majors" panel. It was the first time I'd been there since 2001. It was five months too late for my fifteenth reunion.

Aside from a handful of professors I knew, it was a reunion of one. Realizing that the students I was passing had not been born when I was a college freshman, I felt like I'd been flung in a catapult.
I'm always nostalgic; revisiting my former schools intensifies it. In going through my mental file, and some physical and digital ones, too, I rediscovered many things that made me smile. Some have something to do with the raison d'être of this blog.

Here is one, from a 2006 issue of the Brandeis alumni magazine. I have written many puzzles in my career. To my knowledge, this is the only time that I have been a part of one, and brace yourself for a misspelling:



Clue L: "Art form of Mark Tyler Nobleman '94, et al."

Answer: not slam poetry.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Fair, school, panel

On 11/14/09, I was one of the authors benefitting from the great planning of the annual Connecticut Children’s Book Fair, held on the campus of the University of Connecticut. Attendance seemed brisk to me although apparently not as strong as last year’s.

Each author was assigned a kind helper and a dedicated table at which to sign:


It was at this table where I signed the smallest book I've ever signed, perhaps one of the smallest I've ever seen. And I was told this is volume 9:


We were also assigned a 30-minute speaking slot. Mine was at 4:30 p.m.—last of the day—so I feared a small audience, but the turnout was a pleasant surprise. It really shouldn’t surprise me. After all, I’m just the opening act for Superman.

The UConn Co-op bookstore asked me to sign an ambitious stack of books...

...most of which I did actually write.

The authors attended a lovely reception and dinner in a most authorly of settings—the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center. Literally right in the middle of it, amidst books and exhibits and other things that don’t mix well with red wine (if it’s spilled, that is).

Between the reception and dinner, we were treated to a tour of the storage facility. The Dodd Center is an archive of invaluable materials including original art and documents of children’s book authors and illustrators. We got a look at some pioneering (and now well protected) art by Richard Scarry:



Onlookers include authors Hans Wilhelm and Lois Lowry.

We also heard something that astounded, seemingly, the whole group. A person owns any correspondence he receives, but he may not reproduce it without permission. In other words, he owns the actual physical papers but not the words on them. So an author may freely donate letters from his editor to the Dodd Center but would have to get approval to publish them.


The book fair didn’t resume until 10 a.m. the following morning, but many of the authors saw each earlier than that.

Much earlier.


The hotel in which many of us stayed had a fire drill at 2:15 a.m. It was the first time I’ve seen other authors in pajamas.


We spilled out in the chilly, drizzly night, and once it seemed clear that it was not a life-threatening emergency, photos were taken (the following ones courtesy of Diane deGroat):


Here's my back:

Here are some of us after we were cleared to go into the bar but not yet back to our rooms:

The next day, I spoke at a Massachusetts school for the first time:









That evening, I spoke at my alma matter, Brandeis University, for the first time (as an alum). I was one of two graduates on a “Meet the Majors” panel. I told the students that if they are interested in 
 
  • hanging out with people in aprons
  • signing large stacks of books
  • signing potentially no books
  • speaking to people who like books
  • speaking to potentially only one or two people who may or may not like books
  • eating in non-cafeteria academic settings
  • touring temperature-controlled repositories
  • evacuating hotels for dead-of-night alarms

then American Studies may be right for them.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The order of Amazon reviews

On any given Amazon page, every square pixel is a sellhole. No matter where you are on the site, it feels like you're only one click away from a "place order" button.

So I was all the more surprised to find a chink in that force-to-buy field. (And before I proceed, let me state that I am routinely impressed with Amazon's innovations and experiments.)


A book's Amazon home page includes a section called "Editorial Reviews." At the bottom of that section is a link "See all Editorial Reviews."
Here is that page for Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman.

Boys of Steel
had the good fortune to earn starred reviews from three publications. On its "See all Editorial Reviews" page, you can scroll to a one-line excerpt from each of those reviews (submitted in that tidy format, I believe, by the publisher).

In other words, good marketing—short, bolded, positive.

However, the review listed first (and therefore visible before clicking "See all Editorial Reviews") is longer and not starred. While it does come across as positive, and while I do greatly appreciate it, actually only its last line is subjective; the rest is summary.

So I asked Amazon what I thought was an easy question with a win-win answer: Would you please move those three starred review excerpts to the top so customers will see them on the book's home page? (Many customers, I'm sure, don't click through to "See all Editorial Reviews" and instead go straight to the customer reviews.)

I felt my request was clearly expressed, yet at least four Amazon reps either misunderstood or gave me misinformation.

One said we cannot edit or delete any reviews; I clarified that I'm asking only to rearrange them.

One duplicated two of the starred reviews and inserted them above the original three. (It may be the only time in my career I can point to five starred reviews in a row, so I won't quibble.)

One did say, essentially, no problem, but then did precisely nothing.

Finally one told me that, if I understood correctly, the publisher needs to enroll a book in the Advantage program before the author could make such changes.

This request had already taken too much time and I didn't want to bother my publisher with such a small issue. However, because I figured it would be a one-time procedure, I did ask.

Random House kindly looked into it and reported back that we can't change the order.

This means Amazon told me to involve the publisher even though Amazon knew (or should have known) that the review order must stay as is (almost certainly due to contracts certain publications have with the site).


What this seems to say is that Amazon prioritizes doing what's best for a review publication over doing what's best for the products to be reviewed (and sold).

Above I mentioned that every Amazon page is packed with sales tools and incentives. It can overwhelm a customer, and the more incentives they add, the harder it is to focus on any one of them. Yet here is an obvious one that they dismiss.


I realize that, for many books, simply leading with excerpts from starred reviews is not going to stimulate a dramatic spike in sales. But it will most likely make some difference, and certainly have more of a positive effect for any particular book than negative effect for any particular review publication.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Spontaneous interview about Bill Finger

At the Southern Festival Books in Nashville on 10/10/09, the Bill Finger Appreciation Group kindly did a brief, off-the-cuff interview with me that touched on Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman and my research on Bill Finger. They were kind to let me post it here as well:

video

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Biography vs. pathography

When I first blogged about biography, I didn’t imagine I would be able to come at the same subject from as many angles as I now have, including the following:
  1. dialogue in picture book biographies
  2. picture book biographies for all ages
  3. picture book biographies on lesser-known figures
  4. the morality of writing biography
  5. picture books for older readers (as an “official” category)
  6. how libraries shelve picture book biographies
  7. biography vs. storyography
Now for another head-to-head, this one between the sanitized biography and the warts-and-all one.

In “A Biography of the Biography,” an article in the 11/9/09 Newsweek, writer Malcolm Jones examines the examiner, the quintessential English man of letters, Samuel Johnson, with particular reference to biography.

Several of Johnson’s quotations have been in my file for years, but I’ve never read a book that he wrote. Still, this article confirmed that I like Johnson beyond his witty one-off observations.

In 1773, Johnson said, “If a man is to write A Panegyrick, he may keep vices out of sight; but if he professes to write A Life, he must represent it as it really was…”

I touched on this idea in the fourth link of that bulleted list above, and I agree. The goal of a biography is to approach the truth about a person. That truth must also be provocative, but in an organic, not sensationalistic, way.


Some say a story is only as good as its villain. Some people profiled in biographies play both the hero and villain role, at different times. All hero, noble as it is, can get boring. We like to see the dark side in others because it helps us confront our own dark sides.
And when a person doesn't seem to have a dark side, we tend to mistrust him, or at least the biographer.

The Newsweek article claims that “the story of a life has been our most durable and most enduringly popular literary form.”


I would’ve said fairy tale, but perhaps I’m misunderstanding the author’s definition of “popular literary form.” Then again, I’m not all that surprised. Most of us are, on some level, people-watchers, and all of us are influenced by others. We aspire to others’ good behavior and we view bad behavior as a cautionary tale.


This overlaps with another point I made in that fourth link:

In our time alone [biography] has multiplied into a dizzying number of forms—authorized, unauthorized, oral biography and autobiography, the group biography, the biographical novel, not to mention the online biography. What is Facebook, or most blogs, but a slew of autobiographies constantly in progress?
As I'd written, the more we post online about ourselves, the more raw material future biographers will have to refer to (though not all of it will be useful). Thanks to the Internet, more people than ever before (or so it seems) have been converted into autobiographers.

The article states that

the history of biography can be said to parallel, where it does not overlap, the history of the erosion of private life. There's no denying the proliferation of what Joyce Carol Oates defined as “pathography”—works in which a biographer fastens on to every loathsome detail of a subject's life, with the result that the subject is not cut down to size but simply cut down.
Apparently, this is a modern approach: “Nineteenth-century biographers weren't interested in flaws or the interior lives of their subjects.” This surprised me. Haven’t we all read multiple times that our ancestors (of most any era) were just as prurient as we are?

The article credits Lytton Strachey’s 1918 book Eminent Victorians with “proving that biography could aspire to art.” This, too, surprised me, because I would’ve thought that any book would’ve had that potential by 1918; by that year, literature was already enlightened, relatively speaking.


More than one of my biography posts have already concurred with this statement: “There is no longer any such thing as the definitive biography.”


Great figures (whether great in a positive or negative way) earn multiple biographies. Today there are also biographies (or memoirs) of people who were not previously well-known. Not all of those books are good, but this development is. Isn’t the best story the one you haven’t heard yet? If so, that means there are many best stories.


Yet when it comes to the lives of others, great or ghastly, famous or anonymous, “we will never know all we want to know.”

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Biography vs. storyography

Life is not simple.

Writing a book about a life is not simple.

Now even determining what word to use to describe a book about a life is not simple.

It used to always be “biography,” end of (true) story.

Then, to quote the sharp blog Fomagrams, “In a 1998 article for School Library Journal Julie Cummins proposes the word storyography as a way of differentiating whole-life biographies from those that choose to focus only on a section of the subject’s life.”

The term is intriguing, though it hasn’t gone mainstream. (Maybe that’s partly why it’s intriguing.)

Fomagrams cites the elements of storyography, according to the Continuum Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature:

  • picture book format
  • incident-focused
  • possessing child appeal, or from a child’s perspective
  • not part of a series
  • shaped by traditional story components

Fomagrams sees two problems with storyography.

First is “the necessity of omission.” However, as I mentioned in a post about library shelving of picture book biographies, a biography is but an interpretation of a life. It’s not a birth-to-death live blog—it can’t include even a fraction of the incidents that added up to the actual life of the subject.

If something occurred in person but is omitted in print, does that reduce the book’s truthiness? And that’s just deliberate omissions. What about events that remain unknown to everyone (or most everyone) besides the subject? Given these inevitable and understandable limitations, all biographies are, on some level, fictionalized, or perhaps I should say stylized.


Second is accuracy: “Nowhere in the definition of storyography is there any mention of the accuracy of the details.” With storyography, if story is the priority, is that at the expense of facts? In other words, do storyographers tweak the truth if the truth does not suit their narrative flow?

I assume many people writing picture books about real lives aren’t familiar with the term “storyography.” They’d describe their books as either biographies or fictionalized biographies; either label makes clear where the book stands with regard to accuracy.

Fomagrams concludes, “Biographies are nonfiction. Storyographies are semi-nonfiction.”

But that seems too sweeping. Take, for example, Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman. From conception to publication, I considered it, without pause, a biography,
and not just because that’s easier to pronounce than “storyography.”

Yet here are those storyography elements again, now with a check where
Boys of Steel qualifies:

  • picture book format - check
  • incident-focused - check
  • possessing child appeal, or from a child’s perspective - check
  • not part of a series - check
  • shaped by traditional story components - check

Regarding the second bullet, my story proper (meaning the illustrated portion) covers roughly only ten years, 1930-1940. A librarian noted the following: “Your book contains biographical information, but is not a biography, per se. It contains biographical info about the two men as it specifically relates to the subject of their cartoon, but not a great amount about other parts of their lives.”

That seemingly puts it in storyography territory. Point: storyography.

Yet the book ends with a three-page, text-only author’s note exploring what happened after Superman (the merest mention is made of their lives before him). Its word count almost equals that of the illustrated portion’s. Though that hardly makes the book comprehensive, perhaps it nonetheless nudges it back into biography, even if some kids will not read the author’s note. Point: biography.

Yet that story proper is told in a narrative, not journalistic, style. Point: storyography, even though I don't believe the definition of biography precludes narrative style.

That leaves Fomagrams's astute point about accuracy as the final factor.

Since I can back up every fact I used in Boys of Steel, I stand by classifying it as a biography. Point: biography.

Yet if there is (as I believe) such a thing as a factual storyography, Boys of Steel is also that. Point: storyography.

Match: storyography?

Actually, when taking into account one other point, maybe a tie.

Boys of Steel is currently the only standalone book on Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

Being the only book on a topic does not automatically entitle it to whatever status its author wants, but I do feel that if such a book, however short, is factually sound in all that it does include, then it’s the closest we have to a (point:) biography, and therefore becomes our de facto one until further notice…

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Three things you don't want to hear...

...at an author appearance, all of which a kind (and honest) host recently told me just before I began an evening book fair presentation:

“This is a disease school.”
“I don’t think the turnout will be good.”
“Cheerleading practice is next door.”

Still, the microphone worked, people did show up, and I did not get sick.

Yet.

11/8/09 addendum: Now I did.

Friday, November 6, 2009

A core title for New York City middle schools

On 11/3/09, I was one of the authors appearing at the New York City School Library System’s annual fall conference. The night before, a librarian who’d been before said it’s a “madhouse.” My take? Well-attended, yes. Chicken feathers in the air, no.

I gave a workshop on drawing readers into a story from the first line. With a crushing amount of titles competing for readers’ attention, sometimes the first sentence is the only chance a reader will give a book. The stakes are too high for it not to be compelling in some way.

While I was signing, one librarian pitched me a curious question. In the author’s note of Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman, I mention that in the 1970s, Joe Shuster lived in Queens, New York. The librarian asked me for his former address. I didn’t know offhand but could think of at least one source from my research that might narrow it down; if not, she could always go through the phone book microfiche at the New York Public Library.

However, I ended up sparing her that and being astounded at the same time. The newspaper article I had in mind did give Joe’s address—his exact address, down to the apartment number.

It was jarring to see that printed in a paper, though I think that may have been a more common practice at the timeand again, it was probably in the phone book anyway. Though Joe was in a bad place then, he was still a celebrity of sorts, and though he was an unrecognizable celebrity to most of the population, people even further from the public eye are entitled to privacy. Yet I doubt that article prompted even one person to show up at Joe’s place. On one level, that’s relieving. On another, it’s sad.

The same librarian also told me wonderful news that I had not yet heard: the New York City school library system had selected Boys of Steel as an English Language Arts (ELA) core title. As she explained, that means that every city school that includes grades 6, 7, or 8 had to order the book!

Each title selected falls into one of four themes that the Department of ELA believes “will motivate middle school students to read more”: Empowerment and Resilience, Love, Taking Action and Changing the World, and Creativity and How Things Work.

I feel what Jerry and Joe did fits all four categories, but guess which one they placed it in? Answer on page 45.

I didn’t take photos at the conference (it was the standard landscape—books on tables, people behind tables), but I did take one en route. It is an ad that just so happens to be part of my life philosophy. It's also a sentiment that most modern authors—well, most modern anybodies—might do well to keep in mind:

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A little site that's outlasted GeoCities

Ten years ago today, I launched my first site, MTN Cartoons. I had already published two books and did give mention of that on the site, but as the name suggests, it was primarily an online cartoon portfolio. I remember thinking that the way I enabled viewers to scroll through the selected inventory I posted was especially efficient. Looking at it now, or even then with a right mind, it was/is so, so not.

The site is still up, though I have not updated it since 2005, which was already a year or two beyond when I began focusing mostly on writing. The past two summers I intended but failed to give it the overhaul it needs. It would’ve been good to do it this year, to capitalize on all the 10th anniversary festivities surrounding it (totally kidding), but northeast summers are just too sweltering for work of that intensity (kind of not kidding).

When I do revamp it, I imagine it divided into three sections: writing, cartooning, and speaking. This blog will somehow be migrated. And the name of this blog will become the name of the site as well. In fact, it already is, even though the site itself does not yet reflect that. Try, give it a.

Curiously (to me anyway), the date that site launched, November 3, 1999, has a connection to two and possibly three of my current projects, all on the same subject. The year before, November 3, 1998, Bob Kane, the only man credited as the creator of Batman, died. The myth that he was the sole creator had died decades earlier, though that still has not led to an official change on the credit line. I hope to be able to announce some Bill Finger news here shortly.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Vocabulary Cartoon of the Day: a prequel?

In 2005, the only book I've both written and illustrated came out: Vocabulary Cartoon of the Day (grades 4-6).
It was the result of a Scholastic editor I'd already written several books for asking if I'd like to update a book of the same name that had been published during the Space Race. It wasn't that the words defined then were no longer in use and it wasn't that the cartoons were no longer funny (though there was some of that). It was that the cartoons included things that are no longer considered "kid-friendly." Guns. Cigarettes. Sixties hairdos.

So I came up with a new list of 180 words and a kid-friendly cartoon built around each of them. No weapons. No carcinogens. No cars, either, but that's just because I don't like drawing boxy things.

Then I built a presentation around the book for professional development seminars. For three years, educators asked if I'd do a similar book for grades 2-3. Each time, I passed word to Scholastic. Apparently vocab books were not selling, so each time, they said no. Except the last time.

Only this time, I only wrote. My drawing style was deemed not cutesy enough for kids that young, which is sometimes true. They hired cartoonist Mike Moran, and the book looks great. He handled revision requests speedily and graciously. I asked if his name could also be on the cover but that is not house style for this Scholastic imprint.

Two other noteworthy differences in this book: one, we provide an index, and two, teachers provided the words. Last year, I put out a call for entries to second and third grade teachers, soliciting words they would like their students to learn; I received hundreds of suggestions. Every vocabulary word defined in the book came from the lists the teachers e-mailed me. So it is co-authored, in a sense, by its audience.

The book is due out in February and the cover recently went online:
As with the first book, I would have chosen a different cartoon for the cover (one in which the gag is more visual), but otherwise, I'm thrilled with how it came out.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Wikipedia fossils

Recently I gave my "professional" assessment of Wikipedia. Here's a brief tangent on Wikipedia, more of an archeological observation.

As I research, I copy any online articles I reference and paste them into a single Word document (along with interview transcriptions, notes from books, and notes from print articles). It creates one long but easily searchable file to account for my facts.

All of those articles remain static, constant, inert, unchanging, frozen...all except Wikipedia. When I look back at any given Wikipedia article I screen corralled and compare it to the article as it currently appears online, they are, of course, never the same.

What I kept is a fossil, a trace of a subject that has evolved. Often the changes are in the name of encyclopedic approach, but that tends to make the revised article less quirky. The small details or seemingly isolated facts are the first (along with typos) to be cut.

On writing projects that go on long enough for a Wikipedia article I've used to be more than just superficially updated, I end up copying and pasting multiple versions of it. And I date each one, too. If only real archeology were so easy.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A tale of two creators

In an earlier post, I expressed frustration that some libraries have shelved Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman in the 740s (drawing and decorative arts). I feel it is a biography of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and should be shelved with other picture book biographies.

First of all, Jerry was a writer, not an artist! Superman was written before he was drawn! The 740s classification applies to only half of the team!

I will stop shouting. After all, we are in a library.


If people regularly checked library catalogs for books on Siegel and Shuster, there'd be no issue.

However, the reality is that the majority will come across a book on such a topic by chance, not intention. Even people who would enjoy a book on Siegel and Shuster may never look for one because it seems unlikely to exist.

And it seems to me that the greatest chance for a browser to make this unexpected discovery is if the book is in biography.

Why? At one time or another, most school kids go to the picture book biographies section…because they have to. They are assigned a report on a historical figure. So they browse, looking for a subject that grabs them. But mine can’t from several shelves over.

Here are excerpts from e-mails a librarian and I exchanged on the subject; the way I pulled out key comments may make it read as clipped, but the full dialogue was harmonious, an honest sharing of concerns and constraints. I learned a lot from her. And I could not convince her to move my book to biography.

patient librarian: Your book contains biographical information, but is not a biography, per se. It contains biographical info about the two men as it specifically relates to the subject of their cartoon, but not a great amount about other parts of their lives.

pushy author: No picture book biography—no biography period—ever tells the “full” story of a person. It is an art form that typically examines a life through the lens of what that life became famous for. This is especially true with picture book bios since their format limits how much info they can include.

patient librarian: It is also about two men, so if we wanted to classify it as a biography, we would classify it as a “collective biography” and shelve it in 920. Our biography section contains mainly single-subject biographies, with a few exceptions (the Wright brothers, for example, have the same last name and we’ve decided to shelve books about them in the biography section under Biography/Wright).

pushy author: If Siegel or Shuster had individually done something else noteworthy, my argument might not hold up. However, Superman was the sole lasting achievement of either one. They are forever linked and almost always discussed as a unit, whereas most other people who star in picture books are known for solo achievements—presidents, athletes, composers, etc.

In any event, I disagree that it does not include enough biographical material to be reshelved. Unlike many other biographical picture books, mine includes a three-page afterword about the rest of their lives, including info that has not been published before. This afterword alone uses more words than most picture book biographies have total!

As you’ve seen, the book is classified as a biography on the copyright page. And because it’s the first book in any format on Siegel and Shuster, it is (for the time being, anyway) the biography on them.

patient librarian: I agree that your book has enough biographical material to include in our “Easy Biography” (E/Bio) section (picture book biographies aimed at 4-8-year-olds). The reason we did not shelve it there is because it is about two people, unrelated, with different last names.

pushy author: [I listed a handful of nonfiction picture books and wrote if any of those were shelved in biography, I feel mine should be, too.]

patient librarian: With a couple of exceptions, they are shelved in the E/Bio section, but they are all single-subject bios (except the Astaire one, and they were related, with the same last name). Biographies are shelved by their subject’s last name, so this does matter.

pushy author: If this were a book about the parallels between Lincoln and Kennedy, for example, I would understand how it might be problematic to shelve under one or the other. Yet this is a unique (or at least rare) case of a duo that history treats as a single individual for their singular creation.

A book with multiple authors is shelved by the last name of the first author listed, not in a special section for books with multiple authors. It seems to me that the same should apply for book with multiple subjects. As it stands, semantics, not content, determined where my book was shelved, and that doesn’t make sense to me.

When the first illustrated picture book bio of the Beatles comes out (hard to believe it hasn’t already), will you shelve it with music, collective biography, or biography? I am guessing the latter, under “B.” But that is again semantics, because those four musicians happen to have a name for their collective. (Same would hold true for, say, a musical act whose name is simply the names of the musicians, such as Simon and Garfunkel.)

And this is the same situation as Siegel and Shuster—a bio of multiple individuals’ joint achievement. Since Siegel and Shuster have no name for the collective, I would argue it makes sense to shelve under “Siegel” (he originated the concept and is always listed first in the partnership). Alphabetically, Shuster is right there next to him anyway!

patient librarian: We shelved Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Beatles, Beatlemania, and the Music that Changed the World by Bob Spitz in the music section. A few libraries have it shelved in Biography (under “Beatles”), but as you pointed out, those four individuals share a collective name.

Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends by Pete Fornatale is owned by four libraries in CT, all of whom have it shelved in music, likely for similar reasons as your book being shelved in the 740s in the majority of libraries in CT.

The multiple-authors point is an apples-and-oranges thing; it doesn’t really apply to subject classification. I know this all seems like semantics, but there are guidelines behind the semantics. When you catalog 400+ books a month, these guidelines are crucial to keeping your collection consistent.

the last word from the patient librarian: I think we’re just going to have to agree to disagree on this one!

Where do you think the book should be shelved?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

A book ordering dilemma






On October 16, I had the pleasure of being the luncheon speaker for 200 media specialists and reading teachers at a conference in Topeka triple-sponsored by the Kansas Association of School Librarians, the Kansas State Department of Education, and the Kansas Reading Association.

But they called it the Kansas Reading Conference rather than the KASLKSDOEKRA.

By-the-numbers:

Duration of my presentation, in minutes: 60
Number of normally separate presentations it consolidated: 4
Number of slides in my PowerPoint: 70
Number of slides featuring me in a Superman costume: 2
Number of book suggestions I got from the audience: 1
Number of good book suggestions I got from the audience: 1
Number of copies of Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman I sold afterward: 24 (one carton)
Number of people who wanted a signed book but didn’t get one: well…

Writers asked to speak at events are in a tricky spot. Do we ask our host organization to order books generously or do we let them decide the quantity without our input?

If we ask them to order generously, it may require a greater up-front expense than they are prepared for (even assuming they can return unsold books). Further, unless we’re a big name, it may imply that we have an inflated sense of our appeal. And if the host does place a bigger order but doesn’t sell many, our embarrassment may be compounded.

However, if we keep mum, we run a greater risk—missing sales, as happened here. As the number of books dwindled, a few attendees gestured for me to stand up and peer around the wall behind where I sat, as if I needed to see the (humbling) line to motivate me to bring in more copies, stat. I didn’t want to be inconsiderate to the people waiting so I didn’t do that, but vendors (past whose display tables that line stretched) later told me there were as many as 75 more people who wanted a signed copy. Some of those people even stayed in line to personally (and politely) tell me that they were bummed the book sold out as quickly as it did.

By the time this photo was taken, the Barnes & Noble staff member was still there, but most of the books weren't:

To emphasize the point, one vendor stood at the spot where the line (at its longest) ended. She’s holding out her arms—click to enlarge. The signing table in the foreground sets the perspective.

In this case, I did not know in advance how many copies of Boys of Steel would be on hand. And if I had, I would not necessarily have thought it was too few.

But, as with many other authors, I do tend to sell more copies at events where I speak rather than at festivals or even bookstores where I simply sit at a table. A presentation may make a person realize he is more interested in a subject than he thought.

So going forward, when asked to speak, I will be a bit bolder. I will request that the host estimate how many books we could sell on a good day—and order more. This event reminded me that I might not be the only disappointed one if we don’t.

Anecdote, part 1 of 2:

In my presentation, I mentioned that my first job out of college was at a publisher known for its high-end coffee table books. I joked that coffee table books are more often displayed than read. After, one of the vendors who’d heard my talk told me the book on her coffee table is Boys of Steel. (I didn’t ask if she’d read it.)

Anecdote, part 2 of 2:

That same woman told me that, months ago, her 24-year-old son, a Barnes & Noble employee, had brought the book home and raved about it. (Thank you, son.) She had to bring so much to set up at the conference that she forgot to bring the book to get it signed for her son. So, like I did for the others short-changed, I signed a makeshift bookplate.

Then she asked if I’d be willing to leave a voice mail for her son, saying he’d love that. I said, “Will he love that or is this a mom thing, like what my mom would do—well-intentioned but not necessarily appreciated?” She laughed and assured me that he would indeed love it, so I somehow found the words to leave a message.

End of anecdote

Never to Kansas before 2009, then twice in ten months—with, it looks like, return trips likely. The “Superman’s First Home on Earth” author visit tour may get a second life.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Browning in black and white





Today I ran my workshop "The Language of Cartoons: What's So Funny?" at the all-boys Browning School in New York City. The participants were a small group of 12th graders whose Spanish teacher assigned them to adapt a portion of a Spanish-language novel into a graphic novel(la).

They went in not realizing they speak Cartoon.
I went in not speaking Spanish.

They left realizing they speak Cartoon. I left not speaking Spanish.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Heroes vs. superheroes and a southern weekend






From October 8 to 10, I was in Nashville—first time in Tennessee. I spoke at a dream school called Ruby Major Elementary and appeared at the wonderfully run Southern Festival of Books.
Buzz Aldrin spoke there, too, and I reckon the awe I felt to be near him came close to rivaling the awe he must’ve felt to be the second man on the moon. Yes, it was that profound for me. Twelve humans in history have walked on a celestial body other than Earth whereas I haven't even been to Mexico, and now one of them stood a foot away from me in the hospitality room, deciding between a box of raisins or a granola bar. (I recommended the raisins. His wife recommended neither.)

Why was Ruby Major a dream school? For starters, they responded to my first e-mail within hours and booked me by the end of that school day. I wish they were all so fast!


It only went up from there. Here was my warm welcome:



The following photos are courtesy of the school and photographer Bill Bernal:




After I spoke, my host was kind enough to mention I would be appearing at the festival over the weekend in case any kids wanted to bring their parents by. I found this so conscientious and considerate.

But what I found most revealing about the character of the school was a discussion the media specialist had with the kids before I arrived. She challenged them to distinguish between a hero and a superhero.

I
’ve had this discussion myself—mostly with myself. I took notice when reviewers of Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman referred to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster as heroes. Anyone who’s been to this blog before knows the reverence I have for Jerry and Joe, but I don’t call them heroes.

Yes, they were persistent, and yes, they overcame intense hardship, which takes a level of strength many don’t have. But the more liberally we use the term “hero,” the less value it has. Jerry and Joe certainly created a heroic ideal, and they were pioneers of the imagination, but I generally reserve “hero” for a different order.

Boys of Steel has taken me to numerous schools, libraries, and conferences across ten states, but I believe the Southern Festival of Books was the first with no major connection to Superman, Siegel and Shuster, or me. (Ohio is where Jerry and Joe lived. Kansas is where a young Clark Kent lived. The Northeast is where I live. And so forth.)

As I was walking into my hotel, a woman was storming out. I heard her stop and tell the security guard/doorman/concierge/unsure “I can’t stay here.” He said something and she left. A few minutes later, I didn’t mind my own business and asked him what irked her so.

“No room service.”

The festival took place at War Memorial Plaza in downtown Nashville. Here I am zooming in on my books:



My first of two appearances was a panel about marketing books in the digital age. It was the first panel I've been on where I was the only writer. The other panelists were entrepreneurs and publisher executives and lordy lordy were they sharp.

This panel took place in Nashville's House of Representatives. It was by far the most, well, stately location I've spoken in.
So just before the panel began, I had to take a photo of us on the political Jumbotron:



It turns out that my unassuming hotel thick with tourists was actually tourist-worthy in and of itself. It holds a distinction that no other site in the state can claim:


And typical me, I didn't get my photo taken in front of the 6th floor guest rooms.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Educator __________ Week

Today a Borders in Connecticut kindly hosted me as part of Educator Appreciation Week. I had written it down on my calendar as Educator Awareness Week.

"Hey, you're a teacher! I've heard about you people!" And I was planning to lead my short talk with that joke-like statement, but I ended up cutting it. And the rest of the talk. Because there was no audience.

As many authors will tell you, these things happen. And in retrospect, they make for great entries in books.

I did an Educator Appreciation Week event at Borders in 2005, and attendance then was fairly brisk. But it was also opening day. Plus I think there were cookies. Today, the rain boded well, but apparently this was one of the last days of the event. Also, no cookies. While teachers did show up, not enough at any one time to do my presentation.

Still, I did manage to sell a few copies of the two books I was there to introduce (Vocabulary Cartoon of the Day and Quick Nonfiction Writing Activities that Really Work). Plus I also brought over the store's copies of Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman and sold a few of those, too. That wasn't my plan, but the books just so happened to be face out on a shelf in the line of sight behind the table they'd set up for me. You can't expect an author to disregard that.


The highlight, however, did not have to do with my own books. I was talking to 4th grade teacher whose young son rushed up holding Goodnight Goon by Michael Rex. The boy was so excited that I blurted out that I am friends with the author-illustrator and could ask if he'd send a signed bookplate. I assured Mike, and consider this notice for other author friends, that I won't make a habit of that. Probably.
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