Brad Meltzer goes from comic book heroes to real ones in a new series of illustrated children's books

OrdinaryPeople
An illustration from Ordinary People Change the World - Jim Henson

Though at first glance it would seem  author Brad Meltzer has little in common with the late  David Bowie, it turns out they agree on stressing one thing.

We can be heroes.

Meltzer, known for his best-selling legal and political books, has also won an Eisner Award for his run on the comic book "Justice League of America," and has written successful nonfiction books (History Decoded). 

But that wasn't enough. Meltzer said in an interview that he grew tired of a culture in which the Kardashians and entitled sports stars are condidererd heroes. 

He decided to collaborate with comic book artist Christopher Eliopoulos and create the Ordinary People Change the World series to tell the stories of real-life heroes in a children's book format. 

"This series was born because I was tired of my daughter thinking that reality TV stars and loud-mouthed sports players were heroes," Meltzer said. "I tell my kids all the time  that's fame -- and fame is different than being a hero.

"I wanted my kids to see real heroes ... and real people no different than themselves. For that reason, each book tells the story of the hero when they  were a kid. We see them as children. So it's not just Amelia Earhart and Abraham Lincoln being famous -- it's them being just like us!"   

Besides Earhart and Lincoln, Meltzer has spotlighted  Albert Einstein, Rosa Parks, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jackie Robinson, Lucille Ball, Helen Keller,  Jane Goodall, and George Washington. His latest, on Jim Henson, came out last month.

"There are plenty of books for older kids to read about these heroes", he said. "But my kids were young -- and there were only a few books I could find for them. So I decided to fill that void. And, with an artist like Chris Eliopoulos, I have someone who can make you love these heroes. I know Chris' work from comics, but the reason I was so insistent about working with him was he can do that Calvin & Hobbes/Peanuts thing where the characters aren't just funny -- they're lovable. You dream with them, fail with them, and smile with them.  It's so much harder than you think.  Chris' superpower is just that -- love."

Meltzer said that although  it can be tricky to be informative and accurate while telling an inspirational story that entertains, he has his own focus group.

"I try it out on my own kids," he laughed. "If they get bored, I know other kids will be bored. So I keep going until they’re impressed -- or at least interested."

Some have wondered how Meltzer picks his subjects. People see George Washington and Rosa Parks as no-brainers, but Jim Henson?

"I pick heroes who represent something I want my own kids to learn," he said. "Of all the hero books we’ve done, this is the very first where the person was truly my hero growing up. For me, it was always Jim Henson and Mr. Rogers. Those were the ones who changed my life. They taught me there’s good in all of us.

"Sure, we’re all different. Some of us have beards, or no hair, or blue fur, or green flippers. But goodness lives within each of us. And, best of all, you can use your creativity to share it with others."

Meltzer admits it can occasionally be a tough balancing act. "Each book I try to write in the hero’s voice -- toned down for kids, obviously, but still their voice.  But when I started “I Am Martin Luther King Jr.,” I just couldn’t reproduce Dr. King’s voice. It was too refined, too … beautiful, if that makes sense. It’s truly one of a kind. So then I went back and dissected King's own writings and speeches, trying to figure out exactly how he wrote and spoke. And then I was even more intimidated. It took draft after draft before I felt like I had even started officially writing."

Meltzer said people are already debating which heroes deserve to be spotlighted over others -- to which he has an easy answer.

"If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that every hero is absolutely vital to someone. That means we all have different heroes. But it’s not a hierarchy. This isn’t a wrestling match," he said jokingly. "We don’t have to rank Rosa Parks vs. Billie Jean King. Both are amazing. What we need to do is put the best heroes out there. And make sure we’re putting worthy ones out there."

"Right now, we’re still in the cream of the crop. People are asking, 'When are you doing Alexander Hamilton?' I can’t wait to do that. But we haven’t even done Nelson Mandela yet."

He said his goal was to show that all these stories should have universal appeal. You don't have to be black to enjoy "I Am Rosa Parks," and you don't have to be a scientist to enjoy "I Am Albert Einstein." 

“That’s always been the goal. These aren’t the stories of famous people. This is what we’re all capable of on our very best days," he stressed. "Each book has a moral lesson. And we can all, these days, use a few more moral lessons."

With so much polarization now, it can be tricky to call any recent person a hero. Critics of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt will bring up his affairs and the  internment of Japanese during World War II. Critics of President Harry Truman will point to him using atomic weapons. President Kennedy  was a philanderer, President Lyndon Johnson had Vietnam, and, of course, Presidents  Nixon, Carter, Reagan, the Bushes,  Clinton, and Obama will have  detractors, as well. 

"If I do Thomas Jefferson, (they'll say) he owned slaves. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ve heard it all," said Meltzer. "But if you’re looking for someone who’s perfect, you’re not looking for a human being. We’re all flawed. What matters is what you do with your life and whether you help people."

It is interesting that of the 11 volumes released so far -- and the two featuring  Gandhi and Sacagawea coming in October --  Meltzer has chosen only one athlete as a hero. 

"More  are coming. But I do think we overglorify them," he said. "Scoring points doesn’t make you a hero. Helping people makes you a hero."

He said he will spotlight more scientists in the series, as well.

"We'll get to Jonas Salk. Believe me," he said.

He also said  he has some comic book stories he'd love to tell, especially given the current political environment, starring Captain America or others.

"I think about it more than you realize. We need all kinds of heroes more than ever."

He said he has the series planned through 2019 but is  open to suggestions.

"My ears are always open when it comes to heroes," he said, adding  that any doubt that he is filling a need  was demolished in November.

"During the week of the election, sales went up 20% alone just on 'I Am Martin Luther king Jr.' and 'I Am Rosa Parks.' The full month saw us increase 91% in sales from the previous year. Whatever side of the aisle you’re on, people are tired of politicians. They want real leaders. I think America is officially starving for real heroes. Our heroes are always magic mirrors. They show us our aspirations, but they also show us ourselves. Show me you’re hero and I’ll show you who you are."