As the United States emerges from a year of political divisiveness, it seems that people are even more desperate for heroes. Or at least, Brad Meltzer has seen a tremendous increase in the sales of his book series that teaches about real-life heroes like Rosa Parks, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr.
Today is the debut of I Am Jim Henson, the latest in a series of books that give kids evidence that "ordinary people change the world" - the slogan Meltzer is using the publicize the books. A hero of Meltzer himself, Jim Henson was the American puppeteer who invented the Muppets that shaped the childhood of generations of kids on Sesame Street.
Drawn by Chris Eliopoulos, the I Am books feature tiny, childlike versions of people who've accomplished great things, like Albert Einstein, Amelia Earhart and Lucille Ball. Focusing on the early life of these heroes, Meltzer gives children someone real (and small) with which they can identify and - hopefully - emulate.
Meltzer's become recognized as an expert in all things heroic and historic lately, from his comic book stories and novels that feature heroic deeds to his television shows on History Channel that trace lost hhistory and expose the truth of popular conspiracies.
Newsarama talked to Meltzer about why he thinks sales are so high on the I Am books, why he chose Jim Henson as a hero, and what he hopes people take away from his books.
Newsarama: Brad, do you feel like people are especially looking for heroes right now?
Brad Meltzer: I think we're always looking for heroes. Our industry is proof of that. But we did see an unusual uptick as the election approached. And whether you were for Donald Trump or you were for Hillary Clinton, we saw - the week of the election - an unusual increase in sales in I Am Martin Luther King Jr. and I Am Rosa Parks.
In the time since Trump has been elected, we saw a tremendous bump, where we were up, I think the number was 91% from the November before. That's an unheard of number, and it's one that you have to stop and pay attention to.
And it seems pretty clear to me that, at times of great unrest - on either side - what people look to are their heroes.
Nrama: You mentioned "our industry." I know you're not only someone who writes comic books from time to time, but you're also a fan. But I think the popularity of fictional heroes is what alerted you to the fact that these books were needed, although I think it was your daughter's fascination with princesses that opened your eyes, right?
Meltzer: Yeah. It was more against princesses - I like my superheroes! [Laughs.] No, listen, we supported the princess cause here, but I was done with it. The superhero cause we still support and always will.
For me, it's because it teaches you qualities - the superheroes gave me, when I was younger, something I needed, something that I wasn't getting anywhere else. They taught me right from wrong. They taught me to look out for people who needed help. They taught me that you do something when you see injustice. I love those lessons.
I still want my kids to see those lessons from superheroes, but I also think there's a value in showing them those lessons in real life as well. And that's where this series was born.
Nrama: One of the things that has struck me recently, because I became a "big sis" through Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, is how disconnected young people feel from adult heroes like Rosa Parks that they learn about in school. They're more connected with, say, pop stars or Disney Channel actors. But I also notice kids identifying more with these same people in your books because you portrayed them as children. Your books talk about what the "heroes" were like as just normal kids. I assume you did that on purpose, with this in mind?
Meltzer: That's what happened. We've confused the word fame and the word hero. "Hero" has become this overused noun that we just kind of smack label on everything. And you're talking to a former Big Brother here, so I absolutely hear that concern. My own concern came from the same place.
In fact, one of my favorite stories every that's happened with these books is that someone in the comic industry gave I Am Rosa Parks to their daughter, and the daughter got to the last page and said, wait, this really happened? And suddenly, he was having one of his first conversations ever about race. And there's no better complement that we can get, is that that dialogue is taking place.
I think, for us, the reason we have Chris Eliopoulos draw these characters as kids was always the goal - it was to give them something to relate to. I mean, why did Batman ever get Robin? So the kids could feel part of the journey. Is that crass marketing? Maybe. Did it work? Absolutely.
And I learned that lesson early on, that if I want my kids to get off their screens, I have to give them something better. And by showing these people as kids, and telling the stories when they're kids - you know, seeing Jim Henson as just a boy - kids realize this isn't just the story of a famous person. This is what we're all capable of on our very best days.
Nrama: Let's talk about today's book: Jim Henson. He's from a different place than some of the other people you've done. Why did he strike you as someone who'd be seen as a hero?
Meltzer: For me, Jim Henson is the first hero we're doing who was actually one of my heroes growing up. I mean, I love Abraham Lincoln now, and I love Rosa Parks now as heroes, but I didn't care about them when I was a little kid. They were people in an old history book.
But when I was five years old, I watched Sesame Street and a guy named Jim Henson taught me that I could use creativity to make the world a nicer and kinder place.
And I feel in a strange way, this is the 20-year anniversary - 2017 is the 20-year anniversary - of me being a published author. I feel like it's the most appropriate time to bring this full circle, because that's all I get to do today is try to bring that same power of creativity to put some kindness in the world.
Nrama: I learned a lot about Jim Henson from this book. I guess I hadn't considered him a hero, but there's something really wonderful about the joy he brought to the world, isn't there?
Meltzer: I feel like a lot of people are so jaded and miserable and want to argue. You know, Twitter is there just to kind of be able to take all the things we hate and give voice to them.
And one of the things I love about Jim Henson is, when I really looked at him as a person, and when I looked at his work, it wasn't just that he was funny with puppets, or to make funny voices. He actually stood for something far bigger.
He stood for the idea that it's good to be good. And that may sound almost crazy - it sounds like the idea of a child. In a strange way, being a do-gooder is something that, in this industry and even in the real world, that we kind of think is an idea for children. When we say, "be good," we think of it as being something you say to a little child as you pat them on the head.
But it's an idea you should never lose track of. There's nothing wrong with being a do-gooder. There's nothing wrong with kindness and standing up for people like that. I just feel like we let our jaded side get the best of us. But it's something that, especially now, we need to get back to.
Nrama: What other books are coming up in this series of children's books?
Meltzer: The next one is Sacagawea, and then after that, we're doing Gandhi. We planned these heroes years ago, we made this list. And it's just amazing that between Jim Henson and Gandhi and Sacagawea, it just feels like this is the year we need those heroes most.
In fact, after the election, I was working on the Gandhi book - and not to get so artsy fartsy about it - but I'm never one of those people who feels like, "Oh, I need to put my prose into the world so it can echo and reverberate." I think for me, I write what I love. And I've always written what I love.
But this was one of the first times that I saw that what I was working on was something that I needed. And in a strange way, that's always how it is by the time I get to the end of the project. It's always about some need that I have. The stories I tell are what I need. And I just know I'm not that special, and so there are going to hopefully be other people just like me.
But Gandhi was just especially valuable to me right now, standing for that idea of, you know, you don't need violence, you don't need screaming, you don't need yelling, but you do need to stand strong against injustice where you see it.
To me, that's what these books stand for. It's almost like a corollary to the Jim Henson message of goodness.
Nrama: You mentioned that these books are doing well right now. Did you expect the success?
Meltzer: When I first pitched the project, I told them, "I don't want to do just six of these. I want to do a hundred." And they were like, "Yeah, that's a nice idea, but let's see how the first six do."
So it's great that they've signed us up to do even more. We're now signed up for 18 books. And again, I still want to do a hundred of them.
You know, when we grew up reading comics, the good guys fought the bad guys. And now, Superman fights Batman and Captain America fights Iron Man. We are, whether we like it or not, in our own metaphysical civil war. And I think, in a strange way, the only way we get out is if we get out together.
I've had enough of "us" and "them." And I think on both sides, we've all had a lot of "they're wrong" and "I'm right." But I'm done with "us" and "them." I think it's important that we get back to "we." And that's where the real power will come. And that's when the good guys really win.