Brad Meltzer may write mythical superheroes in comic books, but his new book series teaches kids that we can all be heroes.
In today's release of I Am Amelia Earhart and I Am Abraham Lincoln, Meltzer focuses on the early life of the iconic American figures — as adorably drawn children that kids today can emulate.
Featuring art by Chris Eliopoulos, the I Am books are the first of a series that give kids evidence that "ordinary people change the world" — the slogan Meltzer is using to publicize the books. Future installments by the pair will focus on other American heroes like Rosa Parks and Albert Einstein.
Meltzer's become quite an expert on America's iconic heroes — real and fictional. He just wrote a comic book retelling of Batman's first appearance in this month's Detective Comics #27, and his most recent prose work focused on sharing facts about unsolved mysteries in History Decoded: The 10 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time.
Newsarama talked to Meltzer about his I Am kids books, his idea of what "hero" means, and what he hopes kids will take away from these historic figures.
Newsarama: Brad, what inspired you to write kids books? And particularly, non-fiction, illustrated kids books?
Brad Meltzer: I blame it all on my daughter. I was just tired of my daughter looking at television, or any website or magazine cover, and being told that she should look up to reality TV show stars or loud-mouth athletes. And I just thought, there are so many better heroes out there. I owe it to my daughter to give them to her.
And I was lucky enough to meet Chris Eliopoulos, who really was able to put pictures to my words and give her not just a book, and not even just a history lesson, but my hope is, stories and values she can live by.
Nrama: The stories are so down-to-earth, because they portray these figures from history as children. It looks like a history book on the surface, but it's something else, isn't it?
Meltzer: The goal of these books is not to teach us stories about famous people. The goal is to remind you what we're all capable of on our very best days.
To me, that's history's best lesson, is that it is made up of us. History is us.
We've started to put these people on such pedestals that they weren't people anymore. They became icons and lowercase-g gods. And for me, the important reminder is that they're just like us. We are all strong and weak and brave and cowardly and amazing.
And I think that's important for us to remember.
Nrama: One of the best things about the series, I think, is that it really makes clear that these are real people. That any kid can do the stuff that Abraham Lincoln was doing as a kid, and can continue to stand for something the way he did. Is that what it means to be a hero?
Meltzer: You know, when I started, I didn't know what a hero was. But when I really break down people who I think are heroes — and I mean this in every sense, from Superman and Batman to Amelia Earhart and Abraham Lincoln — I think that what a hero is is someone who helps someone else.
And some of them do it very obviously. You free the slaves? You're a hero. You get down in the gutter like Mother Theresa and give someone food when they're starving? You're a hero. But there are people like Amelia Earhart, who has no idea when she gets on that plane that decades later, she's going to inspire a whole new generation of people. And she's a hero because she inspires us. And that has to count.
So to me, that's what a hero is — you have to help someone else.
Nrama: Does this work in conjunction with Heroes for my Daughter or Heroes for my Son, since you already had some of these people in mind from history?
Meltzer: The funny thing is, when we first started, I just thought, "Oh, we'll just put pictures on it, and it'll be a way to get a whole generation of kids." But the reality is, that was pure laziness on my part, and we ended up doing much more.
When Chris Eliopoulos handed in the first art for me, when we were drawing it, my editor said to me that the art was so beautiful that we needed to make the words match the art.
I love Heroes for my Son and I love Heroes for my Daughter — those are one-page stories of heroes — but this is a true fleshing-out of those stories.
One of the things that I found, when I was telling the stories to my kids, is that what my kids kept reacting to, especially in Chris' art, was when we told the stories of what these heroes were doing as kids.
So it's one thing for me to say, "Amelia Earhart flew across the Atlantic Ocean." My daughter probably would go, "well, big deal… everyone does." But when I tell her that, at seven years old, Amelia Earhart built a homemade roller coaster in her back yard, by putting roller skates on the bottom of a wooden box, lugging it to the top of her tool shed and putting two giant two-by-fours running down from the roof and then careening off of it, flying through the air — and that was really the first time Amelia Earhart flew, when she was just seven — now my daughter reads that and goes, "Oh, Amelia Earhart's just like me! She's brave, she's crazy, she's fun!"
And when they saw Chris' art, that became their favorite part of the book. And I knew then that this is what the series should be — these stories of what these people were like as kids.
Nrama: You also have shirts that people can buy from your website?
Meltzer: Yeah, those were made for an audience of one — my daughter. And I was just tired of her wearing shirts with princesses on them. One of the benefits of working in comics is access to these incredible artists.
And what I love about Chris' art is that it has heart. There are artists who can do different things — artists who can do expressions, artists who can do backgrounds and make them super-realistic. But I think one of the hardest things to do is heart.
Chris has that kind of Peanuts meets Calvin and Hobbes style that just gives it heart.
So full credit and blame to him that, when I saw his art, I put it on a shirt for my daughter. And then my wife wanted one. And my daughter's friend wanted one. And here we are today.