When Brad Meltzer conceived the latest books in his "Ordinary People Change the World" series with artist Chris Eliopoulos - I Am Gandhi and I Am Sacagawea - he had no idea how divisive the social climate would be upon their release.
But he's hoping their examples of strength and leadership might be a step toward stopping what he calls the "us versus them" game and getting people back to a sense of "we."
The "Ordinary People" books were created by Meltzer and Eliopoulos as comic book-inspired stories for his kids to learn about real-life heroes. They tell the history of people like Helen Keller, Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, and Amelia Earhart - but they feature these heroes drawn as children, emphasizing that any kid can grow up to do extraordinary things.
With this week's release of I Am Gandhi and I Am Sacagawea, Newsarama talked to Meltzer about how these two books in particular echo the strength of superheroes and how Gandhi used a superpower he called "Truth Force" to change the world.
Newsarama: Brad, did you have a sense about the divisive environment right now when you picked Mahatma Gandhi for your next book? Or was it just kind of a happy accident?
Brad Meltzer: I had no idea. I didn't even realize it until the election night last year when I was talking to my own kids.
My oldest, who is far beyond the age of these books, but it hit me that what I wanted to explain to him as we were looking for leaders - as opposed to looking at politicians - I said to him, you know, you should read the Gandhi script.
The book wasn't wasn't drawn yet. Chris hadn't done any of the art, and all I had was the script, written the same way I write my comic books. And I handed him the script and was sort of reading over his shoulder.
And as I was reading it, I realized, wait - this isn't for him; this is for me. I need this right now.
I think what we've done for the past two years is we've played this amazing game. And it's called "Us Versus Them." And we're really good at playing it.
But I for one am tired of playing it.
And I feel like we need to stop playing "Us Versus Them," and we've got to get back to "we."
And to me, the more I looked at Gandhi, the more I realized that the tools he used were the tools that we can use if we want to get back there.
Nrama: One of the really endearing things about these books is they emphasize how one person can change the world, portraying these heroes as children and showing that their lives made a difference. Can you talk about what part of Gandhi's history you wanted to emphasize?
Meltzer: My superhero love shows in these books. And anyone who reads them knows that. And the opening of it is almost right out of a superhero origin story. It says, "He was the small one, the skinny one, the poor one, even the shy one … but never the weak one."
To me, that's what was so important to me when I read comics growing up, is just never feeling like the weak one because I always felt like the weak one.
The book culminates in that idea - it says strength doesn't come from the size of your body. It comes from the size of your heart.
That's as Superman as I can get in a book.
I think what I really wanted to show when you see him as a kid is those things that we all see in ourselves, whether as kids or as adults. And it's, you know, he's not some amazing student; he's not good at sports. What he loves to do is read.
Anyone reading this interview that we're doing right now is exactly the same - those of us who love comics, that's the one thing we have in common. Whatever side of the aisle we're on, however we viewed the world - whether we were a Marvel kid or a DC kid or an independent kid - whatever we were, we all had that one thing in common. We all loved to read.
And as a kid, that's what Gandhi started as. And I love that that's where he starts.
Nrama: Yeah, I noticed that in the book, you kind of give him a superpower - "Truth Force."
Meltzer: Yeah! You're right! That's exactly what he has. Gandhi has not only a superpower, but he has his own superpower team. He has his own true, lowercase "justice league."
He starts with, it's called Satyagraha. And the word actually - satya means "truth," and araha means "force."
And it's truly translated - he called it his Truth Force. Capital T - Truth - and capital F - Force.
And I'm doing my research and I'm like, wait. He had a justice league? This is incredible.
We look at Gandhi now and we think, oh, he's that cool skinny guy who starved himself and peace came.
But that wasn't the way the story worked. The reason it worked is because he had a philosophy behind him. His philosophy for his Truth Force was simple - it had three parts: 1) Civil disobedience. 2) Non possession (meaning you don't need to buy wealthy things; that's why he dressed in simple cloths). And 3) Non-violence, which is certainly the most important, and which was also translated as "love."
That is why Gandhi influenced Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.. And he was influenced by Henry David Thoreau.
It was those three tenets that made up his Truth Force, as important as having a trinity in a league or a trinity in your Avengers. Gandhi had the same thing.
Nrama: Looking through I Am Sacagawea, one of the things that is striking is that you make it clear that she's a mom and a teenager. It really emphasizes that anyone can do these great things and take these risks.
Meltzer: Yeah, you know, when you start these stories, you have your own preconceptions. And of course, she is the Native American girl. We've all heard the story, right? We see her doing a George Washington pose, but just in Lewis and Clark's canoe.
But that's not he story at all. As I read about her and learned about her, I realized that not only was she doing everything that the men were doing, but she was kidnapped. She was a slave to them. And she was doing it while she had a baby on her back, which is just unreal.
And I was like, you know, we can't shy away from this. So even though it's a kids' book, we talk about exactly that.
The way that we kind of try to frame it is, we always go right after the truth. And we say, listen, this is a book about shattering expectations. And nothing was expected of her, because she was a girl, because she was a teenager, because she was a mom, because she was Native American.
They expected nothing.
And she shatters all those expectations as she goes, because she starts doing not only what the men are doing, but she saves them! She is a necessary part of the team. Other people are left behind, but they keep realizing that they need this girl Sacagewea.
Nrama: With the combination of the illustrations and the first-person narrating, it's very relatable. They feel alive. That's particularly true with Sacagawea, who - like you said - always gets depicted as a heroic figure, but not always as just a person.
Meltzer: And the thing is, to me, the best thing about first-person is you can look through their eyes. But first-person only works if you feel like you have something keenly in common with them.
For me, the best moment is when Sacagawea is reunited with her brother, who's now the chief of her tribe. Before that, she had lost her tribe. She went out with Lewis and Clark. And a year later, she saw her own tribe again, whom she hadn't seen for many years. And there's her brother, whom she hasn't seen since she was little.
And he says to her, you made it back home. Lewis and Clark don't need you anymore. The next part of the journey, you know is going to be difficult. The Native Americans that you meet aren't even going to speak your language, so why are you going with them?
And to this day, no one knows the answer. Maybe she wanted to explore. Maybe she felt like she was part of the team. Maybe she just wants adventure. But the mission clearly, for her, wasn't done.
So the question is - and that I put right there in the book - what would you do?
And when you ask that question, it's not some dead girl who lived years ago and explored the Louisiana Purchase, but it's a question we all have. You have everything you want; you're right where you should be; you're surrounded by all the people you love; but there's this great unknown out there.
And should you go or should you stay?
We all ask ourselves that question, in all of our lives. It's a vital answer.
Nrama: Now that you're a few years into publishing these books, how have they lived up to your expectations for the project? And what books do you have coming up?
Meltzer: When we started this, I started this because of my love of comics. When I was reading, when I was growing up, and even now, that's what I love to read. I loved having that graphic telling of a story.
I started this solely for my own kids, and my expectation was, I'm going to just hopefully put a little more goodness in the lives of my kids.
What I found was, as I always find over and over, is I am not that special. There were so many parents out there who want the exact same thing for their kids. They want their kids to have better role models. They want their kids to stop looking at reality TV stars. They want their kids to stop looking at kids who are famous for being famous.
What I didn't realize is where the world would be.
As the election happened - and this wasn't a political thing; it was parents on both sides; Republicans and Democrats - parents just started buying the books like crazy because they were tired of the kids looking at politicians. And they wanted to show them something better.
And so the sales for the book in the last year alone, since the election, have skyrocketed, in a way that I've never seen in 20 years of doing this. In the book business, there's very little growth. And the comic industry knows very little growth. But these were the little books that could. And it's because there were so many parents, and grandparents, and aunts and uncles out there who just said, I want my kid to have something that's better. I want my kid to have someone that they can actually look up to, and I want to show my kid what a real hero is.
I think all of us who support this comic community, we disagree so much about so many things, but the one thing we all agree on is how vital a hero is in our lives.
I think that need that I had for my own kids has just been replicated over and over by so many other parents out there who love good heroes.
Nrama: In the spirit of comic books, can you give a tease about the upcoming books in the series?
Meltzer: In January, we're doing Harriet Tubman. And then Chris Eliopoulos, the master of all drawing, has been begging and he finally wins, because he finally gets to take "Ordinary People Change the World" into outer space.
Nrama: Oh! I can think of a three or four people who might work for these books in space.
Meltzer: Yep. We are finally getting to go into outer space. It reminded me of how, like, when the Wolfman and Perez Teen Titans started and you had all these grounded issues, but eventually they had to go into space.
And when they're going into space, you know something big's going to happen.
Well, we eventually get to go into space. So there's a tease for you.