For author Brad Meltzer, all the noise from boisterous personalities and politicians on social media and television just reinforces his belief that people need to “re-align” who they view as heroes.
That belief led Meltzer to launch his “Ordinary People Can Change the World” books for children, a series of non-fiction stories that spotlight great people from history. Drawn by Christopher Eliospoulos, the books were created by Meltzer - a comic book writer and fan himself - as comic book-inspired stories for his kids to learn about real-life heroes.
Next up? Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon, with a book called I Am Neil Armstrong out this week.
And like all the other books Meltzer’s released so far - including American icons like Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln and Amelia Earhart - I Am Neil Armstrong features the hero drawn as a child, emphasizing that any kid can grow up to do extraordinary things.
Newsarama talked to Meltzer about what Neil Armstrong can teach today’s kids, why he stands in stark contrast to today’s celebrities, and how Meltzer hopes the “Ordinary People” series will continue for many years to come.
Newsarama: Brad, your “Ordinary People Change the World” books are not only bringing to life the stories of real-life heroes, but they’re also filled with moral lessons that relate to each of the heroes. With Neil Armstrong, what ends up being the positive message that kids can learn?
Brad Meltzer: Every time, it’s a puzzle that I have to figure out. We all know that we like these people, right? No one’s going to argue that Amelia Earhart or Abraham Lincoln or Rosa Parks or Dr. King isn’t incredible, but you have to stop and ask yourself, you’re not writing the book from just your heart - it’s got to hit your head too. It’s got to have this real thing that makes sense for that particular person.
For me, it’s about trying to figure out, what is the moral lesson that I can give my own kids from this person?
It’s kind of like playing, you know, when you’re in college and you have to find the theme in a paper or in a great book. I just happen to be doing it in someone’s life.
And I think for Neil Armstrong, it was clearly all about taking that first step, and not just as a clever play on words, but I quickly realized that if you ask anybody what Neil Armstrong’s great accomplishments are, they’ll very quickly tell you that he was the first person who stepped on the moon.
And that’s obvious. Those people are right.
But as I looked at it, I realized that the only reason he got to take that “giant leap” is because of all these thousands of smaller steps he took before that.
So the book opens with him as a kid, climbing a tree. And just being able to do that, you have to make a plan, you have to figure it out, you have to execute it. And then he’s in that tree and he falls down. He falls 15 feet and lands on his back and is crushed.
And what’s the most important thing he does? He gets back up again.
And them he starts working and saving his money to be a pilot, then to be a test pilot, then to be an astronaut.
We all look at the giant leap, but we have to teach our kids about those first steps.
Nrama: When you talked about finding the key takeaway or the theme for these real people, I thought about how writers of comic books always try to find the core of comic book characters. Your experience writing comic books might have come into play here, although I know Neil Armstrong is a real person and Batman is a fictional one.
Meltzer: Yeah, I know it sounds absurd to say Neil Armstrong and Batman in the same sentence, but to me, they are the same. They really are. They’re American icons. In fact, who’s to argue - it’s the old story of, you know, the character who comes to life? Isn’t that why we love our heroes, because they’re going to have an effect on us and that we can be better people? That’s why I love Batman. It’s not just because I love watching him punch people in the mouth. I actually love him as I get older, and the reason I love him when I’m older is because of what he teaches me about myself and what I can aspire to. And that stubbornness that I hope I can apply in my own life for something good, that we can be a regular person but we can be better than what we would be in a given day.
Nrama: You’ve been doing these for a while. Did you suspect the series would keep going this long and be this popular?
Meltzer: Maybe this just reveals my narcissism, but when I went in to pitch the book series, and this was six years ago, we went in for I’m Amelia Earhart and I Am Abraham Lincoln. And they said, “Oh that’s great. You want to do two books.”
And I looked them straight in the face and I said, “No, I want to do a hundred.”
I think that just comes from the comic book side of me, right? You want to have the Action Comics #1000 party. That’s the fun.
So it was never about the quick kill. It was about trying to help people build a library.
Nrama: Are you getting feedback from kids about these?
Meltzer: That’s the best reward. I just went on Twitter the other day, and somebody wrote me what had to be the length of a car: A letter that was on a giant sheet of paper that they had unrolled, like you make a banner with.
It was a little kid who wrote me this letter, and it was like, “Hey Brad and Chris, we love your books, and here’s our list of demands!” And it was every hero they wanted us to do.
And I just love that kids are comfortable to write like that. In fact, I called up that family, and the mom was laughing on the phone. And I was like, listen, your kid writes a letter that long and you’ve got to get a phone call.
But watching their reactions is certainly one of the most silly and best parts of it.
Nrama: I think the last time we talked, I suggested John Glenn. And out comes Neil Armstrong…
Meltzer: And the thing was, when I spoke to you, I knew what we were doing, but we just hadn’t announced it yet. And I was like, oh, you’re either going to be really happy or really sad.
Nrama: I’m happy. It’s another of our Ohio boys, so it’s all good. That’s a challenge, though, to choose between John Glenn and Neil Armstrong.
Meltzer: No, and that’s the thing! I want to do John Glenn too! And I want to do Sally Ride even more.
Nrama: You’ve got to pick.
Meltzer: And it’s Neil Armstrong. Right?
Nrama: Well, when you get to a hundred books, you can have all those people in a book.
Meltzer: Oh, I’m going to get to them before that.
Nrama: You’re obviously passionate about this. And it was all born from the idea that we need to remember who the real heroes are, especially now, right?
Meltzer: Yeah, right now, whether it’s on Twitter or anywhere else, we tend to celebrate those who are the loudest. But I think when you look at someone like Neil Armstrong, who never sold out, never put his name on a restaurant, never put his face on a T-shirt, never made a big deal about what he did..
And he never used the word “I.” He always used the word “we”: “We did this,” “we accomplished this.”
It just reminds me that, when we look around today, we need to re-align who we look up to. I think it’s sometimes the quiet, the calm, the humble and the hard workers who give us a far better look at the kind of people we should be and can be.