Just a couple months before the debut of a new animated series based on the Ordinary People Change the World books, Brad Meltzer has chosen two more real-life heroes for the spotlight — Walt Disney and Marie Curie.
Illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos, the Ordinary People Change the World books were created by Meltzer as comic book-inspired stories for his kids to learn about real-life heroes. The books tell the history of people like Helen Keller, Abraham Lincoln and Amelia Earhart — but they feature them drawn as children, emphasizing that any ordinary kid can grow up to do extraordinary things.
With the release of I Am Walt Disney and I Am Marie Curie this week, Meltzer is focusing on the power of overcoming failure, facing obstacles and seeking new discoveries. According to Meltzer, Disney was his number one requested book yet (from kids and adults), and Curie was a female scientist he really wanted to teach his kids about.
Meltzer himself is an author of best-selling thrillers and comic books, and he’s been featured as an investigator on TV shows that research history.
But Meltzer might soon be better known as a cartoon character, as the Ordinary People Change the World books have inspired an upcoming animated series called Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum. Debuting on PBS on November 11, the TV series utilizes Eliopoulos’ drawing style and features one little character named Brad who looks a lot like Meltzer.
Newsarama talked to Meltzer about the two new books, the importance of teaching kids about overcoming failure, and what other comic book-related projects he’s working on.
Newsarama: Brad, these books have really caught on with kids and parents, so much that you’re getting a TV show on PBS soon. We’ve talked before about how you started the book series because you wanted your kids to have heroes from real life that were worth looking up to. But it feels like the series has really honed in on the traits that build character for children. Is that “character-building” idea part of the mission here, or maybe one that emerged after you started examining different heroes along the way?
Brad Meltzer: I think the world also changed since we started this book series. When we started this book series, it was almost six years ago. The country was in a different place. And our priorities were in a different place, and our culture was in a different place.
We had problems with teaching kids the difference between fame and being a hero, but never more than now — in recent memory — has it become so important to teach our kids about character.
That’s what is at the core of this book and has been since we first started them, is giving parents a way to teach their kids and their nieces and their nephews about character.
So I think the mission has just grown around us. We just happen to be in that moment of modern history where it’s become more vital.
Nrama: You’ve got two new books coming out this week — one on Walt Disney, and the other on Marie Curie. I remember reading one of your books several years ago where the characters ended up in the underground tunnels under Disney World. I get the feeling you’re a fan…
Meltzer: Yes! The Millionaires. The last hundred pages of my thriller The Millionaires take place in the secret underground tunnels of Disney World. So you better believe I am obsessed with this place.
Nrama: Has your admiration for Walt Disney been around since then? Or even earlier?
Meltzer: I live in Florida. Anyone who grew up in Florida, in high school, you’d have senior prom and then you’d also go to Disney World. It’s just part of the culture here.
And this was also a very personal one for me, because as a father, we have a tradition in our house where, once a year, as we’re driving to school in carpool, we drive past the school and surprise our kids by heading directly to Disney World.
The reason we did this is because I wanted to teach my kids that every day, there can be magic in your life. It certainly made it so — no matter what the day, they’d be like, is today Disney World day? Are we going to Disney World, Dad?
But that’s what Walt Disney stands for, is that idea that you can create real magic. That’s what creativity is. It’s a way to put good into this world. I think the world of superheroes is proof of that.
And so, when you’re doing a book like I Am Walt Disney, my admiration for him only grew when I saw what it took for him to achieve what he achieved.
Nrama: I’m surprised how little I knew about Walt Disney’s background.
Meltzer: We all see Walt Disney as this incredible, ultimate American success story. That’s what Disney World represents. And it’s a wonderful story, but the real story is even more impressive.
When you look at Walt Disney’s life, his father wasn’t encouraging about his drawings. It was his aunt who actually said, you know what? You should draw more. And here’s a book that you can draw in.
But I think what impressed me far more is, you know, we look now at Walt Disney’s great achievements, but we miss all of his failures. And there were plenty.
His first film company was a disaster. They told him he was going to have to go bankrupt it went so badly. He was 21 years old and so poor that he used to sleep in his office and could take baths once a week at the local train station.
I want my kids to know that you don’t get the great, shining success — you don’t get the Magic Kingdom — until you have failure after failure, and you don’t let it stop you.
Nrama: The other book that’s coming out, I Am Marie Curie, focuses on a woman that has a lot of accomplishments that are familiar to people. What was unique about her that you really wanted to highlight?
Meltzer: I really wanted to show my kids the power of a female scientist. The truth was, I didn’t know much about her myself. And then I started researching it and was just blown away.
Even as a little girl, she was told by the Russian government that she couldn’t study science. They wouldn’t teach science to girls because they thought it would give them too much power. And they were right. It did.
Marie Curie eventually decides she wants to be a scientist. But at the time, her university — her college — wouldn’t admit girls. So there was this thing called the Flying University. It obviously didn’t fly, but it was a secret college where they taught science to girls. It’s where she learned about the Periodic Table. It’s where she learned about elements.
Eventually, Marie Curie studied this thing called uranium, which we, of course, all know. But she was the one who realized there were rays coming out of it, that it released energy.
She gave a name to it. She invented the term “radioactivity.” That’s where it came from — Marie Curie.
She wins a Nobel Prize, then she wins another. For the first one, they wouldn’t even let her speak at the Nobel Prize ceremony, because girls weren’t supposed to win it.
I loved that, no matter what was in front of her, she never let it stop her.
That’s the real power of discovery. Just like Walt Disney, she has failure after failure, but she keeps going — just like any good scientist would, right? You don’t succeed on the first try.
I need my kids to learn that lesson of what a good discovery actually takes. It’s never easy.
Nrama: Marvel Comics #1000 just came out. Was that your first Marvel story?
Meltzer: It was. It was my first ever Marvel story, and my first Spider-Man story.
Obviously, it was one of those dreams come true. I’ve spoken to Marvel for many years about doing something. We’re constantly talking about what we can do. Finally, Tom Brevoort made the offer.
I had done Action Comics #1000 for my daughter. And I wanted to do one for my sons. So the Spider-Man story was for my boys.
Nrama: Any other comic book projects coming up?
Meltzer: I have a DC project — just a small one — but it will be coming soon, but I can’t say anything about it yet. But soon.