Monday, January 9, 2017

"Batman & Bill" panel at Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour

In 1997, I moved to Los Angeles to try to sell three screenplays I'd written. In late 1999, I moved back east with three unsold screenplays.

File it under "bizarre" that I most recently came back to LA not because of a film I'd written but rather because of one I appear in. One, in fact, that is about me.

The Hulu feature documentary Batman & Bill tells the story of my nine-year effort (including the 2012 publication of my book Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman) to get Bill Finger's name added to the Batman credit line. The film releases in May.

On 1/7/17, I joined filmmakers Don Argott and Sheena Joyce, Bill's only known grandchild Athena Finger, and Athena's lawyer/sister Alethia Mariotta in Pasadena to participate in a panel at the annual Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour.

I saw actors from Hulu shows I have not seen including Michelle Monaghan, Alexis Bledel, and Aaron Paul.

The banquet room in which the panel was held was capped with blinding light and lined with long tables of journalists who have seen the film; they asked us questions for about 20 minutes. One of the journalists said I am even more obsessive than I admit. Then we mingled at a cocktail party.

A highlight: a Hulu exec told me his favorite part of the film is how the audience learns the last of the big twists of the story via my then-11-year-old daughter.

Overall, this new experience was lovely if whirlwind. It remains a tremendous honor to have a role in this story—Batman's story, Bill's story.


This wasn't a premiere but before I left, my wife made me a red carpet anyway.

The night before our TCA panel, I hung out with one of my best friends from college, Justin. We have a tradition of hunting for late-night donut shops and this time, the only one we found open was a place serving gourmet donuts and appropriately called Donut Friend.

Apparently all networks/companies participating in TCA get a day to themselves to present their upcoming offerings. Naturally each begins setting up the night before; here is a room where Hulu put out spreads of snacks.

Another room sported Hulu pillows. Here they are prior to distribution.

Don and Sheena chatting with a journalist.

My badge, perhaps implying it takes talent to be yourself.

The meat of the day was a blur and therefore I didn't take photos. Here is one from another source. And two courtesy of Hulu:

 I am not wearing a cummerbund made of flowers; 
those are on the table in front of us.

Here is the room where the cocktail party was held (and the pillows were arranged on various couches)…less than an hour after it ended. They break down these things so fast.

Among the coverage that posted same-day:

Thank you again to Perry Seaman, Melinda Casey, Rob Gati, and the rest of the Hulu team for making this happen.

6:15 a.m. the morning after

Monday, January 2, 2017

"Playful…humorously spooky" - "School Library Journal" on "The Chupacabra Ate the Candelabra"

Review of The Chupacabra Ate the Candelabra from School Library Journal (1/1/17): 

  • "a playful twist on outsmarting a predator"
  • "a lot of playful language throughout"
  • "Aranda's illustrations elevate this title and burst with humor"
  • "enjoyable monster book perfect for read-alouds or anytime a humorously spooky tale is in order"

Thank you, Danielle Jones of Multnomah County (OR) Library, for this review!

Monday, December 19, 2016

Write a wordless picture book

While doing an author visit at Renaissance Public School Academy in Mount Pleasant, MI, I came upon a project I feel is worth discussing, for two reasons.

The project: ask students to write a story for a picture book that has no words.

The reasons this is worth discussing:

1) it challenges students to use context clues and inference to unlock a story
2) the students doing this project are in middle school (grades 6-8)

In my school presentations, I routinely say that picture books are for all ages. I know a lot of adults—they all still like pictures and none (that I know of) require a minimum number of words before reading a book. A good story is a good story whether it's 500 or 100,000 words.

But some students feel picture books are for the littler kids (preschool to grade 1 or maybe 2). This is not the first time I've encountered middle (or high) school teachers who recognize the value of picture books for kids who can already read chapter books, but it is the first time I have heard of a project like this. It was initiated by teacher Therese Hubbell, who kindly explained the project and answered some questions.

The explanation:

We started by looking through the books and seeing if we could understand the story. I had them look through the book at least two times. Once they had a story in their minds, I had them write the story in their writer's notebook. To finish they read the story to our class.

Was this your idea, and if not, whose?

I am not sure if this is something out there but for the most part it was my idea. My students love picture books so I was looking for something to do that would be a little out of the box after we wrote our argument papers. This was having them take the love of picture books and add writing to it as well.

Are you wanting the students to decode the story as the author/illustrator intended or are they making up a story to go with the images regardless of the book's actual plot?

I allowed them to come up with their own. Each person interprets stories differently and this was interesting to see how different students came up with different stories for the same book.

What picture books did you use?

  • A Boy, a Dog, a Frog, and a Friend by Mercer and Marianna Mayer
  • Octopus Soup by Mercer Mayer
  • Journey by Aaron Becker
  • Quest by Arron Becker
  • Return by Aaron Becker
  • A Ball for Daisy by Chris Raschka
  • Daisy Gets Lost by Chris Raschka
  • Flora and the Flamingo by Molly Idle
  • Flora and the Peacocks by Molly Idle
  • The Boy and the Airplane by Mark Pett
  • The Girl and the Bicycle by Mark Pett
  • The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee
  • The Lion & the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney
  • The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher by Molly Bang
  • Free Fall by David Wiesner
  • Pancakes for Breakfast by Tomie DePaola
  • The Land of Lines by Victor Hussenot
  • Oops by Arthur Geisert
  • Hunters of the Great Forest by Dennis Nolan
  • Pool by JiHyeon Lee
  • Flashlight by Lizi Boyd
  • Fish by Liam Francis Walsh

Do you assign the books or do kids choose?

I just handed each student a book.

Have many times have you done this?

This was the first time.

Do any kids this age resist working with picture books (perceiving them as book for younger children)?

My students love picture books. I read a picture book a day to my ELA class. One day, I forgot and the students took it over! They were excited to put their own spin on the books. Our librarian has shown them wordless picture books before so they were aware of them.

How do the kids react to this assignment in particular?

At first unsure but as they get into it they love it. I had full class participation and everyone read their story.

Friday, December 9, 2016

The three Jerrys

My school presentation includes both Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman and Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman, which means the audience must keep straight three Jerrys:

  • Jerry Siegel, co-creator/original writer of Superman
  • Jerry Robinson, early ghost artist on Batman/co-creator of Robin and the Joker
  • Jerry Bails, first known person to interview Bill Finger, revealing him to fandom in 1965

 Jerry (Siegel)

Jerry (Bails)

Monday, December 5, 2016

Speaking at Google: I'm feeling lucky

On 12/1/16, I Googled.

The traditional way...but also in person. I had the honor of being invited to speak there as part of their Talks at Google program, which has hosted everyone from Hillary Clinton to Lady Gaga.

Thank you to the kind crew who hosted me (and one of my editors, Nancy Paulsen, who made time to attend).

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Kidlit authors read their bad reviews, UK edition?

Well, not quite. But ONE UK author, Jonathan Emmett, did follow our lead and share a particularly critical review.

Here's hoping his mates will join in; it looked like it would happen soon after ours launched in 2014, but then it fizzled. I'd love to finally see this series presented in a British accent. 

Sunday, November 27, 2016

National Press Club Book Fair and Authors' Night 2016

On 11/18/16, a day after returning from Vietnam, I had the honor of participating in the 39th annual National Press Club Book Fair and Authors' Night in Washington DC. 

It meant standing from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m., which to me and my fresh case of jet lag was really 5:30 to 8:30 a.m. the next day. The chance to talk books has a way of invigorating me, though I can't say I wasn't wiped out by the end.

I'm definitely not a politician or pundit, and while I'm also not a cultural legend, there are no other options:

It was a pleasure to see author/illustrator friends Henry Cole, Mary Quattlebaum, and Minh Le there, plus meet new folk. And it was a thrill to be in a room that has hosted presidents, humanitarians, rock stars, and other luminaries, not to mention, of course, 38 prior years of authors.

  Photo courtesy of Bruce Guthrie.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Saigon South International School

After a wonderful week in north Vietnam, I relocated to south Vietnam for a wonderful half-week. Just as United Nations International School of Hanoi had warmly welcomed me, so did Saigon South International School.

Making this an especially special school visit was the fact that I was invited by Mandy Friedman and Lara Keller, both of whom had hosted me at previous international school visits (in the United Arab Emirates). Now I've managed to not get my photo taken with either of them in TWO countries.

As with the streets of Vietnam, the parking lot of the school is dominated by bikes, not cars:

Fire drill:

One student asked me a question that I don't believe I've gotten before: was Bob Kane sad when Bill Finger died? I don't know the answer but my guess is...a little.

Speaking of Bob, given that this visit was less than a week after the U.S. presidential election, I suddenly saw Bob's gravestone in a new light—and spontaneously told the middle and high school groups to whom I spoke that "even Donald Trump's grave would be more understated than this."

Both groups applauded wildly.

I liked this sign in the cafeteria but felt the word choice was iffy in a country notorious for a long, brutal war:

Perhaps the most bizarre moment of my time in HCM was a phone call.

One of my four nights there, I committed a cultural crime: I ate at a Domino's Pizza. (It, too, was just so conveniently located.) They include a free beverage of your choice with every pizza, but they were out of water, which was the only drink I wanted. A manager felt so badly about it that she apologized multiple times (in excellent English), then walked out with me to continue to apologize on the sidewalk in front. I assured her it truly was okay, but it took some work.

The next day, when I passed through the school library just prior to leaving, the library assistant (the same who prepared directions for me the day before) told me I'd gotten a call there—from Domino's.

The caller had said I'd left something at the restaurant—but I knew I hadn't. (I wasn't carrying anything when I went there.) Literally as the assistant was giving me this message, the phone rang—it was Domino's again. The caller asked to speak with me. When I came on, I could tell it was the same manager who apologized about the water. She said I didn't really forget anything but she wanted a plausible reason to tell the person who answered the phone.

I was trying to remember if I had told her I was working at the school; if not, she must have assumed than any American in that neighborhood would be. But that would not explain how she would know to ask for the library to reach me.

I was not clear why the manager had gone through the trouble to call me at the school. She apologized yet again and wished me a safe trip home, but it seemed like there was more to it than that—and if so, I still haven't figured it out. While I was listening blank-faced, my hosts stood to the side quietly laughing in disbelief.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Gooooood morning, Vietnam to goodnight Saigon

After a week in Hanoi and a weekend excursion to Halong Bay, I headed south to Ho Chi Minh City for three days of presentations and writing workshops at Saigon South International School.

After the Vietnam War, in 1976, the city was renamed from Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City, though the changeover has exceptions (for example, Saigon is still the name of the city center).

It struck me that I have quite a few songs about Vietnam in my music library:

  • "Goodnight Saigon" by Billy Joel
  • "19" by Paul Hardcastle
  • "Walking on a Thin Line" by Huey Lewis and the News
  • "For What It's Worth" by Buffalo Springfield
  • "I Have Seen the Rain" by Pink and James T. Moore (her dad, who wrote it)
  • "7 O'Clock News/Silent Night" by Simon & Garfunkel
  • "Last Train to Clarksville" by the Monkees (who knew?)
  • "Blowin' in the Wind" by Peter, Paul, and Mary (Bob Dylan cover)

My hotel, Hotel Opera, run by an Australian, is named for the Sydney Opera House. It was conveniently located right across the street from the school.

I arrived on the Sunday night still in some form of shock following the U.S. presidential election the Tuesday before. Signs that America can unify are everywhere, even in a small hotel in Ho Chi Minh, if you choose to see them. These bottles were already in that order; no rigging here:

Ironing was not permitted in the rooms. I asked how I could get something ironed and was told I'd have to wait till 8 a.m. the next morning. But that was later than I needed to be at the school. So the employee at reception said I could go up to the fifth floor and iron it myself.

The fifth floor was not only the laundry area but also what looked to be someone's private but doorless apartment. In fact, she was sleeping on the tile floor of the laundry room while I quietly availed myself of the nearby ironing board.

The only pocket of daytime I had to explore the city was Tuesday afternoon. I had only three destinations, all sites of (in)famous photos taken during the Vietnam War: the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk (1963), the point-blank summary execution of a Vietcong war criminal (1968), and the helicopter evacuation of the Embassy of the United States (1975).

 Malcolm Browne

 Eddie Adams

 Hugh Van Es/UPI/Newscom

Given how far apart these sites were from each other and from my hotel, and factoring in HCM traffic, I made it to only the first two (which were the two I most wanted to see anyway).

The immolation:

It took me a few minutes, but I eventually oriented myself by finding one remnant of the 1963 landscape still present today. It is a building made from large white blocks visible in a 1963 photo taken from another angle:

The execution:

As with the surroundings in the monk photo, the skyline here is totally different than it was when the photo was taken. I am trusting this site for providing this address (which I found nowhere else).

By the way, the backstory of the police chief who shot the Vietcong is fascinating and heartbreaking.

Also fascinating: I needed help plotting out the best way to get around to these sites in part because they are not marked with a sign or statue and in part because taxi drivers generally don't speak English. I consulted a knowledgeable Vietnamese library assistant at the school, who kindly wrote instructions for my taxi driver:

I showed her the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of the execution—and was surprised she'd never seen it before. But I shouldn't have been because that disturbing incident—along with much of the rest of that devastating war—is not commemorated there.

One of my proudest moments in Vietnam—and one of the biggest adventures in Asia—is crossing the street on foot. This is the rotary I had to navigate to get to the site of the execution photo (my taxi driver would not drive into it):

To end on a light note, I was happy to discover these cute, crunchy, snappily packaged little apples from New Zealand.

Goodnight Saigon.

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