Monday, November 24, 2014

Grantland, girls, and geeks

You haven’t noticed (because why would you) that I rarely post about sports. (Tangential exception.)

However, to my surprise, sports posted about me. Or rather about sports posted about my post about girls. The site Grantland, which is apparently huge (“apparently” because I wouldn’t know), gave one of my interviews a much-appreciated shout-out.

This is where that hyperlink goes.

Monday, November 17, 2014

“Dynamite” Magazine (1974-1992)

If you grew up in the 1970s, you remember this magazine. I remember ordering an issue with Superman on the cover through the Scholastic Book Club, or maybe I had a subscription. I thought the image on that cover was this:

But no such cover exists. So I have either the image wrong or the image right but the magazine wrong. This was the Superman cover at the time (1981) that I remember getting it:

(Yay, Greatest American Hero. No, the other one.)

What I did not know till now is that Dynamite outlasted my childhood. The second-to-last cover featured Beverly Hills, 90210, a show that hit big during my college years.

Dynamite came back into my mind (and my possession) because I bought a few back issues for research for a project. One issue had an interesting line in an article about Robin Williams (RIP stranger-friend)—interesting in that you can’t imagine that line running in any children’s periodical today. I’m sure it will pop out at you:

“…pretended to put a hamster into a microwave oven!”

I also noticed several covers featured performers from shows not aimed at kids, notably Gilda Radner of Saturday Night Live.

Lastly, one of the issues I got was practically nonstop with references to disco—another topic that would’ve meant little to most elementary school kids.

But then that was also the era of spotty parental supervision in the neighborhood, no bike helmets, Fluff-stuffed white sandwiches and Twinkies for lunch, and other defunct dangers for kids. What’s a little sexually charged dancing, racy humor, and animal cruelty between bites of your trans fats?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Picture books vs. children’s books

“…I have come to realise over time that I call them just that. Picture books. Not children’s books…I don’t believe they are just for children. I have met countless adults that collect picture books for themselves, and they are growing in confidence about openly admitting this in a book-signing queue. It’s not for my daughter, or a friend’s nephew. It’s for me…people who have discovered the joy of a story unfolding visually over a few dozen pages.”

—Oliver Jeffers in The Guardian, via This Picture Book Life

Sunday, November 9, 2014

My first-ever book signing

Not to be confused with my first-ever bookstore signing

The first time I signed books in public was on 11/9/96 at the Rizzoli Book Fair held at the World Trade Center. The book: The Felix Activity Book. I was with my co-author Leslie Moseley (in pink) and others from the publisher, Abbeville Press…including one (in black, looking at camera) who would become my wife.

Apologies for the goatee. And the tie.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Ally Sheedy wrote a children’s book…as a child

In 1975, Ally Sheedy’s first novel came out.

She was 13 years old.

The name on the cover is “Alexandra Elizabeth Sheedy”…but yes, it’s the Ally Sheedy who later acted in memorable films including The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo’s Fire (both 1985).

The title of her story makes it seem like a cuddly picture book, but the subtitle reveals (as if it weren’t already clear) that something rather sophisticated is going on: She Was Nice to Mice: The Other Side of Elizabeth I’s Character Never Before Revealed by Previous Historians.

Apparently, the book was published on the McGraw Hill adult list. And became a bestseller.

This uncommon accomplishment landed Ally on the game show To Tell the Truth:

Here’s Ally’s priceless expression when one of the celebrity panelists said that Ally already looked like a writer:

In January 2014, I contacted Ally’s management. I expected that if I heard back at all, it would be to turn down my request for an interview about a book that goes back decades and doesn’t directly tie in to the career that made her famous. Plus I’m not exactly Rolling Stone.

But as often happens, I was wrong…and thankfully so. Ally not only agreed but was honored someone was taking an interest. And not only that.

Because the book is so personal to her, she suggested we talk on the phone or meet. She asked if I lived in New York. I don’t but if that seemed like the only way to get the interview, I probably would’ve said I did and figured it out afterward.

By chance, however, I was planning to be in New York two weeks from then, so we arranged to meet—not to do the interview itself but rather so she could get a better sense of what I was about.

We had a long, lovely afternoon chat over hot drinks while the aftermath of a snowstorm had its slushy way with the city outside. We talked a little about the book, but more about other aspects of her life—her film career, her family, her work with students, what’s next
and life in general. Not long into it, I felt we’d been friends for a while.

I considered holding off on posting this till 2015, which is the 40th anniversary of the book (as well as the 30th anniversary of the two iconic films mentioned above), but you don’t hold off on Ally Sheedy.

I sent Ally what is, for me, a typical number and range of interview questions. Like many interviewees before her, she responded “That’s a lot of questions.” She asked me to narrow it down to four, which was far fewer than what I wanted to capture the process, but I was grateful for whatever she was willing to contribute:

What inspired you to write this book?

I was writing short stories all the time when I was a kid. I also acted them out as little plays for my family. I had an obsession with novels such as Stuart Little that used animals as major characters. I had also seen the movie Anne of the Thousand Days and was swept up in reading about the history of Henry the VIII and the Tudors. This story marries those two interests.

How did you get it published?

My mother, Charlotte Sheedy, was a writer at the time and is now a literary agent. She often had writers and editors over as they were a part of her circle. Her great friend, Joyce Johnson, was with us when I read and acted out the characters for the story I was writing about a mouse and a historical document. It was Joyce’s idea to bring it to McGraw Hill as a possible project.

What did your parents think of you publishing at a young age? What about your friends?

My parents were happy for my success but also wary about the fallout. Having a level of recognition was a double-edged sword. It was wonderful but it also set me apart from friends and caused me a bit of trouble there. It’s all fine. I think it gave me a blueprint for dealing with fame later on as an actor.

Did you write—or plan to write—a sequel, or another book entirely? If so, what happened?

I did not write a sequel. I had no plans for one. I did publish some articles in different publications and also wrote a book of poetry called Yesterday I Saw the Sun, which came out in 1989. [MTN: Looks like it was actually 1991.] I love to write and perhaps will do so in the near future!

I encouraged Ally to answer more questions if ever time and mood permit.

I also tried to find Jessica Ann Levy, the illustrator of the book; Ally is no longer in touch with her and I was unsuccessful. If you have any leads, please email me!

And on a lark, I searched the names of the two Ally impersonators from To Tell the Truth—and, astonishingly, found both with one click. Both now teach at universities. And one, Priscilla Craven, kindly shared her recollection of her game show experience:

How did you get onto To Tell the Truth?

My father, Richard Craven, was a writer on the show. He wrote the affidavits which were read at the beginning of the program and did the briefings of the contestants before each show. I had actually been on before, playing a 9-year-old water skiing champion. My mom was on as well, as was my younger brother. My dad would often call us in at the last minute. Cynthia Nixon’s mother, Ann, also wrote for the show and Cynthia was also on at a young age. So I knew both Cynthia and Ally before they became famous actresses.

You seemed perfectly comfortable. Were you nervous?

I was definitely a little nervous. I still get butterflies when I hear the opening music for the show, and I remember what it felt like to be standing behind the curtain when it was about to open. I settled down once the questions started…until I got the tough one from Bill Cullen—“What was the opening line of the book”?  I really had to think on the fly for that one!

Did you get paid, and if so, how much?

The stakes were $50 for each wrong vote, $500 if you stump the panel completely. So since Maria and I each got a vote, we got $100—split three ways! So it wasn’t a big payoff. (smiley)

How did your friends react?

It was exciting! I remember when the show aired and everyone was talking about it at school. My parents were divorced by then and we were living in Jacksonville, Florida, so it was a pretty big deal down there. I never thought I’d see the episode again, and then it appeared on You Tube a few years ago. It is just wonderful to be able to see it again and to share it with my friends and family. I’m a college teacher now, so my students think it’s pretty cool.

A decade later, when The Breakfast Club came out, did you make the connection to the Ally you were with on TTTT? If so, how?

I actually made the connection when I saw WarGames. Even though she and I didn’t keep in touch after TTTT, I recognized her right away. I didn’t know she had become an actress but she turned out to be in some of my favorite movies. The Breakfast Club came out when I was in college. The movie that was the most impactful for me was High Art. I was just out of graduate school in Boulder and struggling with my own coming out. Her performance in that movie was so strong and so moving to me. I’ll always be grateful to her on some level for playing that part, and it’s amazing that we had that small window of time together so many years prior to that.

Any other anecdotes?

I think what I remember the most was how much I loved Ally’s book. I was a huge reader of young adult fiction at the time—Elaine Konigsburg, Madeleine L’Engle, and the like. To prep for the show, I read Ally’s book—in one sitting. So I had a lot of respect for her before I even met her. I remember how friendly and funny the panel was—especially Kitty Carlisle and Peggy Cass. I don’t
at all remember Ally giving me the signed copy of her book in 1975—but it is still on my bookshelf!

Thank you again, Ally (and Priscilla) for revisiting this sweet overlap in children’s literature and pop culture.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Thirteen schools in Nebraska

As has happened multiple times before, I spent the second two weeks of October speaking in schools far from home. This time, in the unspoiled Nebraska towns of Elkhorn and Gretna. Hearty, lovely folks.

Glimpses along the way:

 Overseen at one school. Self-explanatory.

 This and the next two images are from 
West Dodge Station Elementary.

 Picturesque Zorinsky Lake, 
where I ran every other evening.
Most nerve-racking part:
finding a place to hide the keys to my rental car. 
I think I can trust you:

At Westridge Elementary, they ordered Superman and Batman
cookies for a staff lunch...

...but the bakery heard a name other than “Superman”:

(the bakery owned the mix-up, giving the school the 
Spider-Man cookies anyway and making the Superman ones)

Students at Hillrise Elementary decorated pumpkins based
on books they like, and three chose Boys of Steel:

On 10/23/14, thanks to Stephany Albritton, the kind media specialist who initiated this trip, I had the privilege of speaking to a fun class of teachers-in-training at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. A tangent or two floated to the surface, including an anecdote I shared about an author who signed 150 copies of his books...only he was not the real author.

Several days later, as thanks to me for visiting her class, Stephany gave me a copy of Boys of Steel...signed by people who were not the authors: the students. But this time, it was welcomed! They even posed as a bunch of Supermen, Superwomen, Batmen, and Batwomen:

Skyline Elementary a) held a contest for students to design posters announcing my visit and b) created a cool display true to its name:

Manchester Elementary was one of the schools that treated me to a homemade lunch, including this cake which cheekily welcomed not me exactly, but my blog:

Lastly, at Spring Ridge Elementary, I ran a game I regularly play during author visits in which I call up five pairs (each time one boy, one girl), one pair at a time, to answer certain questions. For the first time ever, I unknowingly called up two consecutive pairs who had the same two names...Ben and Ava. It may not seem noteworthy at first, but considering I have done this game for almost ten years, and considering "Ava" is not so common a name in my world, it sure shocked me!

Thank you, Nebraska! See you again soon, I hope.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Chupacabra restaurant in Washington DC

Chance brought me to the almost inevitable place to celebrate when my book The Chupacabra Ate the Candelabra comes out (hopefully in 2016).

Spotted from a bus:

The home page of what turns out to be a restaurant:

Best part? That phone number.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Robert Porfirio (interviewed Bill Finger in 1972), 1938-2014

On 10/19/14, Robert Porfirio passed away. I never met Bob and know little about him. What I do know is that he was wonderfully kind...and one of the most important people in the story of documenting Batman co-creator Bill Finger.

Bill’s legacy is lousy with people who—like Bill himself—have not gotten sufficient credit for their contributions:

  • Jerry Bails—the fan who “discovered” Bill, was the first to interview him (in 1965), and singlehandedly spread word to other Batman fans
  • Tom Fagan—another pro fan who interviewed Bill, also in 1965
  • Jim Steranko—the only author to publish an interview with Bill in Bill’s lifetime, in 1970
  • Thomas Andrae—the primary writer of Bob Kane’s autobiography (1989); it was Tom who urged Bob to give Bill as much credit as he could in the book

And Bob Porfirio.

On 5/20/07, which was at the tail end of my research for Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman, a generous novelist and popular culture historian named Will Murray contacted me (what follows is a consolidation of multiple emails):

I have discovered there exists an unpublished Bill Finger interview. Probably substantial. I and another researcher and looking at trying to get it into print. The interviewee is retired, but interested. The interview is at a university and will have to be released.

It shapes up like this. Robert Porfirio interviewed Finger late ‘60s or early ‘70s. [It turned out to be 1972.] And others. Never did anything with the interviews. He had worked at DC as office help, and through DC got this [entrĂ©e] to numerous comics people. Then went into teaching. When he [retired] from teaching, he left his papers at the university where he taught. They were forgotten.

But one of his other interviews fell into my hands in a strange way. I contacted [Robert]. Learned of these [other interviews].

On 6/30/07, thanks to Will, I first spoke with Bob. Nice as all get-out. He’d interviewed Bill at Bill’s place in New York. He remembered that Bill was a gentle guy who made Bob shut off the recorder for certain anecdotes, i.e. how editor Mort Weisinger would haunt Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel, calling him at odd hours to rip apart his scripts.

When Bob left his job at California State University, Fullerton in 1980, he left the interview there and kept no copy for himself. Upon hearing from Will in 2007, Bob asked Fullerton if they could track down the interview and they tried—but they found neither tape nor transcript.

In early 2008, when considering going to my first San Diego Comic-Con, I asked Bob (who lived in San Diego at the time) for advice on scoring a hotel room in the ultra-competitive crucible of Comic-Con booking. Though he barely knew me, he graciously offered me to stay with him. (I didn’t end up going.)

On 11/25/08, while packing for a transcontinental move, Bob emailed “I found some of the tapes I made of comic industry people back in the seventies.”


“I do see one tape marked ‘Finger.’


On 12/2/08, Bob’s son-in-law emailed me a digital copy of the 28-minute interview—the first time I’d heard Bill’s voice. It is only one of two known audio recordings of Bill speaking, the other being his 1965 panel at a New York comic convention. Bob’s full interview was subsequently transcribed in Tom Andrae’s book Creators of the Superheroes. And a clip of it is in the book trailer I made for Bill the Boy Wonder.

Bob, thank you for interviewing Bill Finger and for taking the time, 25 years later, to look for that interview for me. I know you had other accomplishments worth noting, but this is the way I knew you. I regret that we never met in person. You were a good man.

Special thanks to (and photo courtesy of)
Lareesa Mumford-Pope.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Getting to know the “Getting to Know Jon Scieszka” DVD

Like many authors of books for young people, I’ve long admired Jon Scieszka for his humor, his generosity, and his grooming. Once I had the pleasure of being on a panel with Jon, though this photo offers no proof.

I recently learned that a book I wrote makes a nonspeaking cameo in a Weston Woods film about Jon’s life, Getting to Know Jon Scieszka.


(The director’s cut was released under a different name—The Wolf of Wall Street.) 

Thank you, Jon, for including of Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman, and thank you for all you do to motivate boys to embrace the adventure of reading. You are the Wolf of Book Street.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Krypton of Omaha

Thank you again to Dean Phillips, owner of the spacious and special comic book shop Krypton Comics in Omaha, for inviting me to do a signing. I appreciated your initiative and generosity. You are a man with his finger on the pulse of both comics conservation and good hostmanship.

Plus you made one of the coolest promo posters I have had the privilege of appearing on (perhaps tied with this one):

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

My sequels

Felix Explores Our World (1999) sequelizes (and incorporates) The Felix Activity Book (1996). 

Vocabulary Cartoon of the Day Grades 2-3 (2010) sequelizes (prequelizes?) Vocabulary Cartoon of the Day Grades 4-6 (2005).

Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman (2012) sorta sequelizes Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman (2008). Well, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster do cameo in it...

The “Girl in the Video” interview series had a round 2 (2014)...following, of course, a round 1 (2013).

logo adapted by Leigh Cullen @DesignLeigh

The kidlit authors read bad reviews series launched with three videos and no certainty of continuation, but a month later, three more appeared.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The greatest Batman story ever told

Mark Waid wrote the biographies of the men who wrote and drew the stories featured in The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told (1988).

Here is the beginning of the bio for Bill Finger (which continued on the next page):

Two aspects jump out:

  • Bill has since been credited with writing four of the stories in the book (“Dr. Hugo Strange Strange and the Mutant Monsters,” “The Origin of the Batman!,” “The First Batman,” “Robin Dies at Dawn”), but only one (“Mutant Monsters”) is listed after his name. The book came out before the grassroots, meticulous detective work of sites including the Grand Comics Database; at that time, comics historians simply had not yet re-established who worked on some Golden Age stories. (Proof that it was not a deliberate slight: no one else in the biography section of the book is credited as writer for the other three stories.)
  • The word “created.” Mark doesnt break down which of those four A-list villains Bill created vs. co-created, but it was still a strong statement. (By the way, Bill created the first three.)

Thank you, Mark, for taking a stand at a time when that was risky; accurate as phrasing is, I am surprised it made it into print.

The greatest Batman story ever told? If you ask me, it is not in the book. In fact, it is not yet finished. It is the story of the legacy of Bill Finger, Batman’s primary creative force, being officially instated after 75 years.
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