When I was in elementary school, the real-life origin of Superman was not on the test. Or in the textbooks.
Today, of course, it still isn't.
But that doesn't mean my nonfiction picture book Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman is not relevant to curriculum.
The events of the illustrated portion of the book take place between roughly 1930 and 1940. The text-only, three-page afterword takes the reader through the rest of the lives of writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster.
Their story spans almost the entire century (both born in 1914, both died in the 1990s), but perhaps the most fertile way to incorporate the book into curriculum is via the Great Depression and World War II.
Here are review excerpts that mention one or both of these periods:
Fuse #8, a School Library Journal blog: "Nobleman even manages to draw ties to Superman's rise alongside WWII. Here was America in a strange war and 'People wanted a hero they knew would always come home. Jerry and Joe gave them that—the world’s first superhero.' The amount of research necessary for a book of this scope would have to be hefty and I was pleased to see a small list of Selected Sources available on the publication page."
Playback STL (St. Louis): "The story takes place during the Great Depression, yet just as easily speaks to the children of our own era. Author Marc Nobleman does not condescend to his young readers, nor does he shirk from mentioning the economic straits of the 1930s and the menace of World War II. Astute adults will draw parallels to modern events and hopefully both discern and reiterate an important underlying message: Bad times are coming, hard times are already here, and you know what? You can still make your dreams happen."
Firefox News: "Boys of Steel, a 70th anniversary celebration of Superman's debut, is...written by Marc Nobleman, a comics historian of sorts with a gift for dramatizing the creative process. [It] deftly sketch[es] the pop cultural context for comics' Golden Age; vividly bringing to life an entire era—socially and politically—and showing how it was reflected in the escapist entertainment of the day."
Kirkus: "Nobleman retraces Superman's role in World War II and beyond..."
School Library Journal: "The afterword fills in more of the details, including...how their Jewish background affected Superman during World War II..."
Read That Again: "...it does address the misery of the Great Depression..."
Good Reads member Nomi: "I appreciated how the author and illustrator team of this book placed the creation of this superhero in the context of the Great Depression and WWI, a time when Americans needed to believe in heroes."
Epinions: "The authors point out...that...the Great Depression itself...primed the pump for the particular kind of hero that Superman became."
WIRED GeekDad blog: "My seven-year-old son read the whole thing in about fifteen minutes, pronounced it 'great,' and then read it again the next day (entirely voluntarily)."
Here are sites that encourage bringing superheroes, comics, and/or picture books in the classroom:
Reading With Pictures—Josh Elder
Comics in the Classroom—Scott Tingley
Graphic Classroom—Chris Wilson
Teach With Picture Books—Keith Schoch
I've been in touch with all of these sites; if you contact any of them, tell them I sent you.
Here are ways to use Boys of Steel in the classroom, courtesy of others:
ReadWriteThing.org has posted a lesson plan intriguingly called "Is Superman Really All That Super?" (The answer is simple: come on. But still worth exploring.)
An Ohio teacher shared with me the lesson plan based on the book that he created, and he gave me permission to share it. Would you like me to email it to you?
Here are ways to use Boys of Steel in the classroom, courtesy of me:
- Explain the difference between "hero" and "superhero" and between an everyday person and a hero.
- Explain whether or not the Boys of Steel (Jerry and Joe) were heroes.
- Explain if you think Superman would've been as popular if he debuted at another time (i.e. not on the fence between the Great Depression and World War II).
- Joe drew Superman based on Jerry's verbally described concept. Teachers: Ask half the students in the class to create a superhero by description only (meaning explaining who the hero is and what he can do, not what he looks like) and pair them up with the other half to draw those heroes based on the descriptions. (In other words, divide the whole class into writer-artist pairs.)
- In WWII, the U.S. government sent Superman comic books to American soldiers overseas. Explain why you think the government did this and what you think the soldiers thought of it.
For older elementary:
- Jerry and Joe did not want to create a story in which Superman quickly ended WWII. Explain why you think they felt that way.
- Pick three superheroes (besides Superman). Find out when each was introduced. Speculate why each hero came out when s/he did. Do you think any are a product uniquely of their times or could they have been created anytime?
- Read the author's note in Boys of Steel. Explain what if anything you think Jerry and Joe could have done differently to help themselves.
- It's been observed that superheroes have increased appeal during periods of real-world strife. Explain why you think this happens.
- Superman is said to represent "truth, justice, and the American way." Explain what you think that means. Do you think "American way" has the same meaning now as it did when Superman debuted in 1938?
See also: Superman in the classroom.