Brad Meltzer and Chris Eliopoulos Debut TV Series on PBS That’s Anything But “Ordinary”

The men who brought you the Ordinary People Change the World book series have created a TV show! Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum premiered November 11, 2019. I spoke with author Brad Meltzer and illustrator Chris Eliopoulos about how they paired up, why they like writing and drawing, and what they hope kids will learn from the new series.

Chris and Brad share a love of comic books, and got closer with the power of Twitter. Brad proposed they write a series, and Chris was happy to help. They’ve written dozens of books in the Ordinary People series since 2014.

You might be a bit curious about the name of the new TV series: Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum isn’t something you hear too often. As a kid, Brad always liked names with the letter X in them. Xavier is one of these rare few. He also loved riddles. Puzzling things out was a favorite activity of his. Hence the name, Xavier Riddle.

Brad was inspired to become a writer thanks to his ninth grade English teacher, Mrs. Spicer. She told him he could write. Brad was dubious — he didn’t expect to be a writer. However, when he wrote his first book, he visited his teacher’s classroom, thirty years later, and said to her, “My name is Brad Meltzer, and I wrote this book for you.” The teacher started crying. When he asked her why, she explained that she was planning on retiring that year, because she didn’t think she influenced anyone. Clearly, she was wrong.

I Am Marie Curie

Brad picks his subjects with a particular characteristic in mind: “I always chose a hero, not because they’re famous, but because their life provides a lesson that I can give my own kids, and, truthfully, that I need myself.” The hero’s childhood is what strikes Brad as the most interesting for young readers. When talking about his biography of Amelia Earhart, Brad said that, “I loved the idea that there was this little girl, and everyone said to her, ‘You’re never going to be successful. You’re never going to be able to do what you want to do.’ And she just didn’t care. She just kept plowing forward. She wouldn’t let anything stop her. That’s the lesson I want for my sons, it’s a lesson I want with my daughter.”

Now let’s talk about the illustrator. Chris always knew he was talented at art, especially as a kid. “If you’d asked me back then, ‘Would you rather go to Disneyland or would you rather sit and draw pictures?’ I’d rather draw,” he said. He grew up a shy child, and Chris drew pictures to tell other people what he was feeling. “I would give these drawings to my parents, and they would read these stories and go, ‘Oh, okay, now we know what’s going on in Chris’s life.’” As an adult, he decided that he wanted to be a children’s book illustrator.

Brad and Chris work closely when it comes to the book or television creating process, as Chris explained: “Brad writes a script, and then sends it to me, and we talk about it a little bit, and then I go off and I draw the whole book out in pencil, so that everybody can see it. We decide if something works or doesn’t work. He’ll suggest things, or I’ll throw things in. Once everybody’s in agreement, I go back and I fix the things that need fixing, and I ink it up in ink, and then I send it back again. And then they all decide what looks good, what looks bad, what needs to be fixed. And then I go back and fix it, and then I color the whole book and I send it back.”

I Am Walt Disney Cover

Sometimes, the people in the books have a say in how the book will look. During the creation of I Am Caring: A Little Book About Jane Goodall, for example, Jane read the book and made Chris go back and re-draw over ten pages because she was holding hands with wild animals in the pictures, and she didn’t find that appropriate for children. Chris told me that it was tiring to go back and redraw so many pages, but, in the end, the book did turn out to be better!

When I told Chris that his work seemed to resemble the Peanuts cartoons, he replied, “They’re my favorite thing in the whole wide world!” he explained why he adored them: “Peanuts was the biggest influence in my life. When I was a little kid, my uncle owned a remaindered book shop — basically where all the leftover books went. I used to take all of the Peanuts books–I still have them here in my studio–and I would just read them, cover to cover, all the time.” As he got older, Chris discovered Calvin and Hobbes, a popular cartoon by Bill Watterson about a boy and his tiger. Look at Chris’s drawings: big heads, tiny bodies, strange squished faces. The Peanuts cartoons look quite similar.

Xavier Riddle aims to teach kids the same message that the books do: that kids, no matter what, can be extraordinary. Brad said that making sure these stories are exciting is important to keep kids interested: “If you remind kids that these aren’t the stories of famous people, this is what we’re all capable of on our very best days, suddenly kids will look and go, ‘tell me more about that.’”

Abigail C. Richter is a fifth grader and lives with her parents and two basset hounds in New York. 

Brave Flies and Barking Spiders Featured in New Series by Kyle Sullivan

HOBGOBLIN AND THE SEVEN STINKERS OF RANCIDIA by Kyle Sullivan (Hazy Dell Press. 168 pp. $15.95). Ages 6-8.

 

         Are you somebody that likes fart jokes and happy endings? If so, then this is the book for you! Hobgoblin and the Seven Stinkers of Rancidia, the first book of the Hazy Fables series, is the hilarious second coming of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. (Do you see the resemblance?)

 

          In this funny tale, the last hobgoblin in the world sets out to stop the bad-tempered King Fiddlefart from cleansing his subjects and making them smell wonderful. On his heroic mission, Hobgoblin acquires some friends who want to help as well: a squirrel, a ball of dung, a mummy, a skeleton, a bug, a sloth, a furry thing with glasses, something named Grody that can’t be explained, six flies, and some spiders that bark like dogs.

 

          This story is like nothing you’ve ever read before. With gross heroes, a guide to the characters, and a map, it’s something you’ll instantly fart with glee about.

 

Abigail’s Q&A with Children’s Picture-Book Creator Artie Knapp

Children’s picture-book author Artie Knapp has a knack for writing charming children’s books, and with the publication of  The Wasp and the Canary in 2006, Knapp found his life’s calling and now claims five children’s books and over forty published stories to his credit.
Last month, Ohio University Press published the Green Earth Book Award shortlist finalist’s latest book, Little Otter Learns to Swim ($15.95, 32 pages)a tale that follows a baby river otter as she learns how to navigate her environment. Unlike a baby otter at the Columbus Zoo where a baby otter was plunged into the water by its mother–sink or swim, as the saying goes–Knapp’s creature is guided by a far more understanding mama. Accompanied by sweet and charismatic illustrations by wildlife artist Guy Hobbs, the rhyming picture book is a lovely introduction to water habitats, conservation, and the importance of trying new things.
Abigail spoke recently with Knapp about Little Otter Learns to Swim and asked about his writing process, his favorite books, and how he overcomes the dreaded writer’s block.
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1. What inspired you to write this book? While watching my daughter learn to swim one afternoon, I wondered what animals have to be taught as well. So when we arrived back home, I began doing some research. I would have guessed that river otters know how to swim the moment they’re born, like some other animals do. But I was surprised to learn that river otters are taught to swim by their mothers when they’re one to three months old. That intrigued me and got me started with writing my story.

 
2. Do you always write about nature? I don’t always write about nature specifically, but nature is something that I am passionate about. I did write the picture book Living Green: A Turtle’s Quest for a Cleaner Planet. Animals are usually the main characters in my stories. I care about the well-being of animals, so I suppose that’s why I use them in my writing so frequently.

3. Are all of your books written in rhyme? Little Otter Learns to Swim is my first book written in rhyme. I have however had children’s poems published in publications such as Humpy Dumpty’s Magazine, and in Oxford University Press course-books.

 
4. Do you always work with the same illustrator? If not, do you have a choice in who illustrates your book? I don’t always work with the same illustrator, and it’s ultimately the publisher who decides who will illustrate the book. I have been very fortunate with the illustrators who have illustrated my stories.

 

5. Is your favorite animal an otter? If not, what is? I like river otters a lot, but if I had to pick a favorite animal, it would be my cat, Bella. Her nickname is Bell-Girl. She is often sitting on my desk as I write my stories.

 
6. How do you know when the story is just right? Do you read it out loud? I do read my stories aloud. As I have progressed in my career, I’ve learned to set my work aside when I think it’s done. Then after a couple of weeks, I’ll reread my story to see if I still like it. A fresh set of eyes after some time has passed has helped to make my work better. If it still reads the same to me after coming back to it, then I usually feel that the story is right. Other times I’ll come back to a story after a break and make changes. Then I’ll set it aside again and come back to it until I feel that it’s where I want it to be.

 
7. Do you visit schools or libraries? I have visited both schools and libraries, but mostly schools. It’s a lot of fun doing author visits. I enjoy speaking with students, and they inspire me to keep writing.  

8. When did you know you wanted to be a children’s book author?  I originally started out writing science-fiction stories. Randomly, I wrote a children’s story titled The Wasp and the Canary. That story along with another one I wrote titled The Hummingbird Who Chewed Bubblegum were published simultaneously on a popular site called Candlelightstories.com. Getting published is a great feeling for an author. Those two stories getting published encouraged me to write another children’s story. After writing my third children’s story Sprinting Spencer Still Wants to Run, I felt that I was onto something. From there, I began to write children’s stories frequently and now cannot imagine not writing stories for kids.

9. What kind of books did you read growing up? I didn’t read as much as I should have growing up. I was always outside playing and watched a lot of T.V. I did enjoy comic books and read a lot of classic picture books stories. The Hardy Boys series are the first books that I remember finding hard to put down.

 
10. What are your favorite children’s books? I enjoy stories that don’t necessarily have a defined ending, but make you the reader left to ponder what happened. My favorite picture book creators are Peter Brown, Don Freeman, Kevin Henkes, Robert McCloskey, Chris Van Allsburg, and Maurice Sendak. Where the Wild Things Are by the late Maurice Sendak is my all-time favorite picture book.
 
11. What do you do when you’re having a hard time writing or coming up with an idea? I like to take walks. I enjoy the exercise and the fresh air helps too. I also enjoy listening to music. Music often helps me to get back into the zone of being creative. 

Abby and Jack Review Two New Children’s Books

Abigail is back, this time with her friend Jack to review two new children’s picture books. Jack tackles Zachariah Ohora’s latest fuzzy caper involving a pair of apartment-dwelling felines, while Abby looks at a canine compare-and-contrast board book by French illustrator Élo. Both are great choices for early readers to enjoy during the dog (and cat) days of summer.

Niblet & Ralph, by Zachariah Ohora, Dial Books for Young Readers; $17.99, 32 pages, ages 2-6. 

Niblet and Ralph is about two cats and their kid owners. The four of them live in the same building, but only two of them know it. A tragic mystery happens that brings the humans together–be sure to read the book to find out! The cover shows a cat wearing headphones–how adorable!

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Images reproduced with permission from Dial Books.

Contrary Dogs, by Élo, Candlewick Studio; $12.00, 20 pages, ages 0-6. 

Contrary Dogs is a funny book about all different types of dogs–opposites, really. For example, one has spots, another doesn’t. Plus, it’s a book where you can lift the tabs–who doesn’t like those? Your child will love exploring the tabs and reading all about these amazing dogs!

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CONTRARY DOGS. Copyright © 2016 by Éditions Sarbacane. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA on behalf of Walker Books, London.

The 2018 NGC Bocas Lit Festival Coming to the Caribbean in April

Need a literary justification to visit the Caribbean this spring? Consider the NGC Bocas Lit Festival, taking place in downtown Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago. Billed as the region’s premier literature festival, the Lit Fest is devoted to developing and promoting Caribbean authors by hosting five lively days of author panels, workshops, film screenings, and performances. Held at the National Library and Old Fire Station, the festival will run from April 25-29 and is free to the public.
In addition, NGC organizers will be announcing the 2018 prizes for Caribbean literature on April 28. Launched in 2011, these annual awards recognize the previous year’s most notable additions to the Caribbean canon. Last year’s winners included Jamaican poet Safiya Sinclair’s Cannibal (University of Nebraska Press), Augustown by Kei Miller (Weidenfeld and Nicolson) took home the top prize for fiction, and Virtual Glimpses into the Past/A Walk Back in Time: Snapshots of the History of Trinidad and Tobago by Angelo Bissessarsingh (Queen Bishop Publishing) won for best non-fiction work.

The overall winner receives an award of $10,000, while category winners each receive a cash prize of $3,000. Eligible submissions must have been first published in English in 2017 and written by a single living author who either holds Caribbean citizenship or was born in the Caribbean. (Though Francophone authors hailing from Haiti, Guadeloupe, and Martinique aren’t necessarily eligible unless they write in English, their work can be considered for the Prix littéraire des Caraϊbes et du Tout-Monde and the other prestigious French awards like the Prix Goncourt.)
The NGC Lit Fest goals are to both celebrate the Caribbean’s literary achievements while also maintaining the region’s literacy rates, which hover around 97 to 99 percent of the overall population. Haiti remains the exception, where the literacy rate is near 60 percent, despite a rich two-hundred-year history of producing talented writers like Toussaint LouvertureJean Price-Mars, Dany LaferriereJacques Roumain, and Marie-Celie Agnant.

 

Need another reason to book a flight? Check out this interview  with Trinidad and Tobago native Tracey Baptiste, author of The Jumbies YA series. She spoke with my daughter, Abgail, in late January about Caribbean folklore and how it inspires her books.

 

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(photo: Barbara Basbanes Richter)
This story first appeared on the Fine Books & Collections blog on Friday, March 2, 2018.

Interview with Abigail, Episode One: Tracey Baptiste

Last week, children’s book author Tracey Baptiste visited The Voracious Reader bookstore in Larchmont, New York, to talk about her latest book Rise of the Jumbies (Algonquin 2017). Afterwards, Abbie had a chance to sit down with the award-winning author and ask Baptiste a few questions about characters and craft.

First, a little background: Raised in Trinidad on a steady diet of rich fairy tales filled with mythical beasts and monsters, Baptiste eventually decided that the world beyond her island ought to learn about these tales, too. Rise of the Jumbies is the second in the Jumbies series for middle-grade readers. Jumbies are creatures that roam the Carribbean at night, with the sole purpose to devour wayward children. Their queen is Mama Dl’eau, a merciless sea creature who turns people into stone.

In book one, Baptiste’s main character, Corrine, must stop a jumbie from taking over the island. Corrine returns in book two, which gets even darker with an exploration of the slave trade–important, Baptiste says, for all children to learn about, even when it’s difficult to fully comprehend. Rise of the Jumbies illustrates that though there’s much pain associated with Caribbean history, beauty can rise from it as well.

Listen to Abbie’s interview here.

 

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(Yes, that’s a press badge–never leave home without it!)

Photo credit: Barbara Basbanes Richter

Author Tracey Baptiste Talks Jumbies, Folklore, and Titles at Indie Bookstore

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Earlier tonight, children’s book author Tracey Baptiste visited The Voracious Reader bookstore in Larchmont, New York, to talk about her latest book Rise of the Jumbies (Algonquin 2017). Afterwards, Abbie had a chance to sit down and ask Baptiste a few questions about characters and craft. Be on the lookout for Abbie’s profile later this month! (Yes, that’s a press badge–never leave home without it!)