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.
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.”
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.