Brad Meltzer had a very personal reason for creating his “Ordinary People Change the World” book series.
“My real purpose was I was tired of my own kids looking at reality TV show stars and loud-mouth athletes and think that that’s a hero,” the author explains. “It’s pure self-interest. I just tired of my kids having bad heroes, I wanted to give them good ones. That’s where the series began. It was just feeling like they were being fed trash through their eyeballs.”
The books — 12 so far, including the latest, “I Am Jim Henson” — tell the life stories of iconic figures in a charming hybrid of prose and comic-book styles, featuring the adorable artwork of Christopher Eliopoulos. Other books in the series, geared toward second and third graders, look at the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks and Amelia Earhart. The team will be signing copies of the books Jan. 10 at the Barnes & Noble in TriBeCa.
Meltzer, a best-selling author of thriller novels and comic books, as well as the host of the History Channel series “Brad Meltzer’s Decoded” and “Brad Meltzer’s Lost History,” says the books aren’t built around facts, dates and accomplishments, but rather values.
“I think the world that we live in right now is completely skewed when it comes to values,” he says. “We’ve confused the word ‘fame’ and the word ‘hero.’”
The back of each book has a saying that conveys the values of the subjects. For “I Am Amelia Earhart,” it’s “Know no bounds.” For “Abraham Lincoln,” it’s “I will always speak my mind and speak for others.” For “Albert Einstein,” it’s “I will always be curious.”
“These are the things I want for my kids,” Meltzer says. “I pick what I want my kids to have, really. One of my sons is an athlete, and I wanted to show him what a real hero was when it came to athletes, so I gave him ‘I Am Jackie Robinson.’ My daughter loves our dog, loves animals, so I did ‘I Am Jane Goodall’ for her.”
Meltzer says his youngest child is “super creative” which gave him the chance to do a book about Henson, who was also one of his heroes growing up.
“Listen, Jim Henson is, for most people, so comforting because he’s pure nostalgia,” Meltzer says. “It’s like mainlining nostalgia. But nostalgia’s a trap.
“It wasn’t until I started digging into his life,” he continues, “that I realized just how beautiful his message is and that Jim Henson, at the core of his work, is the idea that we can all bring good into the world and that we should continue believing and creating and dreaming and being kind to other people. That’s something that should never get old. There’s nothing wrong with being a do-gooder.”
The series has proved popular, with more books on the horizon, including “I Am Sacagawea.” For Meltzer, the real honor has been the fan’s reactions.
“Now you’re talking about one of the truly most rewarding parts of the process, and in a way that I never got from my thrillers,” says Meltzer, who has the softcover of his thriller, “The House of Secrets,” out on Jan. 31. “We have kids writing to us, parents that will write me letters with pictures of their kids in Halloween costumes. A woman wrote me, ‘Dear Brad, this is the first year my daughter didn’t go as a princess for Halloween. Thanks to your book, she went as Amelia Earhart.’
“In my most narcissistic moment,” he continues, “I could never anticipate being the inspiration for someone’s Halloween costume.”
One of the reasons that the books have done so well is what Meltzer calls his “secret weapon:” Eliopoulos.
“Many cartoonists can do cute, many cartoonists can do funny, what’s really hard is to do heart,” Meltzer says. “And what Chris can do is heart. And I knew that if we were doing Amelia Earhart and doing Abraham Lincoln, that they had to be as lovable as you’ve ever seen them. And I knew they had to be as funny as you’ve ever seen them. If you didn’t love them, and didn’t feel like you felt for them in your heart, it was never going to work. And that’s what Chris can always do.”
Eliopoulos’ rendition of Henson is indeed a charmer, and the Muppets are lovingly portrayed.
“This series was born because I want my kids off their phones and off their screens — and we all want our kids off their phones and off their screens — but the only way you’re going to get them off their phones and off their screens is if you give them something that’s better, or at least as interesting. And that’s where Chris is the secret weapon,” Meltzer says. “He draws them so lovingly that kids stop and go, ‘What’s that?’”