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U-M alumnus Meltzer writes about true heroes in children’s books

By Kurt Anthony Krug
Special to The Detroit News
An alumnus of the University of Michigan and Columbia Law School, Brad Meltzer is a New York Times best-selling novelist. He has written across genres and across media. While he's best known for his political thrillers, he's also written comic books and non-fiction. In addition, he's hosted TV shows.

    According to New York Times best-selling novelist Brad Meltzer, the world is starving for heroes.

“Our definition of ‘heroes’ is broken,” said Meltzer, 49, of Florida, an alumnus of the University of Michigan and Columbia Law School.

Nearly a decade ago while taking his daughter shopping, all they could find were shirts featuring professional athletes and Disney princesses. In that moment, Meltzer realized he wanted to show his three children the difference between being a famous person and being a hero.

Thus, his “Ordinary People Change the World” series of children’s books featuring historical figures, illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos.

The 18th and 19th books in the series, respectively — “I Am Marie Curie” and “I Am Walt Disney” (both $15.99 and published by Penguin Random House) — will be released Tuesday.

Previously, Meltzer has written about Martin Luther King Jr., Amelia Earhart, Rosa Parks, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Lucille Ball, Jim Henson, Albert Einstein, Helen Keller, and others. The next historical figure who’ll be profiled is Leonardo da Vinci.

“I pick people who represent the values I want to give my own kids. Historical figures who represent kindness, compassion, humility, or in the case of Walt Disney, creativity. Along the way, we learned one thing: We’re not that special. Millions of parents want the same thing for their own kids,” explained Meltzer.

: "I Am Marie Curie" and "I Am Walt Disney" (both $15.99 published by Penguin Random House) are the latest entries in University of Michigan alumnus/New York Times best-selling novelist Brad Meltzer's "Ordinary People Change the World" series of children's books.

In the case of Curie, who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity and was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize (and the first person and only woman to win it twice), Meltzer wanted to show his daughter the power of a female scientist. Born in Poland in 1867, Curie grew up in a time where females couldn’t become scientists, much less get an education. Still, she set out to prove everyone wrong. Curie invented the term “radioactivity” and discovered the elements polonium and radium. Further, she became the first female professor at the Sorbonne in Paris.

“To me, she shows kids the power of discovery and the real benefits of education,” said Meltzer.

With Disney — the creator of so many beloved characters, including Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck — it was personal for Meltzer. Ever since their children were little, Meltzer and his wife would pick a random day and instead of driving them to school, they would take them to Disney World. That tradition continues to this day.

“I did it to show them every day can have magic,” said Meltzer. “So with the book, my kids get to see someone who used his ingenuity and creativity to make real magic. Walt Disney is proof that you can use your creativity to put good into the world. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do with this series. As the book says: ‘We can all use some magic in our lives.’ If you look, it’s there.”

"I Am Marie Curie" and "I Am Walt Disney" (both $15.99 published by Penguin Random House) are the latest entries in University of Michigan alumnus/New York Times best-selling novelist Brad Meltzer's "Ordinary People Change the World" series of children's books.

When researching Disney, Meltzer learned he had his share of setbacks.

“Walt Disney’s first film company was an utter failure. They told him he’d have to declare bankruptcy. He was so poor, he slept in his office and took baths in the train station. But he never stopped chasing his dream,” said Meltzer. “We think of Walt Disney as the ultimate success story. But when you look at his life, he failed over and over and over — he just never let it stop him. I want my kids to see the lessons of hard work.”

Like the other books in the series, Eliopoulos draws Disney and Curie as kids throughout.

“We tell their stories as kids. And as a result, we remind our own kids what they’re capable of,” said Meltzer. “These aren’t the stories of famous people. They’re stories of what we’re all capable of on our very best days.”

Meltzer’s “Ordinary People” books have inspired the upcoming PBS KIDS animated series “Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum,” debuting Nov. 11. It will introduce children to inspiring historical figures and the virtues that helped them succeed. The series follows the adventures of Xavier, his sister Yadina and their friend Brad. In each episode, the three face a problem and turn to the Secret Museum to help them solve it. The Secret Museum allows them to travel back in time to meet historical figures when they were kids. Each episode is designed to help young viewers make the connection between the attributes that made each historical figure a hero and those same qualities within themselves, helping them to recognize their unlimited potential. 

“(This) isn’t just an entertaining educational series, but something much more personal to me. I was determined to give my kids better heroes to emulate,” said Meltzer. “When my own kids watch this series, I get to see them realize that there’s extraordinary within the ordinary. This was my hope in creating the book series for my kids — and my hope for children around the world. Through this show and the heroes we feature, I hope all children find their own heroic abilities and feel empowered to change the world.”

While Meltzer is perhaps best known for his political thrillers — which have even earned the praise of the late President George H.W. Bush — he’s also written comic books. In fact, his first story for Marvel was released Aug. 28 in “Marvel Comics 1000,” a large comic celebrating Marvel’s 80th anniversary (which also features work by Dearborn native/award-winning novelist Saladin Ahmed, also a U-M alumnus, and basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). Meltzer wrote a one-page story featuring Spider-Man, illustrated by Julian Totino Tedesco.

“(Spider-Man’s) a dream for any writer. The character is perfect,” said Meltzer. “He’s us. Truly us. Powerful and terrified, amazing and scared, brave and worried. All in one. Sometimes in the same day, sometimes in the same minute.”

Currently, Meltzer’s hard at work on his next comic book project and his second non-fiction book but wouldn’t share any details. Afterwards, he’ll write the sequel to his 2018 thriller “The Escape Artist.”

“A good story is a good story,” said Meltzer. “I keep following what I love.”