Bestselling author Brad Meltzer is well known for both comic books and historical thrillers, but he has also been profiling inspirational historical figures in a line of children's books, Ordinary People Change the World series, illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos and published through Penguin Random House. Showcasing what makes each of the real-life figures great for younger audiences with warm, appealing artwork, the most recent installments cover Walt Disney and Marie Curie, revealing how they overcame adversity to triumph in their respective fields.
Meltzer spoke with CBR about the inspiration behind the long-running series, what Disney and Curie mean to him, and surprising facts about each figure's life he wasn't aware of before doing extensive research for the new books.
CBR: Across all of these books within the Ordinary People Change the World series, what is your big mission statement?
Brad Meltzer: For me, we started these books because I was looking at my own kids, who are looking at people getting famous and paid a lot of money for being on social media or having a lot of Instagram followers and think that's what a leader is. And that's fame, right? Being famous is very different from being a leader. And I wanted to give my kids better heroes to look up to.
So the mission statement has always been this what people can use to put real heroes in their kids' lives, in their nieces and nephews' lives, and I don't think that's changed eighteen to nineteen books into it. That's always been the core and I think it's a core that comes from my own love of superheroes and what those heroes meant to me. And I understand that Batman and Superman are not real and that Walt Disney and Marie Curie are very real but they actually all serve the same purpose which is that they all give us inspiration and we can all be better people by looking at what they stand for.
Is there anything specific from either Walt or Marie that you found particularly inspiring compared to the other historical figures you've covered so far?
The Walt Disney one really hit home because it was personal for me. I live in Florida and every year during the school year, I take my kids on the way to school, instead of going to school, we drive past the school and surprise them by driving straight to Disney World. Our kids never know what day it's going to be. Sometimes it's at the end of the year, sometimes it's at the beginning of the year, sometimes it's in the middle of the year. The reason that I've done it now for over a decade is because I want to show my kids that everyday can have magic in it; any day can be magical.
That's what Walt Disney is about, the idea that magic is real. And it's not by pulling rabbits out of your hat or creating multimillion dollar mice, it's that idea that you can use your creativity to put good into this world. And that's what really struck me. We all associate Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and Disney World and Disneyland with these amazing things -- and them buying Marvel and Star Wars is incredible -- but when you really look at Walt Disney's life, you see failure upon failure upon failure and a refusal to accept that failure.
I feel like that's a common thread within the Marie Curie book as well. A lot of these books have these historical figures facing adversity. You've covered Jackie Robinson, Harriett Tubman, the list goes on. How do you balance that unrelenting adversity for younger audiences?
On some level, what we do with our heroes today is we dip them in granite and build statues of them and we do them a huge disservice. We worship them like they're these lower-case gods and I think the one thing I dig is that this not the story where you overcome the impossible odds but what I love is the proof that whatever hero you look up to -- whether it's Rosa Parks or Doctor [Martin Luther] King or Walt Disney or Marie Curie -- they all have moments where they're scared and they're terrified.
Anyone you look up to in your life has moments where they were scared and terrified but they don't let it stop them. For me, the only thing that I do I just keeping using different heroes because every kid has a different one. Everyone has a different favorite member of the Avengers or Justice League or Legion of Super-Heroes. Some of them are that way because you look like them or you like their superpowers or they express your craziest dream come true and it's the same way with real-life heroes. Again, I don't mean to compare the imaginary with the real but they're all part of the American experience and the global experience. In comics, we're all telling this amazing tapestry where all these amazing writers and artists are bringing together over time story upon story upon story and it fits together and forms this giant quilt or whatever the metaphor you want to call to be. And for me, that's the same thing with these heroes. Walt Disney is there because he is 100% about using creativity to fight back. Marie Curie is there because she uses science to do exactly the same and hers is just a different superpower. One can use science and one can use art.
You've worked extensively in history; you've investigated the JFK assassination and the whereabouts of the 9/11 American flag. What is about history that you have found so deeply intriguing as a writer and what made you want to distill it down in a series of children's books?
It's selfish, it's my own kids. The one thing I've learned about myself after all these years later is that I'm not that special. I wanted this for my kids and, as a result of my not being special, I felt a lot of other people would want it for their kids. And that's all I bank on. And Chris Eliopolous is the same way, he wants it for his boys; I want it for my sons and daughter. I think that's what it's always going to come back to. Knowing that I can put this thing out there so people can build libraries of real heroes for their kids.
We know one thing, as loving superheroes has taught me my whole life: We're not alone. You're never alone. History, for me, is just the greatest story ever told; that's all history is. It's not a bunch of dates and facts that you memorize, it's never been that. People always "How can you like comics, how can you like thrillers, how can you like history" and, to me, they're all just great stories. Some you can tell in a graphic format and some you can tell with just words, some you can tell on a TV show. But at their core they all have great story, that's the core of everything, and what I personally found through history, especially with Walt Disney, is just proof that anything's possible. That's all these things are, they're just proofs.
With Disney more specifically, you mention in the liner notes that take as many direct quotes from him as possible.
We always try. The book is called I Am Walt Disney so I have to write as Walt Disney, as Doctor King, as Rosa Parks. It's like writing as Superman or Batman, it takes a leap because I am none of those people. Especially when it comes to the kids' books, I'm happy I can draw upon real people and their lives and upon their real quotes.
There's a moment in there where Walt Disney creates a little mouse he wants to invent. And he shows it to his wife and says "What do you think of it? His name is Mortimer Mouse." And she says "That's a horrible name." That's an actual direct quote of what she said. I love the fact that I don't make that up, that's what Walt Disney's wife said to Walt Disney and she says "What about Mickey?" and he says "I like that," and that's how the world got Mickey Mouse. And the story's so much better when it's the real story, whenever it's always the true story.
In doing the research, what were interesting factoids that you didn't know about either of them beforehand? I didn't know Walt Disney co-founded CalArts before I read this book.
The CalArts is a pretty awesome one, I didn't know that either. When I saw that I was like "we have to put this in here." With guys like Brad Bird and all these amazing people that came out of CalArts that we owe that one to, that was a good one. For me, it was all about background because Disney is such a modern, massive brand, it seemed like it was always successful, as long as we've existed, Disney has been the pinnacle of entertainment. I loved the fact that it's nice to say it always started with a mouse, that's good marketing, but I love even more that before that it's this kid who failed and failed. One of the first companies he started failed so bad they told him he had to declare bankruptcy and he's basically a teen and he has to sleep in his office and take baths at the train station. Even that takes time. We in America are in love with legends and myths and the legends and myths we love most are our own. But if it was easy, why would it be interesting? So I think what struck me the most about Walt Disney was how hard it was and how the guy wouldn't stop.
[For Marie Curie,] it was humbling. With her, it's right on the first page where it says that when she was growing up, the Russian government didn't want girls to know about science or be educated because it would make them powerful. And it would. It totally would. You tell me you don't want my girl to learn something that she wants to learn, to put your foot on her neck like that, there's nothing I want more than this little girl named Marie Curie to just fight back. In terms of surprise, I loved that her name isn't even Marie Curie. She reinvents herself when she starts university like "I'm picking a new name because I'm a new person because I have education." I love that. It's like a secret identity, right? She picks her new identity.
I Am Walt Disney and I Am Marie Curie, the two latest installments of the Ordinary People Change the World series by Brad Meltzer and Christopher Eliopoulos, are both on sale now from Penguin Random House.