by Brian Truitt)
Brad Meltzer's three children have never been impressed with any of his thrillers. But now he's writing some books that even his kids like.
The best-selling author (The Book of Lies, The Fifth Assassin) dives into the world of children's books with I Am Amelia Earhart and I Am Abraham Lincoln (Dial), both out Tuesday.
Illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos, they're the first two of a six-book deal that also will feature a title on Rosa Parks in June and Albert Einstein in December. Meltzer is considering Jackie Robinson and a few other figures for the final two books.
Meltzer calls this series of historical, kid-friendly looks at luminaries "my heart in book form."
The books, he says, are an offshoot of a project he began three years ago with Eliopoulos, when "I was tired of seeing my daughter bombarded by the belief that reality TV show stars and dumb athletes are heroes."
He asked his friend Eliopoulos to design an empowering T-shirt for Meltzer's 8-year-old daughter with a cute illustration of Earhart, and it led two years ago to the launch of the author's Ordinary People Change the World charitable fashion line. (Meltzer also has two boys, 12 and 5.)
The picture-book series is the next project continuing the pair's efforts to help kids choose heroes — Eliopoulos feels adults have lost their way a bit in that respect.
"We get a say in it, and while they can be an athlete or movie star, it shouldn't be only what they do but how they overcome things to live their dreams," says the artist, father to 14-year-old twin boys. "There are qualities to being heroic, and the earlier we can teach them to our kids, the better."
Meltzer wanted to release the Earhart and Lincoln books first because both historical figures' lives were aspirational and showed what each did on their very best days.
"Amelia Earhart's life isn't about being a pilot. It's about doing what no one's done before and knowing no bounds especially when someone says you can't do it," Meltzer says by phone from his Fort Lauderdale home. "And Lincoln refusing to back down in the face of bullies and always speaking his mind and speaking for others."
The writer emphasizes moments from the historical figures' early lives because that's what children connect to the most.
His daughter, for example, didn't think it was that big a deal Earhart flew over the Atlantic Ocean. Instead, she was far more wowed that the future aviator built a homemade roller coaster out of a shed, milk crate and skating wheels when she was 7.
"The problem is when we come to people like Abraham Lincoln today, we become these rote machines that say, 'He was the president. He freed the slaves.' What is far more amazing is to bring that person to life and to flesh out their whole story," Meltzer says.
So in the story — when Lincoln finds some fellow youths torturing little turtles by putting hot coals on their backs and tells them to knock it off — "suddenly Abraham Lincoln is just like my kids," Meltzer adds. "He's someone who loves animals, someone who will stand up for others, someone who will be brave and look out for people. He's not this person on a pedestal."
Meltzer made sure to put in enough humor to entertain adults, too — one running joke is little Lincoln telling anybody who'll listen that one day he's going to be on the penny.
"My dream for all my work and these books in particular is to give parents and kids something they can share and love together," says Eliopoulos, who illustrated the comic book Cow Boy and does covers for various comics publishers. "Parents are the first, most important heroes, and reading and spending time together can forge that bond."
Since launching his hero initiative, Meltzer has witnessed the impact on a wide range of people, from his wife crying after reading his Lincoln book to the Milwaukee fan who showed up to a book signing proudly sporting one of his Earhart shirts.
"The very best one was the kid who said he was going as me for Halloween. That was a humbling moment," says Meltzer, who's working on the sequel to his novel The Fifth Assassin (now out in paperback).
"A friend of mine from high school said, 'Brad, I know you sell millions of thrillers. These are the most important books you'll write in your life.' "