Pre-K

Growing Reader

Author Brad Meltzer and Illustrator Christopher Eliopoulos on the Heroes and Lessons We Need Right Now

by Laura Lambert

ordinary people
Background image credit: Hybrid_Graphics/Shutterstock

When author Brad Meltzer and illustrator Christopher Eliopoulos sit down to decide who to tackle next in their beloved Ordinary People Change the World series, how do they choose? They each have their shortlists, of course. Early on, Meltzer wanted a sports hero for one of his sons — hence, Jackie Robinson; a woman in STEM for his daughter — hence, Jane Goodall; and a creative person — Walt Disney — for his other son.

But there’s a bit of serendipity involved as well.

Back in 2016, having worked together on the series for a couple years, Meltzer and Eliopoulos chose Gandhi. “During the 2016 election, everybody was angry. Everybody felt anxious, upset and worried,” explains Eliopoulos. I am Gandhi, which came out in the fall of 2017, offered a balm against all of that. “It benefited us as creators,” says Eliopoulos. “I took a lot out of that book — that mindfulness and peacefulness is the way. The answer is not in anger.”

“You can’t plan your timing,” adds Meltzer. But one thing is for sure — there is a need for the kinds of stories that instruct and inspire.

“The world is starving for heroes right now,” he says.

This year, those heroes are Benjamin Franklin and Anne Frank, who are featured in the two latest installments of the Ordinary People Change the World series, out now.

Benjamin Franklin, a Founding Father, speaks to Eliopoulos’ wheelhouse, which is Colonial America. But Franklin is also very much relevant today, in the midst of a presidential election. “At a time when a lot of kids don’t understand what it means to be an American, he’s an amazing person,” says Eliopoulos. “He has a great sense of humor, he’s smart, he’s inquisitive. It’s all the things we as Americans claim ourselves to be.”

Anne Frank also speaks to this particular moment in time. “The rise of anti-Semitism …  it’s too important to ignore,” explains Meltzer. “We knew we wanted to have a book that fought back against the targeting of people for their religion, their race, or just for being different.”

 

And while kids may know certain facts about both characters — Ben Franklin and his kite, for example — it’s not just a history lesson.

“This has never been a history series. These are books about values. These are books about character,” says Meltzer. And the books remind readers — children and adults, alike — that these people are just like you. They were kids once, too.

One way they do that is to make sure that kids are seeing themselves — literally. That’s why Eliopoulos draws them as children throughout. “It confuses adults and makes sense to every child,” he says.

The books are also about making mistakes — not perfection.

“The hardest part is trying to maintain the complexity of these heroes and not just reduce them down to something that isn’t real,” he says. “When we put them on a pedestal, they’re not human beings anymore. Anyone you look up to — even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — there were moments when they were scared and terrified and didn’t know if they could go on. But they do.”

That part resonates. Meltzer keeps a stack of letters from kids on his desk, and invariably, the parts children love best are not when the person succeeds.

And, of course, the real heart of these stories comes in the last six pages. This is where Meltzer sends home the ultimate message of the book. And it’s where he enlists his wife.

“It’s the one part we do together,” he explains. She comes up to his office and he reads to her. “I do it until one of us is in tears or gets emotional. That’s how we know it. That’s what the book is about,” he says. And that’s because, in the end, these are also books for parents.

“What is the lesson we need so badly?” Meltzer and his wife ask themselves. “That’s the ending.”

  • About the Authors

    Brad Meltzer is the author of the New York Times bestselling Ordinary People Change the World series for children, as well as six New York Times bestselling thrillers for adults: The Tenth Justice, Dead Even, The First Counsel, The Millionaires, The Zero Game, and The Book of Fate. He is also the #1 bestselling author of the critically acclaimed comic books Identity Crisis and Justice League of America, and is the co-creator of the TV series Jack & Bobby. A graduate of the University of Michigan and Columbia Law School, he lives in Florida. To learn more, visit bradmeltzer.com.

    Christopher Eliopoulos began his illustration career as a letterer for Marvel and has worked on thousands of comics, including Franklin Richards: Son of a GeniusPet Avengers, and Cow Boy, all of which he wrote and illustrated. He is the illustrator of the New York Times–bestselling Ordinary People Change the World series of picture book biographies. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and their identical twin sons.