Brad Meltzer could use a vacation.
The South Florida author writes bestselling political thrillers for adults, including last year’s The Fifth Assassin.
He hosts the History Channel show Brad Meltzer’s Decoded, which examines and explains complicated historical riddles and enigmas (he talked about the companion book, History Decorded: The 10 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time, at last fall’s Miami Book Fair International).
He keeps his hand in his beloved comic book world (he’s the creator of the Identity Crisis series for DC Comics), and recently published the nonfiction inspirational books Heroes for my Son and Heroes for my Daughter.
Yes, says the North Miami Beach high graduate, laughing. “I need a nap.”
But there’s no rest ahead for Meltzer, who debuts his latest project Saturday at Books & Books in Coral Gables. With I Am Abraham Lincoln and I Am Amelia Earhart (Dial, $12.99 apiece), Meltzer tackles a new audience: kids.
“These books are my heart in book form,” says the father of three. “They were written because I was trying to be a good father.
“I was just tired of my kids looking around and seeing reality stars and loudmouth athletes and thinking they were heroes. That’s fame, and fame is very different than being a hero. I feel like as a parent it’s my job to teach my kids that difference.”
The series, part of his “Ordinary People Change the World” initiative, tells the stories of prominent people — but not simply the stories we already know. The idea is to engage children by teaching them about these heroes as children, illustrating the qualities that made them the adults they became.
I Am Abraham Lincoln, for example, features an anecdote about the young Abe standing up to bullies who were torturing a turtle — a true story, Meltzer says.
“My son said, ‘Dad, Abraham Lincoln loved animals, just like me,’ ” Meltzer says. “I could tell my daughter, ‘Amelia Earhart flew across the Atlantic.’ She would shrug and say, ‘Lots of people do.’ But if I tell her that when Amelia Earhart was 7 she build a roller coaster in her backyard and launched herself off the roof of the tool shed, she thinks, ‘Amelia is just like me, she’s brave and she’s fun.’ And now Amelia Earhart is alive.
“Lincoln freed the slaves, and that’s part of the book, too, but my kids can’t use that in their daily lives. But if you show them the morality they can apply that to their lives, then later understand the bigger morality. …
“The key is finding that moment as a child where you see the hint of who they will be as an adult. When you unlock that moment, that’s incredible. Abraham Lincoln standing up to bullies as a 10-year-old, that’s as powerful to me as any bully story I’ll ever read. When you’re 10 it’s hard to do the right thing.”
For the project, Meltzer partnered with illustrator Christopher Eliopoulos, who writes and illustrates comics. They hadn’t worked together before but found that they clicked.
“It’s a real back and forth, like ping-pong players,” Eliopoulous says. “Let’s try this, let’s try that. ... It turned out to be more than a collaboration. It’s a friendship, and we get to do stuff together.”
The books’ designs are eye-catching, and the illustrations are energetic and funny. Young Lincoln has a beard, but if you look closely, you can see a string connecting it to his head (“We tried it both ways; we really wanted to nail down the characters, and we knew Lincoln needed his beard,” Eliopoulos says).
A father of 14-year-old twins, Eliopoulos shares Meltzer’s belief in the need for real heroes.
“You look around, and you don’t see the type of people you want your kids to admire,” he says. “We have to show our kids that there are qualities that are inspiring and that they can be the heroes they’re looking for.”
In June Meltzer and Eliopoulos will publish I Am Rosa Parks; I Am Albert Einstein follows in September. Meltzer, who hopes the series helps families build a library, has endless ideas for new subjects: Jackie Robinson, Jim Henson, Sally Ride.
“I hope that every single child out there looks to their families first for their heroes, but kids don’t want to listen to their parents.
“If I tell my kids to be good, there’s no guarantee that’s going to happen. But when I tell them Rosa Parks stood up to a bully when she was a little girl they see someone being good and strong and powerful. … This is what we’re all capable of on our very best days.”