Bestselling author Brad Meltzer joins WGBH's Henry Santoro to talk about the most recent books in his children's series "Ordinary People Change the World." Meltzer is an American political thriller novelist, non-fiction writer, TV show creator and comic book author. Below is a slightly edited transcription. To listen to the interview, click on the audio player above.
Henry Santoro: When bestselling author Brad Meltzer began writing the two latest books in his "Ordinary People Change the World" series, he had no idea the world would be the place that it is today. The books, "I am Gandhi" and "I am Sacagawea” are now part of a dozen other books in this series that includes, "I am Amelia Earhart," "I am Abraham Lincoln," "I am Rosa Parks," and "I am Albert Einstein," to name just a few. And it's always a great, great pleasure to have Brad Meltzer in studio. He is someone that I've been interviewing for over 20 years, and we are very dear friends.
Brad Meltzer: I can't tell you say how excited I am to be back, because we get to mark not just friendship, but 20 years since that first book and when we first spoke, which means if you've been following from the start, and you're a listener out there, you're old, you are officially old now.
HS: These books, these "Ordinary People Change the World" books, are meant for young readers, teaching them that yes, ordinary people do change the world. But as Gandhi and as Sacajawea were coming to light, you realized there was a much bigger picture happening.
BM: Yeah, you know, the series started because I was tired of my own kids looking at reality TV show stars and people who are famous for being famous. And I was like, I can give them so many better heroes than that. So, we started with "I am Amelia Earhart" as you said, and "I am Abraham Lincoln." But when it came to the new part of the series, "I am Gandhi" especially, we're a culture at war right now. We stopped listening to each other. All we do is scream at each other. We play this great game in the United States, and we're good at it. It's called us versus them.
HS: Us against them, right.
BM: And they're wrong and we're right. And listen, we've honed it through elections and social media, but personally, I'm tired of us versus them. It is time to get back to we. And we can all see that, and then we blame the other side for not doing it. But I realized with Gandhi, I actually had the way to give my kids that message. You'll see when you read the book, and it's a kid's book, it's a picture book. But it tells the story of Gandhi with Gen. Smuts, who is his arch nemesis at the time. The general was the one who arrested Gandhi, threatened him, threw him in jail, [and locked] him up at the time. Gandhi should hate the general, the general should hate Gandhi. These are enemies of the highest order. And eventually, Gandhi gives Gen. Smuts a present, a gift. He makes homemade sandals that Gandhi himself has made, and he gives them to him. And Gen. Smuts is undone by this, and is like 'What were these for?' And the message is very clear: Better to make friends than to make enemies. And I need my sons and I need my daughter to hear that lesson, because they're not hearing it anywhere else. And to me, Gandhi, for that alone, is more relevant than he's ever been.
HS: We all know that you cannot have a book for young readers without some great artwork. Your collaborator is artist Christopher Eliopoulos. How did you guys find each other?
BM: The only good thing to come out of Twitter is my friendship with Chris Eliopoulos. I literally met him on Twitter as a fellow comic book person. We are both comic nerds. I knew when we were doing the series, I want my kids off their phones. I want them to put down their screens. The only way I can do that is I give them something better to look at. And in Chris's art — it’s easy to do cute when you do kids' art. It’s easy to do adorable. But what's really hard is to show heart. And If I'm going to make you love Amelia Earhart, or Rosa Parks, or Lucille Ball or Jim Henson, I need someone who can draw heart. And that’s what Chris does — he has an art style that’s a mixture, almost of Charles Schulz, and Snoopy and Charlie Brown, meets Calvin and Hobbes, and kids love it. That’s the secret weapon. It’s not my writing, it's Chris' lovable art.
HS: Is there really a Christopher Eliopoulos picture of you in every one of these books? Hidden in there somewhere?
BM: We are now on book 13 and I am hidden in every book. I am like the bald, “Where’s Waldo” is what Chris has turned me into. The amazing part is, is that kids love playing along.
HS: Brad Meltzer’s, "I am Gandhi" and "I am Sacagawea," like all the books in the series, are available everywhere. Brad, mi casa, su casa, my friend, thank you so much.
BM: Always good to see you.