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Real role models for grandchildren

Created date

February 21st, 2014
Amelia Earhart on children's book cover
Amelia Earhart on children's book cover

Most people know Brad Meltzer as a New York Times bestselling novelist and as host of the History Channel TV show Brad Meltzer’s Decoded. But his latest project is something of a departure—his first attempt at children’s books.

His new nonfiction series Ordinary People Change the World (Dial, 2014) explores the life stories of some of history’s noblest figures. Starting with Abraham Lincoln and Amelia Earhart, Meltzer writes the series in a lively, conversational style that captivates young readers.  

Recently, he spoke with the Tribune about his own experiences as a father and how they motivated him to write the books.  

Tribune: How was it that you came up with the idea for this series?

Meltzer: A few years ago, I was clothes shopping for my daughter, and all I could find were shirts with princesses on them. 

I think every dad reaches the point where he gets tired of that stuff, me included. I thought to myself, “There are better role models out there for my kids,” so I had someone draw a picture of Amelia Earhart and on it I wrote, “I know no bounds.” My daughter fell in love with it, and that’s basically what gave me the idea for this series.

Tribune: You’ve made a career out of writing adventures and political thrillers. What were some of the challenges in writing a children’s book?

Meltzer: The trick was figuring out what would generate the most powerful response from kids. I tested out the material on my own kids (they’ve been my guinea pigs with these books), and what I kept finding was that what they were responding to stories of Amelia Earhart and Abraham Lincoln as children. 

Kids are most engaged when they can lock onto something to which they can relate. It was very important to make that happen with these books.

Selecting the material was pretty challenging as well. With Abraham Lincoln in particular, the hardest thing was deciding what would land on the cutting room floor. There were so many moments of greatness for him. He is one in a select group of people who lived up to the hype.

Tribune: The third book in the series comes out in June, this one on Rosa Parks. How do you decide who you feature?

Meltzer: I’m trying to find that perfect balance in terms of topical focus. For instance, I really wanted to do Neil Armstrong as one of the first six books, but we already had Amelia Earhart who fulfilled the exploring aspect. 

Lincoln and Earhart were natural choices. Rosa Parks was another easy choice. This series has to be well rounded. Each of the figures I select represents values that will always be appreciated from one generation of Americans to the next.

Tribune: What do you hope these books inspire in readers—parents and children alike?

Meltzer: Recently, we’ve become a culture of complainers instead of doers and solvers. I have kids in school and so often you hear people saying, “The school should teach my kids to appreciate this or that.” 

Your kids are going to choose role models whether you like it or not. As a parent, you may as well have some say in it instead of sitting back and waiting for someone else to influence them for you. That’s what I hope these books inspire parents to do. 

With the kids, I hope the series sparks a love of history.

Tribune: It’s obvious in reading these books that you don’t whitewash history. You show these great figures for who they were.

Meltzer: Yeah, that was crucial. Rewriting history to fit a certain social or political mold is just as bad as historical ignorance—in some ways, they’re the same thing. I wanted to stay away from the George Washington chopping down the cherry tree kind of stories because I didn’t want to teach kids myths. They need facts. 

In writing the Lincoln book, for example, I went to the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College in Illinois. They had a wealth of primary sources that provided me with great material.

Tribune: And what readers find is a very human portrayal of these people.

Meltzer: That’s right. They all came from a normal place in the world. Amelia Earhart wasn’t the richest, greatest flyer of all time. In fact, she wasn’t a natural pilot at all; she just worked harder than anyone else. 

And in Lincoln’s case, here’s a guy who didn’t go to school. He grew up poor and rose through perseverance.

Merely telling your kids to try hard in life isn’t enough. But when you tell them stories from history that exemplify what courage, determination, and hard work can get you, they know it’s possible. 

There’s nothing more powerful than a story.

You can find Brad Meltzer’s children’s books in local book stores and at Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com.

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