West Virginia Book Festival

Truth, justice and fresh picture book bios

Comic books are notorious for wrestling with themes of justice. Yet a sad vein of injustice seems to run through the lives of many comic book creators.

One is Bill Finger, the subject of Marc Tyler Nobleman’s newest picture book biography “Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman.” Nobleman will appear at the West Virginia Book Festival at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 14, at the Charleston Civic Center.

Finger was responsible for much of Batman’s look, his character development and decades of stories. But because of an early contract with artist Bob Kane, Finger’s name is left off every book, film and TV show featuring the Caped Crusader.

While the writer never got official credit, fans and fellow comic book creators started to take notice and spread the word about Finger’s role in Batman starting in the 1960s.  Nobleman’s book builds on their work and rescues parts of Bill Finger’s story that might otherwise have been lost.

Part of what made Batman such an innovative character when he was introduced in Detective Comics back in the spring of 1939 is that he is a flesh-and-bone hero. He is not bulletproof. He can’t fly. He’s not an alien or a god or made invulnerable by radiation. He is a brave, clever, but flawed vigilante made by the world around him.

Nobleman concisely depicts the world that made Batman’s creators from page 1:

After Milton Finger graduated from high school, he invented his first secret identity. In 1933 Jews were sometimes not hired just because they were Jews. Milton was commonly a Jewish name, so Milton chose a new one: Bill.

Vivid panels of illustrations by Ty Templeton complete the story.

This book follows Nobleman’s 2008 “Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman,” another story of comic book creators and their difficulties. This time, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, a couple of teenagers from Depression-era Cleveland, sold the rights to their creation for $130, and then struggled for much of their lives trying to correct the mistake.

Illustrations again, this time by Ross MacDonald, enrich the experience. The art not only shows the style of dress and cars and pulp mags of the day; the style of painting actually evokes illustrations of the time.

These picture books are accessible to elementary-school readers and listeners, but they are sophisticated works of art and serious research capable of pleasing older readers as well. Both include detailed epilogues and bibliographies for further reading.

A page from “Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman” by Marc Tyler Nobleman, illustrated by Ross MacDonald, imitates both the art and life of the Depression-era America that give rise to the Man of Steel.


Marc Tyler Nobleman

Before Metropolis, Smallville and Krypton, Superman came from Cleveland, and Batman’s biggest secret is not Bruce Wayne. Both superheroes were created by youthful dreamers whose stories are told in picture books by Marc Tyler Nobleman.

Nobleman will speak about his work and sign books at the West Virginia Book Festival on Sunday, Oct. 14, at 2 p.m. at the Charleston Civic Center.

The author of more than 70 books for young people of all ages, Nobleman’s titles include “Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman” and “Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman.” On his blog Noblemania, he reveals the behind-the-scenes stories of his books, from uplifting research moments to unconventional promotional efforts.

Nobleman joins best-selling urban fantasy novelist Charlaine Harris, best-selling author of books for teens Tamora Pierce, and Senator Robert Byrd historian David Corbin, among others, in the line-up for the festival, which will be held Oct. 13 and 14 at the Charleston Civic Center. The annual, two-day event celebrates books and reading and offers something for all age groups. A variety of authors will attend, participating in book signings, readings, workshops and lectures. Activities for children include special programs and a section of the Marketplace filled with children’s activities. Admission to the festival is free.

The event is presented by The Library Foundation of Kanawha County, Inc., Kanawha County Public Library, the West Virginia Humanities Council, The Charleston Gazette and the Charleston Daily Mail and is sponsored by The Martha Gaines and Russell Wehrle Memorial Foundation, Pam Tarr and Gary Hart, the Friends of The Library Foundation of Kanawha County, and Books-A-Million. For more information, visit www.wvbookfestival.org.


Tamora Pierce

Tamora Pierce began writing in sixth grade to escape from her parents’ disintegrating marriage. A fan of heroic fantasy, she began writing stories that featured fearless, bold, female protagonists because those characters were lacking in the books she loved to read.

Fast forward to 1983, when her first book, “Alanna: The First Adventure,” was published in hardcover by Atheneum. Since then, she has written 28 fantasy novels for teens, the most recent of which is “Mastiff.”

The New York Times bestselling author will speak at the West Virginia Book Festival at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 13, at the Charleston Civic Center. She  joins a slate of speakers featuring Charlaine Harris, author of the “Sookie Stackhouse” series; Christopher Wilkinson, author of “Big Band Jazz in Black West Virginia”; and Marilyn Sue Shank, author of “Child of the Mountains.”

Pierce was born in South Connellsville, Pa., into a long, proud line of hillbillies. While her family didn’t have much money, they did have plenty of books, and books continue to be the main yardstick by which she measures true wealth.

Crediting her fans with her success, Tammy loves the chance to go on tour and thank them in person.  “Struggling along as a kid and even through my 20s, it’s the kind of life I dreamed of but never believed I would get. And I never take it for granted.”  She hopes her books inspire her readers with the feeling that they too can do anything if they want it badly enough. She now lives in Syracuse, N.Y., with her husband Tim Liebe.

The 12th annual West Virginia Book Festival will be held Oct. 13 and 14. The two-day event celebrates books and reading and offers something for all age groups. A variety of authors will attend, participating in book signings, readings, workshops and panel discussions. Activities for children include special programs and a section of the Marketplace filled with children’s activities. Admission to the festival is free.

The event is presented by The Library Foundation of Kanawha County, Inc., Kanawha County Public Library, the West Virginia Humanities Council, The Charleston Gazette and the Charleston Daily Mail and is sponsored by The Martha Gaines and Russell Wehrle Memorial Foundation, Pam Tarr and Gary Hart and Books-A-Million. For more information, visit www.wvbookfestival.org.

“A Princess of Mars”: The John Carter saga

When I was a kid, right around 10 or 11, I would have loved “A Princess of Mars,” the first book in the John Carter series by Edgar Rice Burroughs. But I didn’t know about the series; I didn’t even read any of Burroughs’ best-known series, the Tarzan books.

With the big film version, “John Carter,” coming out today, I thought I’d give the book a try. It’s the story of a man who, just after the Civil War, heads out west to prospect for gold and then is mysteriously transported to Mars. How? Who cares? (It actually reminded me of the plot catalyst in Stephen King’s latest, “11/22/63.” Big strange thing happens, and the protagonist just goes with it.) Because of the lighter gravity, Carter gains all sorts of powers, finds love and adventure, and transforms Martian society.

For a first novel that’s nearly 100 years old (Burroughs released it in novel form in 1917, but it was published as a serial a few years before), it’s a pretty good read, but it feels like Burroughs was trying out everything he could think of. Carter is, apparently, immortal. He also learns that all Martians are telepathic. Both of those could be, you know, significant factors in the story. But they’re mentioned in a matter-of-fact way and then hardly brought up again. It’s like the author decided he had enough going on with the whole super-powered alien story, and didn’t need any of the other stuff.

There are other issues with Burroughs, who possessed some pretty awful ideas about non-white, non-American peoples. In his review of the Burroughs biography from John Taliaferro, “Tarzan Forever,” Washington Post critic Michael Dirda writes of Burroughs’ “shoddy treatment” of Africans, Germans and Japanese, and his “enthusiasm for eugenics coupled with an undisguised horror of miscegenation.” There’s not a lot of that in “A Princess of Mars,” although Indians are called “red savages,” among other things. (It may not be chance that John Carter, Burroughs’ first hero, is a Confederate Army veteran.)

As for the “John Carter” movie, which hits theaters today, I’ve read a couple of reviews which essentially say, it’s a big dumb movie, but at least it’s fun, and the filmmakers seem to know that it’s a big dumb movie. The screenplay was written by, among others, author Michael Chabon, who’s no stranger to “genre” fiction. His works include the alternate history “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union” and the Sherlock Holmes pastiche “The Final Solution,” and his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” chronicles the early days of the comic book industry. So it’s got that going for it, at least.

Back to the book: I’d be hard-pressed to recommend “A Princess of Mars” to anyone who wasn’t curious about its historic value — but that historic value is significant. As Dirda notes in his review, Edgar Rice Burroughs was the king of the storytellers for several decades in the early 20th century, and this is the book that started him on his way.

If you’d like to read “A Princess of Mars,” it will cost you exactly nothing; besides the usual option of your local library, the book is free (legally) all over the Internet.

At the 2005 West Virginia Book Festival, Jack Gantos talks with Ian Perry, 8; his sister, Shiloh, 7; and their mother, Tammy Perry. Gantos was named the 2012 Newbery Medal winner on Monday. Photo by Chris Dorst

The name of the latest Newbery Medal winner may be a familiar one to West Virginia Book Festival-goers.

Jack Gantos, one of the headliners from the 2005 Book Festival, won the annual children’s literature prize from the American Library Association. His winning novel, “Dead End in Norvelt,” is an “achingly funny romp through a dying New Deal town,” according to the ALA.

The protagonist is a boy named Jack Gantos — no surprise, since several of Gantos’ books rely heavily on his personal experience. He spent part of his childhood in the real Norvelt, a community planned by the New Deal-era federal government for laid-off coal miners in western Pennsylvania. (The town’s name comes from the last syllables of the name of the first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt.)

After he won the award, Gantos told The Associated Press on Monday where the idea for “Dead End in Norvelt” came from:

Gantos said he thought of “Dead End” after giving a eulogy for his aunt that looked back on Norvelt’s special past.

“I talked about the spirit of people helping people, and how people really banded together,” Gantos said during a telephone interview from his home in Boston. “And at the end of my eulogy, a lot of people came up to me and said they didn’t know about the history of Norvelt. I love history, and I love humor, so I thought history could use a little humor.”

I’m told by a reliable witness that, when he was at the Book Festival in 2005, Gantos was very funny, aiming his remarks at the children in the audience, but giving the adults enough to keep them interested as well. He talked about the importance of keeping a journal, and how that influenced his novels.

By that point in his career, he’d already been a National Book Award finalist for “Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key” and a Newbery Honor winner for “Joey Pigza Loses Control.”

Speaking of Newbery Honors (a runner-up citation), two of them were named this year: “Breaking Stalin’s Nose” by Eugene Yelchin, and “Inside Out & Back Again” by Thanhha Lai (the winner of the National Book Award for young people’s literature).

The ALA also announced the winner of the Caldecott Medal, given to a children’s illustrator each year. This year’s winner was Chris Raschka, illustrator of “A Ball for Daisy,” a wordless tale of what happens to a little dog when she loses her favorite toy. Several other awards were announced, so if you’re interested, check them out on the ALA website.

To call Walter Dean Myers a West Virginian, you have to rely on a somewhat narrow definition of the phrase. He was born in Martinsburg, but his mother died when he was a toddler and he was taken to Harlem to live with a couple there. The New York City area is the setting for many of his books, and he lives now in Jersey City.

In this photo from December 2010, author Walter Dean Myers takes a look around his old Harlem neighborhood. AP photo.

But when you get a national honor like Myers just did, everyone wants a piece of you, and we’ll happily claim our share.

Myers was announced as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature on Wednesday, the third person to hold the position since it was created in 2008. He’ll formally accept the post in a ceremony next week at the Library of Congress, whose Center for the Book was one of two groups to choose Myers. The other was an arm of the Children’s Book Council, a trade group of children’s book publishers.

As ambassador — which The New York Times described as “a sort of poet laureate of the children’s book world who tours the country for two years, speaking at schools and libraries about reading and literacy” — Myers, 74, follows “Bridge to Terabithia” author Katherine Paterson (who also spent some time living in West Virginia) and “Time Warp Trio” author Jon Scieszka (who, I don’t know, probably drove through the state at some point).

Myers is very different from those authors, and from many young adult authors writing today. As Julie Bosman wrote in the Times:

The choice of Mr. Myers represents a departure from his predecessors and is likely to be seen as a bold statement. His books chronicle the lives of many urban teenagers, especially young, poor African-Americans. While his body of work includes poetry, nonfiction and the occasional cheerful picture book for children, its standout books offer themes aimed at young-adult readers: stories of teenagers in violent gangs, soldiers headed to Iraq and juvenile offenders imprisoned for their crimes.

While many young-adult authors shy away from such risky subject material, Mr. Myers has used his books to confront the darkness and despair that fill so many children’s lives.

But he does so, critics say, with a sense of possibility. Writing in The New York Times Book Review in 2008, Leonard S. Marcus praised Mr. Myers’s body of work. “Drugs, drive-by shootings, gang warfare, wasted lives — Myers has written about all these subjects with nuanced understanding and a hard-won, qualified sense of hope,” Mr. Marcus wrote.

He’s certainly got the resume for the job: two-time Newbery Honor winner (“Scorpions” and “Somewhere in the Darkness”), three-time National Book Award finalist (“Monster,” “Autobiography of My Dead Brother,” “Lockdown”) and numerous other awards. Still, it might sound strange to have a 74-year-old man hailed as someone who can relate to today’s teenagers in his books.

But Myers knows what he speaks of: he dropped out of high school, spent a few dead-end years in the Army, and worked a succession of jobs before finding his footing as a writer. In a profile last year by The Associated Press, he said:

“I know what falling off the cliff means … I know from being considered a very bright kid to being considered like a moron and dropping out of school.”

No matter what else was going on in his teenage life, though, Myers continued to read — and he says he wants to instill the idea that reading is not optional in today’s parents. The Times reported:

“I think that what we need to do is say reading is going to really affect your life,” he said in an interview at his book-cluttered house here in Jersey City, adding that he hoped to speak directly to low-income minority parents. “You take a black man who doesn’t have a job, but you say to him, ‘Look, you can make a difference in your child’s life, just by reading to him for 30 minutes a day.’ That’s what I would like to do.”


Video of the Week: Fran Cannon Slayton

One of the latest additions to next month’s West Virginia Book Festival is Fran Cannon Slayton, who’s going to use her 2009 young adult novel “When The Whistle Blows” to show how writers can use their family stories to break into writing.

If you don’t want to go into her session without knowing about her book, well, you should read the book … or, barring that, you could check out this week’s Video of the Week:

Program to focus on writing for teens, children

Fran Cannon Slayton used her family’s stories to break into the young adult/children’s book publishing business. She’ll talk about how other writers can use the same technique at the West Virginia Book Festival in the Charleston Civic Center on Sunday, Oct. 23, at 2:30 p.m.

Slayton will help attendees identify stories from their own lives that may be good topics for books, offer writing tips and provide information about the children’s and young adult book publishing business. Her presentation, “Writing Books for Kids, Tweens and Teens: Mining Memories, Honing Craft and Exploring the Nuts and Bolts of Publishing,” will cover how to format a manuscript, how to know when a manuscript is ready, how to submit to editors and agents, and how to find a community of writers for encouragement and support.

Slayton is a Virginian by birth and a West Virginian by lineage. Her novel, “When the Whistle Blows,” is loosely based upon her father’s experiences growing up as the son of a B&O Railroad foreman in Rowlesburg, W.Va. in the 1940s. Full of Halloween excitement and adventure, “When the Whistle Blows” has been described as a masterpiece by Kirkus in a starred review. Slayton’s novel is a finalist for 2012 book awards in Virginia, Alabama, Illinois and Maryland.

Best-selling thriller writer Lee Child, basketball legend Jerry West, former Secret Service agents Gerald Blaine and Clint Hill, and self-help author Dave Pelzer have already been announced as part of the line-up for the festival, which will be held Oct. 22 and 23 at the Charleston Civic Center. The annual, two-day event celebrates books and reading and offers something for all age groups. A variety of authors will attend, participating in book signings, readings, workshops and lectures. Activities for children include special programs and a section of the Marketplace filled with children’s activities. Admission to the festival is free.

The event is presented by Kanawha County Public Library, The Library Foundation of Kanawha County, Inc., the West Virginia Humanities Council, The Charleston Gazette and the Charleston Daily Mail and is sponsored by The Martha Gaines and Russell Wehrle Memorial Foundation, Segal & Davis Family Foundation, Pam Tarr and Gary Hart, Target, Wal-Mart, BB&T West Virginia Foundation and Borders Express. For more information, visit www.wvbookfestival.org.

You may know that Catherine Gourley, young-adult author and national director of the Letters About Literature program, is coming to next month’s West Virginia Book Festival to conduct a workshop for educators.

Letters About Literature is a very cool program. Students of all ages write to authors, explaining what the authors’ books meant to them, and how the books changed the students’ view of their world or themselves.

Today, the West Virginia Center for the Book announced that entries for this year’s program are now being accepted. (The program is sponsored nationally by the Center for the Book, part of the Library of Congress.)

You can read the details here. The deadline for entries is Jan. 6, 2012.

Video of the Week: Walter Dean Myers

Walter Dean Myers, the Martinsburg-born author of dozens of novels for young adults, turns 74 years old today. Myers 2010 book “Lockdown” was a finalist for the National Book Award, as was 1999’s “Monster” and 2005’s “Autobiography of My Dead Brother.”

As this week’s Video of the Week, we offer the man himself, in an interview with the group First Book from a few years ago.