How does a New York Times best-selling author go from writing spine-tingling, on the edge of your seat political thrillers to a best-selling author of children's books? “I had my own kids,” laughs Brad Meltzer, the author of such thrillers such as The President's Shadow, The Inner Circle, and The House of Secrets. The author says once he became a parent he wanted to give his children heroes to look up to.
“I was tired of them looking at people who were famous for being famous,” Meltzer says about his kids. “I wanted to give them heroes of character and of kindness, compassion,” noting that is what led him to create a series of books for readers 12 and under.
The Ordinary People Change the World biography series launched in 2014 with Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and Amelia Earhart and has just released its 18th book in the series with I Am Walt Disney. According to publisher Penguin Random House, the new book tells the story of Walt Disney who made dreams come true. “So Walt Disney is the great American success story, one of them,” Meltzer states. “He gives us the Magic Kingdom, the happily ever-after and we tell that beautiful story,” but the author says his book goes into the struggles Disney had growing up when his father told Walt he could not draw and it was an aunt that gave Walt a book and told him to keep sketching.
While there is nothing new in the narrative surrounding Walt, it is presented in a friendly way for kids to understand every day human challenges and how people like Disney and others were able to rise above the odds and succeed, even if it meant failure upon failure.
“When Walt Disney starts his first company, his first film company, he is 21-years-old. It is a total failure. They tell him he is going to have to declare bankruptcy,” recounts Meltzer. “He's sleeping in his office, he takes a bath once a week in the local train station,” with the author sharing facts that youngsters would not expect from the man who created animated characters and the happiest place on earth.
“I want my kids to know when you chase a big dream, you may fail,” Meltzer advising all children, “but if you get back up again, that is how you learn to fly.”
As in all of his Ordinary People Change the World books, the subject is drawn as a seven-year-old kid. Meltzer says Walt is sketched by artist Christopher Eliopoulous as a cross between Charlie Brown and Calvin and Hobbes complete with a mustache.
The author says he continues to receive positive feedback on his latest book, but says many wonder how was able to get the Disney characters to grace the pages of his hardback. “Everyone wants to know how did you get Mickey Mouse on your book and how did you put Mickey and Donald and Goofy and Pluto, we have everyone in this book. Peter Pan and Snow White and the girls from Frozen are there.” And how did that happen? Meltzer says “I hope it is because the Walt Disney Company really loved our mission. They had helped us when we did I Am Jim Henson. They gave us all the Muppets.” Admitting that licensing arrangements had to be worked out between Disney and Penguin Random House, Meltzer recognizes “they have to be on the mission with you. I think they loved the fact that we are trying to give better heroes to kids today. That is a very rare Disney lesson in itself and I think that is why we got the mouse.”
Meltzer cautions that “Walt Disney is not a character and a statue because he is holding Mickey's hand,” stating that is important for children to see Walt and others as real. “We have a problem with heroes today. What we do is that we take our heroes and we build statues of them and we worship at the feet of these statues as if they are perfect people in every way,” He adds that only causes a disservice to the person because it doesn't show who they really were.
The writer admits it was a tough sell to do a series of children's books. He says he asked his publisher to take on the series but only if they “loved it.” Turns out the publisher of his thrillers passed on the project causing Meltzer to take it to another publishing house. “It hit the best-sellers list,” he notes adding that it was not the result of a big-budget marketing campaign but was caused by the demand of people who were looking for stories about heroes.
Riding the success of the book series, Meltzer will launch a television program on PBS in November. Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum, will debut 50 years and one day after Sesame Street premiered. The series will introduce kids to inspiring historical figures and the character virtues that helped them succeed.
“When I was 5-years-old, people like Walt Disney, Jim Henson and Mr. Rogers taught me you could use your creativity to put good into this world, and that is all we're trying to do with the Ordinary People Change The World series. I am trying to use my own creativity to put some good into this world.”