From Supreme Court clerks caught up in nationwide conspiracies, and historical figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., to costumed crusaders like Superman and Batman, there is one focus that unites author Brad Meltzer's diverse works — a celebration of the heroism of the common person.
Meltzer, known for his political thrillers like "The President's Shadow," as well as his television series "Brad Meltzer's Decoded" and "Brad Meltzer's Lost History," has had works on the New York Times bestseller list for non-fiction, advice, children's books and comics. On Thursday, Jan. 7, he will appear at the Carroll Arts Center to discuss his latest release "I Am Martin Luther King, Jr." the latest in his line of "Ordinary People Change the World" children's books.
Each book, written by Meltzer and illustrated by Chris Eliopoulos, features a different historical figure, depicted as a young child learning the lessons that would later inspire them to greatness.
"The books came about because I was tired of my own kids looking at reality TV stars and loudmouth actors and thinking they were heroes," Meltzer said. "I wanted to teach them that being famous was different than being a hero."
Meltzer first tackled the idea of historical heroes with his books "Heroes for My Son," from 2010 and "Heroes for my Daughter," released in 2012. These books featured quotes and short stories about famous heroes, from Gandhi to Charlie Chaplin to Neil Armstrong, in an attempt to inspire his son, 8, when the first book was published, and daughter, 10 in 2012.
"I am Martin Luther King, Jr." will be released Jan. 5, and marks the eighth book in the "Ordinary People Change the World" series, following installments on Amelia Earhart, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson and Helen Keller. Meltzer said diversity both in terms of race and gender, but also in field of excellence was important in pitching the series. He said all kids have different interests, and he wants to make sure that each child can find a hero to look up to.
The book takes readers back to King's childhood, where Meltzer depicts the young civil rights leader's first experiences with prejudice and institutionalized racism. In a few short pages, King learns the lessons that become the foundation of his life's work.
"It's important to tell the stories of famous people not as children know them now, but to show these heroes as kids. Let them see them as 10 years old or 7 years old," Meltzer said. "They're more impressed by the fact that King liked to slide down the bannister than the work he'd become known for."
During the Jan. 7 event, Meltzer said he will discuss everything from the new book to his television work, novels and comics. He said the opportunity to discuss the thematic resonance of his work is the reward for the solitary process of writing. Through all of his work, he said there's a single message he wants people to take away.
"Everything I do has one thing in common: It's about how ordinary people change the world," Meltzer said. "I wish I was smart enough to know that as a child. This is the story I tell. It's the only story I know."
Each book in the series is illustrated by Eliopoulos, a comic book letterer and artist with a cartoony style reminiscent of Bill Watterson of "Calvin and Hobbes" fame. The books straddle the line between children's picture book and comic book with narrative text on each page as well as comic-style word and thought balloons.
"I knew his work through comics, but we actually met because he loved [my TV show] 'Decoded,'" Meltzer said of Eliopoulos. "We started emailing back and forth about each other's work and became close."
One day, Meltzer said, he asked Eliopoulos if he could make a T-shirt with a drawing of Amelia Earhart on it for his daughter to add into the rotation of Disney princess outfits.
"When we decided to do these books, no one fit the bill like Chris," Meltzer said. "It's easy to do funny, and it's easy to do cute, but it's hard to do heart. He was designed to do this."
Meltzer said he and Eliopoulos have plans to continue the series for as long as they can, in order to cover as many heroes as possible.
"It's like what the Supreme Court said about pornography, you know a hero when you see them," Meltzer said. "We're at the point where you know who to pick. When I'm on book 72, maybe it'll be harder to pick the next figure, but for now, it's an easy, and fun job."
If You Go
What: An Evening with Brad Meltzer
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 7
Where: Carroll Arts Center, 91 W. Main St., Westminster
Cost: $10 for adults. Includes copy of "I Am Martin Luther King, Jr." Children are free with advanced registration. Tickets are available at every branch of the Carroll County Public Library. Tickets are not sold through the Carroll Arts Center.
For more information: Visit library.carr.org.