Author Brad Meltzer lives in South Florida, but he’s in Washington, D.C., this weekend. A new PBS children’s series, Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum, based on Meltzer’s Ordinary People Change the World picture-book biographies, had its premiere at the Library of Congress and will debut on PBS channels and the PBS Kids digital platforms on Monday.
“It’s 50 years and one day after Sesame Street debuted,” Meltzer, who grew up watching that iconic show, notes.
He writes novels for adults, nonfiction, television and comic books, but his children’s books have a special place in Meltzer’s heart. He and his wife have two sons and a daughter, and, he says during a phone interview, “I want my kids to get off their screens, off their phones, so I have to give them something better to look at. We want to give kids better characters to look up to."
So he began the Ordinary People series in 2014 with I Am Abraham Lincoln, I Am Amelia Earhart, I Am Rosa Parks and I Am Albert Einstein. The books, for kids ages 5 to 8, focus not on the well-known accomplishments of historical figures but on their childhoods.
Meltzer says, “When I told my daughter Amelia Earhart flew across the Atlantic Ocean, she said, ‘Dad, everybody flies across the Atlantic.’ But when I told her 7-year-old Amelia built her own roller coaster in the backyard, with roller skate wheels, she was all in. Kids love to see heroes were kids just like them.”
The books are nonfiction, he says: “We don’t make this stuff up.” Instead, he researches the childhoods of his subjects. The newest books are I Am Marie Curie and I Am Walt Disney. “The advantage of doing numbers 18 and 19 (in the series) is that people know the books. They’re the most popular history series for their age group. So the Disney Archives let us see all kinds of things, even manuscripts that have never been published. I talked to Disney’s biographer, Neal Gabler.”
The resulting book includes a mention of young Walt’s role in a school play. “When I saw that,” Meltzer says, “I was like, wait, Walt Disney played Peter Pan?”
The PBS series employs the same approach to history, but frames the lives of famous figures with the adventures of three contemporary kids who have found a way to time-travel.
“I’ve worked on the show for two years,” Meltzer says. “I came up with Xavier and his sister, Yadina, and their best friend, Brad, the handsomest character.” (All the books in the series have a cameo by Meltzer.)
The inspiration for Xavier, he says, came from “my own house. My youngest son is a dreamer, so enthusiastic. But he can’t tie his own shoes. Yadina will grow up to be president. Brad is anxious about everything. He has delusions of averageness."
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The show’s look comes from the book illustrations by Christopher Eliopoulos. “Chris is our secret weapon,” Meltzer says. “It’s easy to do cute, it’s easy to do funny. It’s hard to do heart.”
Eliopoulos’ style, he says, “reminds you of Charlie Brown and Calvin & Hobbes. He was influenced by them, grew up on them, but it’s his own style.”
For both the books and the TV series, Meltzer says, they choose heroes who can illustrate “a social and emotional lesson we want to teach. We’re living in an age where people write in all caps. We wanted a lesson in humility, so we chose Neil Armstrong.
“With Houdini, the lesson is take a deep breath. That’s how he used to escape from his ropes, but we made it a lesson on mindfulness. We’re all so anxious; kids need these tools.”
Each book is about one hero, but Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum will have “70 heroes in 35 episodes. We’ll lap the books in the first two weeks.” Episodes will pair heroes for different themes, Meltzer says. “We’ll have the Wright brothers and the Bronte sisters, Marie Curie and Alexander Graham Bell, Zora Neale Hurston and Rosa Parks.”
He’s getting ready to publish his second nonfiction book for adults, a sequel of sorts to The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington, published in January. The Lincoln Conspiracy, he says, “is about the secret plot that failed in 1861. It’s an amazing story.”
But he’s also hoping to make a little history of his own with Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum.
“When I was 5 years old,” he says, “Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers taught me you could use creativity to put good into the world. I hope some 5-year-old will watch Xavier Riddle and get that spark, and 45 years from now create something incredible.”
Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum premieres at 7 p.m. Monday on PBS Kids.
I Am Walt Disney
By Brad Meltzer, illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos
Dial Books for Young Readers, 40 pages, $15.99