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Brad Meltzer’s biographies for kids offer real-life heroes

The newest books in the bestselling Ordinary People Change the World series are ‘I Am Anne Frank’ and ‘I Am Benjamin Franklin.’

Brad Meltzer has written a string of bestselling thrillers and nonfiction books for adult readers and hosted several TV series. But the project he seems most passionate about is a book series called Ordinary People Change the World, which he writes for kids ages 5 to 8.

Launched in 2014 with I Am Abraham Lincoln, I Am Amelia Earhart, I Am Rosa Parks and I Am Albert Einstein, the series now has more than 20 books, all illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos. Each is a biography of a real person, but with a twist — a focus on that famous person’s childhood. The series has become the inspiration for the PBS Kids series Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum.

South Florida resident Meltzer started writing them, he says, because he was frustrated that his own kids looked up to cartoon superheroes or almost as cartoonish celebrities. His books offer real-life heroes kids can identify with, their stories based on extensive research.

The newest books, the 20th and 21st in the series, are I Am Anne Frank and I Am Benjamin Franklin.

The Franklin book nods to the stellar accomplishments of the Founding Father’s adult life — including an illustration of Franklin’s edits to Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence — but it tells delightful tales of his childhood.

As a boy, Ben loved to swim, and he loved to solve problems. First he invented swim mitts so he could paddle more powerfully, then he conducted a successful experiment to see whether a kite could tow him across a lake. (His more famous later kite experiment is recounted, too.)

This biography of Franklin finds in his boyhood the seeds of his adult success: a powerful curiosity, a drive to improve himself, a love for writing and reading, a belief that people can accomplish more together than separately.

I Am Anne Frank was a difficult story to write for young children, Meltzer admits. But like all of the books in the series, it finds a positive message even in tragedy.

The story begins with Anne’s happy early childhood, but moves to a straightforward description of the rise of Nazism as a little girl would perceive it.

Meltzer describes the Frank family’s life in the Secret Annex, the small apartment in Amsterdam where others helped them hide from the Nazis.

Eliopoulos' illustrations, in a style reminiscent of Peanuts and Calvin & Hobbes, are generally lively and charming, but they can be subtle, too. Here, as the Germans close in, the panels showing Anne are framed in black; the dark margins growing and the pictures getting smaller until her time in hiding ends.

The book uses Frank’s own words, from her famous diary, as much as possible. “I know it sounds scary,” she says on one page, “but this isn’t a story about fear. It’s a story about hope. Even when bad things happen, there are good things all around.”

I Am Anne Frank

By Brad Meltzer, illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos

Dial, 40 pages, $15.99

I Am Benjamin Franklin

By Brad Meltzer, illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos

Dial, 40 pages, $15.99

Times Virtual Festival of Reading

Starting Nov. 12, watch an interview with Brad Meltzer at festivalofreading.com.

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