Brad Meltzer on Bringing Benjamin Franklin and Anne Frank to the Ordinary People Change the World Series

More than five years after the first installments in the Ordinary People Change the World series by writer Brad Meltzer and artist Chris Eliopoulous, last week saw the release of two new installments: I am Anne Frank and I am Benjamin Franklin. It would have been difficult to guess back in 2014 just how powerful the idea of a series based on true-life heroes would be, as things got increasingly angry and divisive, building to a 2020 that has been absolutely desperate. Ironically, during this same year, Meltzer and Eliopoulous took the premise to PBS Kids with Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum.

The TV show has already surpassed the volume of work that Meltzer and Eliopoulous put into the book, but taht doesn't mean they're playing catch-up. Instead, the books are taking some chances right now -- including addressing the Holocaust, something that's hard to do in a daytime animated show.

Meltzer joined to discuss the books, what's next, and why he thinks now was the perfect moment to explore these particular heroes.

First of all, I am apparently some distant relation to Ben Franklin, according to my mom's side of the family.

I mean, clearly if I would've known that when Chris was drawing the book, we could have put you in the cameo, next to Electro and Lightning Lad -- which we did, by the way, put into the book. I'm not joking.

Do you feel, is it exhilaration or pressure or a little of both when you have to kind of go out there and talk about these larger than life characters in this way?

I mean, this series was always launch for my own kids to give them better heroes to look up to, and to give them heroes who could teach them compassion and kindness and character. I think what catches me off guard is how timely they are, sadly. If you look at the country right now, anti-semitism is at a 40-year high.

Last week, there was a study that said millennials didn't know basic facts about the Holocaust. We're doing something wrong. And here we are with I Am Anne Frank, a book that we planned two years ago. We can't know where the culture is.

You look at the controversy that runs through history, whatever political side you're on, about the founders. You love them, you hate them or whatever you think about them. And here we are with I Am Benjamin Franklin, a man who is just one of the most creative thinkers, experimenting on himself, experimenting in science, experimenting with America.

And we can't possibly know where the culture is going to be in terms of a President who is saying he may not step down [if he doesn't win] the election, but here was a book about the founders, and why we actually fought this, and a man who stands for the power of the free press at a time where the press is assaulted every day. So that's what catches me off guard is, sadly, just how relevant these heroes are.

How do you make Anne Frank "kid-friendly" enough to get a publisher to support it?

listen, we did I Am Amelia Earhart and I Am Abraham Lincoln. When I walked into my publisher's office and said, I now want to do a children's book about the Holocaust, I thought she was going to kick me out. And instead she said, "I think now's the right time."

I mean, look at how not only Jews are singled out, but how Muslims are singled out, how religions are singled out, how anyone with a different skin color is singled out these days. And Chris and I wrote this book in response to that.

Obviously, I had no idea two years ago when we started, where the country was going to be, but we knew that we had to deal with it. And the only way to deal with is the same way we deal with everything. When we did, I Am Abraham Lincoln, they said, "You're going to do slavery?" Yes, we're going to do slavery. And when we did Anne Frank, we're going to show the Holocaust.

We obviously had a lot of help. We had a historian who used to work with the Holocaust Museum, as well as the Anne Frank Center in Atlanta weighing in and helping us try and find that perfect pitch so that kids could see the reality of the situation, but also see the hope that Anne Frank found in the midst of it.

At this point, do you have to worry about how the subjects in the books work for Xavier?

No. We pick the heroes for both, but I don't think about one when doing the other.

Benjamin Franklin and Anne Frank are books number 21 and 22 in the series. The first season of Xavier Riddle has 74 heroes. They lapped us in no time because they're doing two heroes every single day and there's 34 episodes plus a movie. So I don't really think about what they're doing and we just do what we want to do.

The nice part about Xavier is, we can do more obscure heroes on there. We can do people you've never heard of. We do people that even I'm like, "Who is that again?" But we found some amazing Asian painter, or the first woman to climb the Himalayas, Junko Tabei. We still haven't done Nelson Mandela in the kids' books. And so it's very hard to kind of pick someone that you don't know as much. But the answer is, Chris and I weigh in on the show as much as we do the books.

How much do you guys think about making sure the books stay inclusive?

I will give credit where credit is due. I'll never forget when Miles Morales was introduced, my friend Brian Bendis, I remember saying that he wrote this wonderful piece about a letter he got from someone who said that when he was a little kid he used to always pretend to be Spider-Man because Spider-Man was the only character who, if you didn't know who he was, could be black under that suit. You can see Batman's jaw. You can see Superman's face. But Spider-Man could be anybody under there. He's fully hidden. And when Miles Morales was introduced, Brian said that he got tons of letters like that. And that's inspiring to me.

You have all the hope you can want when you launch a new character like that, but you have no idea of the profound impact it will have on people. Everyone wants to see a hero that is like them, and we take that for granted. So I didn't forget that story and it is why we did our next hero is Frida Kahlo, because we kept getting people who said, "Wait a minute, I want to see a Hispanic hero. I know you did Sonia Sotomayor, but can you do another?"

And the Jewish community's like, "Where's our Jewish hero?" The science community is like, "Where's our science hero?" Every community has their heroes and wants to see themselves represented. It's not just because they feel like they want their turn and their number, but it's because it's really empowering when you see someone that is quote unquote like you, because when you do you feel like, "Oh my gosh, I can do this as well." And there's nothing that's more empowering than that.

Do you think at this point the brand of these books is big enough that you can introduce people to some heroes they wouldn't otherwise look into?


Well, we're about to test that theory. I won't say who it is yet, but you'll see after Frida Kahlo, we're doing someone who most people probably don't know. And it's a real test of the series because we just felt like, "You know what, rather than just doing the famous ones, let's see if we can really do just about anybody." And it's someone is well known, it's not someone obscure, but certainly not nearly as well-known as the rest.

I'm sure that there are people at the publishing house who are like, "Man, that's not going to sell as much." But the one place where Chris and I are completely brave is, this series is where we don't think about the sales. We don't care. We look at the universe and we look at the world and we say, "What is the universe for me right now? What is the world for me right now?" And then we pick the hero that we think should step in for that. And I love the fact that, I may be when it comes to my thrillers or the adult books I do, worry more about marketing and whatnot. But with the kids books, I feel like this is a gift I never realized I was giving myself and I'm just going to be as pure with it as I can be.