Interview with Marc Tyler Nobleman – BOYS OF STEEL and the Nonfiction Picture Book Genre

Marc Tyler Nobleman is the author of 70 books for children, both for educational and trade publishers. His recent picture book, BOYS OF STEEL: THE CREATORS OF SUPERMAN has been widely applauded, with starred reviews by Booklist, and Publisher’s Weekly, and named a Kirkus “Best Children’s Book” of 2008.
Marc, thank you for letting me pick your brain about the challenging genre of nonfiction picture books. And, for sharing your writing process with BOYS OF STEEL.
Why did you choose to write BOYS OF STEEL as a nonfiction picture book as opposed to historical fiction, or chaptered book for older readers?
The story had never been the focus of its own book, in any format. In my opinion, it had enough meat to stand alone, without being fictionalized. Because of the visual nature of the story, and the “storyography” (i.e. biography focusing on a defining incident rather than an entire life) approach I wanted to do, I felt picture book was the only way to go.
Nonfiction has changed dramatically in the last twenty years. How would you define the term “narrative nonfiction” today?
Narrative nonfiction is telling a true story as it unfolds—meaning that the reader learns about the events as the characters do, not with any writer intervention such as “An amazing thing was about to happen.” But it’s more than that. It’s telling a story with flair. With muscular rather than straightforward prose. With mini-cliffhangers whenever possible.
Recent news about the picture book market has been gloomy. How do you think the market for nonfiction picture books is faring?
I don’t know statistics but I stand by the form. Now more than ever, nonfiction picture books are shining. Authors are covering topics that have never been the focus of any book, let alone picture books, and they’re doing original research in creating them. Plus some, like me, promote them as picture books for all ages, widening the market potential. There will always be a need for strong nonfiction, and, generally speaking, I feel strong nonfiction may have more staying power than strong fiction, especially if it’s an unconventional topic.
It is said that there is a piece of the author in every successful book. Was there something about Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, their struggles, and persistence that resonated with you personally?
My school presentation focuses on the need for persistence. Every writer—most every person, on some level—can relate to that idea. When I was younger, yes, there were times I felt marginalized as Jerry and Joe did, though that was not the main reason I chose to write this book.
You are also a talented cartoonist. Did you consider illustrating the book yourself?
Not even for a moment! My art style is fairly limited. I wouldn’t be capable of creating anything near as vibrant as what Ross MacDonald did. I was lucky to work with him.
You received twenty-two rejections before your manuscript was picked up by Knopf in 2008? How many revisions did you tackle before it was finally acquired?
At least 18, and then more afterward.
BOYS OF STEEL is unique in its biographical introduction to two individuals. Where would we find it shelved in most libraries?
I would like it to be shelved with picture book biography. However, some libraries are shelving it in cartooning. I’ve talked with some librarians about this. I feel the book has greater effect if a young reader can discover it when browsing biographies. If it’s in cartooning, it will be mostly a destination book—in other words, a book that kids find when searching the catalog and then go to specifically. But in cartooning, kids will not be able to stumble across it when assigned a biography project.
Read Marc’s blog post on the library quandry here.
Your research for BOYS OF STEEL was exhaustive. When did you know it was time to stop digging and start the actual writing?
I am still researching it! I occasionally post new tidbits on my blog. I had known the main beats of the story for years, and I knew early on what the framework of my telling of the story would be, so I began writing relatively quickly.
Do you prefer to write from an outline?
Not exactly. I write down what incidents I want to include and work from that, but it’s not a traditional outline.
BOYS OF STEEL opens with Joe and Jerry as teenagers, and covers only about ten years. Did you struggle at all with choosing where to begin and end the story?
As mentioned above, I knew all along that I wanted to start just before they met and end just after Superman took off, so to speak. In comics circles, their story always ends on a sad note. For once I wanted their story to end on a high note—after all, their big accomplishment was culturally seismic. (I do get into the heartbreaking portion of their lives in the author’s note, but the story proper can stand alone without being inaccurate.)
Choosing which quotes, anecdotes, and details to leave out is often the hardest part of nonfiction picture book writing. What advice do you have for writers working in this genre?
Every detail must move the story along in some way. It may be necessary for plot, or it may reveal character in a way that no other nugget does. My books are pretty tightly constructed. I am always looking for fat to trim. My advice, generally, is to make every sentence count.
Do you think story theme comes organically or intentionally to an author? What do you think is the prevailing theme in BOYS OF STEEL?
I think the theme is persistence, which incorporates believing in yourself. I don’t think the theme always reveals itself to an author immediately. It may take some experimentation, at least for me.
Your Author’s Note is almost as long as the book text, and offers the riveting “story behind the story.”  Who do you think is drawn to the author’s note more, young readers or adults? 
I think the author’s note may be longer than the text. It addresses some rather sophisticated subjects (copyright, the Holocaust) so it skews a bit older than the main text, but plenty of teachers and librarians do read it to kids (most suited for grades 4 and up). I share anecdotes that didn’t make it into the book as well as research stories on my blog
I would imagine students, especially boys, love BOYS OF STEEL. Tell us what your school visits are like. With a nod to my home state, have you brought your presentation to Texas schools?
I have been thrilled that BOYS OF STEEL does seem to appeal to boys, especially boys at the critical age (typically 4th grade) when they begin to lag girls in reading interest. However, I did not write it as a “boy book.” And I am, of course, equally thrilled when it resonates with girls for any reason. I have been to Texas twice now since BOYS OF STEEL came out. Once I was in the Houston school district and more recently I spent two weeks in another Houston district, Cy-Fair. Sixteen schools (40 talks!) in two weeks! I needed some Superman stamina for that one! It proved easier than one might assume because the response was wonderfully enthusiastic. The book was nominated for a Horned Toad Tales Award and teachers and librarians prepped the kids well.
Speaking of school visits, take a peek at some of Marc’s school visit recaps and his Ten Most Memorable School Visits 
What can we expect from you next?
My picture book on the story behind Batman—focusing on the uncredited co-creator and original writer, Bill Finger—comes out in July 2012. In the meantime, I’m working on several other nonfiction picture books—none superhero related! I’m also speaking quite a bit and working on some writing-intensive but non-book projects including a possible documentary and a possible TV show based on one of my books. Stay tuned to my blog for details when they become available!
Readers, while you’re perusing Marc’s blog, be sure to jump over to his post on picture book biographies for older readers.   
To learn more about Marc’s writing, research, and well-documented journey through the publishing world, pop over to his insightful and content-rich blog, Noblemania. Then take a peak at his wonderful cartoon work.

Author’s Notes – The Story Behind the Story

I recently submitted a NF manuscript to a few agents. Twenty-four hours later, a new worry crept into my mind. I hadn’t included an Author’s Note with my submission. I had followed the agents’ guidelines, keeping my query and cover letters to one page. I certainly didn’t want to add word count and pages to the tail of my manuscript. Without the Author’s Note, the agents won’t know how exhaustive my research has been; the years-long journey of discovery; the soul-wrenching inspiration behind the story; what happened to my subject(s) after the book ends; my subject in context to the world around him/her. The manuscript will have to stand on its own now. Was this an opportunity missed?

I polled a list-serve I’m on, as well as a handful of friends in the know. Half responded that an author’s note should always be submitted with a nonfiction manuscript. The other half thinks there’s no need. With no hard-and-fast rule on the subject, I kicked my worry to the curb.

This got me thinking about the importance of Author’s Notes. I’ve been known to sneak to the back of a book and read this back matter “bling” before beginning page one of a book. Why? Because I’m fascinated by the story behind the written tale. Does that make me a wee bit geeky?

Author’s Notes are not limited to nonfiction. You’ll often find them in historical fiction, tall tales, folktales, legends, myths, and stories heavily influenced by iconic literary works. Picture books to YA.

Author’s Notes can be compelling, surprising, and revealing. Almost always, they add a fuller picture of the subject, making the book that much more meaningful.

Peruse Author’s Notes for:
*the author’s inspiration
*interesting detours along a research journey
*to learn of liberties the author took with the story
*to learn where the truth meets the fiction of the story
*facts of interest to adult readers and buyers
*injustices, scandals, and dramas appealing to adult readers
*An expanded historical context
*An elaboration on curriculum tie-ins (we’ll explore that in a future post.)
*The “rest of the story.”

Naturally, because I’ve always liked show-and-tell, I’m including a small sampling to demonstrate a diversity of children’s books with fascinating Author’s Notes.

by Kathleen Krull (Knopf, 2009) Picture book biography
Author’s Note reveals the unfortunate power struggle between this hardworking man and a huge corporation like RCA. glimpse: “…Philo Farnsworth may have won the race to invent TV. But he lost the war over getting credit for it during his lifetime.” Fascinating and sad. Adults might find this especially interesting.

by Bethany Hegedus (Delacorte, 2010) Middle Grade Novel
Author’s Note reveals the author’s heart in the story. glimpse: “What I am is a storyteller, one who fell in love with the stories that have been swirling around slave quilts…” The historical research of the book in general offers many curriculum tie-ins and discussion points appropriate for students studying American history.

by Marc Tyler Nobleman (Random House, 2008)
Picture book biography
Author’s Note reveals the dramatic legal struggle of creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, against DC Comics, after the two friends mistakenly sold all rights to the Superman character for $130. Much like Farnsworth’s history, the story behind this story is nothing short of fascinating.

BUD, NOT BUDDY (Newbery medal winner) by Christopher Paul Curtis (Random House, 1999)
MG novel
Authors note reveals the family inspiration behind the story and a deeper introduction to the plight of African Americans during the Great Depression. glimpse: “Although Bud, Not Buddy is fictional, many of the situations Bud encounters are based on events that occurred in the 1930s, during a time known as the Great Depression.” As a bonus, the author includes period photographs for added context.

by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Harper Collins, 2000)
Fiction picture book
Author’s note expands on the facts about the Creek Nation of Oklahoma, the Ojibway of the Great Lakes, and how traditional jingle dancing dresses were made. The accompanying glossary adds even more. A fantastic example of a curriculum based addendum.

ETERNAL by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Candlewick, 2010) YA Fiction
Author’s Note reveals the author’s inspiration behind the vampire-based tale, and introduces the impressive literary figures that inspired a few characters’ names and, with thoughtful comparison, points out what sets this tale apart. The author shows her expansive literary knowledge with nods to iconic works of literature such as those by Bram Stoker, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, and more. This author’s note is a prime example of how research plays into a wholly fictional tale for older readers.

by Kathleen Krull (Random House, 2004) Picture book biography
Author’s note reveals the inspiration behind Giesel’s most famous stories. Here, you’ll learn which story was inspired by the rhythm of a steamer ship. Which was inspired by the sight of a stranger in a “pompous hat.” Find out how his windblown desk of sketches gave birth to HORTON HEARS A WHO. And how two publisher bets resulted in THE CAT IN THE HAT and GREEN EGGS AND HAM. Four pages of Author’s Notes reveal ever so much more than the picture book format allows. This is like having two books in one.

Don’t pass up a good Author’s Note. There’s a revealing story behind every story.