ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
The bestselling author, Brad Meltzer, has a bit of a Superman obsession. He collects all manner of Superman memorabilia. He even worked the theme into one of his recent suspense novels. But being a father made him think hard about that word hero and what it really means.
So he started writing a little book on the side, a small book, that would include a collection of real-life flesh and blood heroes that he would eventually present to his son who's now 8 years old.
And now he's done just that. The book is called "Heroes for My Son." And Meltzer joins us to talk about the project.
Welcome to the program. Welcome back.
Mr. BRAD MELTZER (Author, "Heroes for My Son"): Thank you, Michele.
NORRIS: Now, it's called "Heroes for My Son," but you actually have three children, including a girl. So what about your daughter?
Mr. MELTZER: I made one deal when I sold this book. I told the publisher it must be a two-book deal. So I am actually working right now on "Heroes for My Daughter." I will tell you. My son is very happy to have the book. My daughter comes into my office every day and says, is my book done yet?
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NORRIS: And you say what?
Mr. MELTZER: And I say, you're worse than my editor, is what I say to her. But she - the truth is, is there's not a single hero in there that I wouldn't also think is appropriate for my daughter. It's not about gender or anything else, it's just about sharing this with your children, with your husband, with whoever you share these things with.
NORRIS: Now, how did you call the list? What were you looking for in a hero, people who moved mountains and did great things or small heroes too?
Mr. MELTZER: Well, I looked for all kinds. I think there - you know, at base, the one thing you need in my mind to be a hero is you have to help someone. You can help someone directly like Mother Teresa, who's in the book; you can inspire someone like Jackie Robinson. And sometimes I try to find the completely unknown hero.
There was a story I found about a police officer name Frank Shankwitz. And Frank Shankwitz found out about a little boy who had leukemia and the little boy wanted to be a police officer. So Shankwitz got him a little police uniform and a little badge. The boy fell into a coma. This is a true story. While the boy is in his coma, Shankwitz goes to his hospital room, and as he pins the little badge on the boy's body, the boy wakes up and smiles and then he goes back into the coma.
He later dies. But on the plane flight home from the boy's funeral, this police officer looks to his friend and says, you know, we made that kid really happy for one day. We should do that for other kids. And that's how the Make-A-Wish Foundation is born.
And again, I think what I love most of all is there are heroes everywhere. And I'd say 80 percent of the people in the book you've heard of, but I really wanted to have 20 percent that you never knew were out there but inspire you nonetheless.
NORRIS: Well, let's talk about a few of those. You include Eli Segal.
Mr. MELTZER: Yes. Eli Segal was the CEO of AmeriCorps when it originally launched. But for me, personally, he was my first mentor. He gave me my first real grownup job. And Eli used to take us into meetings and he would introduce me and say, this is Brad Meltzer, University of Law School graduate. And at that time, I was 22 years old. I was barely out of college.
And we'd be in meetings with these big CEOs and big CFOs, and when we'd get to the elevator and the doors would close, he'd say, you know why I said you went to law school even though I know you didn't? And I would say, why? And he said, because I wanted them to listen to what you were saying and they wouldn't listen otherwise.
He's in the book solely for that idea of believing in the idealism of young people and one of my favorite personal ones in there.
NORRIS: Now, I'm thinking - I'm trying to channel an inner 8-year-old who might say, but, Daddy, he lied.
Mr. MELTZER: Yeah. You know, I think the best part of this book is that you have to talk to your child with it. And it's the fun of it. The best one I can tell you is when the night I shared it with my son for the first time. And he, of course, he doesn't care about Eleanor Roosevelt or Mother Teresa. He's a little jock, so he wants to find the sports figures in there. And we have Muhammad Ali and some others.
He finds a guy named Roberto Clemente, very famous baseball player, one of the most famous of all. And when Roberto Clemente found out about an earthquake in Nicaragua, he said, I'm going to go help those people. And he sent three planeloads of medicine and food over to Nicaragua. They were all confiscated and stolen by people who obviously shouldn't have been taking them. He gets so involved, he says, I'm going to physically go on the fourth plane myself to make sure that this food and medicine gets there.
And the plane takes off and crashes into the ocean and Roberto Clemente dies; everyone onboard dies. But as the book says, he's not a hero because he died, he's a hero because of why he got on board.
So now I'm reading this story with my son and I'm so excited that he's going to be inspired forever. And as I'm reading it with him, I can physically feel him shrinking in my arms. I can feel the air leaving his lungs because he's scared. And he looks at me, he says, this is sad. And now I'm terrified that I've, you know, I've kind of wrecked my boy. The whole book has had the opposite effect.
And the next night, I take it a little easy. I don't push it. I just want to see what he's going to do. And he jumps up onto the bed as quick as he always does, and he says, okay, Dad, who are we going to read tonight? And I said, weren't you scared about Roberto Clemente? He said, no, I love him. I said, why do you love him? He says, because he risked his life to help those people. And I just realized in that moment that, you know, you can't teach about heroes without teaching about the lows. You don't teach the highs without teaching the lows.
And that's the whole point of the book is to kind of share these moments together and have these discussions that you otherwise would never have.
NORRIS: Hollywood is well represented in this book; Paul Newman, Charlie Chaplin and also Lucille Ball.
Mr. MELTZER: Yeah. Lucille Ball is...
NORRIS: Now, people think of her as a comedienne, not necessarily a hero.
Mr. MELTZER: Yeah. You know, sometimes when I was selecting people, you pick people that you admire and then you look at their story and say, does it actually measure up? Lucille Ball measured up. And in her house, when she was growing up, she had this really, really horrible grandmother who used to ban all the mirrors in her house because she thought vanity was a sin.
Lucy had no friends. She would play in the chicken coop and for friends she had chickens, who she used to nickname Sassafrassa. Lucille Ball used to ride the trolley cars making faces - because she had no mirrors in her house - making faces in the reflection in the trolley cars. And I wanted my boy to hear that humor can take on anything.
You know, when I did "Heroes for My Son," I wanted it not just to be a book about great people. I wanted to find the singular moment that makes them great. And for me, Lucille Ball, finding out what her background is and exactly what she went through and how she could use humor in any moment, it just really fulfilled that requirement.
NORRIS: There's a wonderful quote from here also that is a fantastic lesson for anyone but especially young people: Love yourself first and everything falls into line.
Mr. MELTZER: It's a lesson that so many of us - if I could pick one lesson to teach my son, that's it. I want him to have perseverance, I want him to have kindness, but I - just as the battle we all fight with ourselves every day to accept ourselves for who we are. And I love that from all people it comes most potently from Lucille Ball.
NORRIS: Brad, the entry about your mother, I must say, I've looked at it a few times and every time it brings tears to my eyes.
Mr. MELTZER: Yeah. Well, my mom had died from breast cancer two years ago, and I did put my mom in there. It was based on a story that happened to me years ago. My publisher was shutting down and it was really the worst day in my professional life. I didn't know if anyone was going to take over my contract. And I was talking to my mom on the phone, telling her how terrified I was.
And there was this long pause. My mom said to me, I'd love you if you were a garbage man. And to this day, every single day that I sit down to write, I say those words to myself: I'd love you if you were a garbage man, almost taking a bath in the selflessness and the purity of that love that my mother has for me.
And, you know, that story is not just for my mother; that's for every mother out there. And it's really why the last pages in the book are probably the most important pages in the book. They're two blank pages where people can put in their story from their family. And I really think that's going to be the most beautiful page of all.
NORRIS: Brad Meltzer, good to talk to you. Thanks so much.
Mr. MELTZER: Thanks, Michele.
NORRIS: Brad Meltzer is the author of several bestselling suspense novels and a new book called "Heroes for My Son."
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