New York Times bestselling author Brad Meltzer's book series, called "Ordinary People Change the World," will soon debut on television. “Xavier Riddle And The Secret Museum" is scheduled to air on PBS Kids in fall, 2019. Like the popular book series, the show will aim to introduce young children to famous historical figures. WGBH News Host Henry Santoro interviewed Meltzer about the upcoming series. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Henry Santoro: Your collaboration with illustrator Chris Eliopoulos is perfect for readers. Who was it that discovered it would be perfect for viewers, too?
Brad Meltzer: When we started the series, the goal was — it was selfish, I want to give my kids better heroes to look up to. I didn’t want my kids looking at reality TV show stars and people who are famous for being famous. And with that, I realized if you want your kids off their devices, you know you fight back with books. But if you want to get through to kids, sadly, television is still the way.
When I was five years old, a man named Mr. Rogers and a man named Jim Henson taught me you could use your creativity to put good into this world. All I'm trying to do today, to this moment, with the “I am" series, is trying to put good into the world, use my creativity to put good there. So, we started, from the very beginning, we approached PBS and said we'd love to do a TV show on these books.
And what was interesting is they said, you have to come up with an idea for it, because we always get pitched history, but no one's been able to crack it. And I think the reason it worked for them, is because our heroes are kids. If I tell my daughter Amelia Earhart flew across the Atlantic Ocean, she is like, 'No big deal Dad, everyone flies across the Atlantic.' But if I tell her the true story that Amelia Earhart, when she was 7 years old, built a homemade roller coaster in her backyard, and took a wooden crate and came flying down a greased-up two-by-four, my daughter's like, 'Oh my gosh she's amazing, she's daring, she's bold.' Amelia Earhart is suddenly alive again and that's what, "I Am Amelia Earhart” does, that's what ”I Am Abraham Lincoln” does, that's what “I am Rosa Parks” does. They show you these stories that when these heroes were kids, that they were just like us. These aren't the stories of famous people, but they're just what we’re all capable of on our very best days. So, I think for PBS and the TV side, the fact that we could show and make these heroes interesting, and that kids really liked it, was a huge hurdle to jump over.
Santoro: You know, parents are going to love this. Parents are hooked on these books as well. I see the comments on your site. I can't wait to see these characters come to life.
Meltzer: The fun part of it is, I got to create these characters, so I pitched them, and I came up with the whole idea of this character named Xavier Riddle, his sister, Yadina, and they have a secret museum. But their best friend is named Brad. It's my favorite character, there is a little character that runs around looking like me, but he's also super nervous and neurotic. So, whenever they go back in time, he's like, ”Oh my gosh, should we go? Do we have insurance? Is this going to be safe?” And he's worried about everything. But it allows — that’s who the series is for. The regular, ordinary kid who's worried that they can't do it.
Santoro: And it didn't take long for readers of this series to realize that you have a cameo in all of them?
Meltzer: Oh yeah. The funny thing is, Chris Eliopoulos, our amazing artist, has this art style that’s like Peanuts and Charlie Brown meets Calvin and Hobbes. He draws me into every book. He’s made me the bald “Where's Waldo.” But to this day, kids across the country, they will tell me, the parents will tell me, that one of their favorite things is finding me in the book. And so now they put me in the TV show as well. You’ve got to look carefully.
Santoro: That’s great. Brad, thank you so much for coming in.