Brad Meltzer (BA 1992) is the New York Times bestselling author of a dozen thrillers, more than two dozen children’s books, and one work of nonfiction. He’s written comic books and created two television series for the History Channel. This fall, his Ordinary People Change the World children’s books—which tell the stories of historical figures when they were kids—will form the basis of a new PBS Kids animated series, Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum. History staffer Gregory Parker caught up with Meltzer to talk about the lessons he learned as a U-M History major … and what it’s like to see an animated version of yourself.
Were you the first person in your family to go to college?
I was. Michigan was not just a dream for me, it was really a dream for my whole family. No one in my immediate family had gone to a four-year college. I always thought you went to high school and then you got a job. That was what I thought life was. When my family moved down to Florida from Brooklyn, they gave a fake address so I could go to the wealthy public school. It was because of that I heard of a thing called college.
I applied to one school: Michigan. It was so expensive to send just that one application. In our house, it was like, if you get rejected, then we’ll send another application. And if you get rejected from that, we’ll send another. But that was just how it was.
How did you decide to major in History?
I came to school thinking I was going to do Political Science, but the reality was that the History Department just had the best classes. The first class I took was United States, 1865 to the Present. I also remember taking the Vietnam War, which was offered by Tom Collier back then, and those two classes really affected me. Years later, when I had to write a senior paper, I wanted to write about superheroes as propaganda in World War II. I went to Tom Collier and he said that sounded really interesting. The History Department gave me that intellectual space to really explore.
When you told your parents you were going to be a History major, what did they say? Did they ask, “What are you going to do with that?”
I think my parents were like, “What’s a major?” I’m kidding, but again, it was a miracle I was here. Parents that tell their kids not to be a History major, or any other major they think you can’t make money with, they’re making a mistake. One thing that I’ve learned since earning a History degree is that the most successful people throughout history are doing what they love. I look back on my History degree, and that was it: I loved it. I just knew it was the most interesting thing on that whole campus to me.
Did the skills you gained as a History major help when you started writing fiction?
History isn’t just a bunch of dates and facts you memorize. I always saw it as a narrative. I loved it because those final exams had that big essay at the end when you sat with your bluebook and you opened it up and they said, “Analyze this. Here’s what happened, why did this happen?” And there’s no one right answer, there’s space in that bluebook for every different answer.
You write for readers of many different backgrounds, from kids to adults and everyone in between. Can you talk about your writing process a bit?
For my first book, The Tenth Justice, I went to the Supreme Court of the United States, I got them to show me around. I asked them to show me how security worked and where the secret passages were. I went to the White House and saw the secret tunnels. The book was all fiction, I could make up whatever I wanted, but I built it all on reality. I built it all on what my degree gave me, which was this ability to research, and analyze, and find facts.
We started doing the George Washington book, The First Conspiracy, and I was combing through footnotes. In 1776 there was a secret plot to kill Washington, and when he found out about it he gathered up those responsible, built a gallows, and hanged one of the co-conspirators in front of 20,000 people. It was the largest public execution at that point in North American history. George Washington brought the hammer down. I thought, this is the most incredible story I’ve ever seen, I’ve got to tell it.
With our kids’ books, I was tired of my kids looking at reality show stars and overpaid athletes. I could show them so many better heroes to look up to. So I started writing books on George Washington, Dr. King, and Rosa Parks for kids.
These might be different genres, but they’re doing the exact same thing: telling a good story. That’s the only goal. Some are going to be told in a thriller, some are going to be told as nonfiction, some are going to be told in a children’s book.
What about people who think history is boring?
I have a very modest background. We grew up working really hard, never thinking I was going to get to a place called Michigan. I think because of that I tell a story everyone can understand. If you think history is boring, then you have the wrong person telling you the story.
Your I Am Walt Disney and I Am Marie Curie books debut on September 10. Later this fall, you’re launching Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum, an animated series for PBS Kids.
We’re launching a PBS Kids cartoon show based on our Ordinary People Change the World books. It features Xavier, his sister Yadina, and their best friend—the most-handsome character of all time—Brad. They have a secret museum where they can go back in time. Every episode they meet child-aged historical figures. When you show them that Rosa Parks can teach you about bullies, and that Jane Goodall can teach you about the power of doing what you love, or that Harry Houdini can teach you about the power of mindfulness—now you have something that kids can apply in their real lives. The best stories don’t tell you about someone else. The best stories in your life tell you about yourself.
It has to be surreal seeing your animated doppelgänger.
Even in my wildest dreams—so many of which happened at Michigan—I never imagined that I would be a cartoon character.