Sunday, 19 June 2011

Books and Adventures has moved!

After carefully digging up the foundations and hoisting the whole thing on to a flatbed truck, I've shifted the blog over to, where you can currently find the first part of my interview with Nnedi Okorafor.

I've also pulled my finger out and fired up the Twitter as well, you can find me at

If you want to subscribe to the all-new, all-singing Books and Adventures, the RSS feed is here:

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Impending Relaunch of Books and Adventures

It's been a while since my last update, as my Peruvian project ended in a robbery and a bout of fever - but I'm pleased to say that I'm back on the web, and the Books and Adventures site is about to receive a major overhaul.

The all-new, all-singing, all-dancing site will be launching shortly, including the long-awaited interviews with YA author Nnedi Okorafor and Finnish Education Minister Henna Virkkunen, as well as new features from New Zealand and Australia, where I'm discovering that Sydney is neck-and-neck with New York for the title of 'Matt's Favourite Place on Earth'.

Stay tuned for more from the all-new Books and Adventures...


Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Travel and Tourism for the Ethical Gringo

You'll find my latest piece of travel writing for La Vida Idealist up at

Playing sapo in Huamanga, Peru

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Raising Expectations: Gringo Teachers in Peruvian Schools

You can find this weekend's interview with Sue Allsworth, director of San Domingo Savio School in Ayacucho, Peru, here at La Vida Idealist.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Latest from Ayacucho, Peru: Pascuatoro and the running of the bulls

Where do we draw the line between animal rights and respect for tradition?

In the Peruvian city of Ayacucho, bull running is a recent addition to an Easter celebration that goes back centuries.

You can find my latest piece, on the revival of the traditional pascuatoro, at

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Q&A with Ken White, Manager of Educational Programs at Brookhaven National Laboratory

This week on Books and Adventures we’re joined by Ken White, manager of educational programs at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL), an advanced research facility run by the U.S. Department of Energy.

BNL was founded in 1947, with a mandate to promote research across the fields of physics, chemistry, biology and engineering. I began by asking Ken how long BNL has been involved with schools outreach and science education.

'The Laboratory has been a supporter of science education pretty much since its inception. Science education and workforce development are part of our mission at BNL, and we have been fortunate to have leadership support to enable greater interaction with our academic community.  College students have come here for internships since the early 1950s and the Lab frequently had open houses and school outreach programs well back into the early 1960s. 

Over the past six years we have developed hands-on inquiry-based experiences for middle and high school students to enable them to conduct science similar to that of our researchers.  These are offered at cost and have become quite popular with local schools.  These programs have expanded the way in which we satisfy our responsibility for educating the next generation of scientists.

Successful offerings need to be exciting, with engaging activities that enable students to realize science is accessible to them.  The best programs often include a story as well – we try to humanize the program by relating it to our scientific staff actually working on the problems being presented.  Programs that show how the academic work applies to real life problems we face as a society tend to do well.'

What can a visit to BNL do for students in mainstream schooling?

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Report from Holy Week in Ayacucho

You can catch my latest from Holy Week in Ayacucho - including how I ended up taking an impromptu role in a traditional religious procession - at Living in Peru.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Telling Stories From Cultures Not Our Own

This week's guest post comes from Eric Maddern, writer, teacher, singer, storyteller and mastermind behind the Welsh retreat centre Cae Mabon

As Books and Adventures explores the indigenous cultures of Peru, Eric - an experienced traveller and storyteller - kindly agreed to share his thoughts on 'Telling Stories from Cultures Not Our Own'.


By what right do storytellers tell stories from Africa, Native America, Aboriginal Australia and other similar cultures? Isn’t appropriating and telling these peoples’ stories an extension of colonialism? We stole their lands and livelihoods; we decimated their cultures; we virtually drove them to extinction. Now we want to tell their stories. Isn’t this just the latest stage of colonial theft? It’s not surprising that some survivors from such cultures think so.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Interview: Sally Wendkos Olds, Super Granny

Today’s interviewee, Sally Wendkos Olds, is an accomplished writer, with special expertise in child development, families and travel. Sally has 11 books and over 200 articles to her name. Even more importantly, she’s the devoted grandmother of 5 lucky children.

Sally’s book Super Granny: Great Stuff to Do With Your Grandkids is packed with original and exciting activities for modern grandmothers to do with grandkids of all ages, from high-tech intercontinental Skype chats to simply eating your dessert before your dinner!

Sally’s book and award-winning blog address the new breed of grandmothers who don’t look like the fluffy-haired, passive picture-book stereotype of the past. Glamorous, jet-setting, technologically savvy, the Super Granny is more likely to catch up with her grandkids via Blackberry than slump on the sofa with tea and biscuits.

Here at Books and Adventures we recognize that learning and reading is an adventure which children share with many people beyond their immediate family. Friends, teachers and relatives, including grannies, have so much to offer as we learn and grow.

Sally kindly took time for a Q-and-A with Books and Adventures by e-mail. There’s more on her work here, and you can find the Super Granny book here.

Q: The Super Granny ‘doesn’t look like the grandmothers in the picture books….like your own grandmothers or even your own mothers. And you don’t act like any of these either.’ What’s brought about this generational change?

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Nnedi Okorafor, Akata Witch Review at Brooklyn Rail

My review of Nnedi Okorafor's new Young Adult novel Akata Witch is now online at, and available in print across NYC.

Later this month, you'll find an in-depth interview with Nnedi right here at Books and Adventures.

New Zealand Book Month Extended in Christchurch

A quick update from New Zealand Book Month (NZBM), which has been extended into April for Christchurch after the recent earthquake.
Sadly numerous NZBM events in the city have been cancelled, including workshops with comic book writer Steve Malley, and the exciting 'Create an NZ Superhero' online competition - but libraries are still playing a major part in the recovery effort.

Carolyn Robertson, the city's Libraries and Information Manager, told Books and Adventures, 'I think books and library services were absolutely instrumental in helping people cope in the aftermath. The quake occurred on a Tuesday. By the following Sunday, there was a library story teller at every shelter with books, rhymes, and songs. The children's responses varied from shelter to shelter: at one, they were very hyper and upset, at another they were painfully shy and needed lots of encouragement to even sit on the mat. So the library staff had to pull out all their tricks, and adjust the programme to meet different needs. 

Saturday, 2 April 2011


Rimaykullayki...or, ''hello'" in Quechua!

After my three month project with Behind the Book in New York, I'm now in Ayacucho, Peru, delivering professional development and curriculum advice for staff at San Domingo Savio School.

Books and Adventures will continues to feature its usual mix of articles and interviews, but for the next month or so, you can also find a personal account of my Peruvian experiences at La Vida Idealist.

Stay tuned to Books and Adventures for charter schools, New Zealand Book Month, science teaching in the USA, Super Grannies and the secret of Finland's education success.

But drop in on La Vida Idealist if you want to know the meaning of this picture...

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Nnedi Okorafor: (Re)Writing Destiny

Next month’s issue of the New York arts journal Brooklyn Rail features my review of Nnedi Okorafor’s new Young Adult novel, Akata Witch.

I think Nnedi is one of the most important YA authors writing in English at the moment. Her books blend science fiction and fantasy in epic adventures, which draw heavily on African culture and beliefs. Zahrah the Windseeker, Nnedi’s Wole Soyinka Prize-winning debut, is my all-time favourite book for young people. I wrote on it a few months back, here.

Raised in Chicago by Nigerian parents, Nnedi was a teenage tennis star forced into more sedentary pursuits by a bout of scoliosis when she was at college.

When we met on my recent trip to Chicago, she told me: ‘I would not be writing but for the paralysis. I’d never have thought to pick up a pen. I was only nineteen, really athletic, but scoliosis painted my life.

‘It was like destiny making me write. It was terrible, brutal and completely changed my life in a very specific way. Destiny is brutal, it does not care about you.’

Destiny, and the limits of our freedom to question its demands, is a major theme of Akata Witch.

Its hero, 12-year-old Sunny, is an American-born girl who moves to Nigeria with her parents. As an albino and an akata (a derogatory term for black Americans), she is an outcast within her community. Yet when she begins to develop strange powers and joins the secret society of Leopard People, it seems Sunny may have a part to play in saving the world from apocalypse…

Nnedi freely admits she’s a fan of putting teenage protagonists through the Hero’s Journey as described by Joseph Campbell: ‘I LOVE the hero’s journey. I can’t get enough of it. Coming of age is a magical time, in-between, full of conflict. And writers love conflict!’

What makes Akata Witch stand out from other fantasy quests, is the marginalized quality of the heroic protagonist. Sunny is not ‘the chosen one’ nor even, like Harry Potter, a key player in the battle for the survival of the world.

When Sunny and her friends are sent to frustrate a child-murdering sorcerer’s attempt to summon a monstruous spirit, they are merely one more team in a long line of failed, dispensable young magicians.

Sunny is explicitly told by her elders that she is effectively cannon fodder: ‘The world is bigger than you are, it will go on without you.’

Destiny seems to have brought Sunny from the US to Nigeria to discover her powers, but it doesn’t guarantee her survival, or even victory.

As Nnedi puts it, ‘Destiny has always been something I’ve been fascinated with, but also resisted. Is everything written? And even if it is, can you rewrite it?’

I’ll be featuring more from my interview with Nnedi on Books and Adventures in the month of April, and you can find my review in the forthcoming issue of Brooklyn RailAkata Witch is released in the US by Viking Juvenile on April 14th - find out more at Nnedi's site.

Coming soon on Books and Adventures: charter schools, interviews with Finnish Education Minister Henna Virkkunen and Super Granny Sally Wendkos Olds, guest writing from Eric Maddern, and reports from Peru as I begin my new project training teachers in Ayacucho.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

A Child's Adventure in the Swedish Countryside: Scandinavia House NYC feature at Playing By the Book

Zoe Toft's blog Playing by the Book has just posted my short feature on A Child's Adventure in the Swedish Countryside, an installation designed by Sarah Edkins for the American Scandinavian Foundation at Scandinavia House, New York City.

Scandinavia House, NYC (c) Jonathan B. Ragle
 You can find my piece on this exciting children's book exhibit here:

Monday, 21 March 2011

New Zealand Book Month: Interview with Lincoln Gould of Booksellers NZ and Jo Ockey, World's Smallest Library, Whanganui

While I prepare to move my next literacy project with Domingo Savio school in Peru, on the other side of the world New Zealand Book Month continues.

On February 22nd, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck the city of Christchurch on New Zealand’s South Island. Among the many people left in need of assistance after the quake were booksellers, some of whom had been hit by the previous tremor in September 2010.

At the close of 2010, New Zealand had already begun to address the legacy of the previous quake through initiatives like Scholastic’s special picture book Quaky Cat, designed to help children cope with the shocking events they had experienced. Now, the city finds itself once again recovering from a natural disaster, and a number of bookstores have been badly damaged.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

I've become THAT kind of jet-setter...

So, I'm in Chicago for 36 hours, mostly to interview the great Nnedi Okorafor, and I've finally reached that point where there's no time for exploring.

Chicago Skyline by J. Stephen Conn. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Nnedi and I met at Yassa, a great Senegalese restaurant on the South Side of Chicago, and the sum total of my Chicago tourism has been the journey out there from O'Hare Airport. 

To be fair, it was a pretty epic journey, involving 2 trains and a bus which wound through a rather desolate low-rise stretch of boarded-up and barred shopfronts. On the bus, a Vietnam veteran began to lecture a group of teenagers who were skinning up right under the driver's nose.

'I'm glad to see your education ain't going to waste,' he growled sarcastically. But the boys were smooth talkers and somehow the vet's stern monologue on the importance of getting an education was turned around until he was admitting that he didn't mind the occasional toke, and it all ended in hugs and handshakes. 

When I stepped off the bus and through the door of Yassa, the world seemed to come alive. The restaurant is bright, welcoming and decorated with displays of African goods, from sculpture to musical instruments and even perfumes! 

The television was tuned to Africa 24, and despite my best attempts to dredge up my schoolboy French, I'm afraid their political pundit's commentary escaped me.

Between the sorrel drink and maffe (a kind of lamb stew), I was totally sold on Yassa's menu. Nnedi's grilled tilapia looked great too, although I figured it's bad manners to take food from the plate of the person you're interviewing!

I hadn't realised that African restaurants also serve as general stores for African clothes, music and African DVD's, so I was pleased to pick up a Nollywood movie about a crime-fighting female journalist - although they didn't have Nnedi's recommendation, Warrior's Heart.

Despite all this adventure, I'm going to be told off by my friends when I return to New York. 

'You didn't do the architectural boat tour?' 
'You didn't go to Hot Doug's?' 
'You didn't go to Do the Moon Hop at Late Bar?' 
(My friends all have very different ideas of what constitutes a good time).

But there's work to be done, so I'm sitting in the Holiday Inn Express, with a terrible coffee and a lot of writing to be done before they kick me out at midday. I've finally become that kind of jet-setter. 

It's probably good that I haven't activated my Twitter account - I might mutate into one of those terrible corporate travellers who spends all their times tweeting complaints about the Chicago transit system or the quality of hotel breakfasts.

Much better to celebrate yesterday's fine meal with one of the greatest living writers, and crack on with the day job. 

If I'm lucky, there's time for a pilgrimmage to the Threadless store. As New York continues to mutate me into a hipster, I feel the need to buy this shirt. Don't you?


Next time on Books and Adventures: more news from New Zealand Book Month, reports from a Q&A with charter school pioneer Geoffrey Canada, and, of course...Nnedi Okorafor.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

New Zealand Book Month: Interview with Nikki Crowther

When a teenage photography apprentice picked up a 25-year-old fantasy novel to while away a long train journey through New Zealand, he could hardly have known that his choice of reading would lead to a knighthood and a piece of Kiwi cinematic history.

But for movie director Sir Peter Jackson, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings would become one of the books that changed his life.

This March, the people of New Zealand are being encouraged to share the books closest to their hearts as New Zealand Book Month announces that ‘Books Change Lives!’

Undeterred by the tragedy of the recent earthquake, the campaign is running over 200 events across the country, from the ‘World’s Smallest Library in a Whanganui phone box to a nationwide giveaway of four million ‘Books Change Lives’ vouchers.

Throughout March, Kiwis will find these discount vouchers in their schools, banks, gas stations and letterboxes – a free gift from New Zealand’s booksellers and publishers to readers old and new.

‘New Zealand Book Month celebrates books and reading – all books, any books – and takes that message out to an audience who do not necessarily frequent libraries and bookshops. We have strong ongoing support from committed and passionate readers,’ Book Month director Nikki Crowther told me by e-mail, ‘but we wanted to extend our message to lapsed and occasional readers, and to parents of young children – to remind and re-engage them: with books, and the value that books can bring to all of our lives.’

Across the world, Books and Adventures – always a lover of Kiwiland - has found organizations recognizing the power of the book, especially in the early years of childhood. Australia’s Paint the Town Read scheme, which featured on the blog last November, has encouraged parents to read with their children right from the maternity ward. New York Presbyterian Hospital’s Reach Out and Read program, which I also wrote on for Books and Adventures (here) and DNAInfo (here), ensures that their child patients each receive a book at every clinic visit from birth until the age of five.

That’s not to say that the Kiwi book lovers are being prescriptive with their scheme. Nikki explained:

‘As far as we’re concerned, any book you enjoy is a good book. Choosing a book for oneself is an important step to becoming a passionate reader, and we hope to empower as many people as possible by having them choose the right book for them.’

To help readers find that special book, Nikki and her team have instigated a national conversation around the books that have changed Kiwis’ lives. Not everyone will read a book, as Peter Jackson did, and find themselves making a multi-million-dollar movie adaptation – but many of us have special favorites that have sustained us through significant moments in our lives.

Some of these choices can be very revealing: a British survey of male and female readers in 2006 suggested that men and women had very different senses of what constituted a ‘life-changing’ read, and Nikki Crowther admitted that the results of her survey in New Zealand were equally surprising:

‘So many people voted for the classics! Do people feel compelled to pick what they think they “ought” to love, rather than the books they really couldn’t put down and raved to all their friends about?

‘My first life-changing book was Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield. There have been many since – perhaps it was rather cruel to ask other folk to choose just one. I certainly couldn’t. I always reckon that the next book I read will be the next life-changer…!’

While New Zealand Book Month was born among Kiwi publishing insiders, it’s supported by a network of passionate volunteers across the nation.

‘I’m completely awestruck by our “activists”,’ admitted Nikki, ‘in terms of the time, energy and ideas that they put into promoting books and reading in their local communities. We’re taking the message that “Books Change Lives” out to a much wider audience than the traditional places where books exist – so that it touches people sitting at home in front of the TV, or listening to the radio, or visiting their local bank.

‘We hope to promote the notion that books can be a part of everyday life – and that by giving people a good reason to pick up a book during March, we will encourage just some of them into starting a regular reading habit!’

To find out more about New Zealand Book Month and its nationwide program of events in March, visit

Friday, 11 March 2011

World Read Aloud Day at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Manhattan

Busy times here at Books and Adventures. Caught up in the celebrations for World Read Aloud Day, I managed to turn in a photo story for local Manhattan news website DNAInfo.

You can check out the great work of New York-Presbyterian Hospital's Reach Out and Read program at

Next - New Zealand Book Month's Nikki Crowther joins us to discuss book token giveaways, Kiwi lit culture, and her own life-changing reads...

Thursday, 10 March 2011

World Read Aloud Day, Part 2: Q and A with Pam Allyn

For the first part of this featured interview with Pam Allyn, click here.

Continuing our interview with Pam Allyn, founder of LitWorld, we moved on from World Read Aloud day to the wider work of her non-profit organization in fighting illiteracy around the world.

Are literacy challenges the same in developing countries as in a place like New York City?
In some significant ways, literacy challenges are far more extreme in developing countries. In other ways, they are more alike than you might care to think.

In terms of differences, the developing world has only just come to the idea of mandatory primary education. It is only in recent years that the expectation that all children must attend school is adhered to (and in many cases, still not completely). This is of course a good and great thing, but most of the developing world was not prepared to handle all the children who then poured into schools. As a result, there are far too few teachers per child (in Liberia, the average ratio in a classroom is 90:1), hardly any classroom supplies at all, and not nearly enough structures in place to train teachers on an ongoing basis or to provide state of the art learning that will help children move forward and stay in school. The conditions are grueling and difficult, for teachers and children alike.

In the developing world, we have access to extraordinary resources, especially literature written specifically for children, that teaches children how to read and conveys important big ideas. In fact, the materials used to teach reading can be too dense: they’re not written at a level children can understand and don't do enough to draw a child into a world of words.

Even here in the United States, we do not guarantee equity of access to all children. High poverty districts are far more likely to have fewer books and computers in the classroom. And this is 2011! We still use outmoded forms of teaching in classrooms all over this country, and sad to say, the testing mania has driven us back to some terrible teaching practices that I haven't seen since I was a child.

Just when we have to teach innovatively and creatively, we are all across the world teaching out of fear and insecurity, and that is not going to raise children to be the innovators and creators we hope and know they can all be.

Do your literacy schemes like use a particular approach to teaching and learning literacy? Are you subscribers to a particular philosophy of education?

I am a fierce advocate for what I call a "toolkit" approach to the teaching of reading. There are skills every child needs to learn to read; these include phonics, but also include fluency, stamina and comprehension. One without the others is a waste of time.

I believe in an integrated approach that will both help the child decode words but also beyond that help him to soar through them and transcend the work on the page to see reading as a joy, an art, a pleasure.

One of my heroes is Paolo Freire, who famously asked women in rural villages to tell their own stories as a way to learn to read and write. He was convinced that narrative is the force that drives us in everything we do and that was how he taught women how to read, was by asking them to tell the stories of who they were. I advocate this in my work with children; if they write about their experiences, both imaginative and real, and then read them back, they have a far better chance of becoming lifelong readers. They understand the power of story.

When I started LitWorld, I was thinking a lot about the most vulnerable children I had met, especially those who had been displaced or traumatized, and I wondered if teaching writing could actually HELP to build resilience. Teachers of such children often focused on their trauma. I wondered if by writing narratives that told the stories in ways that would give hope and strength, we could teach the child how to read and write, but also how to grow strong.

I developed the Seven Strengths model in response to that: learning based around Belonging, Compassion, Esteem, Friendship, Confidence, Curiosity, and Hope. We end up raising healthier children emotionally because they can use literacy as a tool for their own sustenance.

In much of the world, literacy and education are not seen as a priority for girls and women, but is this really true of the USA, where you also run your Girls’ Clubs?

At first we thought it would simply be fun for the girls here to join our worldwide network. We thought that the needs of girls here are more taken care of, and there wouldn't be such a demand for the Clubs in the USA. What startled me here is how necessary they are HERE too. The girls we work with in Harlem tell us that the Clubs have been lifesaving. They feel very vulnerable and isolated in their communities, and find it difficult to talk in class. Here in the Clubs, we provide a sanctuary.

You can find out more about LitWorld here, and about Pam at her own website,

Next time on Books and Adventures, we head down under for the opening days of New Zealand Book Month!

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

World Read Aloud Day: Interview with Pam Allyn, Director of LitWorld

Today is World Read Aloud Day, an event which draws attention to the 774 million people in the world who cannot read or write.

The event is run by LitWorld, an international non-profit organization based here in New York which seeks to cultivate literacy initiatives around the world.

At 1am I will be reading in Times Square from my prize-winning children’s story ‘Shark with the Mind of a Rabbit’ in support of World Read Aloud Day. LitWorld’s goal is for people around the world to read aloud for a grand total of 774 million minutes on 9th March, drawing attention to the challenges faced by those on the planet who cannot enjoy their right to literacy.

In just 4 years, LitWorld has managed to extend its work in literacy advocacy across 35 countries. With initiatives including Girls’ Reading Clubs, workshops for literacy leaders in developing countries, family reading initiatives and book supply to low-income communities, the non-profit takes on literacy challenges wherever it may find them.

I was joined by Pam Allyn, director of LitWorld, on the eve of World Read Aloud Day.

She said, ‘World Read Aloud Day is an advocacy event for all people, to really raise our voices together through the act of reading aloud itself. This is where WRAD is special. We have children and adults all over the world on March 9th reading aloud with the idea that their voices are going to matter for each other.

‘Literacy is the linchpin for all the UN Millennium Development Goals. The statistics are staggering and untenable. Women who are educated even to fifth grade are sixty percent more likely to vaccinate their own children. High poverty areas have higher rates of illiteracy worldwide. Children who are not in school have poorer nutrition and girls who drop out get pregnant earlier. But beyond the plain facts that a literate person can read a medicine bottle, navigate a subway, apply for a job and keep one, there are more spiritual benefits to literacy.

‘A child who can read can comfort himself, make himself laugh, find refuge in a good story and discover the magic of the imaginative universe. It should be a human right to be happy, and reading makes us happy.

Literacy is democratizing. When we have access to information, we know ourselves and the world far more deeply. We can take action and stand up for what is right. We can advocate for ourselves, our children and for each other. And we can connect with all humanity.

‘If I could not read or write, I would miss the way I can connect with others, with friends and even strangers who have touched my life in so many ways through notes, emails and messages. It's an extraordinary power, literacy. Someone once asked, what is the opposite of fear? And the answer was love. With all this talk about data and accountability in schools, at the end of the day, being literate teaches us how to love. Love of people, love of ideas, love of story. And that's what I'd miss most.’

You can find out more about World Read Aloud Day and the wider mission of LitWorld at

Pam joins us again for a Q and A session on Books and Adventures next time - click here for the second part of this interview.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Alex Simmons Interview, Part 3. Kids Comic Con: ‘Giving Comics Back to Kids Again’

For the previous parts of this interview with Alex Simmons, click here:

‘When your children are growing up, you suddenly realise – I’m not Batman, I’m Batman’s Dad!’

Comic creator, writer and educator Alex Simmons’ main community endeavour these days is the international Kids Comic Con, which gives children their own comic book event at a time when so much of the industry seems focussed on marketing to geeky adult males.

The Comic Con originated when Alex provided a children’s activity area at Wizard World's Chicago Con around 1998. Many visitors used the area as a babysitting service while they toured the convention, but that small side event was enough to provoke Alex’s creative streak.

‘That experience validated what I already suspected - that we needed events specifically for kids. Overall, the comic book industry is geared towards selling to guys in their thirties - and in economically depressed times, they’ll continue to follow the money.

‘It’s another symptom of the way we are short-changing our children in society at large. We keep giving them failure, anger and frustration. They are the future – and that doesn’t just mean training up a new generation to look after us in our old age – it means giving them their own lives, their own opportunities and choices.’

Alex’s yearly Comic Con brings together artists and publishers, librarians and educators, to give children and their caregivers just such opportunities to explore the world of comics. Attendees participate in workshops and meet with the men and women behind the adventures of their favourite characters. In 2010, the Convention went to Senegal to bring their brand of fun along with an art exhibit called, 'The Color of Comics‘ to an African audience of children, fans, educators and – hopefully – future comics creators!

Alex couches his sense of mission and personal responsibility in terms of comic books. ‘I love sidekicks like Robin from Batman or Short Round from Indiana Jones – as a kid, I was inspired by junior heroes who were an integral part of helping the hero win. Later I went through the stage of life where you identify with Batman. And then your children are growing up and you suddenly realise – I’m the parent that gets killed now! I’m not Batman, I’m Batman’s Dad!’

Alex’s acceptance of his role as a parental figure and mentor is part of his unique success as the mastermind of Kids Comic Con – ‘How come it was me of all people who set this up? It wasn't that i was the only one on the planet who could do it... But i was the one committed to making it happen. Obsessed, even. I had the contacts in the comic book industry and the connections with educators too.’

Alex didn’t do this alone, though. ‘Much of what we’ve achieved would never have happened without Eugene Adams, Director of Collaborative Education at Bronx Community College. Working with him is endlessly remarkable, endlessly rewarding. He’s been a kindred spirit who gave the Comic-Con a plan, a venue, and a staff of volunteers. If we hadn’t made it happen with all that support, then we’d have been asleep at the wheel.’

A large part of the work of Kids Comic Con involves empowering young creators with the latest technology, using free workshops and outreach sessions to give a taste of the software used in modern comics production. Last month’s Books and Adventures interview with Cody Pickrodt showed how hard it can be for young creators with no computer skills to work in this medium.

Kids Comic Con offers a wide range of opportunities for young people to develop such technical skills. Even the convention website was originally designed by students at Borough of Manhattan Community College.

Alex says, ‘The future is in danger of separating us into technological haves and have-nots. People need access to the means by which they can make a living, and more and more that means technology. Not every child we work with may grow up to be a graphic designer, but they’ll surely need more from a computer than just Facebook.’

For more information about attending the Kids' Comic Con, check out their web site at:

Kids Comic Con brings together many strands of Alex Simmons’ work over the past 20 years: a sense of social and historical consciousness, seen in his 1930s adventure stories; a duty to empower young readers and writers with critical thinking, as found in his Archie-meets-Obama story; and above all, a sense of wonder and desire to explore and engage with the world around us.

‘No child is born with a desire to fail. It’s our mission to fire their sense of wonder and of possibility. To empower them to believe in the thoughts which occur to them, and give themselves time to consider the value of their own ideas.’

For more information about Alex Simmons visit his web site at

Monday, 28 February 2011

Alex Simmons Interview, Part 2: Archie Meets Obama and Palin

For the first part of this interview with Alex Simmons, click here.

Comic creator Alex Simmons’ most recent work has been a two-part story for Archie Comics. In it, Barack Obama and Sarah Palin visit the high school at Riverdale, home to all-American teen Archie Andrews and his friends since the 1940s.
Archie's World Tour by Alex Simmons
Alex has previously written numerous stories for Archie, including Archie’s World Tour and a series which reimagines the easygoing Jughead Jones as a hard-boiled private investigator, but writing two of the most recognised political figures in America today was a special challenge…
Alex Simmons reimagines Jughead Jones as a 'semi-private investigator'
'Victor Gorelick, the Senior Editor at Archie, called me requesting a story featuring President Obama and Sarah Palin. My first pitch was based on environmental issues, but we felt this was too edgy. A comic like this is not a soapbox for political views – although we also don’t want to paint these heavyweight politicians as sweet or innocent. The challenge was finding a way into these real-life characters through the Riverdale mindset.’
Barack Obama and Sarah Palin visit Riverdale in Archie Comics issues 616-617, written by Alex Simmons
Alex’s finished story focusses on spin and media manipulation. Rival candidates for the class presidency, Archie and Reggie both lose sight of their moral compass when their respective campaign managers, Veronica and Trula, encourage them to pose for photographs with Obama and Palin! The implied endorsement sends their popularity skyrocketing, but the politicians catch wind of the media manipulation and descend on Riverdale to assert control of their public images.

Alex explains how the media came to be at the heart of this high-profile political story:

‘This comes back to the idea about balance which shaped my Blackjack story about the Touaregs: one man’s insurgent is another man’s freedom fighter! I felt I couldn’t weigh in on specific issues which divide the parties. But politicians are politicians – they have to do certain things to get where they are – and it’s important that we hold them to account. So the message behind my story is one of responsibility for your actions in the public arena.’

Archie and Reggie eventually repent and redeem themselves by taking responsibility for the media spin done in their name by Trula and Veronica. For this plot twist, Alex drew inspiration from Republican presidential nominee John McCain’s personally gracious defeat speech on the day of President Obama’s victory, in which he stepped back from what had been an aggressive campaign and chided those among his supporters who booed Obama’s victory.

‘In the Archie story, I wanted to show what should happen – politicians being true leaders and taking responsibility for things done in their name. Comic books are fun, but especially when they’re aimed at children, a positive message never hurts.’

Next time on Books and Adventures, we look at Alex’s greatest contribution to comics for children, the international Kids Comic Con convention.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Alex Simmons Interview, Part 1: Blackjack

This week, our Books and Adventures interview is with Alex Simmons, who has written for the stage, screen and radio alongside work as an educator, performer and comics creator.

Over the course of a 20-year career, Alex has founded the Kids Comic Con and taken it around the world from Buffalo, NY to Senegal, created the African-American comic-book adventurer Blackjack, and even brought Barack Obama and Sarah Palin to Riverdale in a special two-part story in Archie Comics.

In a conversation that covered everything from 30s movie serials to the outreach work of Bronx Community College, Alex demonstrated that Books and Adventures are his business.

Appropriately for Black History Month, we began by talking about his character Arron Day, a globe-trotting soldier of fortune known to the world as…Blackjack.
‘In the 1930s, we were prepared to go out and explore. To inspire kids to be good adults.’

In his teens, Alex Simmons attended a film club on New York’s West 40th Street, showing old movie serials such as Captain Marvel, King of the Rocket Men and The Phantom. One particular show stayed with him.

Daredevils of the Red Circle stood out,’ Alex explains. The 1939 serial followed a trio of acrobats turned private investigators, who seek revenge for the death of a family member. ‘Daredevils had a black character: he was the butler to one of the main characters...and his name was “Snowflake”!
Fred Toones aka "Snowflake"
‘He was an awful stereotype, rolling his eyes, with this high-pitched voice, but I remember one episode where the heroes were trapped in a garage filling with fumes…The stereotype suddenly falls away, Snowflake helps break into the garage and rescue the others. It’s his one moment of competence. Of course, nobody even acknowledges this, and within a minute he’s straight back to the old characterization.

‘Watching that serial made me think – this was the 1930s. There was a black presence. We were there. And not just rolling our eyes and waving our hands in the air! I wanted to tell stories about the African American presence in this time, when parts of the world were still full of mystery and wonder, when we were willing to go out and explore! Unlike now when we’re so jaded by technology and shaped by the media that the devout can go to confession through an iPhone app.’

Alex came up with Blackjack in 1988 as a conduit for telling stories about the 1930s and writing an African-American presence back in to our vision of those times. Arron Day, adventurer for hire, grew up travelling the world with his soldier-of-fortune father. As he takes on enemies both foreign and domestic, he explores his father’s legacy and rights the wrongs of a blood-soaked past.
Arron is a two-fisted protagonist in the style of Indiana Jones, but also a thinking man’s action hero, perceptive and astute. In the Blackjack stories, Arron’s ability to pick out a face in the crowd or spot a secret glance between two conspirators is often the key to his survival and ultimate success in saving the day. Alex, who wrote the stage play Sherlock Holmes and the Hands of Othello, acknowledges a certain debt to the man from 221b Baker Street:

‘I’m a big fan of Conan Doyle’s writing and I wanted Arron to be an intelligent hero, without being a carbon-copy Sherlock. He doesn’t pull together evidence to make elaborate deductions, like Holmes – but Arron is supremely observant.’

Arron is accompanied in his adventures by Tim Cheng, a dignified Asian servant who Alex wrote as an intelligent and independent figure - ‘my apology for Charlie Chan.’

Tim falls into Arron's service after Arron wins a New York brownstone 'and everything in it' during an unseen adventure prior to the first Blackjack story.

The Blackjack comic toys with the old Green Hornet/Kato dynamic by having Arron suspect that Tim resents being ‘owned’ by another man. In the storyline Blood and Honor, Arron and Tim are called on a mission to China, during which Tim’s trustworthiness is put in doubt - but Tim’s secret loyalty proves to be to his family, rather than Blackjack’s enemies. By choosing to live in New York with his bride, alongside Arron as a friend and partner, Tim ultimately redeems the loner hero whom he serves.
Alex’s commitment to redressing past prejudice extends to the villains Arron confronts on his travels. The first Blackjack comic sends our hero to the Middle East, a location suggested to Alex by his mentor, the celebrated editor-illustrator Dick Giordano.

‘We wanted to open the Blackjack series with a story that showed Arron to be a globetrotting hero. This got me thinking of those prejudiced old Thirties movies again. I couldn’t have all the Middle Easterners be dumb bad guys who go ‘Aieeeee!’ when they die. So I focussed on the Touareg people, nomads who had fought against the colonial powers.

‘In Second Bite of the Cobra, Arron faces a principled, intelligent villain – a Touareg rebel gone sour, robbing from his own people. So the final showdown between hero and villain is also a crisis of conscience, with the Touareg leader forced to recognise that he’s betrayed his own beliefs.’

Alex always envisaged Blackjack as a legacy character whose heroic mantle is passed down through the generations. Arron’s father Matthew appears in the series seen through the prism of his son’s memory, and Alex even played Matthew, alongside his own son as the young Arron, in the flashback scenes of a 2001 radio play. Alex also laid plans for a sequel series running in the present, where Arron’s estranged grandson finds himself drawn back into the family business.

With comic books and even a radio show to his name, Blackjack remains a compelling character and a great contribution to the roster of African-American heroes. But his greatest adventures are surely yet to come…

Next time we move from Alex Simmons’ original creations to a famous American comic-book brand, which Alex took into the 21st century by bringing Barack Obama and Sarah Palin face to face with none other than…Archie!
For part 2 of this interview, click here.