We were very lucky to have Matt Myklusch, author of the Jack Blank adventure trilogy, speak at the 67th Street Library's Dream Big Imagination Academy on July 31, 2012. He delivered a 60-minute talk about his story (how he came to be a writer) and his Jack Blank Books: The Accidental Hero, The Secret War, and The End of Infinity. He then answered questions from the audience. The kids then took a short break, then received help from Myklusch in developing their characters and stories in their own fiction.
Knowing Matt as a Kid: When I was a kid and then a teenager, we would visit the Myklusches in New Jersey. I remember swimming in their circular above-ground pool, and sleeping in their basement with my sister. How did my family and the Myklusches get to know each other? My mother teaches special education and his mother teaches art to kids; they became best friends. I always had fun at their house with their family. After a few minutes in the car, barely out of the driveway, every time, without fail, I would brace myself, waiting for my mother's inevitable comment: Matthew, Mark, Luke & John. My mom thought it was so cool that we were about to have the four gospels together in one place. My brother Luke, my father Mark, and Matt and his brother John Myklusch. Every single time, without fail. We could not go to the Myklusches without hearing those words, at least a couple of times.
Matt's an author, I'm a librarian: So, a couple of years ago when my mother gave me a copy of The Accidental Hero, formerly known as Jack Blank and the Imagine Nation, you might think that wheels would be turning in my head. Unfortunately, that was not the case. Luckily, my brother mentioned to me a few months ago that Matt might be interested in my kid lit salon blogs. That led to Matt being invited to be a part of Dream Big Imagination Academy. Who would have thought that one of my mother's friend's kids would turn out to enter a parallel profession to my own. How perfect! How cool! It was really awesome to see his books in my libraries of NYPL. I know that guy!, I would think to myself.
Matt impressed me with his enthusiasm for children's literature in the emails that we exchanged prior to the event. He was enthusiastic, positive and engaging with the kids at the 67th Street Library. Matt showed a power-point presentation replete with images of his books, including an illustration of Empire City of the Imagine Nation, where much of the actions of his books takes place. He also includes photographs of himself, some of his previous MTV jobs, and celebrities that he worked with there.
The message of his books is that it is vital to believe in yourself and follow your dreams. Myklusch has his dream job now: writing books and telling stories.
Life at MTV: He used to work for MTV, where he was the Director of Ancillary Business. He showed a copy of his former business card projected onto the wall. He asked if everyone who did not know what a director of ancillary business is to raise their hand. Almost everyone in the room, including Matt, raised their hands. He said that whatever was on fire and was a problem, he took care of it, for ten years. At MTV, he produced interviewed with Ben Affleck, Kelly Clarkson, etc. He helped launch MTV U, which was the college MTV. He managed spring breaks as well, and he showed photographs of spring break beach destinations that were projected onto the wall. However, he quit his job at MTV in 2011 to pursue what his loves, writing books and telling stories.
Jack Blank: The main character in his trilogy, Jack Blank, is called that because he does not write his last name on papers in school. Jack Blank does not really know who he is or what he is going to be, so he takes a test to determine what the future holds for him. He discovers that he will be cleaning toilet brushes for the rest of his life — not an optimistic prospect. However, the book is not about toilet brush cleaning, because that would be boring and a little bit gross. Myklusch asked the kids what careers they wished to pursue, and they told him. The answers ranged the gamut and includes veterinarian. Myklusch said that all people should have a fulfilling job, and it is unfortunate that some people hate their jobs. Some people may tell you to take a safer path, but it is important to hold onto the things that are important to you.
Do You Want to Be a Librarian When You Grow Up? I have read that most people do not aspire to be librarians; it tends to be an accidental profession that people fall into. I started my undergraduate work as an accounting major. One semester later, I switched to psychology. I have a bachelor's degree in psychology, and a master's degree in forensic psychology. I then turned to social work classes before I switched to library science.
Imagine Nation: Myklusch said that Jack Blank really wanted to escape the bleak future that awaited him as a toilet brush cleaner, so he went to the Imagine Nation, which is where Jack is from. Imagine Nation is a secret nation that moves around the world freely. You have to believe in it and go looking for it. Empire City is a central place in the Jack Blank trilogy where much of the action occurs. Empire City is filled with heroes and robots. Different areas of the city are for different types of superheroes. In Cognito, one of the neighborhoods, the streets rearrange themselves into new formations frequently. Some of the neighborhoods are based on certain periods in history (e.g., feudal Japan or medieval times). The city is a mash of different cultures.
Matt's Art: Jack's future is about what he decides, not about what other people tell him. Myklusch wanted to be an artist when he was a kid. He showed a photograph of little Matt Myklusch projected onto the wall proudly displaying one of his drawings. He loved comics, including the Transformers and G.I. Joe. Matt then showed a sampling of his drawings. He named his characters. One superhero was called Mole because he could tunnel underneath the earth. Another was called saw because he had a circular saw for one hand and a chain saw for the other hand. Matt did not know how the character would go to the bathroom; he did not think about that when he drew him. He supposed that perhaps the character could take off his saws to expose hands, or something like that. He was still a fan of X-Men in 7th and 8th grade, and he is still a fan.
Myklusch continued to read comics even as a tween. However, at some point, he put all of his comics in the attic, and he did not draw. No drawing or comics for a year. He asked the kids if they thought that was a smart decision. Myklusch said that he did not think that was a smart idea. He asked the kids what saved him. He said that he was in a bookstore and he saw a comic rack that had Uncanny X-Men. (Interestingly enough, the guy who drew the cover is now a co-publisher of DC Comics. The artist made $17 million, which proves that some artists do well.) There is so much action in the illustration, and the characters are bursting off of the page. Seeing this comic gave Matt the inclination to pick up a pencil and start again. He drew animals and backgrounds. He copied the style of others to learn. Myklusch showed some of the drawings he created when he was older, and it was neat to see the progression from little kid approximations of heroes to more polished and sleeker drawings when he was older. I was impressed by the detail and clean sophistication of his later superhero illustrations. (Some guy showed me his illustrations, which were similar to Myklusch's, in a hostel somewhere along the eastern coast of Australia.)
Follow Your Dreams: From this, Myklusch moved into creating his own characters. He wanted to do something creative in his life and now he is doing that. He told the kids that possibility and hope for the future exists in all of them, and it is important for them to follow their dreams.
Myklusch then opened the floor to questions.
The first kid asked what The End of Infinity is about. Myklusch said that it is a book in which Jack battles against evil. (In the first two books, Jack tried to win people over.)
The second kid asked which world Myklusch was talking about in his books - the real world? Myklusch said that Imagine Nation is an island that floats around the world and it is a sanctuary for unbelievable things. Jack Blank is just a kid in all of this. Harry Potter was a big influence on Myklusch. Harry Potter was the chosen one in that series. Jack Blank is just the opposite. People think that Jack is going to kill them. There has to be a conflict in a book to make an interesting story. Otherwise, the book would be boring. Jack Blank and the Imagine Nation and The Accidental Hero are the same book. The publisher wanted to change the title. Sometimes publishers like different titles and cover artwork. (I noticed that the covers for Myklusch's trilogy are yellow, green, and blue, somewhat like Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. Myklusch also has a similar idealism as Kinney, and he has a very inspirational way of speaking with the kids about their dreams and goals in life.)
The third kid asked if Jack Blank ever is required to return to the orphanage. Myklusch mentioned that the battleground of the trilogy is Empire City.
Another Book on the Horizon?: The fourth person asked if there was another book coming after The End of Infinity. Myklusch stated that the trilogy was complete, but he was considering writing spin-offs for different characters in the trilogy. He mentioned that Allegra was from the alien borough of Empire City, and she turned to jelly when she was scared. He said that the superheroes' powers were based on beliefs in themselves. He would possibly like to write a series on each of the kids, and he is working on some pirate stories. Myklusch has always been a big fan of comics, and the Jack Blank trilogy is a cross between Percy Jackson and the Avengers. It is important to create something new, and he has never seen a book with so many superheroes. Usually, there is one hero is stories (e.g., Spiderman and Batman).
A Graphic Novel Adaptation?: I asked if he had ever considered writing a graphic novel. He said that if a graphic novel were to be produced, it would most likely be an adaptation of one of his novels, and he would prefer to be very involved in the process of choosing which material to include and which artist is chosen. Graphic novels are very condensed versions of novels, and it is challenging to decide which material to include and which to exclude.
Another audience member asked which of Myklusch's books is his favorite. He said that The Accidental Hero, superheroes and comics are close to his heart. He wrote a lot of material, including three screenplays and another book, which did not sell, perhaps because they were aimed at young men, who do not buy many books. The publishers finally accepted one of his creations, The Accidental Hero. He was trying to write what he thought other people would love. Now he writes the stories that he loves but he also thinks about what will sell and the business aspects of publishing books.
Someone asked his to encapsule the themes of the books in his trilogy. Myklusch stated that The Accidental Hero introduces the crazy world of Jack Blank, The Secret War contains much of the action, and The End of Infinity wraps the adventure up.
Superheroes that Influenced Matt: A kid asked if he had Harry Potter in mind when he wrote the Jack Blank trilogy. Myklusch stated that the story structure is similar to Harry Potter in that a magical world is hidden away from reality. Star Wars is also a special world, in which a superhero, Luke Skywalker, has special powers. He could decide to turn the tide and save the world or use his powers destructively. Jack Blank, Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker are all cut from the same cloth. The similar story lines are told in a different way. The creativity is in the execution of the story. Original is refreshing and bright; he told the kids to be conscious of what they write because boring is not fun.
Empire City: Someone asked which borough of Empire City was Jack born into. Myklusch stated that he cannot give away everything that he knows about the story, but he could tell them this: When Jack went to the Imagine Nation for the first time, he went to the robot borough. He also loves Cognito because he thinks that it is so terrific that the streets move around, and he is amazed how Jack finds his house every day. The streets move because people are not supposed to find hiding places.
Someone asked what the object on the left side of the graphic representation of Empire City was. Myklusch replied that it was the landing and pointed out the docks for Empire City. He told them that there are docks for the boats and launches for the space ships. Myklusch pointed out the Seasonstill Park in the center of Empire City. There is Winter Wind Way, and summer, fall and spring quadrants of the park. This way, he told the kids, they could play in whatever kind of weather they wanted to at any time.
Another kid asked what happens if the kid in Empire City falls off the precipice. Myklusch responded that hopefully a superhero would catch you, but if not, you would probably die, as you would in real life, like if you fell off of Niagara Falls. However, he reminded the kids that anything is possible.
Someone asked if there was anything around the waterfall. Myklusch responded that open sea surrounded the waterfall.
A girl asked if everyone in Imagine Nation is bigger than real people in our world or the same size. Myklusch said that some superheroes are bigger, but not as big as statues, like the statue on the cover of The Accidental Hero. Jack is in the shadow of the hero on the cover, who he looks up to.
A boy asked what the things flying around in the sky on the cover of The Accidental Hero are. Myklusch told him that they are spaceships.
Someone asked if Jack's parents ever show up. Myklusch said that Jack's desire to find his parents is a huge part of the story. People do not know much about him, and his desire to find out who he is drives the story.
The kids asked terrific questions, and I was impressed by their analytic thinking about the books. Myklusch was very patient and thorough and he answered all of their questions. One of the parents was asked Myklusch for other stories that her son might be interested in, and he provided a fantastic readers advisory session. I was so impressed; that is a skill that we ask librarians to develop, and he is better at it than me! The kids then had a writing workshop so that he could help them develop their own fictional creations. The art on his websites is fantastic, as well.