'Street' wise: Attorney/novelist Brad Meltzer showcases 'Muppets' creator in new book


By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

One of the lessons Brad Meltzer learned at age 5 while watching "Sesame Street" was using his creativity to make the world a better place.

And he's done just that with his best-selling "Ordinary People Change the World" series of children's books that showcase the extraordinary lives of historical figures who've overcome overwhelming odds to achieve greatness.

So it was fitting that his next book in this series focuses on Muppets creator Jim Henson, also a key architect of "Sesame Street" in "I Am Jim Henson" (Penguin Random House $12.99), released Jan 10. Illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos, this is the 11th book in the series, which previously featured George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Rosa Parks, Helen Keller, Jackie Robinson, Amelia Earhart, Albert Einstein, Lucille Ball, Jane Goodall, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

"Of all the hero books we've done, this is the very first where the person was truly my hero growing up. For me, it was always Henson and (Fred Rogers of 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood'). Those were the ones who changed my life. They taught me there's good in all of us. Sure, we're all different. Some of us have beards, or no hair, or blue fur, or green flippers. But goodness lives within each of us. And best of all, you can use your creativity to share it with others," explained Meltzer, 46, a best-selling author who's an alumnus of the University of Michigan and Columbia Law School in New York City.

Henson was born in Mississippi in 1936, the youngest of two. During his days at the University of Maryland in College Park, he took a puppetry class and was later asked to create "Sam and Friends," a 5-minute puppet show for WRC-TV, the NBC affiliate in Washington, D.C. "Sam" ran from 1955-61 and served as a prototype of his more famous creations the Muppets. In fact, "Sam" featured an early incarnation of Henson's best-known creation: Kermit the Frog.

With "Sam" where he was joined by fellow student Jane Nebel, who eventually became his wife Henson changed the way puppetry was used on television. He believed puppets needed to have "life and sensitivity," making them out of fabric-covered foam rubber. He used rods to move their appendages. Additionally, he used exact mouth movements to match the dialogue they spoke.

His creations' popularity landed them on various late-night shows, such as "The Ed Sullivan Show." They also appeared on commercials. In 1963, the Hensons moved to New York City. There, he collaborated with Frank Oz, a puppeteer and filmmaker. Their long-time collaboration is evident in their portrayals of Kermit and Miss Piggy, as well as Ernie and Bert.

"Kermit is Kermit. But beyond him, Ernie was my guy. When my mom used to laugh, she sounded just like Ernie. So that Ernie/mom connection just brought happiness to me," recalled Meltzer.

Henson and Co. were hired by the Children's Television Workshop in 1969 to work on "Sesame Street," an educational program for children, where they rolled out more famous characters: Oscar the Grouch, Big Bird, Grover, Cookie Monster, and Elmo. The Muppets would interact with human actors, learning educational and moral lessons.

"Let me steal right from the final page of the book: It starts when we're kids," said Meltzer. "That's when we learn some of the best things in life. Laughing. Sharing. Imagining. Dreaming. Creating. We should never stop doing them. And never stop being kind. There's nothing wrong with being a do-gooder. And if we do nothing else, I want kids to learn that. It's the best lesson I learned from comics: Never stop being a do-gooder."

Henson's other projects include various big and small-screen versions of the Muppets, including 1979's "The Muppet Movie." He helped "Star Wars" auteur George Lucas with the creation of diminutive Jedi master Yoda, a Muppet performed by Oz in 1980's "The Empire Strikes Back." In 1982, he co-directed and co-wrote "The Dark Crystal" with Oz. While 1986's "Labyrinth," starring the late David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly, didn't do well at the box office upon initial release, it has gained quite a cult following on home video. He also created "Fraggle Rock." Henson died in 1990.

"(Henson's) true power wasn't a funny voice or even being a master puppeteer. It was his ability to bring together all these people and bring out the best in them. That's an amazing gift," said Meltzer. "Our heroes are always magic mirrors. They show us our aspirations, but they also show us ourselves. Show me your hero and I'll show you who you are."

Sales on Meltzer's children's books have skyrocketed since the presidential election of 2016, which has polarized the nation. During the week of the election, sales went up 20 percent alone on "I Am Rosa Parks" and "I Am Martin Luther King Jr.," according to a Penguin Random House spokesperson. In the month of November, there was an increase of 91 percent in sales from the previous year. In fact, more than 1 million of the children's books have been sold.

Meltzer is "humbled and thrilled" by such a spectacular increase in sales.

"Today, even the news isn't real anymore. So much of the world is ephemera. Books aren't. And here we have these books about real people, filled with things that really happened. I think the world really needs that," explained Meltzer. "Whatever side of the aisle you're on, people are tired of politicians. They want real leaders. I think America is officially starving for real heroes."

Published: Thu, Jan 19, 2017


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