I was 7 years old, watching TV before bedtime in my footie pajamas. Suddenly, the screen turned blue. Trumpets blared, followed by a whooshing sound. Voices cried: “Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s…Superman!”
There, hands on his hips, stood a guy with a rippling cape and a big red S on his chest. A deep-voiced narrator explained that “Superman uses his powers in a never-ending battle for truth and justice.” Sure enough, the guy in the cape fought against an evil genius terrorizing people with his death ray.
At that moment, my life’s journey became clear. I would grow up to be Superman.
Some children might have followed that epiphany by developing their strength and agility—the quickest path to fighting evil geniuses. But, as a bookish type, I turned to reading. It seemed to me that a Superman-in-training should study the niceties of flying and X-ray vision. And what better way than poring over Superman-themed comics and paperbacks?
Thus began my childhood habit of reading about my heroes. At first, the subjects were exclusively superheroes—not only Superman, but also Batman, Spiderman, Mighty Mouse, and others I could imitate merely by donning store-bought costumes.
As I grew older—and more prudent—I lost interest in fighting death rays. But my interest in heroes only intensified. I began reading about real-life people as physically powerful as Superman, like Harry Houdini in The Man Who Walked Through Walls and Harriet Tubman in Freedom Train. Later, I discovered books about a whole other class of heroes: those who didn’t need super-strength to make the world a better place. My Bondage and My Freedom described Frederick Douglass’s fearless quest for freedom and equality. A Woman’s Crusade explored Alice Paul’s tireless efforts to win the vote for American women.
Whereas Superman and Mighty Mouse were clearly out of reach, I could at least try to emulate Douglass and Paul. And for me, reading books about such heroes—ordinary mortals who accomplished extraordinary feats—was the best way to follow in their footsteps. The more I understood them, the more I could strive to be like them.
I’m sad to report that, so far, my obsession with reading about heroes has failed to turn me into one. But my lifetime love of books did lead me to the only career I could imagine for myself: writing. Would you be surprised to learn that I became a children’s author who publishes nonfiction picture books about my idols?
I’ve found that writing about these folks is an even more rewarding experience than reading about them. The process of creating a book brings me closer to the subjects, whether it’s visiting historic locales to research Two Friends: Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass or interviewing Apollo 12’s Alan Bean to enrich The Astronaut Who Painted the Moon.
Writing Thank You, Dr. Salk! meant reading everything I could find about Jonas Salk, who developed the polio vaccine. Ditto for The Fastest Girl on Earth! and daredevil Kitty O’Neil. In other words: bookworm heaven.
The most gratifying experience I can have while writing a nonfiction picture book is—if I’m lucky—a revelation. That’s what happened during my research for ¡Mambo Mucho Mambo!: The Dance That Crossed Color Lines. My goal was to describe a little-known moment in the history of civil rights: the desegregation of New York City’s Palladium Ballroom in the 1940s and ’50s. At a time of rampant bigotry toward Blacks, Puerto Ricans, Italians, Jews, and others, the Palladium opened its doors to people from all backgrounds. Together, they listened to a thrilling new music called Latin jazz and experimented with a creative new dance called the mambo.
The central figures are an Italian woman named Millie Donay and a Puerto Rican man named Pedro Aguilar. Millie and Pedro met on the Palladium dance floor, fell in love, and became the world’s greatest mambo duo. Their interracial partnership challenged age-old prejudices, foreshadowing the reforms of the 1960s.
I’d known this inspiring story for years, but I couldn’t come up with an effective way to dramatize it. As you’d expect, mambo dancers flocked to the Palladium simply to have a good time. What, exactly, made them heroes? They didn’t lead a movement, like Frederick Douglass. And they didn’t transform a nation, like Alice Paul.
In the process of writing ¡Mambo Mucho Mambo!, I figured it out. These diverse Latin jazz fans rose to heroic stature because of their kindness. As they twirled around the Palladium, they accepted one another: Italians dancing with Puerto Ricans, Blacks dancing with Jews. In a racist era, that was a sufficiently radical gesture.
I hope ¡Mambo Mucho Mambo! can teach young readers an important lesson about real-life heroes—something I didn’t yet understand at age 7, while watching a Superman cartoon in my footie pajamas. You don’t necessarily need a superhero costume to change the world.
Text copyright © 2021 by Dean Robbins. Illustrations copyright © 2021 by Eric Velasquez. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.
Dean Robbins is an award-winning children’s author and journalist. His latest nonfiction picture books include ¡Mambo Mucho Mambo!: The Dance That Crossed Color Lines; Thank You, Dr. Salk!: The Scientist Who Beat Polio and Healed the World; The Fastest Girl on Earth!: Meet Kitty O’Neil, Daredevil Driver!; and You Are a Star, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. His books have been chosen for best-of-the-year honors, adapted for film, and praised in The New York Times, USA Today, and other publications. Visit him at deanrobbins.net.