One of the first things Pulitzer Prize winning American author Michael Chabon wanted to know was what title his new children's book, "The Astonishing Secret of Awesome Man," had been given in Hebrew.
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"Hasod Hamftia shel Madhiman" I said very slowly, explaining that "madhiman" is a mash-up of the Hebrew word for "awesome" and the English word "man."
"Mad-him," he repeated after me, speaking on the telephone from his home in Berkeley, California. "We have a friend staying with us right now who speaks Hebrew. That was her guess. We were wondering how 'awesome' would be translated."
"Madhim – there you go, Karen. You were right," he called out to someone, apparently Karen.
The book came out in the United States two years ago, and the Israeli publishing house Am Oved is now printing it in Hebrew, translated by Tomer Karman. Jake Parker, an artist and animator, did the illustrations that appear in both versions.
Awesome Man, or Madhiman, is a superhero who can shoot positronic rays – or in the Hebrew version, gamma rays – out of his eyes, fly straight as an arrow and soar through the time without getting dizzy, becoming nauseous or smashing into things – except on purpose.
But Awesome Man has a secret: He is really a child, and at the end of the day, he runs home to his mother, who is waiting for him in the kitchen with cheese, crackers, chocolate milk and a hug.
Chabon won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001 for his book "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. He is "one of the most celebrated writers of his generation," according to The Virginia Quarterly Review literary magazine.
Among his best known works are "The Yiddish Policemen's Union," "Wonder Boys," and his first novel, "The Mysteries of Pittsburg." His most recent book, "Telegraph Avenue," was published in 2012.
He is married to the writer Ayelet Waldman, who was born in Jerusalem and moved to America with her family when she was two years old. They have four children: Sophie, Zeke, Ida-Rose and Abraham – a fact he says contributed to the writing of the book.
A failed tutorial for boys
"Technically, it's my second [children's book], because I did write a novel for younger readers called 'Summerland' that came out back in 2002. This is my first attempt to do a picture book. I actually wrote it for my youngest kid Abraham ... He was going through a period where he was trying to learn, the way a lot of boys of 4 or 5 have to learn, to control his body: Essentially, when you're feeling some kind of strong emotion, whether its enthusiasm or excitement or anger or happiness – when you want to express all these things, but you can't do it by hitting people or by grabbing things or knocking things over," said Chabon.
Haaretz: Or lying down in the middle of the supermarket and screaming.
"Exactly. Somebody suggested, well why don't you write a story about that? That will help him relate to it without it being a lecture or something," Chabon said.
"I thought immediately of the idea of a superhero because like most boys his age, he was really into superheroes. He was really into dressing up in superhero costumes. Typically boys go through a very, very intense superhero period between the ages of about 3 and 5, when they love putting on costumes and pretending to be Superman or Spiderman or whoever it might be.
"I think that what little boys feel about superheroes has something to do with their increasing recognition that they have to control their bodies and that you can't actually jump over a building or do all the things that superheroes do. So it gives them a chance to experience a sense of power over their bodies, and at the same time learn their limitations. All that kind of went together, but in describing it, I'm making it sound like I actually sat down and really thought it through," said Chabon.
But that's not what you did?
"No. Actually I just thought: Oh, that’s a good idea. I'll write a story about a superhero. So I just sat down to write," said Chabon.
"My editor found this artist Jake Parker. I was actually somewhat aware of his work. I had seen some of the illustration work he had done in some graphic novels for kids that my kids had liked.
It was a process. He [the editor] started with drawing the boy and trying to get him [Parker] to feel how he ought to look, and there was a lot of give and take between me the artist and the editor."
Was Abraham Chabon pleased?
"My son loved it," said Michael Chabon. "He was very proud of it, and his older brothers made him a T-shirt, an Awesome Man T-shirt. He walked around wearing that for a long time, and when the book came out he would tell people that it's about him. Yeah, he was very happy about it. [But] I'm not sure that it actually accomplished the original goal."
Maybe men want to be superheroes long after age five.
"I think you're right."
Modern parenting in analog
Do children read in the digital age? Is it at all important that they read books?
"This book – I mean picture books – I think they are incredibly important," Chabon said.
"They're intended to be read by adults to children. And there's nothing more … Absolutely no part of the experience of being a parent is sweeter and more precious than the experience of getting into bed with your kid at the end of a long day and having the kid snuggle up against you and just reading to him from a picture book. When you're both looking at the page, and you're sitting side by side, it's just such an important experience for children.
"It's because it opens the door for them to literacy and to the love of reading, which to me makes life bearable even at the most unbearable moments. But also because it provides you with this moment sort of stolen out of the confusion of an ordinary day when you get this quiet moment of peace, when you're just nestled up against your child, and he is listening to every word that’s comes out of your mouth.
I know how important that is, because I just celebrated my 50th birthday. My kids at my birthday dinner were sitting around our kitchen and my wife invited the children to say various things they appreciated about me in honor of my 50th birthday. All of them mentioned the fact that I read to them; and I still read to my two youngest ones who are now 12 and 10."
Are you a modern father?
"Yes, absolutely," said Chabon. "I try to be as involved as I possibly can, and I'm very much encouraged by Ayelet, my wife. It's easier to be that now – it's more common."
On the other hand, we live in a time when children are put front and center to such an exaggerated extent.
"I don’t think it's too much; I think it's too inconsistent," said Chabon. "I think the problem is the reason why it's too much – why children are pushed to such a central position. I think the reason for it is guilt.
"This idea of hyper-parenting is also taking place against relentless sexualizing: Children marketing products to children. The bizarre fascination we have as a culture with pedophilia. There is always dark stuff going on around children; at the same time we are seeing this incredible hyper-vigilance. I think there is a collective sense of guiltiness about the way children are constantly being hurt and betrayed and damaged – exploited in all kinds of ways – and that in turn produces a sense of: Oh, children are so precious and we have to be so careful around them. At the same time, we're saying: Look at that billboard up there with a half-naked girl who looks like she's barely 18 years old selling some products.
"I actually don’t think that there's anything new about that: the idea of childhood as a concept is very recent. It’s a fairly new invention. It came into existence more or less as we know it in Victorian times in the mid-19th century with the idea of the purity of children and innocence of children. And that came into being at the very moment when the Industrial Revolution was beginning to sort of perfect a system by which children can be ruthlessly exploited as labor. So I think that simultaneous, or that circular motion between guilt and exploitation and vigilance is familiar. It's just taking a different form – in some ways more disturbing, in other ways not. Children are exploited in that kind of Dickensian Victorian way all the time still – maybe not so much in America but in plenty of other parts of the world children are being used as workers, almost slaves. Children are being used as soldiers; all that is still going on."
A not-too serious man
What about the movie Joel and Ethan Coen were supposed to be making based on your book "The Yiddish Policemen's Union?"
"It's not happening," said Chabon. "The Coen brothers just moved on. They had other things they wanted to do."
Were you upset?
"No. It would have been great," said Chabon. "I was excited about the idea of it. I really admire the Coen brothers and some of the movies they made are among my favorite movies. But it's showbiz. When you sell your rights to a producer, it's very unlikely statistically that it's actually is going to become a film. Hollywood consumes a huge amount of potential material and what they put out is a fraction of that."
Have you had a midlife crisis? Did you buy a motorcycle?
"Not at all," Chabon said. "I like being 50. I feel like I have a vague idea of what I'm doing in this life. I have lived long enough and seen enough to know and learn a few things, and it’s a good feeling. My body, knock on wood, is still working reasonably well, and I can go where I want to go and do what I want to do – and it's good. The only time I had any trouble with a birthday is when I turned 30. That was the hard one, and that was 20 years ago.
"I was just talking to my dad last night, and he'll be 74 in December, and he asked me the same question, and I said what I said to you – and he agreed. He said he thought being 50 was actually one of his favorites, and he said I will tell you 60 was good and 70 was okay, too. He said the only bad one for him was 30, and it was funny, exactly like me."