“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” This indisputably wise adage is at the core of Epic Fails, a middle grade nonfiction series by Erik Slader and Ben Thompson that debuts this month from Macmillan’s Roaring Brook imprint. Focusing on two ultimately successful historical ventures that, well, took some time to get off the ground, the launch titles, The Wright Brothers: Nose-Diving into History and The Race to Space: Countdown to Liftoff, exemplify the thrust of the series.
Serendipity played a key role in the series’ creation. Thompson and Slader became Facebook friends six years ago, through friends of friends, and often “talked shop” online after discovering their mutual passion for history. Thompson has written more than a dozen children’s books with historical themes, including the Badass and Guts & Glory series from Little, Brown; and in 2012 Slader started Epik Fails of History, a blog and podcast devoted to historical screw-ups.
Thompson was helping Slader put together a proposal for a book series spinoff of Epik Fails when, Thompson explained, “out of the blue” he was contacted by Simon Boughton, then publishing director of Roaring Brook Press, who had come up with the idea of creating a series about historical failures. Boughton’s colleague, Connie Hsu, who had worked with Thompson on some of his earlier books when she was at Little, Brown, recommended Thompson as a possible author for the series. “I told Simon about Erik’s blog and suggested that Erik work on the project with me,” Thompson recalled. “And that’s how things got going.”
Slader eagerly climbed aboard. “In fact, I was just about to send out my book series proposal to publishers when Ben called me,” he said. “At first I thought he was joking—it was a pretty insane coincidence. I obviously couldn’t pass up the opportunity.” The two signed a four-book deal with Boughton, brokered by Farley Chase at Chase Literary. Illustrated with period photos and pen-and-ink sketches by Tim Foley, the books are being released simultaneously in hardcover and paper, with 50,000-copy first printings of each paperback edition.
The collaboration between Sadler and Thompson (who hail from northern Florida and Seattle, respectively) proved smooth going from the start—despite the fact that they did not meet in person until earlier this month, at the series’ launch party at The BookMark in Neptune Beach, Fla.
After deciding on which historical near-fiascoes to focus on, said Slader, “We discussed how we want to approach the topic, and then divvied up the writing, usually by chapter; but as we wrote, that sometimes changed.” Thompson added, “We switched it up with each book, but in both cases we each ended up writing half, and then edited together to make sure it flowed. We found that our writing melded together well in terms of tone and style.”
Echoing that sentiment is Mekisha Telfer, associate editor at Roaring Brook, who assumed the editorial helm of the series after Boughton left the company last fall. “I think Erik and Ben are such successful collaborators because each is so willing to check the other’s work, which I always appreciate as an editor,” she observed. “It makes my job easier when collaborators work so well together. Reading the manuscripts using Track Changes, I really enjoyed seeing their backing-and-forthing.”
Among the factors contributing to the success of Epic Fails, noted Telfer, are “the fun, conversational voice that the authors use, and the fact that they bring humor and so many interesting facts to each book. I have learned a great deal from these stories! The chapter-book realm can be very difficult, and many writers fall into the trap of talking down to readers—these guys never do.”
Infusing their history with humor and avoiding a condescending tone are high priorities for the authors. “Adding humor really helps drive home the details of the stories we tell, and makes them more digestible and entertaining to read,” said Thompson. “I also feel like a lot of authors make the mistake of thinking that because it’s a ‘kids’ book,’ they need to be childish in their descriptions of events and things, but I’ve found that kids aren’t given enough credit for their ability to handle complicated material. I’ve learned that if you talk to them like they’re grown-ups and don’t pander to them, this resonates and can go a long way to earning their respect.”
The third and fourth installments of Epic Fails are Not-So-Great Presidents: Commanders in Chief, due out in January; and The Age of Exploration: Totally Getting Lost, an April release. And might the collaborators dig up additional epic failures to showcase? “We definitely have many more ideas,” said Slader. “I think the series delivers an important life lesson: we all make mistakes and we can learn from them. History has so many great examples! I would be very excited to write more books for the series—I think Ben and I make a good team.”
Epic Fails #1: The Wright Brothers: Nose-Diving into History by Erik Slader and Ben Thompson, illus. by Tim Foley. Roaring Brook, $15.99 July ISBN 978-1-250-15055-4; paper $6.99 978-1-250-15056-1
Epic Fails #2: The Race to Space: Countdown to Liftoff by Erik Slader and Ben Thompson, illus. by Tim Foley. Roaring Brook, $15.99 July ISBN 978-1-250-15061-5 $15.99; paper $6.99 ISBN 978-1-250-15062-2