Interview: Julie Merberg Talks about Downtown Bookworks’s DC Comics Series & Their Empowering ‘Girl Power’ Line-Up!
For the last couple of years, the DC Comics board books published by Downtown Bookworks have been a staple of our holiday gift guides. I’m a big fan of the series which uses classic artwork to introduce kids to concepts like shapes, numbers, letters and more, but also includes some of the world’s most iconic superheroes.
The board books are just part of a line of DC Comics-themed books the publisher has released over the years. They’ve also released a number of activity books and picture books for older kids among other titles.
Some of their best releases have been a part of their DC Comics Girl Power line. These books are geared towards introducing young readers to powerful, smart, and accomplished heroines in whom they can see themselves. From the My First Book of Girl Power board book to Color Me Powerful there’s something for every reader to enjoy!
Julie Merberg, the president of Downtown Bookworks, has been a huge influence on the DC Comics books as well as the Girl Power line in particular. She and her family are the creative minds behind the board book series and Julie also wrote both My First Book of Girl Power and The Big Book of Girl Power, a picture book primer on DC Comics superheroines.
We got the chance to talk with Julie about Downtown Bookworks’ DC Comics series, the inspiration for the Girl Power line, what she hopes young readers can get out of these books, and more. You can read the full interview below!
How did you first decide to start working on DC comic-based board books and picture books?
My husband is a huge comic book geek and we have 4 sons who he couldn’t wait to introduce to his favorite superheroes and artists. He would keep his comic books in the plastic wrappers and worry about them getting crinkled, so sharing them with babies and toddlers was not an option. In time for our fourth son, the lightbulb went off: we could make board books featuring superheroes, and he could start spreading the love right away!
Were you a DC fan before you got involved with this series?
I loved the mythology of the DC superheroes: that all of them have a weakness; that so many of them have a tragic backstory. And I found it fascinating that they were all created by Jewish guys during the Holocaust. It would be more accurate to say that my husband’s passion—and then my children’s obsession—rubbed off on me. And seeing the bond that it created between them made me want to create a vehicle that other parents could use to connect with their own children.
Who is your favorite DC superhero?
I’d have to go with Wonder Woman.
The DC books especially have become something of a family affair. How did the rest of your family come to be involved?
Well when we first started out, I knew I wanted to use the classic art because it was so cool and retro-looking, and I wanted the nostalgia factor—to appeal to parents who grew up reading comic books. But I didn’t have a deep enough knowledge base to make the calls about what was important to showcase in our books, so my husband wrote and/or consulted on the first bunch.
Then as I became more immersed in the DC universe, I felt like I could take on some of the writing and decision-making. And at that point, my oldest was a teenager and growing up in our house, he started pitching book ideas to me so I told him to start writing too. All of the boys have weighed in on all of the books: I run our covers and copy lines by them. For the cookbook and activity book, I’ve had them try out recipes and puzzles. They’re a very helpful, well-informed focus group.
What inspired you to start working on a ‘Girl Power’ focused line of DC books?
It started as a publishing decision—I felt that our list had gotten too boy-heavy. Our first book was (appropriately) MY FIRST BOOK OF GIRL POWER. The minute I came up with the title, everything came together: my art director sent over a cover that looks pretty much the way the final cover looks, and I couldn’t stop smiling.
I quickly realized that all of the female superheroes had the kind of qualities that made them ideal role models. Mostly, the moment of girl power had arrived. When that first book took off, we realized we needed a book for older girls, and then another for still older girls…
How did you choose which characters to include in your Girl Power books?
Of course we wanted to use the superheroes who would be recognizable to fans, and those whose powers were the kind you would want young girls to emulate. We were also determined to go beyond the all-white cast of characters that existed in the 70s, when our licensed art style was established.
So we created classic-style versions of Bumblebee and Katana (and Starfire, who is orange and comes from another planet). They all have really interesting stories and impressive powers and together, covered the bases in terms of the important attributes you would want to emphasize to girls.
What was the research process like? Did you learn about any new superheroines – or perhaps something new about a familiar character – that you maybe didn’t know about beforehand?
Researching was actually so much fun! The challenge for the board book was to be able to explain what could be complicated powers in the simplest way possible (i.e. Batgirl is very smart!).
And for the Big Book of Girl Power, the first challenge was to include the most diverse and interesting cast of characters. I called Paul Levitz (former CEO of DC and a good friend) to see if he could suggest any characters (particularly non-white characters) I might not have heard of. He pointed me towards Starfire (whom I knew nothing about and discovered that she has the power to learn a language just by touching a person who speaks that language—and she learned to speak English by kissing Robin!).
Because the Big Book goes into much more detail and includes each character’s backstory, the other challenge was to figure out which elements of the many variations of back stories and superpowers to include. What would be age-appropriate (Katana’s backstory, for example, is extremely grisly)? And which complicated or violent details could we leave out without putting off fans?
Were there any characters you wanted to include in any of the Girl Power books that ultimately didn’t make the final cut?
We had wanted to include Dawnstar because she is Native American, but didn’t get approval.
One of your first DC Girl Power books was actually a board book. Why do you think that it’s so important to start talking about ‘girl power’ with kids even before they can read?
With Wonder Woman’s new (and long overdue) popularity, and also the emergence of DC Super Hero girls, this is less of a problem now, but when we published MY FIRST BOOK OF GIRL POWER, the most popular superheroes—the iconic symbols of power and justice—were men. It seemed important to show women embodying those roles too.
What are you hoping young readers (and their parents) can take away from these books?
I’m hoping to normalize the idea that women are strong and independent and can take it upon themselves to make the world a better place.
What have you enjoyed most about working on the DC Girl Power books?
I love the response we get from parents, from awesome aunts, and uncles—and mostly, from little girls.