It’s probably daunting to take on the life of actor and director Leonard Nimoy and attempt to fashion it into a picture book biography for children. (Talk about boldly going where no man has gone before.) But it’s also perhaps a little less intimidating if you were his dear friend, as author and poet Richard Michelson was before Nimoy’s death last year in February.
Yet even Michelson himself is surprised he didn’t think to write Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoy, on shelves this month, sooner. “When I speak to children or to aspiring authors,” he tells me via email, “I always advise them to listen carefully when their parents and grandparents and best friends and best friend’s parents talk about their lives. ‘Everyone has a story to tell,’ I say. ‘Just remember to write it down.’ And yet why did it never occur to me to write down Leonard’s story?” Though the two had forged a close friendship—they looked so much alike, in fact, that Michelson was often mistaken for one of Nimoy’s sons—and Michelson even facilitated press interviews for Nimoy over the years, it never occurred to him. “I’d written many other picture book biographies, and Leonard and I often discussed my works in progress. He even recorded my book Too Young for Yiddish. (Yiddish was his home language and, as an adult in Los Angeles, Leonard even hired a Yiddish-speaking psychiatrist and paid her for the hour weekly, just so he could speak the language).”
(Michelson and Nimoy)
It was when Michelson saw the documentary Leonard Nimoy’s Boston, released in 2014 and originally conceived by Nimoy’s son, Adam, that lightning struck. “I realized,” he adds, “that Leonard’s life story was as remarkable as any I’d written about and would be perfect to inspire the ‘next generation.’ I did not know Leonard would pass away only three months later. I am glad I didn’t wait.”
The friendship between Michelson and Nimoy grew from a professional affiliation: Nimoy was a photographer, and Michelson, proprietor of R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton, Massachusetts, was his gallerist. Nimoy, as noted in the closing Author’s Note of Fascinating, became much like a father to Michelson. Though they had years of friendship upon which Michelson could rely for the crafting of this biography (“12 years of wonderful relaxing dinners with Leonard, sharing stories of our childhoods, and visiting museums and theaters”), he still did his homework, as any biographer should, and in fact, describes it as “the most fun I’ve ever had researching a book. I knew his life so well, and I’d met his family numerous times, so when I finally decided to write the book, it was a day or two of making sure Leonard’s memories matched the facts. (They did.) His edits mainly consisted of ‘fill in the blanks.’ I’d forgotten details, like the names of his best friends in third grade and the name of the temple where he first saw, as an eight-year-old boy, the Hebraic blessing hand-gesture he would make world famous as the Vulcan greeting. I left spaces in my manuscript for Leonard to complete.”
The book is illustrated by Edel Rodriguez, whose work has also appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, and Time. (Rodriguez’s recent Time cover made quite a splash; “Leonard would have loved it,” Michelson tells me.) Born in Cuba, Rodriguez came to America in 1980 during the Mariel boatlift. “We had no place to live,” Rodriguez explains, “so my family moved in with my aunt's family in Hialeah, Florida, a working class part of Miami. There were three families living in the house that summer, 14 people total. The TV was usually on, and my cousins, who had lived here for a while, watched Star Trek. I didn't speak English and started watching it regularly with another one of my cousins, as we tried to figure out what they were saying.” The show’s setting in outer space was something Rodriguez had never seen on television in Cuba, and he was hooked. It was Star Trek that helped him learn some of his first words in the English language, prompting a feeling of connection to his new home.
Rodriguez found working on the book … well, fascinating, especially the way that “aspects of [Nimoy’s] history and biography show up later on in his life and acting roles. There is so much about his life,” he says, “that I was not aware of.” Michelson, who was surprised and thrilled to learn that Star Trek helped Rodriguez learn English, is pleased with the results. “Edel was able to take a realistic historical text and give it a sci-fi graphic look without losing any of the humanity.”
As he wrote the book, Michelson’s challenge was knowing what to leave out, as well as “taking a life that everyone thinks they know and finding a fresh angle to tell the tale.” Now that it’s on shelves, he wants to be sure to communicate that this book is much more than just a “celebrity biography” and feels the need to convince parents that there is a compelling reason to read this book with their children who may not have heard of Nimoy or even the iconic Star Trek. Indeed, Nimoy’s story is a universal one of following one’s dreams and living long and prospering in the world of the arts.
And for Star Trek fans? This is a must-read. Resistance is futile after all.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
FASCINATING: THE LIFE OF LEONARD NIMOY. Text copyright © 2016 by Richard Michelson. Illustrations copyright © 2016 by Edel Rodriguez. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York. Illustrations reproduced by permission of Richard Michelson.
Richard Michelson and Leonard Nimoy photographed by Sylvia Mautner Photography.