Joseph Caldara refuses to grow up, and his young readers couldn’t be happier about it.
The mind behind “The Black Walrus” loves telling stories that connect with a new generation of young boys. To do so, he taps into a part of himself that’s forever a pre-teen, eager for new adventures and smiles.
It’s why he created children’s books aimed squarely at middle-school boys.
Fun. Exciting. Goofy. Unpredictable. Just like any lad in that demographic.
HiT reached out to Caldara to learn more about his budding book franchise and how his work differs from Disney’s recent cultural shift.
HiT: You started writing at a tender age … 8 years old. Can you share why you began writing back then and what your earliest influences were?
Caldara: Like all kids that age, I loved stories. Reading and listening to stories has always been my favorite thing in the world. I started writing for the same reason most fiction writers do: because, one day, characters just started popping into my head and I had to let them out.
So I grabbed my crayons, drew the characters and started coming up with adventures for them. My biggest writing influence early on was Dav Pilkey, who writes the “Captain Underpants” and “Dog Man” series. I’ve always loved his goofy worlds.
As I got older, I was heavily influenced by Brian Jacques (“Redwall”), Robert Louis Stevenson (“Treasure Island”) and J.R.R. Tolkien (“Lord of the Rings”).
— Joseph Caldara (@Joseph_Caldara) September 29, 2023
HiT: How would you describe Alex Portobello to someone who has never picked up one of your “Black Walrus” books yet?
Caldara: Well, as Alex himself puts it, “I am the crispy bacon of vengeance that sizzles in the night. I am the sensitive nose hair the fires the snot of villainy from the nostrils of this city.” Alex is an inventive, introverted, quirky kid with an irradiated super-brain who loves to bury himself in comic books and adventure stories.
And he wants to go on his own adventures.
Eventually, he creates an arsenal of crime-fighting gadgets, invents his own martial art and hits the streets to battle evil as the self-made superhero, The Black Walrus. Alex lives in a pretty average city surrounded by pretty average parents and friends, but he has a flare for the dramatic you’d only find in an adventure story.
He’s less of a normal kid trapped in a superhero’s body and more of a superhero trapped in a normal kid’s body.
Because of his personality, Alex often butts heads with his parents, classmates and teachers, but deep down, he has a heart of gold. The real reason he fights evil as the Black Walrus because he lives in a crime-ridden city and wants to protect his parents and the other people he cares about.
HiT: Children’s books can be whimsical while sharing life lessons that few, if any, parents could object to … how do you approach these stories from that cultural lens?
Caldara: I follow an “extreme Mary Poppins” philosophy: when you’re writing for 5th graders and middle-school boys, you need a lot of sugar to help the medicine go down. I write books that are fun, goofy and exciting and then weave life lessons into them as subtly as possible.
Kids want to read stories that engage them, not be lectured about life lessons, so writing an engaging story has to come first. One of my favorite things about writing Middle Grade is that I can create a unique, wacky world while telling a story that’s lengthy, complex, and interesting.
Since I write for older kids, I can share more nuanced life lessons, lessons a little more thought-provoking than the morals you find in picture books like “sharing is good” or “don’t be greedy.”
I don’t want to reveal too much about the lessons in the first Black Walrus book because that would give away the ending. But the moral essentially boils down to “Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Especially from your parents. No one cares about you more than your parents do, and you should trust them.”
HiT: You’re a grown man writing for middle-school readers. Is it challenging to get into that mindset, to tweak your sensibilities to connect with that age demographic?
Caldara: Not when you’re a kid at heart.
I write primarily for boys, and boys of all ages love two things: action and adventure and off-the-wall, goofy humor. I love those things, too. My favorite books, movies and other pieces of entertainment are things I read or saw when I was in middle-school like the “Lord of the Rings” books and “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”
I believe Middle Grade-aged kids appreciate a good story in the same way adults do. The best pieces of children’s entertainment are just good pieces of entertainment, entertainment adults can enjoy, too. All of the classic Disney movies or the Looney Tunes shorts are great examples of that.
I find that if I write the kind of stories I’d want to read, my middle-school readers will want to read them, too.
HiT: You’ve written two “Black Walrus” books so far (the second drops in Spring of 2024) … can we assume more are on the way? If so, what is it about this series that makes you eager to share more adventures in this world?
Caldara: Absolutely! I expect I’ll keep writing “Black Walrus” stories until I’m dead, and maybe even for a little bit after that. So far, I have six “Black Walrus” books planned, and the sixth one won’t be the last. When I first came up with the idea for “The Black Walrus,” a cascade of different characters and scenarios came pouring into my head, and I won’t stop writing the series until they’ve all appeared in print at least once.
Other than the humor, the element of “The Black Walrus” that excites me the most is the world-building. I love the superhero genre because you can inject so many different types of characters and ideas into the same world without having any of them feel forced or out of place.
In the first two “Black Walrus” books, we get to see a young, walrus-themed hero straight out of a Golden Age comic, an army of martial arts walruses, a birthday-themed street gang, a talking Chihuahua in a suit who acts like a 1920s mob boss, a sonic bazooka, a wacky scientist with a cheese-powered ray gun, and much, much more.
The second book, “The Black Walrus and Kevin,” will expand on the world and characters from the first book. It’ll also introduce the man, the myth, the legend … Kevin.
HiT: I imagine memories of your own childhood come rushing back while you’re writing these stories … do you think today’s middle-school readers are dramatically different than you were at that age?
Caldara: No. Middle-school readers want the same thing today as they did when I was that age: a good story with fun characters. I also think the culture pushes an idea that kids these days are difficult or impossible for adults to relate to, which isn’t true.
Yes, kids today have technology and influences that I didn’t grow up with, but I clearly remember being in middle school, and I can imagine how I would’ve reacted to that technology or to those influences. When I actually go out and talk to kids, I find the generation gap’s not all that wide.
HiT: There’s a war of sorts going on with children’s entertainment. Disney is all-in on its “not so secret” gay agenda. The Daily Wire is creating content that’s aggressively apolitical in tone. Where do you and your books fit in?
Caldara: I didn’t become a writer to push political or social ideas, and I have no interest in using my books to promote agendas of any kind to other peoples’ kids. Because they’re other peoples’ kids. Instead, I want to write stories that are engaging and fun, stories any kid can enjoy and that any parent can hand to their kid without having to worry about the author trying to push an agenda behind their backs.
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— Real America's Voice (RAV) (@RealAmVoice) October 18, 2023
I don’t believe entertainment should be a battleground. It should just be entertaining. And it’s important for kids and adults alike to be able to use entertainment to escape from the problems and agendas of the real world.
The last thing I want to do is insert those problems and agendas into my escapist worlds.
I’d compare the books I write to the 1960s “Batman” TV show or franchises like The Shadow or The Green Hornet: fun, exciting adventures with no political message or agenda that anyone can enjoy.