There are several ways to enter the city of Pittsburgh, but approaching town through the Fort Pitt Tunnel is undoubtedly the most dramatic. And for Benny Zelkowicz, who grew up in Mt. Lebanon, the striking way in which Pittsburgh reveals itself as one crosses the Fort Pitt Bridge became the inspiration for an imaginary city in the first book of his children’s fantasy trilogy, “The First Book of Ore: The Foundry’s Edge.”
“There’s that dazzling burst of sunlight when you come over the Fort Pitt Bridge,” said Zelkowicz, speaking from Los
Angeles, where he works as a stop-motion animator for television and film as well as a writer. “There’s just this shining city.”
Fittingly, Zelkowicz, along with his writing partner Cam Baity, dubbed one of the fictional towns in their first novel “Albright City.”
“At one point, we called it the City of Steel, but that was too obviously Pittsburgh,” Zelkowicz said. “But it was buildings like the Cathedral of Learning, a soaring Art Deco tower, that were definitely part of the inspiration.”
Zelkowicz, a 1994 graduate of Mt. Lebanon High School and a former student at the South Hills Solomon Schechter School, will be signing and reading from his book at the Mt. Lebanon Public Library on Jan. 4 at 2 p.m.
The novel tells the tale of a young girl, Phoebe Plumm, growing up in a world of privilege. Her father is an important high-level executive at The Foundry, a corporation that provides the world with machines and technological advances. Phoebe soon discovers a passage to an alternate metal world and finds herself stranded there, joining forces with a household servant.
The idea for the book, which the writers have been developing since 2006, was an outgrowth of their work as animators, said Zelkowicz, whose resume includes stop-motion work on “The Simpsons” and “The Lego Movie.”
“We started thinking about the everyday objects around us,” he said. “We started thinking, ‘If this toaster, this fork, this automobile were alive, what would their personalities be? What was the world where these objects came from?’”
Zelkowicz and Baity together came up with a vision for that world, “a fully material world, unlike our world that is carbon-based; this world was metal-based, with trees made of steel or aluminum.”
Zelkowicz majored in neuroscience at Oberlin College, but switched his focus to animation while there. After graduation, he earned a master’s degree in animation at the California Institute of the Arts.
“I eventually realized my passion was really with animation,” he said. “I had a passion for science, but I realized it was better applied in a layman’s way. I don’t think it would have been the right choice for me.”
His science background, though, came in handy, he said, while creating this new symbiotic world of metal.
“If there are metal trees,” he said, “you have to figure out what kinds of creatures live there. We’re trying to create a whole ecosystem. There has to be some sort of logical consistency in this world.”
The book is geared to children 10 and up, Zelkowicz said, as it has some “complex vocabulary.”
“We were told not to write down to the audience,” he continued. “We took that to heart. There are some dense and complex ideas. It’s an ambitious narrative, with a lot of thematic and philosophical ideas that I think will appeal to older audiences.”
Zelkowicz, whose wife is a professor at the Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, grew up attending services at Beth El Congregation of the South Hills and says he has infused his novel with the Jewish values with which he was raised.
“There is an element of tikkun olam in the book,” he said. “Phoebe has to recognize how her actions affect others, and she has to make an internal change. We need to change ourselves in order to change the world at large. It’s about the responsibility of the individual to society.”
The book was published by Disney-Hyperion, which will also publish the next two installments of the trilogy. But Zelkowicz is not ruling out additional books in the series down the road.
“The world we created is growing richer and richer in our minds, and we are nowhere near being tired of it,” he said. “We will be happy to explore the world further.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.