Kate Hannigan’s new picture book biography BLIPS ON A SCREEN: How Ralph Baer Invented TV Video Gaming and Launched a Worldwide Obsession (Knopf, 2022) illustrated by Zachariah OHora tells the interesting story of Ralph Baer, a Jewish refugee who invented the first TV video gaming system. Featuring fun and engaging illustrations, BLIPS ON A SCREEN is sure to delight and inspire both young readers and gaming fans of all ages. Welcome, Kate!
How did you first learn about Ralph Baer and his groundbreaking invention?
I am always interested in interesting people! As I move about the world, I try to stay open to reading, hearing, and learning about historical figures or changemakers. But most books start with a question. For me, that question came as I gazed upon my youngest child doing what half the planet does each and every day: video gaming. How did gaming come to be? I dove into research, and I found that all roads led to one man, the “father of video games” Ralph Baer. His life story was fascinating. So I tried to learn all I could about him and his drive for invention.
In the book, you mention that as a child, Ralph and his family fled Germany for New York to avoid Nazi persecution. What impact do you think being a Jewish refugee had on Ralph’s work ethic, creativity, and inventiveness?
I’m very interested in refugee issues: the devastation of having to flee for your life and build an entirely new one in an unfamiliar, sometimes unwelcoming place. When Ralph Baer and his family had to escape Nazi Germany, it must have been terrifying. I imagine for him, that was when childhood ended. He took up factory work as a teenager and pushed himself forward. So I imagine being a refugee shaped who he became as a driven, highly motivated adult.
Something I learned in researching Ralph Baer’s story, which I am reminded of often with today’s refugee populations, is that his education records from Germany were destroyed. This hindered his ability to build a life here. And that happens now with refugees who arrive here and can’t prove they’ve finished high school or attended college. Ralph developed expertise with radios and televisions, which helped make him perfect for being the changemaker around video gaming, but it was a result of being unable to access the traditional pathways to college. He couldn’t enter those schools because he had no records to show, so he enrolled where he could get in—which was television school in Chicago.
What I admired so much about him was his drive to make things better. Make factory machines more efficient, make television more entertaining. He seemed to have a creative energy that never stopped. I found that inspiring.
Can you share a bit about your research process for this story?
I come from newspaper journalism, so I like digging up old newspapers for information. What’s fun about writing a book about a relatively recent figure from history is that news accounts are more accessible. Ralph Baer was a prolific writer and meticulous about recording things. He wrote a book about his journey, he built a website to showcase gaming history, he agreed to countless interviews. Many people have written about him. And of course there are wonderful film clips about the birth of gaming too. So I drew from newspapers, books, films, and talking to real people who knew him and his work. It was a lot of fun to research.
What were your thoughts when you first saw Zachariah OHora’s illustrations?
I’ve been a big fan of Zachariah OHora’s work for years! I mean a BIG fan! So I was over the moon when my editor said he was onboard. His art brings the perfect amount of fun to the project! I fully admit that my writing is often broccoli: I try hard to pack in all the vitamins and nutritious information that I think kids need! Zachariah OHora’s art brings the party. It’s caramel corn and mint-chocolate-chip ice cream and Dr Pepper. So fun and so engaging. I love it!
Was there anything you were surprised to learn about Ralph during your research? Or any anecdotes that didn’t make it into the final version of the book?
What surprised me most is how far gaming has come in such a short time! When I visit schools and talk to young readers, I realize that for kids (and for many grownups, too), history can seem like something that’s dusty and sepia-toned and so far away from the here and now. So I try to find ways to connect us to our past, to make history seem more of a living thing. Ralph Baer’s story isn’t that old, but for kids it sure can feel ancient. Just looking at the graphics in today’s video games, remember that with Ralph Baer, graphics were sheets of clear plastic taped onto the TV screen! That still makes me laugh to think about!
And another fun thing: His son Mark Baer has been incredibly helpful throughout the whole long process of bringing this book to light. In interviewing and speaking with Mark, I realized that he, his brother, and sister were the original gamers! That’s pretty cool!
Thank you, Kate!
KATE HANNIGAN is the author of numerous children’s books, including the middle-grade series The League of Secret Heroes, as well as the novel The Detective’s Assistant, which won the Golden Kite Award for best middle-grade fiction. Her debut picture book, A Lady Has the Floor: Belva Lockwood Speaks Out for Women’s Rights, received four starred reviews. Kate lives with her family in Chicago. Learn more at katehannigan.com