Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

CW150Pierce[1]Recently a writer asked me how I kept from going off on a tangent when I’m researching a subject. It may sound like an odd question, but it made perfectly good sense to me. I’ve been in that situation many times. It happens when I’m researching for a current project and I run across information about an entirely different, but interesting, subject. If I’m not careful, I’m soon off researching that other topic. It’s certainly not a good use of my time, especially when I’m working on a deadline as I usually am.

The way I avoid going off on a tangent is to put notes about the topic that’s tempting me into an “ideas” file. That way, when I’m ready to start a new project, I have a file of possibilities. Of course, sometimes in spite of my best efforts, I go off on one of those research tangents. Some stories are too hard to resist. That was the case with Tillie Pierce.

I discovered her when I was researching the Civil War, particularly the Battle of Gettysburg. Tillie grew up in Gettysburg. She was 15 years old in 1863 when she became an eyewitness to the famous battle fought there.

For weeks, all the news in town had been about the approach of the Rebels. On June 26, the reports became reality. Tillie was in school when she heard shouting in the street. “The Rebels are coming!” the voices called. She later wrote about the terror of that day. “Rushing to the door, and standing on the front portico we beheld in the direction of the Theological Seminary, a dark, dense mass, moving toward town. Our teacher, Mrs. Eyster, at once said: ‘Children, run home as quickly as you can.’”

The teacher did not need to repeat herself. The whole class scattered, racing for their homes. Tillie had just reached her front door when she turned and saw men on horseback riding down the street. She ran inside and slammed the door behind her. Then she peeked through the shutters in the family’s sitting room to watch as the Rebel soldiers filled the town. “What they would do with us was a fearful question to my young mind,” Tillie recalled.

There was relief among the people of the town when Union soldiers began to arrive on June 30. That was short-lived as the battle between the Rebel and Union soldiers began on July 1. Tillie witnessed the first day’s battle from her home. Before the day was over, Tillie’s parents decided that she should travel with a neighbor to the Jacob Weikert farm about three miles south. The intention was to get Tillie out of danger. As it turned out, she was traveling towards danger and the heart of the next day’s battle.

For a brief time, I thought I would like to write about Tillie. I gave up on that idea because I knew I would never be able to tell her story better than she did. Twenty-five years after the Battle of Gettysburg, Tillie wrote about her experiences in a book titled At Gettysburg or What a Girl Saw and Heard of the Battle. Thanks to the digital library at the University of Pennsylvania, I was able to find a copy of her book. It’s a short book, less than 30 pages, but it’s a fascinating read.

Both the barn and house on the Weikert farm quickly filled with wounded soldiers, and Tillie went to work helping to tend to them. She got a first-hand look at the horrors of war and she describes them in detail in the book. However, that is only part of the story she tells. She also includes anecdotal information about particular soldiers and generals she met. Details about life in Gettysburg before the war and again years after the war when she was writing her book serve as bookends to her story. The book is good reading for anyone with even a passing interest in the Civil War. For me, it was a tangent I was happy to follow.

cover[1]Laurie Ann Thompson writes to inspire and empower young people. She has done that well with her picture book biography Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah. Emmanuel is an inspiration for people of all ages, and his achievements are a testament to what one person can do to change the world.

Emmanuel was born with a deformed right leg. In his homeland of Ghana, West Africa, he was not expected to accomplish much, but his mother wanted him to have a good life. She taught Emmanuel that he could do what he wanted and that he needed to learn to do things for himself. Laurie handles all of that background information eloquently in only a few words in the opening pages. Then she focuses on how Emmanuel overcame obstacles.

Most disabled children in Ghana did not go to school, but Emmanuel’s mother took him. When Emmanuel got too big for his mother to carry, he hopped to school more than two miles in each direction. He learned to play soccer and ride a bike. When he was 13, his mother got too sick to work. Emmanuel left home and traveled 150 miles to get a job. His mother did not want him to go, but he was determined to support his mother and younger brother and sister. He was heartbroken when his mother died, but her dying words helped him realize that he had an important mission.

In 2001, when Emmanuel was 24 years old, he rode a bicycle more than 400 miles across his country. Everywhere he went people came out to greet him and they heard his message: “being disabled does not mean being unable.” Today Emmanuel continues his work to help people with disabilities and he has made a difference. In an author’s note at the back of the book, we learn that in 2006, the Ghanaian Parliament passed the Person’s with Disability Act. It gives people with disabilities the same rights as others.

Emmanuel’s Dream, illustrated by Sean Qualis, was released in January and is already garnering much deserved attention. I was happy Laurie agreed to answer a few questions about the book and her writing.

What led you to choose Emmanuel as the subject for your book?

I first learned about Emmanuel’s story on the Oprah Winfrey Show, and I knew right away that his was a story that needed to be told to children. The way Emmanuel was able to defy society’s expectations of him, lead by example, and change his country’s opinions about people with disabilities was very inspiring to me. Oprah had narrated a documentary about Emmanuel called Emmanuel’s Gift, and she said every parent should take their children to see it, because it would change the way they thought about what they could do and who they could be. Being a children’s book author, I naturally thought a book would be even better!

You have mentioned that you first got interested in Emmanuel in 2005. Emmanuel’s Dream was published this year. Can you tell us about that book’s 10-year journey?

It started out as a chapter in a middle-grade book I was working on about unsung heroes. I had a professional critique from an agent at an SCBWI [Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators] conference, and she told me the concept would never sell, but she really liked the chapter about Emmanuel and wondered if I would try writing it as a picture book for her. I would, of course, but there was just one problem… I had no idea how to write a picture book! I embarked on an intense study of the form, reading literally hundreds of picture books and dissecting them to see what made them work—or not. Eventually, I sent the agent a draft, and she rejected it. By that time, I had fallen in love with picture books, and I wasn’t about to give up on Emmanuel’s story, so I just kept working and getting feedback and revising. This manuscript has been close to 200 words, more than 1800 words, and everything in between! I finally landed an agent and we sent it out on submission. After several near misses, I was starting to wonder if it was ever going to happen. Then, I had an epiphany, and I completely rewrote the manuscript from scratch. That brand-new version sold almost as soon as we sent it out. It went through more revisions from there, though!

Emmanuel’s Dream is your first biography. What did you find most interesting or surprising in researching and writing a biography? Do you hope to do more of that type of writing?

Whenever I’m out in public or watching TV, I’m always wondering: What’s that person’s story? We all have stories, and I think each and every one of them is important and worth sharing. I wish I was more of an extrovert, so I could just walk up to people and ask, “So, what’s YOUR story?” But being an author gives me the perfect excuse to do that, and I’ve been surprised to learn that most people really do want to answer. I definitely hope to do more of this type of writing!

 What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

For a long time, I thought that fiction and nonfiction were two different things, total opposites. When I finally realized that good nonfiction has to have all the basic elements of good fiction—engaging plot, compelling characters, emotional resonance—things started to fall into place.

 What advice do you have for others who would like to write for children?

Read! Study your genre, study similar ideas in completely different genres, study award winners and best-sellers. And don’t just read books—analyze them. Make several passes through them, looking at a different element each time, such as pacing, word choice and language, character development, etc. See if you can figure out what works (or doesn’t). Think about the choices the author (and illustrator and editor and designer) made. Reading isn’t just leisure time if you’re a writer (though it’s still fun!). It’s an important part of your job description, and you should make sure you’re setting aside enough time for it.

WildTP_Books-330[1]It was Reese Witherspoon who drew me to Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Witherspoon produced and stars in the movie based on that book. I like Reese Witherspoon, so I wanted to see the movie, but not until I had read the book. So often the movie is very different than the book and I wanted Strayed’s version of the story before I got the Hollywood version.

Strayed hooked me with a strong opening, and once I started reading, I couldn’t put the book down. Yet the whole time I was reading I wondered what it was that compelled me to continue.

Wild as I’m sure most of you know is the story of a woman who hiked 1,100 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail. Alone. She definitely faced danger during her 90-day trek. There were rattlesnakes and black bears. There was the struggle to keep hydrated hiking in intense heat. Other times she hiked in the snow knowing that even one misstep could send her tumbling off the edge to certain death. But much of the story is about a woman on the Pacific Crest Trail putting one foot ahead of the other day after day. The book does not have the drama of a life and death situation. So it wasn’t the need to know what happened next that kept me reading.

In some ways, I had trouble identifying with Strayed. I understood her need for time alone. As a writer, I need that almost as much as I need coffee. But my idea of alone time is a week at a writing retreat in the mountains, not the isolation of the Pacific Crest Trail.

I also had trouble understanding Strayed’s self-destructive life style, which eventually led her to the Pacific Crest Trail. She tries to explain as she weaves in details about her past. The scenes where she writes about her mother who died way too young, her grief after that loss, and the breakup of her marriage are beautifully written. But I felt a little impatient as I read the scenes about her past. I liked Strayed better on the Pacific Crest Trail where she was starting to pull her life together.

It was hard to read about what the trail was doing to Strayed physically. She goes into great detail about blisters and places on her back and hips that were rubbed raw by the enormous backpack she named Monster. Strayed kept a running tally of the toenails she lost caused by ill-fitting boots. I wanted to turn away from those scenes and I worried that she might never recover from the damage the trail was doing to her body. But I kept reading.

What is the appeal of Strayed’s story? For me, it was the fact that she was a woman alone facing an incredible challenge. I believed that she needed that journey to get her life back on track and I wanted to see her succeed. I continued reading so I could be right there with her at the end.

Does the movie stay true to the book? I haven’t seen the movie yet, but in an interview for the Seattle Times, Strayed said the movie followed the book closely. It was a promise Reese Witherspoon made to Strayed when she optioned the book. There is only one scene that makes Strayed uncomfortable. It shows her having sex with two men in an alley behind the restaurant where she worked as a server. Strayed says that never happened. It was the director’s idea as a way to show how low Strayed fell after her mother’s death.

I came away from the book feeling like I want to do something that will challenge me physically. I don’t know what that will be, but I guarantee it won’t be the Pacific Crest Trail. For now, I’m just looking forward to seeing the movie.

9781426319358[1]National Geographic has just released my latest biography for kids, Alexander Graham Bell. As always, I had a lot of fun doing the research. It would seem to be a reasonable assumption that writing a shorter book for younger readers would take less work, but that’s not the case. I do as much research for books for young readers as I do for biographies for young adults. That’s because finding the details that make the reading interesting for kids requires a lot of digging.

Of course, I end up with way more information than I can use. So the cutting begins. To do that, I try to think like a kid. I’ve learned there are some things about a subject that interest me as an adult, but they don’t mean much to kids. So I work on deleting those sections and focusing on kid-friendly details. It’s sometimes hard to let go of information I’ve worked so hard to find, which explains my need to say a few more things about Bell in this post. Hopefully, some of these tidbits are new to you as they were for me.

Bell was an accomplished pianist. He learned to play as a child and it was something he enjoyed his whole life. He could listen to a song and then sit down and play it. As an adult, he often entertained guests after dinner with his music. He led them in singing well-known folksongs, spirituals, and traditional music of the time. “Sometimes he played into the wee hours,” his grandson Melville Grosvenor recalled, “and we left our doors open so we could dream to his beautiful music.”

Bell hung a painting of an owl in his lab. The painting was a gift from his wife. It was her way of teasing him for his habit of working in his lab long into the night.

Bell was a friend to Helen Keller. He was devoted to helping deaf people learn to communicate, and his reputation as a teacher spread. One day, Helen Keller’s parents brought their six-year-old daughter to see Bell. At that time Keller was an angry, unruly child. Kicking and screaming were her only ways to get what she wanted. Bell saw an intelligent child behind all that frustration and he believed that she could learn to communicate. He suggested her parents contact the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston. That’s where they found a young tutor named Annie Sullivan. The rest, as they say, is history.

Bell and Keller kept in contact. They wrote letters and Keller was a guest in the Bell home many times. When Helen Keller wrote her autobiography, The Story of My Life, she dedicated it to Alexander Graham Bell.

In 1898, Bell became president of the National Geographic Society. His father-in-law Gardiner Hubbard was one of the founders of the National Geographic Society in 1888. After Hubbard’s death the board elected Bell to be president. Bell helped to take the National Geographic Magazine in a new direction. In the early days, the magazine was mainly for subscribers who were primarily scientists. Bell believed that all people were interested in learning more about the world and he wanted the magazine to reach more people. It was his idea to add the photos, illustrations, and maps that the magazine is famous for today.

Bell never stopped inventing. His profits from the telephone made it possible for him to work on projects that interested him. One of those was flight. He built huge kites of various types. His goal was to build one that could safely carry a man. Then he would add an engine. Bell and his four much younger partners achieved some aviation firsts including the first plane to fly more than a half mile in public and the first heavier-than-air flight in Canada.

Another of Bell’s interests was hydrofoil boats, which skimmed across the water as if they were flying just above the surface. He called his boats hydrodomes and his first model was HD-1. But getting his boat to rise up on the water as he wanted was not easy. After nine years of experimenting with different models of his hydrodome, some said the HD stood for “Hope Deferred.” But Bell had a long history of persevering. “There are no unsuccessful experiments,” he said. “Every experiment contains a lesson.” In 1919, his HD-4 model reached a speed of a little over 70 miles an hour. It was a new world speed record, one that wasn’t broken for another ten years. Bell was 72 years old when his boat set that record.

Some of this information made it into the book, but in a much condensed form. On the other hand, the book contains many other details not included here. Choosing kid-friendly details is not a science. It’s more about gut feeling. Hopefully, I’ve picked details that make the book interesting for kids, facts that will make them want to learn even more about Bell.

Meeting the Real Sally Ride

sally-ride-9781476725765_lg[1]I’ve been a long time Sally Ride fan, and even wrote a children’s biography about her several years ago. That book was part of an astronaut series, so it focused on that part of her life. But Ride’s time with NASA spanned only nine years. In Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space, author Lynn Sherr gives readers a look at Ride’s complete life. She writes about Ride’s success as an amateur tennis player. She had toyed with the idea of going pro, but then decided on a career as a physicist, earning a PhD in astrophysics from Stanford University. Just as she was finishing her degree, she saw an announcement in the college newspaper saying that NASA was looking for astronauts including women. She applied along with about 8,000 others, and became one of 35 selected for the 1978 astronaut class.

Sherr met Ride in 1981 when she was covering the shuttle program for ABC news. Ride was one of the astronauts Sherr interviewed and the two women quickly became friends. With Sherr’s knowledge of the shuttle program and her friendship with Ride, she was able to provide interesting details in the book about Ride’s years with NASA.

Ride resigned from NASA in 1987 and returned to academia. She taught physics to university students and published physics papers. But one of her most lasting legacies was the work she did in making science fun for kids, especially girls, through the company she founded, Sally Ride Science. She organized science festivals for students all across the country. Part of Ride’s success with her company came from her ability to explain difficult science concepts in a way young people could understand. She enjoyed talking to kids about her experiences in space, and she co-wrote six children’s books about space.

Sherr skillfully weaves together information from these various areas of Ride’s life, but the most difficult part of her job was piecing together Ride’s personal life. As an astronaut, Ride was one of the most famous women in the world. She remained a public figure although on a smaller scale through Sally Ride Science. But off stage, she was an extremely private person, so private that only her closest friends knew she had enjoyed a long-term relationship with another woman. The rest of us learned about that relationship only after her death from pancreatic cancer in 2012 at age 61. A note in Ride’s obituary listed “Tam O’Shaughnessy, her partner of twenty-seven years” as one of her survivors.

Sherr was also surprised to learn about that relationship even though she and Ride had been friends for many years. It was part of the reason Sherr wanted to write Ride’s biography. She wanted to understand why Ride felt it was so necessary to keep that part of her life secret.

Sherr had full co-operation from Ride’s family and friends when she was writing her book. In fact, it was O’Shaughnessy who first approached Sherr about doing the biography. Sherr interviewed Ride’s mother, her sister, her ex-husband Steven Hawley, and many of Ride’s friends and co-workers. She also had access to Ride’s journals, letters, and files. The result is a book rich with details written in an entertaining style that made it hard for me to put it down once I started reading.

When I think of Sally Ride, the first image that still comes to mind is the one of the bubbly astronaut who compared take-off on her first trip into space to the most exciting rides at Disney World. But her life was so much more. Sherr shows Ride as the type of person who never stopped pushing herself to do great things. Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space made a long-time fan like me admire Ride even more.

A great way to learn to write better is to read and study the work of authors who are doing it well. One of the best in writing biographies for children is Jean Fritz. My interest in her and her writing began with a book called Worlds of Childhood: The Art and Craft of Writing for Children. That book, edited by William Zinsser, began as a series of talks held at The New York Public Library in 1989. The book was published a year later, and it is no surprise that it is still in print. With chapters by well-loved writers including Maurice Sendak, Jack Prelutsky, Rosemary Wells, and Katherine Paterson, there’s a lot of good reading for anyone who writes for children.

I was most interested in Fritz’s chapter, “The Teller and the Tale.” I’ve read it many times over the last 24 years, whenever I need inspiration. When Zinsser’s book was published, Fritz was enjoying much success with the earliest of what have been called her question books. They have titles such as And Then What Happened, Paul Revere? and What’s the Big Idea, Ben Franklin? Those books, published in the 1970s, were a new type of biography. Until then, many biographies for children were fictionalized. It was okay to make up dialogue. Fritz never did. Every quote she uses is one that she has found through primary sources such as letters, journals, and newspapers and other writings of the time.

Earlier biographies were also sanitized showing only the good traits of a person, but Fritz has focused on showing both good and bad traits. Sometimes that’s not easy. Fritz said she struggled to understand how a man as “eccentric” and “rigid” as Stonewall Jackson became a national hero. She “got it” after she was able to see him through the eyes of a general who served with him.

Fritz found what the general had said about Stonewall Jackson because of thorough research. In addition to following the paper trail of a subject, she also reads what the subject’s friends thought about him or her, and she almost always visits the place or places where the subject lived. In doing her research, she looks for details that will make the reading fun for kids. In an interview for Scholastic where kids asked the questions, Fritz said that looking for funny, amazing nuggets of information was her favorite part of writing.

It explains what led to her book Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George? “I couldn’t get over that he was such an oddball kind of man,” she noted. “So many things were funny. For example, after he decided who to marry based on looking at pictures, he made her wedding dress himself. She didn’t know anything about it. At the wedding it kept slipping off her shoulders. When he was crowned that day, they were going to make a big deal and have all the lights light at the same time. But sparks went off and hit everyone and it was a big mess.” I can imagine Fritz’s pleasure in finding such great details and including them in her book.

Even before I discovered Fritz and her books, I knew the importance of writing a strong hook to grab the readers’ attention. It’s one of the first things writers learn. It’s also one of the hardest parts of writing, but Fritz does it well. My favorite opening lines come from her book Bully for You, Teddy Roosevelt – “What did Theodore Roosevelt want to do? Everything. And all at once if possible.” One sentence and a couple of fragments say so much about Roosevelt’s personality. I couldn’t wait to dig in and read more.

I’ve never met Fritz, but I’ve learned a lot about writing biographies from reading her books and her interviews. The hard part is applying what I’ve learned to my own writing. I expect that will take a lifetime of learning, but constantly striving to get better is what makes writing both fun and challenging. Jean Fritz has set the bar high.

I feel like I need a note from my editor to explain my long absence from blogging. But she has better things to do. So you’ll have to take my word for it when I say I’ve been busy writing.

Writing, as with other types of freelance work, often ends up being feast or famine. I send out resumes and writing samples, query magazines, and put together proposals to submit to publishers. Then it seems like almost overnight I go from wondering if I’ll ever work again to having too much to do.

Feasting is better, and the upside to my busyness the last couple of months is that I’ll have some good publishing news to report next year. I haven’t completely finished the projects I’ve been working on yet, but I’m at a place where I’m not rushed anymore and that feels good. It means I have time for other things such as reading and this blog. It also means I need to start developing other ideas if I want to avoid the famine.

So I’m using a method for getting work that has served me well for many years – “The Writers’ Rule of 12.” Basically, it means that I need to have 12 queries or manuscripts circulating at all times. With that many manuscripts “out there,” something is bound to sell. It’s a highly unscientific theory, but it has worked for me.

There are a lot of variations of the rule. Some people use different numbers. Others are okay with sending one manuscript or query to 12 different publishers. But for me, it’s 12 different projects. I think the reason it has helped me is that getting that many ideas “out there” means I’m working at my craft, and that’s what it takes in this business. I already have six projects “out there,” so for the next few weeks I’ll be working on another six and expecting good things to happen.

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