Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

Nelson Mandela

jcover[1]August 5 was the official release date for my book Nelson Mandela. It’s part of National Geographic’s leveled reader series. It was a fun book to write because there is a lot of sidebar information, tidbits scattered throughout the book in the form of quotes from Mandela, “cool facts,” and information about what it was like in South Africa when he was a boy. I love doing the research to find all those kid-friendly details, but of course, getting the facts right often requires help from others and I was happy to get that from the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

They read my book for accuracy especially checking the quotes, which can create a few headaches for a writer. I sometimes find a quote I like and then discover five or six variations of it. It reminds me of that old game telephone. It was a staple at birthday parties when I was a kid. To start, we formed a line. Then the person at the beginning of the line whispered a sentence to the next kid. That continued with each one passing on the message. Of course, each kid heard something a bit different. By the time the last player said the sentence out loud, there was little resemblance to the original message.

It seems to work that way for quotes as well. As they are written down or passed along, a word or two gets changed. The only way to know which version of a quote is correct is to find the original source. So I was grateful to the experts at the Mandela Foundation who have the original quotes on file and are dedicated to making sure that writers get them right.

I was also happy to have Mandela’s writings, particularly his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. Long_Walk_to_Freedom[1]It’s a fascinating look at his childhood, his work as a revolutionary, and his years in prison. I spent several afternoons curled up in a quiet corner of the library reading it. I had to remind myself that I was actually working because it didn’t seem that way. I was enjoying myself way too much to call it work.

mandelaswaylrg[1]Another book I discovered during my research was Mandela’s Way: Fifteen Lessons on Life, Love, and Courage by Richard Stengal. I like being able to look at the subject of a biography through someone else’s eyes, and Stengal’s book gave me that opportunity. He collaborated with Mandela on Long Walk to Freedom. Over a period of almost three years, Stengal spent more than seventy hours interviewing Mandela. He observed Mandela in meetings, traveled with him, and joined him on long walks through the countryside. Stengal kept a diary and he used that information to paint a portrait of a very complex man in Mandela’s Way. The book is arranged so that each chapter highlights a life lesson we can learn from Mandela including his thoughts about courage, leadership, and personal integrity.

In his book, Stengel describes what it was like when he finished working with Mandela on Long Walk to Freedom. “When I left his side when the book was finally completed, it was like the sun going out of my life,” he noted. Millions of people around the world shared that sentiment when Mandela died on December 5, 2013. He had taught us about courage as he bravely fought for equal rights in South Africa and around the world. He spent 27 years in prison because of his beliefs, but he never gave up hope. He taught us to forgive and showed us how to live in peace.

I’m happy I had the opportunity to learn more about Mandela through my research. I’m hoping my book will play at least a small part in introducing a new generation of readers to a great man.

I was invited to speak to a group of teachers about how I choose subjects for biographies. Since I write for children, I said a main goal for me is to present good role models. In my mind, that means writing about people who have faced big obstacles and overcome them. I think it’s important for kids to see that the people they may idolize have not had perfect lives. As I talked about how I choose my subjects, I wondered what criteria other biographers use. So I asked.

bk_romanov_140px[1]Candace Fleming has written about Benjamin Franklin, P.T. Barnum, Mary and Abraham Lincoln, and Amelia Earhart. Her most recent biography is The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia. What draws her to her subjects?

“I don’t write about any subject unless they mystify and intrigue me,” she notes. “I have to be brimming with questions. I have to be eager for answers. I’m drawn to famous historical figures, people we think we already know. That’s because I love teasing something out of the historical record that no one has focused on before, or shining a light on a side of a subject’s personality that has gone overlooked. I’m thrilled when I can discover that Abe Lincoln shuffled around the White House in house slippers because he suffered from sore feet, or that Nicholas Romanov chain-smoked Benson & Hedges cigarettes manufactured just for him, each bearing a golden, imperial insignia – the double-headed eagle. It’s those little details that break down the marble pedestals we so often place our heroes on. It’s the small moments that make them human again. I can’t write about a subject unless I believe I can do just that.”

MP_Book_Cover-210[1]Lois Harris has written three children’s biographies about artists – Mary Cassatt: Impressionist Painter, Charlie Russell: Tale-Telling Cowboy Artist, and Maxfield Parrish: Painter of Magical Make-Believe. In each case it was the subject’s art that drew her to the story.

“For the Cassatt book, I attended the Seattle Art Museum’s 1999 Impressionism exhibit and saw my first original Cassatt oil painting. I was captivated by the way she showed the love between two young sisters. The image stayed in my mind. Three years later when I bought a book of stamps with Cassatt art images, my brain tingled as I looked at her paintings, and I set off for my library to research her life.

“About the time that book was published, I stumbled onto a Charlie Russell painting image,” Harris recalls. “I went to the Charles M. Russell Museum website and viewed more examples of his western art.” His art led her to research his inspiring life and the award-winning book was published three years later.

“During my research for the Russell book, I learned Charlie was impressed by the way Maxfield Parrish used color. I didn’t know much about Parrish but decided to check out his art work. In the Special Collections of the University of Washington’s library, I viewed the 1897 Mother Goose in Prose book by Frank Baum with Maxfield Parrish illustrations. The bold, bright colors looked like they were done yesterday. I was hooked!”

rose_book[1]For best-selling author Kostya Kennedy, one subject led to another. “I first spent time with Pete Rose at a sports memorabilia store inside a Las Vegas mall. He was seated at a table signing autographs (that’s his job) and I sat beside him for about six hours, observing, absorbing and talking with him in the times between customers. It was that day that I got the inspiration for my new book, Pete Rose: An American Dilemma.

“I hadn’t expected this. I’d gone to see Rose for an entirely unrelated reason: I was researching my 2011 book, 56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports. Rose had known and traveled with DiMaggio and he had also had a stirring 44-game hitting streak in the summer of 1978, the longest in the major leagues since DiMaggio’s life-altering 56 in 1941. Those were the things I had come to talk with Rose about, and we did, but during the day he kept steering his way, unsolicited, back to his own life’s plight, to the fact that he was still banished from baseball more than two decades after his expulsion for betting on the game.

“It struck me then, and I wrote it down, that there remains something unsettled about Rose, unreckoned, just as there is something unresolved about how we see him. Along with gathering material for 56, I made notes that day about things that were happening around Rose and things that I felt about him.

“I would fill many other notebooks and learn a great deal over the course of working on Pete Rose: An American Dilemma. But more than once I referred back to that very first notebook, from that day in Las Vegas when I was working on another book entirely and the idea of Pete Rose, the man himself as well as our notion of him, presented itself to me, just like that.”

index[1]Jeri Chase Ferris is attracted to a certain type of subject. “I write about people who made a difference, people who struggled against discrimination and terrible odds without giving up; people who, for a variety of reasons, have not received recognition for what they did. I want to provide that recognition.” She has written about Noah Webster, Harriet Tubman, Matthew Henson, Abigail Adams and someone who may not be familiar to many of us – Biddy Mason.

“While teaching 4th grade California history, I saw a few lines about a slave named Biddy Mason who arrived in California in 1851, became very wealthy in Los Angeles and used her money to help others. This was intriguing, but there were no sources provided for verification. I’d lived in Los Angeles for many years and had never heard of her. Was she a potential subject? History connection – slavery, Mormon Trail, California. Discrimination and terrible odds – slavery, three thousand mile walk, struggle for freedom, illiteracy. Making a difference ­– riches and giving to others. Lack of recognition ­– yes. Excitement and danger factor – yes. So, if I could find primary sources, the ‘true facts,’ as kids say, Biddy Mason would be my next subject.”

There were conflicting stories about how Biddy got to Los Angeles. Then Ferris found the daily journal of the Mormon guide who led Biddy and her slave owner’s family from Mississippi to Salt Lake City in 1848. “This was the breakthrough into primary source heaven,” she recalls. The result is her biography With Open Hands.

9781442488540[1]Sue Macy has written many historical books including biographies of Annie Oakley and Nellie Bly. So I wondered how she happened to write Sally Ride: Life on a Mission, which will be released in September.

“I have to admit that writing a biography about Sally Ride was not my idea. My friend Karen Nagel, an editor at Aladdin, suggested this book a few weeks after Sally died in 2012. I was intrigued. I had written several books about women in the late 19th century, and investigating the life of an iconic woman from my own lifetime really appealed to me. So did the fact that Sally was a tennis champion in her younger days. And the fact that her obituary declared the previously unpublicized information that she was gay. Though lots of biographies were published about Sally after her first space flight in 1983, it was clear that her story needed to be updated. The final factor in my decision to do the book was that I had an amazing friend named Mary Rose Dallal who was fighting pancreatic cancer, the same disease that killed Sally. Mary Rose was a force of nature and I ended up dedicating the book to her memory.”

Biographers find their subjects in a variety of ways. But one thing we have in common is that for each of us there is a spark, or one small detail, that attracts us to a person and makes us want to research and tell that story.

Saving Curious George

imagesCA0D3HI6I don’t remember reading the Curious George books when I was a kid, although they had been published by then. But I did enjoy reading them to my kids, and now I read them to my granddaughter. As much as I like the books, I never knew anything about the author/illustrator team who created them until this summer when an exhibit opened at our history museum. “The True Story of Curious George – The Wartime Escape: Margret and H.A. Rey’s Journey from France” tells about their harrowing flight from Paris during World War II.

Both Margret and Hans (H.A.) Rey were Jewish Germans who grew up in Hamburg. During World War I, Hans served as a soldier in Kaiser Wilhelm’s German army. After Germany lost the war, twenty-year-old Hans returned to Hamburg and studied at a university for a few years. But times were hard in Germany and Hans was restless. He set off for Brazil in search of new opportunities.

Margret, who was eight years younger than Hans, stayed in Germany until Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. Life began to change then, especially for Jewish people. Margret decided it was time to leave. She went to London first and then in 1935 traveled to Rio de Janeiro where she met up with Hans an old family friend. They began working together as graphic artists. They also fell in love and were married in August of that year.

A few months later, they headed off to Europe for a two week honeymoon trip. They found a welcoming community of writers and artists in Paris. Even though they had become citizens of Brazil, they decided to stay in France. That was when they began writing and illustrating books for children.

By 1939, they were having some success with their stories. Several publishers in Paris and one in London were interested in their work, including a story called The Adventures of Fifi. It was about a very curious monkey. Unfortunately, when war broke out in Europe on September 1, all publishing plans were put on hold.

People began leaving Paris, but the Reys stayed. The fighting was in Poland and that seemed far away. The war got much closer on May 10, 1940 when the Nazis crossed into the neutral countries of Holland and Belgium. Life soon became more complicated for Margret and Hans. They spoke French, but with a German accent. Were they German spies? One day, a policeman came to their house to question them. When Hans showed him their manuscripts, the policeman was satisfied that they posed no danger.

With the Nazis advancing, Paris was no longer a safe place for the Reys. They made plans to travel to Portugal where they hoped to get passage to Brazil. From there, they would travel to New York City where Margret’s sister lived. But getting out of France would not be easy.

They needed travel documents including identity cards and visas. Everywhere they went the lines were long. So they waited in one line and then another. Trains were no longer running and they did not have a car. Hans tried to buy bicycles, but there were no more available. So he bought enough spare parts to build two bicycles. Each had two baskets, which they filled with a few clothes, bread and cheese, water, and their manuscripts including The Adventures of Fifi.

It was raining as they peddled out of Paris on June 10. The streets were crowded with bicycles, cars, horses with carts, and people on foot. More than five million people were trying to get out of the city, and they were all were headed in the same direction. It was a noisy exodus with drivers honking their horns trying to speed up traffic. There was also the drone of German scout planes flying overhead.

For three days Margret and Hans peddled taking refuge in the barns of kind farmers for a few hours of sleep. On June 14, 1940, German troops marched into Paris. That same day, Margret and Hans boarded a train in Orléans.

They spent two days and nights on the train arriving in Bayonne on June 16. Because they were citizens of Brazil, they were able to get visas that allowed them to get on another train and cross the border into Spain. Once again, their German accents made them look suspicious. There was a tense moment on the train when an official saw that Hans had a bag stuffed with papers. But when Hans showed the official his manuscript about a curious monkey named Fifi, the official smiled.

They arrived in Lisbon, Portugal on June 23, but once again they had to wait. On July 21, they boarded a steamship for their 13-day voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. In Rio de Janeiro, they had to wait another two months for passage to America. They finally arrived in New York Harbor on October 14, 1940, four months after their journey began.

imagesCAH6Z7SYThe exhibit I visited at our history museum is partly based on The Journey That Saved Curious George, a children’s book written by Louise Borden and illustrated by Allan Drummond. The exhibit includes 27 framed art prints by Drummond with explanations of what he was trying to accomplish with each illustration. It’s a fascinating look into the artist’s mind, but for more details about the lives of Margret and H.A. Rey and their escape from Paris, I recommend the book.

Only a year after the Reys arrived in America, their story about Fifi was published. The name of the curious monkey had been changed to George.

9780062218834[1]Regina Calcaterra’s memoir, Etched in Sand, is a hard book to put down. For one weekend, I let everything else slide until I finished it even though I sometimes felt like I could not bear to read another page. Her story about the abuse she and her four siblings suffered at the hands of their mentally ill mother is heartbreaking to read. But Regina wrote about her childhood in foster care and on the streets of Long Island with unflinching honesty. She made me care about her and her siblings from the start, and I had to keep reading to find out what happened to them.

Cookie, as the children called their mother, self-medicated with alcohol and drugs. Her five children all had different fathers, none of which were in their lives. She often left the children on their own for weeks and even months while she was living with her latest boyfriend. They survived by stealing groceries and clothes and lying about their mother’s whereabouts when authorities checked on them.

Sadly, those were the best times for her children. The physical and mental abuse they suffered when their mother was with them was worse. They moved from one rundown house or apartment to another sometimes living in homeless shelters, trailers, or the back of a station wagon. Occasionally, they were put into foster care, but Cookie always managed to get them back.

The one thing the siblings had was each other, so they vowed to stick together no matter what. But children aren’t meant to be on their own. Eventually, the two oldest sisters moved in with friends. Twelve-year-old Regina was left to care for her younger brother and sister who were 10 and 6. Two years later, she suffered such a severe beating at the hands of her mother that it was impossible to ignore. The promise she had made to take care of her two younger siblings was one she could no longer keep.

The book gives readers a lot to think about such as child abuse, homelessness, poverty, mental illness and the foster care system. Regina notes that there have been changes since she and her siblings were in the foster care system during the 1960s-1980s. However, one thing that hasn’t changed is how the system handles older children. At age 18, they are aged out of the system with little preparation for the future. As a result, many become homeless and the cycle continues. It is why Regina has become a board member of You Gotta Believe, an organization that helps older foster children find forever homes.

The book also has a lot to say about family bonds, positive thinking, and how much even a small act of kindness can mean. Regina found refuge in public libraries and was grateful for the teachers who encouraged her to study hard. They helped her realize that an education was her way out of poverty. Unfortunately, not all of her teachers were helpful. Her second grade teacher introduced Regina to the class by explaining that she was a foster child and wouldn’t be with them long. He effectively ruined any chance Regina had of feeling like she belonged.

Regina said she wrote Etched in Sand because she wanted to empower others who are faced with difficult circumstances. She hopes her story encourages them to never give up and to never stop believing in themselves. Regina, who currently works as a lawyer for the State of New York, is a shining example of how to triumph against impossible odds. She has said that growing up with Cookie made her more compassionate. Hopefully, her memoir will have the same effect on readers. It should be required reading for anyone who works with or cares about children.

The Cherry Sisters

Addie, Jessie, and Effie Cherry

Addie, Jessie, and Effie Cherry

I’ve long been fascinated with the story of the Cherry Sisters, a famous vaudeville act from the late 1800s. I’ve collected information about them over the years, but they still remain a mystery to me.

The five sisters – Addie, Effie, Ella, Lizzie, and Jessie – grew up on a farm near Marion, Iowa. After their mother died, they continued to farm with their father and their brother Nathan. Then in 1885, their father died and Nathan headed off to Chicago never to be heard from again. The sisters were left to manage the farm on their own.

Their show business career began in 1893. They put their act together supposedly to raise money to attend the World’s Fair in Chicago and to search for their brother. Their first performance was in their home town where they rented Daniel’s Opera House at $5 for the night. They planned the show and made all the arrangements including crafting hand-painted signs to advertise it. The price of tickets ranged from 10-30 cents.

On January 21, 1893, three of the sisters – Ella, Effie, and Jessie – took the stage with bright gold hair created with left over sign paint. They sang and Jessie played the harmonica performing for about an hour to a polite audience. They made $250 that night and got the closest they would ever get to a good review. A reporter for the Cedar Rapids Gazette wrote: “The public wanted fun, the public got it; the young ladies wanted money, they got it.”

Their next stop was at Greene’s Opera House in neighboring Cedar Rapids. It was one of the largest theaters between Chicago and Denver and people were used to seeing some top-notch entertainment there. The Cherry Sisters did not fit that bill. This time the Cedar Rapids Gazette published a scathing review which read in part: “If some indefinable instinct of modesty could not have warned them that they were acting the part of monkeys, it does seem like the overshoes thrown at them would have conveyed the idea in a more substantial manner.”

The sisters filed a complaint against the newspaper charging the editor with libel. At the newspaper’s suggestion, a trial was held at the sisters’ next performance. At the trial, the audience greeted the sisters with whistles, horns, and kazoos. It soon got so noisy no one could even hear the performance, but no one appeared to take the proceedings seriously anyway. The judge ruled in favor of the sisters and sentenced the newspaper editor to marry one of them. Both sides agreed not to enforce that ruling.

Newspapers across the country picked up the story of the trial giving the Cherry Sisters free advertising and launching their careers. They began performing at theaters across the state to audiences that hurled cabbages, potatoes, onions, and even tin cans at the stage. In New York City, Oscar Hammerstein heard about the sisters. He was deeply in debt with his Olympia Music Hall on Broadway, and was desperate to find entertainment that would fill the hall. According to reports, he read reviews about the Cherry Sisters and said, “I’ve tried the best – now I’ll try the worst.”

cherry_sisters_drum[1]In 1896, four of the sisters opened at the Olympia Music Hall. Ella stayed home because one sister always had to be there to slop the hogs and milk the cow. They sang music they had written themselves, performed skits, and banged on a large bass drum as they pranced across the stage in their home-made costumes. On opening night, the audience appeared stunned at first. However, it didn’t take them long to find their voices and the jeering began. Still, a reporter for The New York Times described that audience as only “moderately brutal.”

The worst was yet to come as word of the Cherry Sisters and their lack of talent spread. People began coming to the theater to hoot and howl and toss objects at the stage as if they were part of the performance. The sisters sometimes criticized their audiences from the stage. “You don’t know anything,” a sister would say. “You have not been raised well or you would not interrupt a nice, respectable show.” But the rowdiness continued. One newspaper reported that retailers couldn’t keep up with the demand for vegetables that people bought to toss at the stage during the performances.

It seemed that critics were competing to see who could write the nastiest reviews. “Theirs is the worst act ever to make an assault on the musical stage,” one wrote. “They never missed a note, or found one either,” another quipped. But night after night, the Cherry Sisters filled the theater, and Hammerstein, who had booked them for six weeks, was able to pay off his debts.

The Cherry Sisters continued to perform traveling throughout the United States and Canada. Their act came to an end in 1903 when the youngest sister, Jessie, died suddenly while they were on tour in Arkansas.

For a long time, I figured the Cherry Sisters surely realized their performances were a joke, but I pictured them laughing all the way to the bank. Some reports said they made enough money with their act to retire to the farm in luxury. But information I’ve found more recently indicates that they spent much of their earnings on court expenses waging a war against harsh critics, and they eventually lost the farm. That makes me think they never realized how bad their performances were.

So the mystery continues. Were the Cherry Sisters shrewd businesswomen who found a way to make a comfortable living at a time when women did not have many opportunities? Or did they sincerely believe their act was good theater? What do you think?

“The best biographies are those that peek into the heart and soul of their subject,” says Candace Fleming, who has written about people such as Benjamin Franklin, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Amelia Earhart. “They delve deep beneath the surface of ‘fact’ to find the real human story.

9780805083194[1]Of course, the key to finding that “story” is research, and sometimes the biographer needs to be persistent in tracking down details. My favorite example of a persistent researcher is Charles J. Shields, the author of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. Lee, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of To Kill a Mockingbird, was notoriously private and had not given any interviews since 1964. So Shields started his research knowing he would not have her help.

He followed Lee’s paper trail as far as it led, finding archived materials that included newspaper and magazine articles. Knowing that Lee had helped Truman Capote with his research for the book In Cold Blood, Shields went through Capote’s papers at the New York Public Library as well as the papers of Lee’s agent, Annie Laurie Williams.

He also set out to contact people who had known Lee. She had attended Huntingdon College for one year and then went on to the University of Alabama. Shields got their alumna directories and emailed about 200 people who had attended those schools in the mid-1940s when Lee was a student. He used the website to find people who had attended elementary and high school with Lee in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, and contacted them as well. Many of those people were not willing to talk to Shields, and in fact, Harper had asked friends and family members not to cooperate.

It was an interesting problem, but Shields did not get discouraged. “Actually, the obstacles I kept running into made me more determined to deliver a fair, accurate, and comprehensive account of her life,” he noted. The result of his hard work: 50-75 interviews by phone and in person with people who had known Harper Lee.

9781250012180[1]Shields was equally persistent when he wrote his biography And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life. He was able to interview Vonnegut, but finding his personal correspondence was tricky. “He told me he had lost all of his correspondence in a fire in his study,” Shields noted. So Shields tried a different angle. “Over the next three years, every time I spoke to one of his friends – and he had many – I asked whether they had copies of his letters.” His strategy worked and the letters began to arrive. “Sometimes, I received as many as 200 at a time,” Shields recalled.

Researching a biography is an interesting challenge that requires problem-solving abilities and creativity. It also requires persistence, never giving up until the author has found the “story” beneath the facts.


This week, I sent my editor at National Geographic a manuscript for another leveled reader. I always think I’ll give myself a few days off after meeting a big deadline, but that never happens. The pull of starting something new is too strong, especially knowing that the first step will be the research. For me, that’s one of the best parts of writing nonfiction and I can’t wait to get started.

JimIn 1991, before I had written my first book, I attended a week-long writers’ workshop in Bloomington, Illinois. I chose that workshop because one of the instructors was James Cross Giblin. He was a long time editor at Clarion and had also begun writing nonfiction books including biographies. With his experience as both an editor and as an award-winning writer, I knew I could learn a lot from him. I wasn’t disappointed.

One thing he said at that workshop really stuck with me. He said that he always tried to give readers something new. His research was not done until he had found information that had not been included in other books about a subject. It’s advice I try to follow.

Sometimes, that’s easy. When I wrote my biography about George Washington Carver I had access to so much primary source material that finding new details was not hard at all. But my job became much more difficult when I wrote about Oprah Winfrey.

That book was part of a series for third and fourth graders about people who had overcome great odds in achieving success and then gave back. I didn’t include Oprah in my original proposal, but my publisher wanted her in the series. I agreed that she certainly belonged in such a series, but there had been so many books about her already. I worried about how I would ever find anything new. The answer came when I focused on the theme of the series and began looking for stories to show how she had helped others. That was when I found an anecdote showing that she had already begun helping others when she was in elementary school. As a third grader, she heard about starving children in Costa Rica. She responded by collecting money on the playground for them.

Sometimes finding new information means getting creative with the research. I was discouraged with progress on my biography about Mahalia Jackson because I wasn’t finding anything new. I told myself that my book was different because while others focused on her gospel singing, I was including information about her fight for civil rights. Even so, I still didn’t feel like I was bringing something new to the table.

Then I came up with the idea of looking at her through the eyes of others. I knew she had been friends with author Studs Terkel, so I decided to research him. I learned that he had interviewed her a couple of times, and I located those interviews. They gave me some great quotes that had not been included in other biographies about Mahalia, and it made me feel that I had done my job.

It’s been more than 20 years since I attended the conference in Bloomington where James Cross Giblin talked about giving readers something new. But it’s advice I still think about every time I research a biography. Trying to bring something new to the table is a challenge, and I’m not sure I’m always successful. But it definitely makes the research interesting, and I hope the extra effort shows in the final result.

What about you? What advice have you been given that is still guiding your work or your personal life even many years later?


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 25 other followers