Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

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.

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.


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