Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

Sonia Sotomayor

Sonia SotomayorSonia Sotomayor, my latest leveled reader for National Geographic, was released this week. Celebrating the release of a book is a great way to start the New Year. I was even more excited last week when the Children’s Book Council (CBC) included the book on their “Hot Off the Press” list.

A biography about Sotomayor was a perfect project for me because I like to write about strong women who make good role models for girls. Sotomayor certainly fills that requirement. Of course, her road to becoming the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice was not easy. That was another thing about her that appealed to me. I think it’s important for kids to see that problems are part of everyone’s life, and that the people they admire overcame many hurdles on their road to success.

Sotomayor has faced many obstacles beginning when she was very young.  She was born in New York City, but her parents were from Puerto Rico and her father did not speak English. Because of that the family spoke Spanish at home. The fact that Sotomayor did not speak English on a regular basis made school difficult for her, but she overcame that to become a top student.

Another obstacle was that she was diagnosed with diabetes just before her eighth birthday. It meant she would need a shot of insulin every day for the rest of her life. Sotomayor faced that diagnosis with the same kind of courage she has shown throughout her life. Her parents sometimes argued about who would give their daughter her shots. Sotomayor didn’t want them arguing about her, so she learned to give the shots to herself.

Sotomayor was awarded a scholarship to Princeton, but felt very out of place there at first. At that time Princeton had few women and even fewer students of Hispanic descent, but that did not hold her back. As a senior Sotomayor won one of the university’s highest honors, the M. Taylor Pyne Prize. She also worked with other students to bring more Hispanic students and teachers to Princeton.

Sotomayor has dealt with obstacles in her life by working hard and not being afraid to ask for help. I’m hoping that’s something young readers will take from the book. However I try hard not to hit them over the head with a message because I want the book to be fun to read. Sotomayor made that easy too because she is certainly not all work and no play. So the book includes details such as the fact that Sotomayor was the first Supreme Court justice to flip the switch to drop the crystal ball in Time’s Square on New Year’s Eve and that she is a life-long Yankees fan.

As a kid, I loved to read biographies about people who overcame obstacles and succeeded. Now I like writing that kind of book. So I’m hard at work on my next leveled biography about someone who had tremendous success and many failures.

Ali WentworthI admit that part of my interest in Ali Wentworth’s memoir Happily Ali After was the fact that she is married to George Stephanopoulos. I’ve often wondered about that partnership. As an outsider judging from what I’ve seen of them on TV, they seem totally different. First there is George, who chooses his words so carefully. Then there is Ali. The few times I’ve seen her on various talk shows, I felt like there was no way of anticipating what would come out of her mouth. Almost anything seemed possible.

It turns out that my judging the relationship of two people I don’t even know was playing right into Chapter 4 of Ali’s book. All of the chapters begin with a quote. Chapter 4 starts with this one by Walt Whitman: “Be curious, not judgmental.” It seems that Ali, like me, has been guilty of judging someone from what she saw on TV and on the Internet. In her case it was Kendall Jenner, but when their paths actually crossed, Kendall surprised Ali.

I don’t expect I’ll ever meet Ali, but reading her book has helped me see her in a different light. There have been times when I watched her on TV and felt like I just did not “get” her humor, but her book is laugh out loud funny. I started it thinking I would read one chapter at the end of each day. It would be my reward for having a productive day even if the day was not as productive as I had hoped. After a couple of chapters, I was rewarding myself with three chapters a day. By that time, I was hooked. I ditched my rewards system altogether and just sat down and finished the book.

I enjoyed Ali’s humor, but I was also impressed with her insights into situations I had also experienced. As I read her thoughts about exercising, aging, and family, I realized that I actually had some things in common with her. I especially appreciated what she wrote about Ali McGraw’s famous line from Love Story: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” I’ve always felt that is the worst line ever. In my world, love requires lots of apologies. I was happy to learn that someone else feels the same way.

I also liked the chapters where Ali wrote about her husband. I’m sticking with my first impression that they are very different, but I no longer wonder how they manage to stay married. Ali uses some great anecdotal information that clearly shows they care about each other and appreciate their differences.

There are some sections of the book that fall into the category of too much information for my comfort zone, but I give Ali props for being honest. I didn’t read her first book, Ali in Wonderland, but I plan to rectify that.

In my previous post, I wrote about workshopping my first picture book biography at a writing retreat. Since then, I’ve rewritten the book so many times I’ve lost count.

There are many things I think about when I’m revising. Do I have a strong start? Is the ending satisfying? Have I weaved in sensory details that will make readers feel like they are right there with the subject of my biography? Have I included anecdotes to make the writing entertaining and used strong action verbs?

I had worked on all those things over and over again, but it wasn’t enough. When I read the manuscript out loud, I stumbled over the words in two paragraphs that weren’t working. In a picture book where every word is so important, two paragraphs is a lot. In one paragraph, it was a problem with transition. There was something missing, a question that needed answering. But answering it required too much explaining, telling instead of showing. I couldn’t pinpoint the problem with the other paragraph. I just knew it wasn’t right.

I set the manuscript aside for a few days and worked on other things. When I went back to it, I made minor changes, but those two paragraphs continued to taunt me. Then, as I was pouring yet another cup of coffee, my own good writing advice popped into my head – move it or lose it.

Time and again I’ve discovered that if something isn’t working in a manuscript, it’s for one of two reasons. Either the information is not in the right place or it needs to be deleted.

In the case of my picture book, it was one of each. The paragraph where the transition wasn’t working was easily fixed by moving one sentence up to an earlier paragraph. It fit much better there and it made a smooth transition into the next paragraph. As for the other troublesome paragraph, I simply deleted it.

Move it or lose it. It’s writing advice I’ve come back to many times. So why does it take me so long to realize it’s what I need to do? That’s something I can’t explain. I suspect that stubbornness plays a role, at least in the losing it part. I always think that the section I need to delete is the cleverest thing I’ve ever written. Of course, that’s not the case. I don’t miss the paragraph I deleted from my picture book at all. In fact, I hardly remember it was ever there.

I’m ready to submit my picture book to publishers now. I know that because even though I continue to pick at the manuscript, I realize that I’m making changes but not improvements. I’m satisfied that at this point I’ve done the best I can do. So I’m sending it off. Fingers crossed.

Trying Something New

The winners of the giveaway for my two latest books, Pope Francis and Cleopatra, are Kathy Young and Karla McMurrin. It’s the first time I’ve done a book giveaway. It’s part of a master plan to push myself to try new things, and I do need to push myself to do that. Being adventurous is not something that comes naturally to me. I’m more inclined to stick with the tried and true, which unfortunately is very limiting.

It’s that try-new-things attitude that has led me to writing my first picture book biography. I didn’t set out to experiment, but I had an idea for a biography and it seemed to me that it would work best as a picture book. So I began.

Of course, trying new things means there is a learning curve. I started by becoming a frequent visitor in the biography section of the children’s room at our library. I brought home armloads of picture books to study their style. I also typed out many of them because it helped me see how the writing flowed and how the books looked in manuscript form. Then I wrote my picture book.

After several rewrites, I had the storyline in place, but the writing was lacking. It didn’t have the “spark” of a typical picture book. It was obvious that I needed help. That’s what led me to sign up for the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) retreat that I attended a couple of weeks ago. I chose that particular retreat for three reasons.

First, the format allowed attendees to get feedback from speakers and peers on three different manuscripts. That was a lot of bang for my buck. I shared the first two chapters of a young adult biography, an article, and my picture book.

Another reason I chose that retreat was because of the speakers, which included Susan Campbell Bartoletti. She writes both fiction and nonfiction and her nonfiction has won awards that I can only dream about. Susan critiqued the chapters from my young adult biography. What I learned from her was that I am rushing the story. I need to bring in more details. That includes details that will give readers a sense of “place.” The subject of my biography grew up in Harlem in the 1940s, so I’ll be doing research to learn more about what Harlem was like then.

In one of Susan’s presentations, she talked about how she uses poetry to generate ideas. She also uses poetry to make the writing more lyrical. The poems don’t actually go into the final manuscript, but they help her find ways to make the writing flow better. That is something my picture book needs, so I’m trying to write some poems. The good news is that those poems are just for me. No one else will see them.

Another reason I chose the retreat is because it had some nice offerings for nonfiction writers. That’s kind of rare for conferences and retreats, which tend to focus more on fiction and picture books. I understand why. More people are interested in those types of writing and conferences and retreats need to appeal to a large group of people. So when I found a retreat that had good nonfiction sessions, I needed to get on board.

My critique from Susan Campbell Bartoletti was one of those nonfiction opportunities. Another was a Saturday afternoon workshop. We broke into groups where we read our manuscripts and got suggestions for improvement. I was in a picture book group which included both fiction and nonfiction writers and their comments were very helpful.

Finally, there was a Sunday morning presentation on writing nonfiction picture books. It sounded specially made for me. The speaker was Stacey Friedberg, an assistant editor at Dial Books for Young Readers, and she knew her stuff. My only regret is that I couldn’t take notes fast enough to get it all down.

It was a great retreat and I came home eager to challenge myself as a writer. First up, I’ll be focusing on my picture book getting it ready to submit to editors. I don’t know if I’ll be able to find a publisher for it, but as Susan Campbell Bartoletti said, “No writing is wasted.” I know that’s true with the work I’ve done on my picture book. I’ve definitely learned a lot from trying something new, and if it doesn’t sell as a picture book, I’ll be able to use my research to write about the subject in a different format. In the meantime, I’ll be looking for more conferences and retreats that have a nonfiction element. If you know of any, let me know.

Celebrating Two New Books

CleopatraNational Geographic has released my two latest biographies for kids – Cleopatra and Pope Francis. I wrote Cleopatra before I started Pope Francis, but as Cleopatra went into production, there were times when the books overlapped. One day I would be making changes to the biography about Cleopatra, the richest woman in the world at that time, and the next day I would be writing about Pope Francis who has always lived simply. Writing about two so different people was fun and I couldn’t wait to get to my computer each day.

Cleopatra presented a special challenge. After more than 2,000 years, she is still one of the best known women in history. Even so, when I began my research, the first thing I learned was that we actually know very little about her. Turns out that many of the wonderful stories I have heard and read about Cleopatra are legend, not fact.

That was a problem. I wanted kids to know the true story, but how could I tell an interesting story when there were so few facts available? The answer I decided was to be very upfront with readers. So I began the book by mentioning a few things we do know about Cleopatra and then noted that much of her life remains a mystery. I included the stories I had read about her, but used the words “legend says” to indicate those that may or may not be true. I was glad my editors at National Geographic agreed with that approach. Everyone who worked on the book kept that goal in mind including Patrick Faricy, the illustrator who created the beautiful cover for the book.

I’ve always pictured Cleopatra as Elizabeth Taylor in the movie, but the artwork in the book shows a variety of interpretations of what Cleopatra may have looked like. They include a couple paintings of her as a blonde. As it turns out, the Elizabeth Taylor version of Cleopatra may be the most unlikely portrait. Cleopatra was the queen of Egypt, but she was not Egyptian. Her family came from Greece. The book cover illustration of Cleopatra shows how she may have looked when she was 18 and the new queen of Egypt. In that image, she has Greek features rather than Egyptian.

9781426322532[1]I was well into writing the Pope Francis biography when he announced his plans to visit the United States. Somehow that made working on the book even more exciting. Many of my recent books have been about people in history, but with Pope Francis I was writing about someone who was making history. I’m hoping my book will help kids learn more about the person who is creating such excitement with his visit to this country.519hB22MV4L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_[1]

National Geographic released two editions of Pope Francis. One is written in English and the other in Spanish, Papa Francisco. Having a book released simultaneously in two different languages marks a first for me.

I’m celebrating the release of these books by giving away a copy of each one, Cleopatra and the English version of Pope Francis. To be entered in a random drawing, just leave a comment below. I’ll draw two names on October 16, one for each book, and then will contact the winners to get mailing addresses. Good luck!

Excuses, Excuses

freeimages.com/Cecile Graat

freeimages.com/Cecile Graat

I haven’t blogged for the last few weeks and there are a couple of reasons, or excuses, for that. The first excuse is a happy one. My husband and I are moving into a condo. After 43 years in our home, moving is a big step, but a good one. We’re happy with the condo and our new neighborhood. However, during all those years in our home, we managed to do a lot of accumulating. So although we’re enjoying our condo, we’re still sorting and getting our home ready to sell. That is why my second reason for not blogging lately came at such a bad time. A couple of weeks ago, I fell causing a small fracture in the cap of the bone going into my shoulder.

The accident wasn’t related to moving. It was caused by my own negligence in leaving things lay. Yes, it’s exactly what I used to warn our kids about doing. Obviously, I didn’t listen to my own advice, and I paid the price by tripping over my own clutter.

As fractures go, my doctor assures me that it is in a good spot and there is minimal displacement. So my arm should heal quickly. I just need to wear a sling to immobilize the arm and let the fracture heal naturally. However, it’s hard to type and spending a lot of time at the computer is painful, so I’m not getting a lot of writing done. Even writing with pen and paper is hard because the fracture is in my left arm and I’m left-handed. Hopefully, I’ll only be away from the computer for a couple more weeks. At that time, I’ll have some great writing news to share. So stay tuned…

A Writer’s Journal

doc067I’m celebrating an anniversary of sorts. It was at this time 36 years ago that I started journaling. I’ve made entries most days ever since. There were previous attempts at journaling, but I always gave up after a few weeks. So how is it that I’ve stuck with journaling for 36 years after so many failed starts?

The difference is that the journaling I do now is something that is useful to me. I do some writing about what’s happening in my life, but the main purpose of my journal is to keep my writing career on track. How does that work?

First, my journal serves as a storehouse for future writing projects. Whenever ideas come to me, I write them down in my journal. A look at only a few of the many notebooks I’ve filled over the years assures me that I’ll never run out of ideas.

My journals are also filled with ideas for improving my writing. Entries include tips from other authors that I’ve come across in my reading or picked up at writers’ conferences. There are also notes about biographies I’m reading – what I like about them and what I feel doesn’t work.

I write about the critiques I’ve gotten from my writers’ group and the changes editors want me to make. Accepting criticism is hard. I admit that sometimes those entries are a way to let off a little steam before I come around to accepting that their suggestions will make the writing better.

Journaling also helps me solve problems with my writing. As a beginning writer, I thought all I needed was a great idea. With the right topic, when I sat down to write the words would flow easily. I quickly learned it doesn’t work that way. There are days when everything is going well, but there are other times when the writing just isn’t coming together. So I journal about the problems I’m having. Putting those thoughts on paper helps. I’m amazed at how many times a solution to a problem comes to me before I’ve reached the end of the journal entry. Putting my thoughts on paper is a way of letting go and trusting that a solution will come.

I also journal about my writing goals. Reminding myself of what is important to me helps me make good decisions about what assignments I accept. If I take an assignment will I still have time to work on my own ideas?

Finally, journaling helps me plan my writing time. Like most writers, I’m often juggling more than one project and I worry about getting it all done without missing deadlines. So I journal. I put down on paper what needs to be done first and figure out a schedule for any other projects. Once I’ve scheduled everything, I can relax and focus on the work at hand. Of course, carefully laid plans sometimes fall apart. A project may take longer than I expected or something comes up. When that happens, I work out a new schedule during my next journaling session.

My journals are not fancy. I just use spiral notebooks. During back to school sales, I buy a supply to last a year. Each time I fill a notebook, I put a label on the front showing the date I started writing in that one and the day I finished. Then I file it away to read again when I’m looking for new ideas or writing encouragement. Because the best part of journaling is that it helps me see progress with my writing, and for me, there’s no better encouragement.

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