Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

Archive for July, 2014

How Biographers Choose Their Subjects

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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