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. 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.
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.