Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

Archive for February, 2015

An Interview with Laurie Ann Thompson Author of “Emmanuel’s Dream”

cover[1]Laurie Ann Thompson writes to inspire and empower young people. She has done that well with her picture book biography Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah. Emmanuel is an inspiration for people of all ages, and his achievements are a testament to what one person can do to change the world.

Emmanuel was born with a deformed right leg. In his homeland of Ghana, West Africa, he was not expected to accomplish much, but his mother wanted him to have a good life. She taught Emmanuel that he could do what he wanted and that he needed to learn to do things for himself. Laurie handles all of that background information eloquently in only a few words in the opening pages. Then she focuses on how Emmanuel overcame obstacles.

Most disabled children in Ghana did not go to school, but Emmanuel’s mother took him. When Emmanuel got too big for his mother to carry, he hopped to school more than two miles in each direction. He learned to play soccer and ride a bike. When he was 13, his mother got too sick to work. Emmanuel left home and traveled 150 miles to get a job. His mother did not want him to go, but he was determined to support his mother and younger brother and sister. He was heartbroken when his mother died, but her dying words helped him realize that he had an important mission.

In 2001, when Emmanuel was 24 years old, he rode a bicycle more than 400 miles across his country. Everywhere he went people came out to greet him and they heard his message: “being disabled does not mean being unable.” Today Emmanuel continues his work to help people with disabilities and he has made a difference. In an author’s note at the back of the book, we learn that in 2006, the Ghanaian Parliament passed the Person’s with Disability Act. It gives people with disabilities the same rights as others.

Emmanuel’s Dream, illustrated by Sean Qualis, was released in January and is already garnering much deserved attention. I was happy Laurie agreed to answer a few questions about the book and her writing.

What led you to choose Emmanuel as the subject for your book?

I first learned about Emmanuel’s story on the Oprah Winfrey Show, and I knew right away that his was a story that needed to be told to children. The way Emmanuel was able to defy society’s expectations of him, lead by example, and change his country’s opinions about people with disabilities was very inspiring to me. Oprah had narrated a documentary about Emmanuel called Emmanuel’s Gift, and she said every parent should take their children to see it, because it would change the way they thought about what they could do and who they could be. Being a children’s book author, I naturally thought a book would be even better!

You have mentioned that you first got interested in Emmanuel in 2005. Emmanuel’s Dream was published this year. Can you tell us about that book’s 10-year journey?

It started out as a chapter in a middle-grade book I was working on about unsung heroes. I had a professional critique from an agent at an SCBWI [Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators] conference, and she told me the concept would never sell, but she really liked the chapter about Emmanuel and wondered if I would try writing it as a picture book for her. I would, of course, but there was just one problem… I had no idea how to write a picture book! I embarked on an intense study of the form, reading literally hundreds of picture books and dissecting them to see what made them work—or not. Eventually, I sent the agent a draft, and she rejected it. By that time, I had fallen in love with picture books, and I wasn’t about to give up on Emmanuel’s story, so I just kept working and getting feedback and revising. This manuscript has been close to 200 words, more than 1800 words, and everything in between! I finally landed an agent and we sent it out on submission. After several near misses, I was starting to wonder if it was ever going to happen. Then, I had an epiphany, and I completely rewrote the manuscript from scratch. That brand-new version sold almost as soon as we sent it out. It went through more revisions from there, though!

Emmanuel’s Dream is your first biography. What did you find most interesting or surprising in researching and writing a biography? Do you hope to do more of that type of writing?

Whenever I’m out in public or watching TV, I’m always wondering: What’s that person’s story? We all have stories, and I think each and every one of them is important and worth sharing. I wish I was more of an extrovert, so I could just walk up to people and ask, “So, what’s YOUR story?” But being an author gives me the perfect excuse to do that, and I’ve been surprised to learn that most people really do want to answer. I definitely hope to do more of this type of writing!

 What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

For a long time, I thought that fiction and nonfiction were two different things, total opposites. When I finally realized that good nonfiction has to have all the basic elements of good fiction—engaging plot, compelling characters, emotional resonance—things started to fall into place.

 What advice do you have for others who would like to write for children?

Read! Study your genre, study similar ideas in completely different genres, study award winners and best-sellers. And don’t just read books—analyze them. Make several passes through them, looking at a different element each time, such as pacing, word choice and language, character development, etc. See if you can figure out what works (or doesn’t). Think about the choices the author (and illustrator and editor and designer) made. Reading isn’t just leisure time if you’re a writer (though it’s still fun!). It’s an important part of your job description, and you should make sure you’re setting aside enough time for it.

“Wild,” a Memoir by Cheryl Strayed

WildTP_Books-330[1]It was Reese Witherspoon who drew me to Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Witherspoon produced and stars in the movie based on that book. I like Reese Witherspoon, so I wanted to see the movie, but not until I had read the book. So often the movie is very different than the book and I wanted Strayed’s version of the story before I got the Hollywood version.

Strayed hooked me with a strong opening, and once I started reading, I couldn’t put the book down. Yet the whole time I was reading I wondered what it was that compelled me to continue.

Wild as I’m sure most of you know is the story of a woman who hiked 1,100 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail. Alone. She definitely faced danger during her 90-day trek. There were rattlesnakes and black bears. There was the struggle to keep hydrated hiking in intense heat. Other times she hiked in the snow knowing that even one misstep could send her tumbling off the edge to certain death. But much of the story is about a woman on the Pacific Crest Trail putting one foot ahead of the other day after day. The book does not have the drama of a life and death situation. So it wasn’t the need to know what happened next that kept me reading.

In some ways, I had trouble identifying with Strayed. I understood her need for time alone. As a writer, I need that almost as much as I need coffee. But my idea of alone time is a week at a writing retreat in the mountains, not the isolation of the Pacific Crest Trail.

I also had trouble understanding Strayed’s self-destructive life style, which eventually led her to the Pacific Crest Trail. She tries to explain as she weaves in details about her past. The scenes where she writes about her mother who died way too young, her grief after that loss, and the breakup of her marriage are beautifully written. But I felt a little impatient as I read the scenes about her past. I liked Strayed better on the Pacific Crest Trail where she was starting to pull her life together.

It was hard to read about what the trail was doing to Strayed physically. She goes into great detail about blisters and places on her back and hips that were rubbed raw by the enormous backpack she named Monster. Strayed kept a running tally of the toenails she lost caused by ill-fitting boots. I wanted to turn away from those scenes and I worried that she might never recover from the damage the trail was doing to her body. But I kept reading.

What is the appeal of Strayed’s story? For me, it was the fact that she was a woman alone facing an incredible challenge. I believed that she needed that journey to get her life back on track and I wanted to see her succeed. I continued reading so I could be right there with her at the end.

Does the movie stay true to the book? I haven’t seen the movie yet, but in an interview for the Seattle Times, Strayed said the movie followed the book closely. It was a promise Reese Witherspoon made to Strayed when she optioned the book. There is only one scene that makes Strayed uncomfortable. It shows her having sex with two men in an alley behind the restaurant where she worked as a server. Strayed says that never happened. It was the director’s idea as a way to show how low Strayed fell after her mother’s death.

I came away from the book feeling like I want to do something that will challenge me physically. I don’t know what that will be, but I guarantee it won’t be the Pacific Crest Trail. For now, I’m just looking forward to seeing the movie.

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