One of my favorite biography series for children is celebrating a milestone next month. On May 19, Grosset & Dunlap will be releasing its 100th book in the “Who Was?” series. The subject of that book, chosen by fans of the series, is Steve Irwin. It’s easy to see why the “Who Was?” books have been so successful. They have great kid appeal beginning with the caricature of each subject on the cover and continuing with lively writing and engaging illustrations.
Dana Meachen Rau is the author of three of the books in that series, including Who Was Harriet Beecher Stowe? which was released this month. Dana’s Who Was Gandhi? was published in November, 2014, and is the #1 best seller in children’s Asian history on Amazon. Who Was Marie Antoinette? will be released in October.
The “Who Was?” series was my introduction to Dana, but I soon learned that her resume goes well beyond those biographies. She has written more than 325 books for children including both fiction and nonfiction. She is also in the process of getting her Master’s in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA). She will be graduating in July. Dana obviously has a full schedule and I am grateful that she agreed to take time to answer a few questions for this blog.
How did you get started as a writer?
I always knew I wanted to do something creative in life—I was one of those kids who had piles of art supplies, lots of blank paper, and busy hands. By college, I determined that I would either be a writer or an artist. So I majored in creative writing and art history. Right out of school, I got a job as an editorial assistant at a small children’s publisher, wrote some for them, got a job at a larger publisher, wrote some for them as well, and then went freelance when my son was born 16 years ago. I’ve been writing ever since.
What is a typical writing day like for you?
I’m a morning person—that’s the time my mind has the most clarity and I feel the most creative. On an ideal day, I wake up at 5:30 and take an hour to answer emails and clear the decks. Then after my kids are up and out the door for school, I sit down to write. Lots of activities fall under that large umbrella of “writing.” I might be doing research, drafting a scene, pondering over a single sentence. I might even be drawing maps or collecting pictures to help me visualize what I’m trying to capture in words. I’m usually ready for a stretch around 11:00, when I take time to exercise, make calls, have lunch. Then it’s back at my desk until I become a chauffeur for the kids after school. I’m totally spent by the evening—can’t get a creative thought to surface after dinner.
Since Grosset does not take unsolicited manuscripts, how did you establish a relationship with them?
Fate and luck! Back in 1999, my husband and I wrote a biography together on George Lucas. I loved that book, but it never made a huge impact and I believe it’s out of print. Zoom forward to 2013 when I received a call out of the blue from Grosset. The editor had read that book and thought my writing style would be a good fit for their Who Was? series. I was beyond thrilled! It is such a fun, kid-friendly, and recognizable line of books. Lesson learned: You never know when you’re scattering seeds. They will pop up and bear fruit when you don’t expect it, so take advantage of every writing opportunity!
What do you enjoy about writing biographies?
Biographies, unlike other kinds of nonfiction, are focused first and foremost on character—a real character that has his or her own experiences and ideas, not ones that I can create myself (as in fiction). I may already know the major milestones of a person’s achievements, but in the process of researching those, I get to dig in and discover the person. What makes him or her tick? What leads her towards greatness? What are his weaknesses? What challenges did he or she have to overcome? How were they shaped by their circumstances to achieve what makes them significant and memorable?
What do you find most challenging in researching and writing biographies?
I’m always eager to start writing, but with biographies, obviously, research comes first. I have to make sure I stay in the research zone long enough. There can never be too much research, of course, but there is a saturation level. The challenge for me is determining the point when I can switch gears from amassing information to pulling it all together in my own words. I don’t only research the information on a subject, but also the variety of ways other biographers have approached it. I want my approach to be unique and not just mimic the “usual” timeline of a subject’s life. I know I’m ready to switch from research to writing when I’ve discovered the spine/storyline/thread that’s going to run through the center of my text—the approach that is unique to my voice and style.
What is the best writing advice you’ve received?
“You are not your character’s mother.” Our job as writers is not to protect our characters, and I think this applies to both fiction and biographies. It’s okay to show characters suffering. In fact, the more obstacles they have to overcome, the more problems we toss in their path, the more hope they lose, all makes for a more satisfying ending and feeling of triumph.
What advice do you have for others who would like to write for children?
Don’t write what you think is needed in the marketplace, what’s “hot” at the moment, or what you think an editor will like. Write what you are meant to write. What do you feel passionate about? What stories speak to your core? What do you need to share with the world?
However, also remember it’s not all about you—the author. When you create a work of writing, it becomes something other than yourself. It’s about the characters and their story. The author becomes invisible. Your job is to give them a stage to tell their story while you support them in the wings.