Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

Archive for June, 2016

Picture Book Biographies That Stand Out From the Crowd

People often tell me they wish there were more biographies for children about people who are not well-known. I know what they mean. I sometimes read about someone not so famous and think about how much fun it would be to introduce kids to that person. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find publishers for books about people who are not widely known.

I understand why. Publishers are in the business of selling books. Obviously, a biography about a well-known person will appeal to a larger audience than one about someone many people do not know. That presents an interesting problem for writers. How do they make their book stand out from the dozens, and in some cases, hundreds of books already out there about a particular person?

That’s not too hard with the leveled biographies I’ve been writing for National Geographic. Those books are part of a series and they have special features that make the books different from others about the same subjects. One of those features is the “Cool Facts” spread which offers opportunities to bring in fun tidbits about the subject. With the “In His [or Her] Time” section, kids can learn about what it was like when the subject was young.

Lincoln Tells a JokeThe style of the National Geographic readers helps me, but what about other writers who don’t have that framework? For them, the problem of making their book stand out becomes harder, but not impossible. The key is to find a unique point of view. That’s what Kathleen Krull and Paul Brewer did with their book, Lincoln Tells a Joke: How Laughter Saved the President (And the Country).

With all the books written about Lincoln, I didn’t think it was possible to say anything new about him. But the authors did it by focusing on Lincoln’s sense of humor. Many children’s books make the fact that Lincoln lived in a log cabin sound glamorous, but Krull and Brewer show the dirt floors and the beds that were actually piles of cornhusks. In the winter, snow blew through cracks in the wall. Lincoln’s mother died when he was nine and Lincoln had to help build her coffin. His childhood was hard, and he certainly had reason to be grim, but instead he turned to laughter. On Sundays, he and his friends escaped to the woods where Lincoln stood on a tree stump and read to his friends from a book called Quinn’s Jests.

Krull and Brewer’s book continues in that vein showing the challenges Lincoln faced and how he eased the pain with laughter. The authors include many of the jokes Lincoln told noting that he often laughed harder than anyone at those jokes. The illustrations by Stacy Innerst also provide humor. The one of Lincoln’s desk with the teetering stack of papers needing his attention is one of my favorites.

inventors-secret-cvr_largeSuzanne Slade wrote about two famous people in her book, The Inventor’s Secret: What Thomas Edison Told Henry Ford. I’ve read Slade’s book many times and I’m still amazed at all the great details she included about both Edison and Ford in such a limited number of words. At first, she focuses on one at a time. There is a spread with some fun details about Edison as a boy. It is followed by a spread about Ford’s early years. Slade gives details about Edison’s early inventions. Then the focus switches to Ford and his dream of creating “a car hardworking families could afford.”

As Ford struggles with creating his car, he hears about Edison’s successful inventions. What’s his secret? Ford wonders. His determination to find the answer to that question drives the story forward. It’s a fun, fast-paced story that proves it is possible to write something new about a subject even though it seems like everything has already been said. It just takes a unique point of view.

Of course it’s also possible to find a publisher for a biography for children about a not-so-famous person. I’ll have some thoughts about that in my next post.

The New Face of Rejection

Rejection-754834[1]I saw an interview with James Patterson recently where he said he got 31 rejections with his first book. Of course, numbers like that are meant to be an encouragement to those of us who are racking up rejections. But the interview also made me think about how much publishing has changed.

Gone are the days when authors can joke about having enough rejection letters to wallpaper their offices. Part of that change is because these days many publishers don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. They only take submissions from agents. Also, many of the publishers who do accept submissions have a policy of replying only if interested. That can be discouraging for writers.

Fortunately, I’ve been able to avoid some of that frustration because much of my work is for educational publishers and they operate a little differently. Those publishers know what they want, and they are looking for people to write the books they need. It means I start a project knowing that it is something a publisher wants. There is no stress about spending a lot of time on a project and then not being able to find a publisher for it. Also, if you do a good job for an educational publisher, there’s a good chance you’ll get future assignments. With today’s publishing climate, it’s nice to have those relationships with educational publishers.

Of course, I also have ideas, such the picture book biography I’m working on, which don’t fit the needs of educational publishers. And so I’m collecting rejections. So far, I’ve sent my picture book to an agent and four publishers. The agent, who I had met at writers’ conference, said the manuscript wasn’t competitive in today’s market. But she gave me some good tips for improving it. That kind of personalized attention is rare these days and I appreciated it.

As for the editors, one of them sent a form rejection with a short handwritten note wishing me well in placing it elsewhere. Disappointing, but at least it’s definitive. With the other three publishers, I’ve had only silence. They follow the policy of replying only if interested, which leaves me with mixed feelings.

I’m grateful that they even accept unsolicited manuscripts when so many publishers don’t. On the other hand, their silence gives me hope when it shouldn’t. I need to fight the urge to cling to the possibility that the editors haven’t had time to read the manuscript yet. After all, it’s only been a few months and we’ve all heard stories about the stacks of manuscripts waiting for an editor’s attention.

However, in my more realistic moments I realize that my book was most likely recycled months ago and I need to send it out again. I’ll do that, but first, I have rewriting to do. I made the changes the agent suggested, but as I continue to learn more about picture book biographies and read those that have been successful, I see other ways to improve the manuscript. So I’ll do some rewriting and then get it back in the mail.

In the meantime, I’m curious, writers, how do you deal with those “silent” rejections from publishers who only reply if they’re interested? How long do you hold out hope that your manuscripts are still under consideration?


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