Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

Archive for the ‘Biographies’ Category

Four Tips for Using Quotes

Quotes add punch to biographies for children and that helps to hold the readers’ attention. However, simply inserting a quote here or there does not make the writing interesting. It’s important to know when to use quotes and how to make them fit into the flow of the writing. Here are 4 tips for using quotes effectively.

  1. Use quotes when the person you’re writing about says it better than you could in your own words.

That was something I learned by chance when I was working on my very first biography which was about Alice Walker. I wanted to describe the day in 1961 when Walker left her small town in Georgia to head off to college. She took a bus to Atlanta, where the college was located, and made the mistake of sitting too close to the front. A white woman complained to the driver who asked Alice to move to the back.

I worked and worked on that paragraph trying to find a way to show how Walker felt about that experience, but I only got more and more frustrated. I finally realized it was impossible for me to describe how she felt. It was better to let her say it in her own powerful words: “But even as I moved, in confusion and anger and tears. I knew he had not seen the last of me,” Walker wrote in her book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.

  1. Use quotes to show character.

In The Great and Only Barnum, Candace Fleming used a quote from P.T. Barnum to show his aversion to farm work as a child. “I always disliked work,” he noted. “Head-work I was excessively fond of. I was always ready to concoct fun, or lay plans for money-making, but hand-work was decidedly not in my line.” It’s easy to see how Barnum’s gift for thinking up ideas for fun and profit as a kid may have led to his future as a great showman.

  1. Use quotes to build or expand on an idea.

In an article about how U.S. presidents kept fit while they were in office, I wrote this paragraph about Truman. “Harry S. Truman was famous for his early morning walks. Reporters and photographers sometimes tagged along, but keeping up with him was not easy. Truman kept a brisk and exact pace.” That provided the basic information, but I decided to show how brisk and how exact by ending with this quote from Truman’s memoirs: “I walk two miles most every morning at a hundred and twenty-eight steps a minute,” he noted. The quote also showed a bit about his character.

  1. Keep quotes short.

Think of quotes as dialogue in a story. Readers lose focus if a character rambles on too long. So it’s best to interrupt the dialogue with action or another character’s comments. It’s the same with nonfiction. A good way to keep quotes short is to weave in background information and then end with a short quote. It’s what I did with the paragraph about Alice Walker heading off to college. A long description of that day in Walker’s own words would have taken away from what I felt was a strong quote. So I provided the background about her sitting too close to the front of the bus and the white woman complaining to the driver. Then I ended with Walker’s words.

Finding just the right quotes and weaving them into a manuscript is hard work, but it’s worth the effort. They can turn a dull manuscript into one that holds the readers’ attention.

A Problem with Facts

When I started writing biographies for children, I was in for a few surprises. The biggest one was with the research when I discovered that facts don’t always agree. An example is my research for a biography about Ken Griffey Jr. His first year in the majors was a good one. Most people expected that he would be named rookie of the year. Then late in the season, he had an accident in the shower and broke his hand. He had to go on the disabled list, which ruined his chances for rookie of the year.

I found four different articles about his accident. Two of them said he broke his left hand and two of them said he broke his right hand. It was impossible for me to know which articles were right. Fortunately, that problem was easily solved. I called the Seattle Mariners where Griffey played. For me, that experience reinforced the importance of using primary sources. The closer a writer can get to the original sources, the more reliable that information is. But even with primary sources there may still be questions.

I ran into a bigger problem when I was writing about Mahalia Jackson because there were two different dates for her birth. The date on her tombstone did not match official records. They were both good sources and I had no idea which one was right. Since I was writing a young adult biography, I was able to explain the discrepancy in the text. “There is some confusion about her birth date. Records at City Hall in New Orleans state that she was born in 1911. But Mahalia’s aunts disagreed. Mahalia was born a few months after her cousin Porterfield. He was born in 1912, so Mahalia could not have been born in 1911. October 26, 1912, was the correct date, the aunts said.”

If I had been writing for younger children, where word counts are limited, I would have used the birthdate given on her tombstone in the text. Then I would have added  a note in the back matter about the two different dates because I think it’s important to address problems with the facts.

Many years ago, I was told that the way to decide if something is true or not is that if you find the information in three different sources, you can be pretty sure it’s accurate. That isn’t full proof. It could be that those three sources all came from a fourth source that was not correct. When I was writing about Neil Armstrong, I toured the Neil Armstrong museum in Wapakoneta, Ohio. They have an old bicycle on display that Armstrong rode when he was young. Armstrong got his pilot’s license when he was sixteen, before he had a driver’s license. The local airport is three miles outside of town. According to the tour guide, Armstrong rode his bicycle out to the airport for flying lessons. It’s a nice story and it has been published in several places. But later, I found an interview with Armstrong where he talked about that story and said it wasn’t true. He had hitchhiked out to the airport.

The story I heard at the museum could be right. I know how hard museums and historical societies work to make sure the facts are correct and they have plenty of primary sources at their disposal. On the other hand, the interview with Armstrong planted some doubt in the corner of my mind. That was my second lesson in getting to the truth, digging deep. I may not have found what Armstrong said about the bicycle story if I wasn’t obsessive about the research.

Getting to the truth can be a challenge and I’ll have more to say about that in a future blog. In the meantime, I’d like to hear from you. Have you run into inconsistencies with the facts? How did you handle it? I hope you’ll share your experiences.

Frederick Douglass: A Voice for Freedom

frederick-douglassMy biography, Frederick Douglass, was released by National Geographic this week. Douglass, who was born a slave in Talbot County, Maryland in 1818, was a powerful voice against slavery. He was also a prolific writer. In fact, he wrote three autobiographies.

I have mixed feelings about using autobiographies in my research. That’s because they are often poor resources for details, particularly dates. My theory is that when writing about their own lives, people feel they know the facts. After all, they were there. So they write what they remember without checking details such as dates. Then people like me come along and start researching them. As I draw from a variety of sources, it sometimes becomes obvious that some dates in an autobiography don’t jive with information from other sources. It doesn’t take away from the events themselves. It just means that in writing an autobiography, people are often most interested in what happened and are less concerned about when.

On the other hand, autobiographies are wonderful sources for quotes and for helping me understand how the people I write about think and feel about events in their lives. Douglass’s autobiographies are rich with details about what it was like to be a slave.

He wrote about his mother, who he saw only a handful of times before she died, and of his brothers and sisters who he never had a chance to know. Douglass figured out at an early age that education would give him power. He was determined to learn to read even though in some states it was against the law to teach slaves to read. Douglass learned, and it gave him power.

Douglass also wrote about freedom, something he risked his life to get. His first attempt to escape failed, but he was successful with his second attempt when he was 20 years old. He then began speaking out against slavery, which put him in great danger. He was living like a free man, but he was still property of the slave owner. There was always the fear that he could be forced to return to the slave owner where he might be killed, sold, or treated even more cruelly than he had been before his escape.

At one point, Douglass was in such eminent danger that he fled to England. There he became well-known as a speaker against slavery. The friends he made in England helped Douglass buy his freedom. In 1847, he returned to the United States as a free man. He continued to make speeches against slavery and started a black newspaper. During the Civil War, he served as an advisor to Abraham Lincoln and organized black troops to fight in the war. After the war, the slaves were freed, but they were still not treated equally. Douglass continued to fight for equal rights for freed slaves and for women who were working for the right to vote.

Douglass’s story is an interesting one and his autobiographies were a valuable resource for me. I’m thinking my book might be an introduction to slavery for some young readers. I hope it will lead to discussions about freedom and the importance of treating everyone as equals. It’s an important conversation at any age.

Writing Picture Book Biographies about Not So Famous People

In my previous post, I noted that it’s hard to find publishers for biographies for children about people who are not well-known. Hard, but not impossible. In fact, things seem to be looking up for authors who want to introduce a not so famous subject. It’s something Elizabeth Bird wrote about in a recent School Library Journal blog post. “These days, people are interested in celebrating more than just the same ten people over and over again,” she noted. She backed that up with a list of books about “comparatively obscure figures” that have been released just this year. They include two books about Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer; Lonnie Johnson, the rocket scientist who invented the Super Soaker; and Kathryn Sullivan, the first American woman to walk in space.

An editor I met at a writers’ conference last fall also said the tide was turning a bit and publishers were getting more interested in doing books about people who are not well-known. Encouraging, but it doesn’t mean that all subjects are suitable for a children’s biography. Publishers are in the business of selling books after all. So in considering subjects for biographies, the author needs to find a way to make a not so famous person appeal to a wide audience.

Balloons_CoverOne way to do that is to find a tie-in to something familiar to readers. Melissa Sweet did that with her book, Balloons over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade. Readers may not recognize the name Tony Sarg, but they are familiar with Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. That connection creates an audience for a book about Sarg.

I’m hoping that kind of tie-in will help interest editors in the children’s biography I’m currently submitting. Most people have not heard of the woman I wrote about, but she does have a little known connection to someone that everyone knows.

A tie-in to school curriculums also gives subjects wider appeal. Has the person you’re interested in writing about achieved greatness in math or science? There’s always a need for books relating to those subjects.

DaredevilSometimes a not so-well known person has such an amazing story it can’t be ignored. That’s the case with Meghan McCarthy’s book, Daredevil: The Daring Life of Betty Skelton. I knew a little about Skelton and her plane “Little Stinker,” but as McCarthy shows in her book, Skelton’s career as a pilot was just a taking off point. I won’t mention any of her other achievements because part of the appeal of the book is making those discoveries in the reading.

Another reason McCarthy’s book about Skelton has wide appeal is because of Skelton’s “grit.” As a woman born in 1926, she faced many obstacles of the time, but that did not keep her from reaching for her dreams. Stories about people who show courage and determination are inspiring for kids. Those traits are universal themes talked about in homes and classrooms. That makes them good subjects for children’s biographies even if the subjects are not well-known.

Original cowgirlLucill Mulhall is another example of a woman with “grit.” I had never heard of Mulhall until I read Heather Lang’s book, The Original Cowgirl: The Wild Adventures of Lucille Mulhall. Out of curiosity, I searched the Internet after I read the book to see if I could learn more about her. I didn’t find much. It made me wonder why a publisher would take a chance on such an obscure subject. Perhaps that is best explained by a reviewer for Kirkus who wrote, “Mulhall may not be a household name, but Lang makes her memorable for anyone who admires go-getters who beat the odds and break barriers.”

It’s not easy to find a publisher for a biography about a relatively unknown subject, but it is possible. The author can improve the odds by giving some thought to the business side of publishing. That means finding a way to make a lesser known subject appeal to a wide audience.

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.

Sonia Sotomayor

Sonia SotomayorSonia Sotomayor, my latest leveled reader for National Geographic, was released this week. Celebrating the release of a book is a great way to start the New Year. I was even more excited last week when the Children’s Book Council (CBC) included the book on their “Hot Off the Press” list.

A biography about Sotomayor was a perfect project for me because I like to write about strong women who make good role models for girls. Sotomayor certainly fills that requirement. Of course, her road to becoming the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice was not easy. That was another thing about her that appealed to me. I think it’s important for kids to see that problems are part of everyone’s life, and that the people they admire overcame many hurdles on their road to success.

Sotomayor has faced many obstacles beginning when she was very young.  She was born in New York City, but her parents were from Puerto Rico and her father did not speak English. Because of that the family spoke Spanish at home. The fact that Sotomayor did not speak English on a regular basis made school difficult for her, but she overcame that to become a top student.

Another obstacle was that she was diagnosed with diabetes just before her eighth birthday. It meant she would need a shot of insulin every day for the rest of her life. Sotomayor faced that diagnosis with the same kind of courage she has shown throughout her life. Her parents sometimes argued about who would give their daughter her shots. Sotomayor didn’t want them arguing about her, so she learned to give the shots to herself.

Sotomayor was awarded a scholarship to Princeton, but felt very out of place there at first. At that time Princeton had few women and even fewer students of Hispanic descent, but that did not hold her back. As a senior Sotomayor won one of the university’s highest honors, the M. Taylor Pyne Prize. She also worked with other students to bring more Hispanic students and teachers to Princeton.

Sotomayor has dealt with obstacles in her life by working hard and not being afraid to ask for help. I’m hoping that’s something young readers will take from the book. However I try hard not to hit them over the head with a message because I want the book to be fun to read. Sotomayor made that easy too because she is certainly not all work and no play. So the book includes details such as the fact that Sotomayor was the first Supreme Court justice to flip the switch to drop the crystal ball in Time’s Square on New Year’s Eve and that she is a life-long Yankees fan.

As a kid, I loved to read biographies about people who overcame obstacles and succeeded. Now I like writing that kind of book. So I’m hard at work on my next leveled biography about someone who had tremendous success and many failures.

Celebrating Two New Books

CleopatraNational Geographic has released my two latest biographies for kids – Cleopatra and Pope Francis. I wrote Cleopatra before I started Pope Francis, but as Cleopatra went into production, there were times when the books overlapped. One day I would be making changes to the biography about Cleopatra, the richest woman in the world at that time, and the next day I would be writing about Pope Francis who has always lived simply. Writing about two so different people was fun and I couldn’t wait to get to my computer each day.

Cleopatra presented a special challenge. After more than 2,000 years, she is still one of the best known women in history. Even so, when I began my research, the first thing I learned was that we actually know very little about her. Turns out that many of the wonderful stories I have heard and read about Cleopatra are legend, not fact.

That was a problem. I wanted kids to know the true story, but how could I tell an interesting story when there were so few facts available? The answer I decided was to be very upfront with readers. So I began the book by mentioning a few things we do know about Cleopatra and then noted that much of her life remains a mystery. I included the stories I had read about her, but used the words “legend says” to indicate those that may or may not be true. I was glad my editors at National Geographic agreed with that approach. Everyone who worked on the book kept that goal in mind including Patrick Faricy, the illustrator who created the beautiful cover for the book.

I’ve always pictured Cleopatra as Elizabeth Taylor in the movie, but the artwork in the book shows a variety of interpretations of what Cleopatra may have looked like. They include a couple paintings of her as a blonde. As it turns out, the Elizabeth Taylor version of Cleopatra may be the most unlikely portrait. Cleopatra was the queen of Egypt, but she was not Egyptian. Her family came from Greece. The book cover illustration of Cleopatra shows how she may have looked when she was 18 and the new queen of Egypt. In that image, she has Greek features rather than Egyptian.

9781426322532[1]I was well into writing the Pope Francis biography when he announced his plans to visit the United States. Somehow that made working on the book even more exciting. Many of my recent books have been about people in history, but with Pope Francis I was writing about someone who was making history. I’m hoping my book will help kids learn more about the person who is creating such excitement with his visit to this country.519hB22MV4L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_[1]

National Geographic released two editions of Pope Francis. One is written in English and the other in Spanish, Papa Francisco. Having a book released simultaneously in two different languages marks a first for me.

I’m celebrating the release of these books by giving away a copy of each one, Cleopatra and the English version of Pope Francis. To be entered in a random drawing, just leave a comment below. I’ll draw two names on October 16, one for each book, and then will contact the winners to get mailing addresses. Good luck!

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