Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

Archive for the ‘Biographies’ Category

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!

An Interview with Author Dana Meachen Rau

Dana%20Slouch%20Cropped[1]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 stowe-cover[1]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.

gandhi-cover[1]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.

 

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.

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