Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

Talking With Author Linda Skeers About Writing and Her New Book

Dinosaur bones, skulls, and fossilized poop – topics that are sure to attract the attention of young readers. Linda Skeers brings them all together in her picture book biography, Dinosaur Lady: The Daring Discoveries of Mary Anning, the First Paleontologist. Anning was a fearless, determined explorer and she made many important discoveries. She was only 12 years old when she uncovered the bones of a dinosaur, something that had never been seen before. At a time when people believed women couldn’t be scientists, Anning forged ahead, helping to create a new field of discovery called paleontology. Linda tells Anning’s story in the lively, narrative style that is her trademark. Illustrations by Marta Álvarez Miguéns blend well with the text.

Dinosaur Lady is Linda’s second book for Sourcebooks. Her first was the very successful collective biography, Women Who Dared. I wanted to know more about how Dinosaur Lady came about and what Linda found fascinating about Mary Anning. So, I asked.

Can you give us some background about “Dinosaur Lady?” How did it all come about?

I’ve always been fascinated by Mary Anning and wrote a profile of her for my book WOMEN WHO DARED. When my editor asked if I’d be interested in writing a PB Bio about her for a younger audience I didn’t hesitate!

What did you find most interesting or surprising in researching and writing about Mary Anning?

What amazes me the most about her is that she didn’t let anything stand in her way in her search for answers! At that time many textbooks about geology and fossils were written in French. So, she taught herself to read French! She searched for over a YEAR to find the fossilized body after her and her brother discovered the skull. She ignored the danger and the ridicule of male scientists and just kept searching and learning and sharing her discoveries with the world.

With picture books, limited word counts are always a challenge. How long was your first draft and how did you cut it down to size?

Well, my editor wanted me to aim for 750 words. My first draft was twice that! I decided to focus on the two things I admired most about her – her fearlessness and her never-ending search for knowledge. No matter what obstacles she faced, she continued to explore, discover, and study fossils. She almost died in a landslide – yet headed right back to the cliffs to keep exploring!

One thing I love about your writing is that it always has such energy, which makes your nonfiction fun to read. Could you share a couple of tips about how you make the writing lively?

Thanks! I try and use action verbs whenever I can – I want readers to feel like they are right there with Mary as she scrambles over the cliffs! I also try to write scenes – I picture in my head what’s happening, and what the illustrations will show and then try to describe it. When I revise, I look at each paragraph to see if there’s action, suspense, a surprise – I want the story to be fast-paced. I also love using sentence fragments!

What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

Probably the best writing advice I’ve been given is just to keep at it. Keep working on your craft. Keep reading. And most importantly, just keep writing!

The other thing that helped me was the advice to write about what interests YOU. If you’re passionate about a subject, that’s reflected in your writing. I hear the word “authenticity” a lot. Don’t write to a trend or what you think will be popular – write about what touches your heart or topics you want to know more about. That way, the research and writing process is fun and exciting! (Remind me I said that next time I’m whining about a horrible first draft!)



You can learn more about Linda on her website at


Author Sally Isaacs and Her New Book

Arctic-Adventure-Small@2xSally Isaacs has “always been fascinated by the lives of other people” and her writing reflects that interest. She has written 50 nonfiction books for children. They include books about American history and historical biographies about people such as Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Her latest book, Helen Thayer’s Arctic Adventure: A Woman and a Dog Walk to the North Pole, took her in a new direction. It was released by Capstone Publishing earlier this month and I was curious about the journey of that book.

How did you get started as a writer?

After college, I found myself living a few miles from Reader’s Digest. I was attracted to the gorgeous building and the publishing hub-bub that went on inside it. I wrote to the “Personnel Department” and basically offered to do anything. I started as a temp, filing reprint articles. Some nine years later, I was editorial director of the Education Division. On the job, I did a lot of writing for children and started freelance writing, too. I still write a lot for educational publishers, and I’ve had 50 nonfiction books published.

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

In 2009, I had signed up for a Highlights Foundation Workshop on Writing Biographies. I needed a subject! I decided I wanted to write about a strong woman explorer who could be an inspiration for young girls — and mostly for me. I sifted through library books and found Helen Thayer in a chapter of a book.

The road to publication can sometimes be a long one, especially with picture books. Can you tell us about the journey of Helen Thayer’s Arctic Adventure?

At first, I thought this would be a biography of Helen Thayer, covering several of her explorations. In the workshop, I decided to focus on one journey, and write a chapter book for grades 3-4 about Helen’s one-month walk to the magnetic North Pole.

After writing the book, I contacted Helen and asked her to review it and write a short introduction. She didn’t like the idea! She felt it competed too much with her own book Polar Dream. While I could have continued, I really wanted her blessing (and I thought it would make it more appealing to a publisher). So, I rewrote the book as a picture book.

Over the course of four years, I submitted the manuscript to publishers in children’s trade and school/library markets. The most important critique I received was to be sure the language was exciting so that the reader felt compelled to find out “what happens next?”

Besides that advice, much of what publishers wrote made me feel like a yoyo.  Cut the number of words. Add more background. Give information about Helen’s motivation. Consider turning it into a chapter book! I rewrote the book at least four times.

At the 21st Century Children’s Nonfiction Conference in 2014, I signed up for a one-to-one consultation. Michelle Bisson, from Capstone, reviewed the manuscript and liked it as it was – a picture book. As I expected, she hoped I could get a quote from Helen Thayer to put in the book and also get permission to print at least one of the photos she took on the exploration.

By this time, I had conducted two telephone interviews with Helen, and she agreed to write the Introduction and sell a photo to Capstone. (The rest of the book would be illustrated.) I was thrilled to have a publisher and Helen’s blessing!

You’ve written many biographies about people in history, but Helen Thayer is still making history. What are the pros and cons of writing about a living person?

I was excited to be able to talk to my subject, to ask questions and get clarifications. This was an opportunity I never had with Pocahontas, George Washington, or Lewis and Clark, among others. And though I wrote about Bill and Melinda Gates, I never got to interview them. Additionally, I thought a living explorer would be inspirational to children. We usually think of explorers as part of history. I wanted children to know that exploration is available today!

On the other hand, I was  — and still am — deeply concerned about pleasing Helen with my book. Every sentence needed to be true. I wanted to convey her personality, and her ability to go after her goal and move through her fears. I imagined her critical voice in my mind.

Accessibility was another issue. During this process Helen was traveling and exploring. For my first interview with her, I had to wait until she returned from a month-long hunting excursion with the Bushmen of Tanzania. She also travels on speaking engagements for her organization Adventure Classroom, so I was often waiting for email responses.

In the end, she read my final manuscript, corrected just a few details, and wrote the Introduction (which ended up in the back of the book). I sent her the published book a few weeks ago, and I have not heard from her.

What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

1) Show, don’t tell.

2) Give the reader a reason to turn the page.

3) Don’t let the manuscript sit on the shelf. Keep sending it out.

An Interview with Author Jody Jensen Shaffer

003082ct_MediumJody Jensen Shaffer has written 27 books for children including both fiction and nonfiction. Her poetry and short fiction has appeared in magazines such as Highlights for Children, Babybug, Turtle, Humpty Dumpty, and Clubhouse Jr. Jody has written several biographies including books about celebrities such as Liam Hemsworth from The Hunger Games, Taylor Swift, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

Recently, Jody celebrated the release of two historical biographies, What’s Your Story, Frederick Douglass? and What’s Your Story, Sequoyah? Both books are part of the Cub Reporter Meets Famous Americans series from Lerner Publishing. The Cub Reporter is a cartoon bear character who interviews the subject of each book. Although the reporter is fictional, the answers given by the subject are all fact.What's Your Story, Frederick Douglass cover

How was the research for your Frederick Douglass and Sequoyah books different than the research you do for your celebrity biographies?

Good question! Research for each subject is different. For the celebrities I wrote about, my research included reviewing newspaper interviews from their hometowns from when they were young and more current interviews with popular magazines and reliable internet sites, even YouTube. For Douglass and Sequoyah, my research involved finding reliable, scholarly work written about these men. Douglass had another benefit: he wrote his own biography (several, in fact), so I could access copies of them on the internet and cross-reference details against what others wrote about him. For Sequoyah, I used government sites and books.

What's Your Story, Sequoyah coverHow did you get started as a writer?

Even as a child, I liked to write. Then I earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in English. I wrote for adults at that time. I began writing for children when my kids were little. I was enamored with all the clever, lovely, touching, gorgeous picture books, early readers, and chapter books we’d read together. Then when my youngest started kindergarten, I started getting serious about writing for children.

What is a typical writing day like for you?

I get the kids to school, respond to emails, then dig into whatever writing project I’m working on. It might be researching my next biography subject or putting the finishing details on an outline. I work until the kids come home, and depending on our evening activities, I might work during the evening, too.

What do you enjoy about writing biographies?

I love learning about people, which also means learning about the places they come from and the people who surround them. I especially like finding out the tiniest details, things that might not make it into a book because of restrictions of some kind.

What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

Use the fewest, most appropriate words you can, without losing the meaning of your piece. Also, always consider your audience.

You have a fun nonfiction book and a couple of picture books scheduled for publication. Can you tell us about them? Do you plan to write more biographies?

Yes, I do! The “fun nonfiction book” is The Way the Cookie Crumbled by Simon Spotlight. It’s all about the history of cookies, and it’s appropriate for elementary-aged students. It’s filled with tons of delicious information about cookies. It’s scheduled for release on July 5, 2016.

Then in 2017, Prudence, the Part-Time Cow will come out with Henry Holt. It’s about a cow who finds her own way to fit in with the herd.

Following that, Nancy Paulsen/Penguin will release A Chip Off the Old Block in 2018. It’s about a rock who takes a journey to discover how he can make a difference in the world. It’s a blend of fiction and nonfiction, so there’s plenty of back matter for those who want to learn more about rocks.

And I love writing biographies, so I’m sure I’ll continue doing that, too.


A Behind the Scenes Look at “Belles of the Ballpark”

BellesCvrFnl_200[1]Baseball has been called America’s pastime, but in 1942 people wondered what would happen to the game. America was at war then and about half the professional baseball players were fighting overseas. Many thought that would be the end of professional baseball at least until the war was over. But Philip K. Wrigley, chewing gum magnate and the owner of the Chicago Cubs baseball team had an idea. Women were taking on new roles working in factories producing tanks, ships, and other gear needed for the war effort. Why couldn’t they play baseball Wrigley wondered? He became the force behind the creation of the All-American Girls Professional Ball League (AAGPBL). The League began playing in 1943 and over 500 women would take the field over the twelve seasons of the League’s history. They played baseball, not softball, as the players so often needed to explain.

Diana Star Helmer first wrote about the “girls” of the AAGPBL in her book Belles of the Ballpark published in 1992. Her research included interviews with players. That gave her plenty of anecdotal information to tell a lively story about bus trips, curfews, and the delicate balance between playing hard and acting like ladies, which was expected at the time. The book was named to the New York Public Library’s “Books for the Teen Age” list.

Belles of the Ballpark is now enjoying new life with a second edition released this month by Summer Game Books. Diana’s husband Tom Owens, who is a writer and baseball fan, helped with the new edition which has almost doubled in size. New information includes interviews with players and other people involved with the League. It also includes sections about the researchers who have introduced new generations to the League. I asked Diana some questions about research for her book and how this second edition came to be.

What led to your initial interest in the All-American Girls Professional Ball League?

Our first year out of college (1988, Iowa State University, journalism) Tom was hired as co-editor and I was editorial assistant for Sports Collectors Digest, located in Wisconsin. This had been Girls League territory all those years ago, and Sharon Roepke of nearby Michigan made a set of players’ cards that she sent to the magazine. I remember the SCD ad man sauntering by my desk and tossing the cards down. “You’re a girl. You might be interested in these,” he said, not sounding completely complimentary.

Diana in an authentic game-worn Peoria Redwings uniform in 1990.

Diana in an authentic game-worn Peoria Redwings uniform in 1990.

Tell us about the research for “Belles.”

Research in the late 1980s meant no internet. If there were no books on your topic (there were none at the time on the AAGPBL) then one dug through library archives for old newspaper clippings. This might mean going to the relevant towns.

Ah, if only we hadn’t moved to Washington state just after I learned of the League, and just before I sold the book idea to a small, fairly new educational publisher for young readers. So, instead of just driving to Racine and Kenosha, as I could have done when working for SCD, I had to fly back.

Luckily, before moving, I had done an SCD article on the League and met the incomparable Anna May Hutchison. She invited me to stay in her home for an entire week after the book deal was sealed, opening not just her home but her heart. Without Hutch, the book would be vastly different and, I believe, suffer for that.

Sharon Roepke started me on this journey with her baseball cards, and was the first person I contacted, via telephone, to learn more. Sharon put me in touch with Anna May. I will always be gratefully in debt to her for that, and for her devoting so much of her life to this story and, by extension, to us.

As someone who likes her husband to be far away and very quiet when I’m writing, I have to ask: What is a typical writing day like when there are two writers at work? Also, how did you handle working together on Belles of the Ballpark?

I wrote the first edition, but I sometimes asked Tom for help on the game-action writing. He has been a life-long baseball fan, and I am a Johnny-come-lately.

We were first asked, “How can you stand working with your SPOUSE?” when we were both hired at SCD. The question is almost invariably accompanied by the claim, “I could never WORK with MY . . .”

For us, it’s always just been part of marriage, and some spots take more getting used to than others. But we have been blessed, for about 25 years now, in having two-story homes where we have had offices on different floors. We retire to our separate corners to work. If one of us has a question or discussion point (or wants company for a snack), we approach the other in his or her room and say, “Can you listen?” Sometimes the answer is, “Yes. What’s on your mind?” Sometimes the answer is “Just a second,” or “Five minutes,” or “Fifteen minutes.” The asker can then decide whether to wait nearby or just leave and try later.

The whole thing has probably been a bit tougher for Tom, who can listen to the radio while he works. I really like silence (well, birds don’t bother me . . .) So, if Tom wants to start cooking when I’m working, he has to do without music or baseball, for the kitchen is on the same floor as my office.

This plan, which we’re still perfecting, worked well for the second edition of “Belles.” We decided what material would be added, then divided the tasks. Each of us researched and wrote what was “ours,” then let the other serve as editor. We have learned, over the years, about our own writing styles (strengths and weaknesses) as well as each other’s. Remembering to apply this knowledge is invaluable! Tom, for example, knows he sometimes switches pronouns, and isn’t upset if I mention it. I will use $2 words when I could do well with ten cents, and I admit it when Tom catches me out.

It’s always great to see an out-of-print book get new life. How did this new edition come about?

In 2014, I decided to start key-punching “Belles” into my current computer. I don’t know why, really. I had recently begun self-publishing on Kindle, and thought it would be nice not to let this book be forgotten.

Two amazingly serendipitous things happened early in 2015. First, Tom discovered a “new” publisher devoted to baseball, Summer Game Books. SGB has done a number of reprints of baseball classics. It seemed like a match made in heaven and, after we got to know them, our hopes proved to be true! We love working with the people there, and they are able to offer marketing and design options that would be difficult for us on our own. The publisher delighted us by issuing the new edition in e-book and paperback.

The second lucky thing is that the film, A League of Their Own, which did not exist until after my book was first written, continues to attract attention. The movie has introduced so many people to the idea of the Girls League over these intervening years. Our publisher, Walter Friedman, has a young daughter who loves the film! The subject of the AAGPBL used to be a complete unknown. Hollywood changed that.

What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

“Write the book you want to read.” Fantastic advice that I’m afraid I cannot credit.

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.


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