Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

Posts tagged ‘biographies for children’

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.

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.

Quoting Thomas Edison

Thomas EdisonThomas Edison, my biography for early readers, was released by National Geographic this month. The book is part of a series and one thing I like about the format for the series is that there are many short sidebars throughout the book. It meant I was able to include tidbits about Edison that I found interesting, and hopefully, my young readers will agree.

Those extras include quotes from Edison in sections called “In His Own Words.” I thought finding quotes would be the easy part of my research, but it didn’t turn out that way. I quickly discovered that many quotes from Edison have been corrupted over time.

How does that happen? Sometimes it’s because someone tries to simplify a long quote. Other times, educators feel it’s important to correct a famous person’s grammar. I guess they don’t want kids to associate bad grammar with greatness. Or sometimes, it’s just human error. We make mistakes in copying something and don’t always catch them when we go back to check.

Quotable_Edison_The-copy-219x300[1]For whatever reason, I had several versions of some quotes and no idea of which ones were right. Fortunately, I found a book called The Quotable Edison (University Press of Florida, 2011) by Michele Wehrwein Albion. In the 1990s, Michele was curator at the Edison & Ford Winter Estates in Ft. Myers, Florida. In that position, she saw first-hand how often Edison was misquoted. That led her to undertake the huge job of tracking down the original sources of the quotes.

Michele combed through the Thomas Edison Papers. With help from librarians and archivists, she also hunted down magazines and newspapers of Edison’s time to find the original copies of interviews with him. It was a lot of legwork, but the result is a carefully footnoted book of quotes. It was a great resource for my book. It is also a fascinating read with quotes that provide interesting insights into Edison’s personality.

Edison often talked about the value of hard work. “Genius is all bosh. Clean hard work is what does the business,” he once said.

In an 1891 interview with a reporter from the New York Journal, he noted, “What counts in the world is the man who produces, not the man who talks. I found out a long time ago that if you talked about a thing it wasn’t remembered, but if you produced it was remembered.”

He had no plans to rest. In reply to a question about when he would retire he said, “A few days before the funeral.”

Although Edison was serious about work, he also had a sense of humor. He enjoyed playing practical jokes often at the expense of the press. An example was the time he talked about “inventing shirts made of thin sheets of gelatin that could be worn for a day, then peeled off and discarded.” He later joked that people had already sent him checks for the shirts.

In a diary entry dated July 12, 1885 he offered a remedy for freckles. “I think freckles on the skin are due to some salt of Iron, sunlight brings them out by reducing them from high to low state of oxidation. Perhaps with a powerful magnet applied for some time and then with the proper chemicals, these mudholes of beauty might be removed.”

As Edison became more famous, reporters wanted to know what he thought about almost everything. Edison seemed more than happy to give his opinion. As a result, The Quotable Edison is rich with his thoughts about politics, presidents, inventors and inventions, and even the possibility of communicating with other planets.

Edison was harsh in his comments about competitors such as Alexander Graham Bell. “The telephone was no invention,” he said. “It was a discovery. Don’t you know how the telephone was found? One day Bell was fooling with some wires and diaphragms in his laboratory, and suddenly he heard the voice of an assistant over the wire from another room. The telephone was all there; the rest was simple. No, the telephone was no real invention; it was an accident…. Bell never planned to invent the telephone.”

Edison was a practical man and had little interest in inventions he did not think were useful. “Locomotives are pretty well developed,” he said, “but you wouldn’t want to buy one and have it in your house, would you? Television is like that.”

I was most surprised by Edison’s concerns about the environment. Quotes like this one are still relevant a hundred years later. “Sunshine is a form of energy, and the winds and the tides are manifestations of energy. Do we use them? Oh, no; we burn up wood and coal, as renters burn up the front fence for fuel. We live like squatters, not as if we owned the property.”

As for communicating with other planets, Edison with tongue firmly planted in cheek said, “I think we had better stick to this world and find out something about it before we call up our neighbors. They might make us ashamed of ourselves.”

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