Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

Posts tagged ‘Frederick Douglass’

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.

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.

 

Tag Cloud