Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

Posts tagged ‘picture book biographies’

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.

Trying Something New

The winners of the giveaway for my two latest books, Pope Francis and Cleopatra, are Kathy Young and Karla McMurrin. It’s the first time I’ve done a book giveaway. It’s part of a master plan to push myself to try new things, and I do need to push myself to do that. Being adventurous is not something that comes naturally to me. I’m more inclined to stick with the tried and true, which unfortunately is very limiting.

It’s that try-new-things attitude that has led me to writing my first picture book biography. I didn’t set out to experiment, but I had an idea for a biography and it seemed to me that it would work best as a picture book. So I began.

Of course, trying new things means there is a learning curve. I started by becoming a frequent visitor in the biography section of the children’s room at our library. I brought home armloads of picture books to study their style. I also typed out many of them because it helped me see how the writing flowed and how the books looked in manuscript form. Then I wrote my picture book.

After several rewrites, I had the storyline in place, but the writing was lacking. It didn’t have the “spark” of a typical picture book. It was obvious that I needed help. That’s what led me to sign up for the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) retreat that I attended a couple of weeks ago. I chose that particular retreat for three reasons.

First, the format allowed attendees to get feedback from speakers and peers on three different manuscripts. That was a lot of bang for my buck. I shared the first two chapters of a young adult biography, an article, and my picture book.

Another reason I chose that retreat was because of the speakers, which included Susan Campbell Bartoletti. She writes both fiction and nonfiction and her nonfiction has won awards that I can only dream about. Susan critiqued the chapters from my young adult biography. What I learned from her was that I am rushing the story. I need to bring in more details. That includes details that will give readers a sense of “place.” The subject of my biography grew up in Harlem in the 1940s, so I’ll be doing research to learn more about what Harlem was like then.

In one of Susan’s presentations, she talked about how she uses poetry to generate ideas. She also uses poetry to make the writing more lyrical. The poems don’t actually go into the final manuscript, but they help her find ways to make the writing flow better. That is something my picture book needs, so I’m trying to write some poems. The good news is that those poems are just for me. No one else will see them.

Another reason I chose the retreat is because it had some nice offerings for nonfiction writers. That’s kind of rare for conferences and retreats, which tend to focus more on fiction and picture books. I understand why. More people are interested in those types of writing and conferences and retreats need to appeal to a large group of people. So when I found a retreat that had good nonfiction sessions, I needed to get on board.

My critique from Susan Campbell Bartoletti was one of those nonfiction opportunities. Another was a Saturday afternoon workshop. We broke into groups where we read our manuscripts and got suggestions for improvement. I was in a picture book group which included both fiction and nonfiction writers and their comments were very helpful.

Finally, there was a Sunday morning presentation on writing nonfiction picture books. It sounded specially made for me. The speaker was Stacey Friedberg, an assistant editor at Dial Books for Young Readers, and she knew her stuff. My only regret is that I couldn’t take notes fast enough to get it all down.

It was a great retreat and I came home eager to challenge myself as a writer. First up, I’ll be focusing on my picture book getting it ready to submit to editors. I don’t know if I’ll be able to find a publisher for it, but as Susan Campbell Bartoletti said, “No writing is wasted.” I know that’s true with the work I’ve done on my picture book. I’ve definitely learned a lot from trying something new, and if it doesn’t sell as a picture book, I’ll be able to use my research to write about the subject in a different format. In the meantime, I’ll be looking for more conferences and retreats that have a nonfiction element. If you know of any, let me know.

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