Sally 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.