Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

Posts tagged ‘Thomas Edison’

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.

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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