A great way to learn to write better is to read and study the work of authors who are doing it well. One of the best in writing biographies for children is Jean Fritz. My interest in her and her writing began with a book called Worlds of Childhood: The Art and Craft of Writing for Children. That book, edited by William Zinsser, began as a series of talks held at The New York Public Library in 1989. The book was published a year later, and it is no surprise that it is still in print. With chapters by well-loved writers including Maurice Sendak, Jack Prelutsky, Rosemary Wells, and Katherine Paterson, there’s a lot of good reading for anyone who writes for children.
I was most interested in Fritz’s chapter, “The Teller and the Tale.” I’ve read it many times over the last 24 years, whenever I need inspiration. When Zinsser’s book was published, Fritz was enjoying much success with the earliest of what have been called her question books. They have titles such as And Then What Happened, Paul Revere? and What’s the Big Idea, Ben Franklin? Those books, published in the 1970s, were a new type of biography. Until then, many biographies for children were fictionalized. It was okay to make up dialogue. Fritz never did. Every quote she uses is one that she has found through primary sources such as letters, journals, and newspapers and other writings of the time.
Earlier biographies were also sanitized showing only the good traits of a person, but Fritz has focused on showing both good and bad traits. Sometimes that’s not easy. Fritz said she struggled to understand how a man as “eccentric” and “rigid” as Stonewall Jackson became a national hero. She “got it” after she was able to see him through the eyes of a general who served with him.
Fritz found what the general had said about Stonewall Jackson because of thorough research. In addition to following the paper trail of a subject, she also reads what the subject’s friends thought about him or her, and she almost always visits the place or places where the subject lived. In doing her research, she looks for details that will make the reading fun for kids. In an interview for Scholastic where kids asked the questions, Fritz said that looking for funny, amazing nuggets of information was her favorite part of writing.
It explains what led to her book Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George? “I couldn’t get over that he was such an oddball kind of man,” she noted. “So many things were funny. For example, after he decided who to marry based on looking at pictures, he made her wedding dress himself. She didn’t know anything about it. At the wedding it kept slipping off her shoulders. When he was crowned that day, they were going to make a big deal and have all the lights light at the same time. But sparks went off and hit everyone and it was a big mess.” I can imagine Fritz’s pleasure in finding such great details and including them in her book.
Even before I discovered Fritz and her books, I knew the importance of writing a strong hook to grab the readers’ attention. It’s one of the first things writers learn. It’s also one of the hardest parts of writing, but Fritz does it well. My favorite opening lines come from her book Bully for You, Teddy Roosevelt – “What did Theodore Roosevelt want to do? Everything. And all at once if possible.” One sentence and a couple of fragments say so much about Roosevelt’s personality. I couldn’t wait to dig in and read more.
I’ve never met Fritz, but I’ve learned a lot about writing biographies from reading her books and her interviews. The hard part is applying what I’ve learned to my own writing. I expect that will take a lifetime of learning, but constantly striving to get better is what makes writing both fun and challenging. Jean Fritz has set the bar high.