Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

Posts tagged ‘writing for children’

Four Tips for Using Quotes

Quotes add punch to biographies for children and that helps to hold the readers’ attention. However, simply inserting a quote here or there does not make the writing interesting. It’s important to know when to use quotes and how to make them fit into the flow of the writing. Here are 4 tips for using quotes effectively.

  1. Use quotes when the person you’re writing about says it better than you could in your own words.

That was something I learned by chance when I was working on my very first biography which was about Alice Walker. I wanted to describe the day in 1961 when Walker left her small town in Georgia to head off to college. She took a bus to Atlanta, where the college was located, and made the mistake of sitting too close to the front. A white woman complained to the driver who asked Alice to move to the back.

I worked and worked on that paragraph trying to find a way to show how Walker felt about that experience, but I only got more and more frustrated. I finally realized it was impossible for me to describe how she felt. It was better to let her say it in her own powerful words: “But even as I moved, in confusion and anger and tears. I knew he had not seen the last of me,” Walker wrote in her book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.

  1. Use quotes to show character.

In The Great and Only Barnum, Candace Fleming used a quote from P.T. Barnum to show his aversion to farm work as a child. “I always disliked work,” he noted. “Head-work I was excessively fond of. I was always ready to concoct fun, or lay plans for money-making, but hand-work was decidedly not in my line.” It’s easy to see how Barnum’s gift for thinking up ideas for fun and profit as a kid may have led to his future as a great showman.

  1. Use quotes to build or expand on an idea.

In an article about how U.S. presidents kept fit while they were in office, I wrote this paragraph about Truman. “Harry S. Truman was famous for his early morning walks. Reporters and photographers sometimes tagged along, but keeping up with him was not easy. Truman kept a brisk and exact pace.” That provided the basic information, but I decided to show how brisk and how exact by ending with this quote from Truman’s memoirs: “I walk two miles most every morning at a hundred and twenty-eight steps a minute,” he noted. The quote also showed a bit about his character.

  1. Keep quotes short.

Think of quotes as dialogue in a story. Readers lose focus if a character rambles on too long. So it’s best to interrupt the dialogue with action or another character’s comments. It’s the same with nonfiction. A good way to keep quotes short is to weave in background information and then end with a short quote. It’s what I did with the paragraph about Alice Walker heading off to college. A long description of that day in Walker’s own words would have taken away from what I felt was a strong quote. So I provided the background about her sitting too close to the front of the bus and the white woman complaining to the driver. Then I ended with Walker’s words.

Finding just the right quotes and weaving them into a manuscript is hard work, but it’s worth the effort. They can turn a dull manuscript into one that holds the readers’ attention.

How I Found My Writing Niche

The subtitle for this post could be: How a Second Grade Boy Helped Me Launch My Writing Career. I’ve said many times that I started writing biographies after following the advice of another author who said, “Write what you like to read.” I remembered how much I enjoyed reading biographies when I was a kid especially stories about trailblazers such as Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, and Elizabeth Blackwell. But the truth is, it took me a long time before I considered writing any type of nonfiction. It was a second grade boy who set me on that track.

Like most beginning writers, I dreamed of writing fiction, particularly the mysteries and ghost stories I loved to read. Mary Downing Hahn’s Wait ‘Til Helen Comes remains one of my all-time favorite books. Joan Lowery Nixon and Lois Duncan were my idols. For years, I ignored the fact that there were more opportunities for writers in nonfiction. That’s because editors are always looking for nonfiction, but most writers want to write fiction.

My change in attitude came when I was working as a media secretary at an elementary school. Seated at my desk, I watched as a class of second graders hurried into the IMC for checkout time. My favorite part of the job was when students asked me to help them find a book. I was not disappointed on that day as a smiling young man approached the desk.

“Can you help me find a book?” he asked.

“Sure, what kind of books do you like to read?”

“Good books,” he said.

That was my cue to recommend what I thought were good books. “Have you read any of the Henry and Mudge books?” I asked. But they did not appeal to him. I recommended a couple of other possibilities from the fiction section, as I assumed that’s what he would want to read.

Then he surprised me. “No, I want real books,” he said.

“What do you mean real books?”

“You know, true stories,” he answered.

“Oh, you mean nonfiction.”

“Yeah, real books with facts and stuff.”

It didn’t take long to find him enough books in the nonfiction section to keep him busy for a while. I soon realized that there were many other kids like him, kids who liked nonfiction. They wanted to read about dinosaurs, sports stars, bugs, unusual buildings, airplanes, and faraway places, almost any subject imaginable.

For the next few days, I thought about that student and noticed how many other kids asked to be directed to the nonfiction section. I also thought about the author who advised me to “write what you like to read.” It soon became clear to me that I should be writing real books, in my case, biographies. Once I focused on biographies, the publishing doors started to open. I had found what I was meant to write, and I thank that second grade boy for setting me on that path.

 

A Problem with Facts

When I started writing biographies for children, I was in for a few surprises. The biggest one was with the research when I discovered that facts don’t always agree. An example is my research for a biography about Ken Griffey Jr. His first year in the majors was a good one. Most people expected that he would be named rookie of the year. Then late in the season, he had an accident in the shower and broke his hand. He had to go on the disabled list, which ruined his chances for rookie of the year.

I found four different articles about his accident. Two of them said he broke his left hand and two of them said he broke his right hand. It was impossible for me to know which articles were right. Fortunately, that problem was easily solved. I called the Seattle Mariners where Griffey played. For me, that experience reinforced the importance of using primary sources. The closer a writer can get to the original sources, the more reliable that information is. But even with primary sources there may still be questions.

I ran into a bigger problem when I was writing about Mahalia Jackson because there were two different dates for her birth. The date on her tombstone did not match official records. They were both good sources and I had no idea which one was right. Since I was writing a young adult biography, I was able to explain the discrepancy in the text. “There is some confusion about her birth date. Records at City Hall in New Orleans state that she was born in 1911. But Mahalia’s aunts disagreed. Mahalia was born a few months after her cousin Porterfield. He was born in 1912, so Mahalia could not have been born in 1911. October 26, 1912, was the correct date, the aunts said.”

If I had been writing for younger children, where word counts are limited, I would have used the birthdate given on her tombstone in the text. Then I would have added  a note in the back matter about the two different dates because I think it’s important to address problems with the facts.

Many years ago, I was told that the way to decide if something is true or not is that if you find the information in three different sources, you can be pretty sure it’s accurate. That isn’t full proof. It could be that those three sources all came from a fourth source that was not correct. When I was writing about Neil Armstrong, I toured the Neil Armstrong museum in Wapakoneta, Ohio. They have an old bicycle on display that Armstrong rode when he was young. Armstrong got his pilot’s license when he was sixteen, before he had a driver’s license. The local airport is three miles outside of town. According to the tour guide, Armstrong rode his bicycle out to the airport for flying lessons. It’s a nice story and it has been published in several places. But later, I found an interview with Armstrong where he talked about that story and said it wasn’t true. He had hitchhiked out to the airport.

The story I heard at the museum could be right. I know how hard museums and historical societies work to make sure the facts are correct and they have plenty of primary sources at their disposal. On the other hand, the interview with Armstrong planted some doubt in the corner of my mind. That was my second lesson in getting to the truth, digging deep. I may not have found what Armstrong said about the bicycle story if I wasn’t obsessive about the research.

Getting to the truth can be a challenge and I’ll have more to say about that in a future blog. In the meantime, I’d like to hear from you. Have you run into inconsistencies with the facts? How did you handle it? I hope you’ll share your experiences.

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.

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.

Author Sally Isaacs and Her New Book

Arctic-Adventure-Small@2xSally 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.

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.

 

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