Month: August 2011

Meet the Biographer: Ann Ingalls

Last year,  Ann Ingalls and Maryann Macdonald co-authored The Little Piano Girl, a picture book about jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams. Ingalls, a former kindergarten teacher, lives in Kanas City, Missouri with her husband and two cats.

This week, Ann Ingalls talked to Kidsbiographer about collaboration, the line between biography and fiction, and the joys of introducing kids – and adults – to jazz.

Kidsbiographer: You and co-author Maryann Macdonald are sisters. How did you collaborate on The Little Piano Girl and how did it feel to work so closely with a family member?

Ann Ingalls: Maryann and I have collaborated of several projects. We understand one another so well and are really good friend in addition to being sisters. I would be happy to work with her any day of the week.

Kidsbiographer: What led you to write about Mary Lou Williams for young children?

Ann Ingalls: I first learned about Mary Lou Williams while writing J is for Jive, an alphabet book about jazz. A noted jazz historian suggested I take a look at Mary Lou Williams for that project. Once I took a look, I was hooked. I shared what I learned with Maryann and we agreed to team up on that project.

Kidsbiographer: Although The Little Piano Girl is about a real person, the book is classified as fiction and not a picture-book biography. Can you tell me about how you made that decision?

Ann Ingalls:  We did an enormous amount of research to write The Little Piano Girl. Because we know that Mary Lou was routinely invited into people’s homes, but we don’t know exactly what she might have said to those individuals, we had to create a bit of dialogue to move the story along. I hope readers will think this that was successful.

Kidsbiographer: Can you tell me about the research you did for this book?

Ann Ingalls: Maryann and I read the same books, both interviewed Father Peter O’Brien, Mary Lou Williams’ agent, read Mary Lou’s own handwritten notes, magazine interview and the like. I wrote the first draft and we passed it back and forth many, many times until we were satisfied with every word and phrase. Happily, Houghton Mifflin made very few changes.

Kidsbiographer:  How have kids responded to The Little Piano Girl? What’s the most gratifying feedback you’ve received from children – and from parents and teachers?

Ann Ingalls: Parents, teachers and kids seem to really like this book and Mary Lou’s story. We have been to the Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, the American Jazz Museum and to many schools and libraries. Her story seem to resonate with others because everyone knows what it’s like to work hard to achieve something important. We are really happy to introduce Mary Lou to those who might never have heard of the “First Lady of Jazz.”

Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?

Ann Ingalls: Maryann has several books coming out next year. Odette’s War, the story of a young Jewish girl who went into hiding will be released by Bloomsbury.

Maryann and I co-authored a book that Pilgrim Press is releasing this coming spring. Worm Watching and Other Wonderful Ways to Lead Young Children to Pray is a guide parents or teachers can use.

I have just completed a book on Thomas Garrett, the stationmaster on the eastern branch of the Underground Railroad that is under consideration at Calkins Creek and at several other publishing houses. Here’s hoping….

Meet the Biographer: Ann Angel

Ann Angel has received lots of acclaim for Rise Up Singing, her 2010 young adult biography of Janis Joplin, including the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults.  This week, she chatted with Kidsbiographer about learning from Joplin’s life and introducing her music to a new generation of independent women.

Kidsbiographer: When did you become a fan of Janis Joplin?

Ann Angel: I’m not actually sure when I first heard Janis Joplin sing. I just remember her powerful voice and unique style. She stood out there all alone and didn’t seem to care what everyone else thought about her. Everyone else was listening to the Beatles and the Dave Clark Five and girl groups, but I would listen to Janis and I knew that I wanted to be independent and strong. By the time I was a senior in high school, I was pretty sure that I didn’t need or want to follow the popular girls anymore. I wanted to do my own thing.

Kidsbiographer: To write Rise Up Singing, you interviewed those close to Janis, including her family members and bandmate Sam Andrews. What was the most surprising insight you gleaned from those deeply personal interviews?

Ann Angel: Strangely there was no surprise information that came out of my research although I found some amazing and rarely seen images. Janis’s early life has been pretty well chronicled through her own letters home and in an early biography, Buried Alive, written by her very dear friend Myra Friedman.

My job was to write Janis’s story from the perspective of a teen who loved her and mourned her death. I set out to uncover the source of that love, and I found that Sam and Myra and Janis’s family all had a tremendous depth of love for her. Janis had a supportive and loving family and supportive and loving friends.

In telling Janis’s story, I also came to appreciate the connectedness of our humanity. Janis’s story is played out every day in less media-centered ways – in families fighting bullying and substance abuse issues, in families trying to figure out how to help and support each other.

Kidsbiographer: In Rise Up Singing, you relate how Janis wrote long, chatty letters to her parents and younger siblings even at the height of her touring and partying. Like many artists of her generation, Janis is regarded as the personification of rebellion, not someone who nurtured family relationships. How have readers responded to this side of Janis?

Ann Angel: Readers are often amazed to realize she was such a sensitive and loving friend and family member. They like that about her. New readers tell me they download her music and hear it, even if not for the first time, as the work of a terribly sensitive, smart, and vulnerable young woman.

Kidsbiographer: One of my favorite aspects of Rise Up Singing is your refusal to glamorize or condemn Janis’s drug use and tempestuous personal life, thus sparing readers both a heroic saga and a cautionary tale. How did you decide to approach this side of her life for young adults?

Ann Angel: I think of Janis as my own personal flawed hero and cautionary tale. But it was my decision to take a message from the reality of her life. As a teenager, I loved her and mourned her death and wished she hadn’t struggled with substance abuse. I think others can learn that from her story without my narrative moralizing. So I wanted to tell her story in the way it played out – to show why fans like me loved Janis and still do – without glamorizing or demonizing her life choices. I believe that readers, whenever confronted with a flawed hero, have the opportunity to learn from that hero’s life.

Kidsbiographer: Has your book introduced a new generation to Janis Joplin? What is some of the most gratifying feedback you’ve received from young adult readers?

Ann Angel: I spoke at the Gulf Coast Museum in Port Arthur,Texas, and was stunned when an entire girls’ baseball team showed up in their cleats and uniforms to hear what I had to say. One after another, these girls asked me to sign their books and said they were downloading Janis’s music. They had no idea she had broken the ranks of the “men only” rock star club. That made Janis a hero in their minds…they saw her as strong and vulnerable and hearing her music spoke to their own desires to have a solid place in the world.

Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or future projects?

Ann Angel: I just finished a young adult novel. I’ve got someone reading it now for feedback. But I’m also working on a nonfiction project on human trafficking in America. I want this book to be preventative and to help young adults look at how our hypersexualized culture may be jeopardizing so many young adult lives – both guys and girls – because it objectifies them.

Jazz Baby

The Little Piano Girl: The Story of Mary Lou Williams, Jazz Legend
By Ann Ingalls and Maryann Macdonald
Illustrated by Giselle Potter
(Houghton Mifflin Books for Children,New York, 2010, $16)

Mary Lou Williams was one of the twentieth century’s most famous jazz pianists and composers, renowned for her versatility and distinctive playing style. But before she became a legend, she was the little piano girl, who entertained her neighbors for coins. Williams’ talent surfaced early, and music helped her transcend the poverty and bigotry she faced as a young black girl growing up in early twentieth-century Atlanta and Pittsburgh.

In The Little Piano Girl, Ann Ingalls and Maryann Macdonald explore Williams’ early life. Music healed the young musician when other children scorned her: “Ugly names and cruel words… Mary called them ‘bad sounds,’ and she taught herself to play them out.” One of the picture book biography’s chief joys is its evocative, jazz-inspired language, a cadence uniquely suited to its subject. The other is Giselle Potter’s illustrations, which capture the joy and surprise the girl’s playing elicited in her friends and family. Readers see happiness unfolding over Mary’s face and others as she “bashed beauty out of those piano keys.”

The Little Piano Girl is a Cinderella story – most children will recognize the (surprise) fairy tale motif – and an introduction to jazz as a genre. The book should spark both kids’ and adults’ interest in the Piano Girl’s work.

Dorothy A. Dahm

Meet the Biographer: Mary Morton Cowan

Mary Morton Cowan won the 2010 National Outdoor Book of the Year award for Captain Mac, her biography of arctic explorer Donald Baxter MacMillan. She is also the author of Ice Country, a historical novel featuring MacMillan, and Timberr…. A History of Logging in New England, which received the Maine Library Association’s Lupine Honor Award.  Ms. Cowan lives in Maine.

Ms. Cowan spoke with Kidsbiographer last week about the joys of researching MacMillan’s adventures and the explorer’s impact on her life and many others.

Kidsbiographer: In your author’s note, you mention that your grandfather and Captain Mac were friends, that you saw his schooner sail in 1954, and that you attended some of his lectures and films. Did you ever meet Captain Mac?

MMC: Whenever Mac showed his films anywhere near Portland,Maine, our family was there. I don’t recall a formal introduction because I was only 6 or 7 years old the first time I met him. But three things I remember distinctly – his booming voice, his hearty laugh, and his spectacular movies. Physically he was short, but his commanding voice revealed a man of determination and grit.

Kidsbiographer: What did he and the Arctic  represent to you during your childhood?

MMC: It was exciting for me to know a REAL explorer who had great adventures! We did not have TV when I was young, and seeing movies of a wild and totally strange world was memorable. His movies were riveting – huge icebergs, strange Arctic animals, fascinating people. Everything about the Arctic was  captivating – still is, for that matter! A few years ago, when Mac’s old movies were digitized, I was surprised by how well I remembered them.

Kidsbiographer: Captain Mac appears as a character in your novel Ice Country. How did it feel to use a historical figure as a character and then to write a biography of that person?

MMC: Actually, I wrote the biography first – at least, an early version of it. But it didn’t feel quite right.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the research for the biography was interviewing about a dozen men who had sailed with Mac as students. So fascinating, in fact, that I dropped the biography and wrote Ice Country. Every single man told me that he had the best summer of his life when he sailed with Captain Mac, so I decided to create an expedition starring a fictional teenager who has the best summer of his life. I added conflicts, but the plot generally followed the itinerary of a typical MacMillan Arctic expedition.

It felt a bit strange writing a sailing adventure with a crew of fictional characters, while keeping Captain Mac real. But after those great interviews, Captain Mac became very real to me. The men related how Mac acted, expression he used, his mannerisms, and demeanor. Without their interviews, I never could have done it.

But I couldn’t get the biography out of my head. Kids today know about Arctic explorers like Robert Peary and Matthew Henson, but they don’t know about Captain Mac. I decided I must tell them. Fortunately, I found an editor who liked the idea. She has high standards, so I had a lot of revising to do – and I am ever so thankful for her guidance. She wanted it to read like a novel, and people tell me that it does.

Kidsbiographer: Mac’s wife Miriam and the men who spent summers sailing with him as teenagers readily shared their memories of Mac with you. What about their recollections did you find especially intriguing or surprising?

MMC: The first thing that surprised me was that every man I contacted stopped whatever he was doing immediately to chat with me about Mac. One physician told me to come right down to his office and we’d talk. Others had me come to their homes or offices and were eager to share their experiences. They pulled out photos. One man showed me several hundred feet of movies he had taken. Clearly, their lives were changed because of MacMillan. Mac introduced them to various branches of science, he taught them a love of sailing, and, most of all, he gave them confidence to explore. Mac expected a lot of his “boys,” and they found themselves able to do things they never dreamed of. Every single one felt his life had been greatly enriched by sailing with Captain Mac.

Miriam had adored Mac since she was a little girl, and that still showed when I chatted with her in her 80s. She was so thrilled I was writing about him, she spent hours sharing anecdotes with me, all of which helped me understand Captain Mac.

Kidsbiographer: Captain Mac is listed as being suitable for ages ten through adult. What was the most challenging aspect of constructing a biography that appeals to such a wide age group?

MMC: I never considered writing for such a wide age group. I focused on middle-grade students because I wanted to introduce them to this explorer and share his exciting life with them. But I didn’t write “down” to them, and that may be why adults find it enjoyable to read. Also, I think the Artic still fascinates most of us and that Mac led such a fascinating life that folks of all ages like to read about it.

Kidsbiographer: What are some of the most gratifying responses you’ve received from kids – and parents and teachers for that matter – about Captain Mac?

MMC: Boys and girls continually tell me they like reading about all the dangers Mac got into – on the ice, with polar bears, walrus, musk oxen, nearly starving to death. And the silly parts, like baking a disastrous cranberry pie and trying to tame a polar bear. It gets kids thinking. One 8th grader said, “ I can’t imagine how he could want something so much.”

Several of Mac’s relatives have thanked me for writing about him because there is little else out there about him. One of Mac’s “boys” said, “I like the way you captured his spirit.”

Teachers are impressed with the accuracy and amount of research that I put into the book, and they like the way it fits into several units: Social Studies, Science, etc. A number of parents have enjoyed reading the book as a family with their younger children liking the many pictures.

Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or future projects?

MMC: I tend to multi-task, so at the moment, I’m working on another historical novel, plus a couple of nonfiction books.