Month: September 2012

Meet the Biographer: Catherine Reef

Catherine Reef has published biographies about a variety of literary figures, including E.E. Cummings, Ernest Hemingway, and Jane Austen. This October, Clarion will publish The Brontë Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Ann, her middle-grade biography of the novelists. This week, Reef chatted with Kidsbiographer about her responses to the Brontë’s lives and fiction.

Kidsbiographer: One of my favorite aspects of the biography is your refusal to take the Brontës at their own assessment. That is, you don’t accept their romantic idea of themselves as tortured artists persecuted by those around them and demeaned by their employment. Obviously, the family suffered a great deal, but you acknowledge that the sisters were difficult colleagues and employees when they worked as teachers and governesses. How did you learn about their quirks, and how did those revelations correspond with your previous vision of them?

Catherine Reef: If I relied on my subjects alone to explain themselves to me, then I never would write a fair, insightful, well-rounded biography. We are all conscious of the way we present ourselves to the world. We want to make the best impression we can, and therefore we may minimize or fail to mention shortcomings or mistakes. By listening to family members, friends, acquaintances, and even adversaries, a biographer sees a more complete picture of her subjects acting in their world.

I had no clear vision of my subjects when I began my work on The Brontë Sisters. I knew only the most basic facts of their lives – the remote childhood, the masculine pen names, Charlotte’s short-lived marriage, the early deaths – although I was familiar with their novels, of course. I came to know Charlotte, Emily, and Anne as I read surviving accounts written by the sisters themselves and by people who knew them. These include letters, journals, memoirs, and documents like the sisters’ “diary papers,” which offer candid views of family life inside the Haworth parsonage. I should also add that because the sisters’ lives informed their fiction, the Brontës’ novels contain important clues to who they were and aided me in my effort to understand them.

Kidsbiographer: As startling and outspoken as the Brontës could be, they were also women of their era, as The Brontë Sisters makes abundantly clear. Charlotte accedes to her father’s wishes by at first refusing the man she eventually marries; later, she destroys a friend’s letters at her otherwise mild-mannered husband’s command. Understanding human behavior in its historical context is difficult even for well-educated adults. How do you think kids will respond to Charlotte’s obedience?

Catherine Reef: This is a good question. Teens and preteens are idealistic – often courageously so – and they have zero tolerance for hypocrisy. I’m sure some readers will understand why Charlotte acted as she did, but I can imagine others insisting she was wrong to obey her father and husband rather than do what she knew was right, or asking why a grown woman would behave this way, even when faced with societal restraints. Such questions lead to fruitful discussions, though, don’t they?

And doesn’t Charlotte’s friend Mary Taylor offer a refreshing contrast? Mary vowed never to marry as long as marriage meant giving up her property and her rights, and she boldly sailed to New Zealand–then a rough and ready place–and went into business there. Mary’s example shows readers that not every Victorian woman conformed to society’s expectations.

Kidsbiographer: When I first received my advance copy of The Brontë Sisters, I was a bit surprised the book targets a middle-grade audience. Given the often torrid nature of their fiction and some of their experiences – particularly their brother Branwell’s affairs and addictions – I thought the book might be more appropriate for young adults. Then I remembered I was ten when I first devoured Jane Eyre – and I felt sorely ashamed of underestimating middle-grade readers. How old were you when you first discovered the Brontës, and what were those early encounters like?

Catherine Reef: My first childhood encounter with the Brontës had to be watching the 1944 film Jane Eyre on television. The scenes at Lowood School made the strongest impression on me, especially the one in which young Jane and her friend Helen Burns (played by Peggy Ann Garner and Elizabeth Taylor) share a bed, and Helen dies in the night. Chilling! I read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights when I was twelve or thirteen – my parents owned a gift set with striking woodcut illustrations by Fritz Eichenberg. I know I enjoyed both, but I wish I could recall with clarity my youthful impression of Wuthering Heights  because my thoughts on this enigmatic novel continue to evolve.

It may be that most people first read the Brontës’ novels in high school or beyond, but great books are powerful, and we can never know which literary works are going to speak to which children, or when. In general, I am uneasy with telling a child that a certain book or poem is too difficult for someone his or her age. I have a bad memory of being in the second grade and having the school librarian tell me I could only check out easy readers when I was beyond them in ability and hungry for something challenging. So I’d much rather say, “If you are curious, give it a try!”

Kidsbiographer: Do you have a favorite Brontë sister? What’s your favorite Brontë novel, and why?

Catherine Reef: I often have trouble choosing favorites, especially among my subjects. I grow to know them all quite well, and I discover aspects of their characters that I like and admire, as well as aspects that – well, let’s just say there are some I wish I could change. All three sisters showed courage, writing as they did and publishing their work at a time when it was considered unseemly for women even to know about passion or ambition or vice. I admire Charlotte for stepping out in the world and making a place for herself as a woman of letters as much as I admire Emily for insisting on her privacy because both women were true to their natures. Anne showed extraordinary promise, and I regret that she never had the chance to come into her own.

What would I change about them if I could? I would make them more sensitive to their students’ needs. As someone who writes for young people and cares about their intellectual and emotional development, I hate to see pupils called dolts, told they matter less than a dog, or tied to the furniture. As teachers,  the Brontë sisters disappointed me,  but then they were meant to be novelists and not teachers.

Of the novels, Jane Eyre is the one I know best. Jane herself is a remarkable achievement, a fully developed female character, perhaps the first one in western literature. The novel contains a number of vivid, memorable scenes, from young Jane being locked in the room where her uncle died to Edward Rochester revealing the horrific secret hidden in his attic. I like Wuthering Heights for its complexity and its ambiguity. When Lockwood stands at the graves of Catherine, Heathcliff, and Edgar and marvels at the peacefulness of the scene, I have to wonder just how much of this tale-within-a-tale-within-a-tale was the product of Nelly Dean’s runaway imagination. When reading Agnes Grey, I was reminded of Jane Austen in a way that made me appreciate the magnitude of Anne Brontë’s talent and regret that she didn’t leave us more. So, in short, I can’t choose a favorite novel; there is too much to like about them all.

Kidsbiographer: How has researching the Brontës’ lives altered your experience of their fiction?

Catherine Reef: Understanding how an author’s life and fiction intertwine enriches our reading and teaches us something about how stories are crafted. Even readers who are only somewhat familiar with the Brontës’ story can see how they wove their experiences into the fabric of their novels. For example, Charlotte turned her traumatic memories of the Clergy Daughters’ School into Jane Eyre’s years at Lowood. The time she spent in Brussels and her love for Constantin Heger inspired her novels Villette and The Professor. In the same way, Anne’s work as a governess gave her material for Agnes Grey.

But because I spent so much time with the Brontës, I noticed quite a few borrowings from life that were more subtle. For instance, I recognized the family’s longtime household servant, Tabby Ayckroyd, as a model for the character Nelly Dean in Wuthering Heights. And when I read about Anne conversing with a visitor, a woman who had been abandoned by her alcoholic husband but had successfully built an independent life, I saw an idea find fertile soil in Anne’s imagination. The result was Anne’s second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

The Brontës wrote from their lot in life, but they also wrote in spite of it. For aspiring writers, their situation could hardly have been less promising. They were isolated, they had no money or connections, and they were women in Victorian England. Yet each of the three made a significant contribution to world literature. Because I researched their lives, when I read their novels I appreciate how wondrous their achievement was.

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

Catherine Reef: My next book for Clarion has me very excited. It’s about Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and it explores their public lives as groundbreaking artists as well as their private life as husband and wife. This book will also introduce readers to the artists’ work, providing historical and artistic context as well as insights into each painter’s working methods and artistic goals, thus empowering young people to explore the work in a meaningful way. This dual biography is scheduled to be published in spring 2014.

Later this fall, look for Leonard Bernstein and American Music from Morgan Reynolds. This is a complete biography that follows the great musician and composer from childhood, when he dedicated his life to music, through his glorious Carnegie Hall conducting debut in 1943, and into adult life, when he composed his great works for the concert hall and musical theater. Bernstein also conducted orchestras throughout the world, introduced generations of young Americans to classical music, and served as an unofficial ambassador for peace. He embraced life, and so should we all.

-Read an earlier interview with Catherine Reef about her Jane Austen biography: Jane Austen: A Life Revealed.

Meet the Subject: Temple Grandin

Temple Grandin, biographer Sy Montgomery, and James Birge, president of Franklin Pierce University, where Temple earned her bachelor’s degree.

Famous for such books as Animals Make Us Human and Animals in Translation, animal scientist Temple Grandin is also one of the most well-known Americans with autism. Earlier this year, Sy Montgomery published Temple Grandin, a middle-grade biography of a woman who has spent her life improving conditions for farm animals – and inspiring people on and off the autism spectrum in the process. In the book’s foreword, Grandin herself offers advice to kids who don’t fit at school. This week, she took time to chat with Kidsbiographer about her school experiences, current walk, and her working relationship with Sy Montgomery.

Kidsbiographer: I understand that Sy Montgomery worked closely with you when she researched biography. What was that process like for you?

Temple Grandin: It was wonderful working with Sy.  We had many long, long telephone conversations.

Kidsbiographer: Temple Grandin describes the bullying and social isolation you endured at various points in your education. How did it feel to relive what must have been a painful part of your life?

Temple Grandin: I was bullied in high school.  It was terrible.  The only refuge away from bullies was special interest groups such as horseback riding, model rockets, and electronics.

Kidsbiographer: I found the book a particularly personal and moving biography, in large part because of your foreword and the advice you offer young people who don’t fit in at school. How does it feel to be in a position to help – and inspire – kids who are experiencing the same pain you once felt?

Temple Grandin: I hope the book gives young kids who are different a motivation to succeed.

Kidsbiographer: Your work has improved the lives of countless farm animals and helped changed the way people view animals raised for meat, milk, and eggs. As a professor and animal scientist, you’ve influenced many young scholars. I’m curious to know if you think students should start learning about animal behavior at a younger age, and, if so, what sort of animal behavior curriculum would you like to see elementary and high school teachers develop?

Temple Grandin: Children should learn about animal behavior.  For very young children, they could learn where different wild animals live and what they eat.  The local zoo is a great place to start.  Older high school students could take college-type animal behavior classes. They may want to read Animals in Translation and Animals Make us Human.

Kidsbiographer: What kinds of projects are you working on now?

Temple Grandin: My grad students are working on individual differences in the behavior of beef cows when they defend their calf. I am in the process of updating my book on Genetics and the Behavior of Domestic Animals.

Kidsbiographer: What advice would you give to kids – or adults – who want to reach out to someone with autism? What are some effective ways of communicating with and supporting a loved one, friend, classmate, or colleague on the autism spectrum?

 Temple Grandin: Get a person with autism involved in a shared interest, such as racecars, mythology, books, animals, building computers, art, or playing music.


First Mothers
By Beverly Gherman
Illustrated by Julie Downing
(Clarion Books, 2012, New York, $17.99)

Behind every great man is a great woman, the old saying goes. While the great woman is usually assumed to be the man’s wife, his mother might have played an equally formative role in his success. In First Mothers, Beverly Gherman and illustrator Julie Downing offer humorous, sympathetic portraits of the forty-four women who have raised America’s commanders-in-chief.

Gherman takes both her young readers and her subjects seriously. She crisply relates the challenges the various presidential mothers shared – infant and child mortality, disappointing husbands, and a world in which women who defied convention risked censure and most widows had to remarry to secure a decent life for their children. However, despite their similarities, the women constitute a diverse group. Those from hardscrabble backgrounds toiled so that their children could enjoy a better life: Maria Van Buren worked in a tavern, Polly Johnson was a maid and laundress, and Hannah Milhous Nixon baked fifty pies a day. Others, including Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy and Sara Delano Roosevelt, were very much at home in political circles. Some mothers were doting, some were critical, and most transmitted a strong work ethic and opinions to their offspring. With its look at ordinary life, First Mothers is as much an introduction to social and women’s history as it is a collective biography.

Julie Downing’s illustrations should delight young readers. The women’s attire and surroundings suggest their era, position, and personality. Some profiles also include short cartoon strips about the women’s relationship with their most famous children. And here, as in life, there is escaping the past: the most outspoken presidential moms, Mary Ball Washington and Sara Delano Roosevelt, appear in other profiles to criticize the other mothers and their sons. Even the presidential seal gets the mom treatment in the book’s frontispiece as Downing has bestowed a cap, knitting needles, baking tools, and a pie on the eagle.

First Mothers accomplishes what many children’s biographies aspire to do: it links the personal and the political and identifies the human interest in history in a way that should engage even reluctant readers. Parents and educators will find themselves alternately moved, amused, and inspired by the women’s stories.

-Dorothy A. Dahm


After the Silence, Music

The Extraordinary Music of Mr. Ives: The True Story of a Famous American Composer
Written and Illustrated by Joanne Stanbridge
(Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2012, Boston, $16.99)

On May 7, 1915, a German torpedo sunk the Lusitania, an ocean liner en route from New York to Liverpool. Over a thousand innocent civilians died, and on both sides of the Atlantic, people reeled in shock and grief. In New York, a businessman and composer named Charles Ives struggled to make sense of the attack. On the way home from his office, on a train station platform, he heard an organ grinder play “In the Sweet By and By,” a popular hymn. One bystander began to sing the familiar lyrics; soon, others joined him. Before long, New Yorkers of all backgrounds were singing together, putting aside their differences to express their collective grief through music. Later, Ives incorporated snatches of the hymn in a piece he composed about the event: “From Hanover Square North, at the End of a Tragic Day, the Voice of the People Again Arose.”

In The Extraordinary Music of Mr. Ives, Joanne Stanbridge explores this magical, poignant moment in American musical history. Her prose, when she relates Ives’s experiences on the train platform, often reaches poetic heights: “Up the song flows, into the evening sky, rolling out across the ocean, to the sadness on the other side.” Her account captures music’s ability to express what words cannot. Those reading the story aloud may have to suppress their own tears at this juncture.

If Stanbridge’s narrative is strongest when she describes New Yorkers grieving together, her illustrations are the most powerful when she imagines scenes from the Lusitania’s sinking. As no text accompanies these spreads, readers do not know, until they read the book’s afterword, whether these images depict what happened aboard the ship or whether they reflect what Ives might have imagined about passengers’ frantic struggle for survival. The deck tilts, and wide-eyed children leap into lifeboats. These are, surely, among the most startling images in a children’s picture book.

So arresting are Stanbridge’s depiction of the ship’s sinking and her account of its New York aftermath that her discussion, near the end, of Ives’s influences on 20th century music jars. This information, while interesting, would have been better suited to the book’s afterword. However, The Extraordinary Music of Mr. Ives is an extraordinary look at an oft-forgotten chapter of American’s history and music’s ability to heal.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Meet the Biographer: Mary Losure

Longtime public radio reporter Mary Losure has an eye and ear for a good story. This year, she published her first book for young readers, The Fairy Ring, about the fairy photos two young girls took in Yorkshire during and just after World War I. This week, she chatted about traveling to Yorkshire and approaching the story as a journalist.

Kidsbiographer: I understand you did a great deal of traveling to research The Fairy Ring. Can you tell me a bit about your experiences in Yorkshire, where the girls took the famous photographs?

Mary Losure: The main thing, of course, was to visit Cottingley.  I climbed the same hill Frances did. At the crest I saw (as she did) Elsie’s tiny, narrow row house. The room that Elsie and Frances shared is a bathroom now, but the window still looks out over what they called the “beck” –the hidden valley where Frances saw her fairies.  The space under the cellar stairs where Elsie’s father developed the photographs is still there.  The cellar door opens onto the back garden and the little mossy path that leads to the beck.  I walked up the stream, though (unlike Frances) I had rubber boots and didn’t fall in. Parts of the village have changed somewhat, but the gray stone houses, narrow lanes, and nearby sheep pastures are still as they were then.  It’s something I really love about writing non-fiction—you can actually go walk around in your characters’ world.

Kidsbiographer: In the course of your research, you interviewed a number of people who knew Elsie and Frances. What did you learn that you found particularly surprising? Did you hear any anecdotes or insights you wished you could include in The Fairy Ring?

Mary Losure: One of the things that surprised me in England was how many people STILL believe that the Cottingley Fairy photographs showed real fairies. Several people in Cottingley told me they thought that as old ladies, Elsie and Frances got tired of being pestered and “confessed” the photographs were faked just to get reporters to finally leave them alone. It was one of a number of interesting wrinkles I had to leave out.

Kidsbiographer: You include the girls’ fairy photos as well as some of Elsie’s drawings in The Fairy Ring. Which of these images do you find most intriguing, and why?

Mary Losure: For me the most intriguing image is the one of Elsie and the gnome. I love the way for the photo, Elsie wore this gnomish-looking shapeless hat.  (She never wore hats like that in real life.)  I love the way she made him look the tiniest bit wicked, and how she holds out her hand to him as though they are just that minute meeting. It’s one of my favorite things in the whole book.

Kidsbiographer: Despite your straightforward prose style, The Fairy Ring has a magical quality, perhaps because you refuse to pass judgment on the nature of the fairies Frances saw. How did you, as a journalist, approach the story? I’m curious to know if your perceptions of the photos and the girls altered during your research.

Mary Losure: As a journalist, I knew from the beginning that I wanted to tell the true story, from first- hand accounts. I’m not a big fan of historical fiction. I like to know what really happened. And I knew the real plot was as good as any novel’s, if I could just tell it right.

I think what changed as I went along was my perception of Elsie. I hadn’t realized what an artist she was, and what a good sense of humor she had.  Now when I look at the photographs, I see her hand in them.  I see how she designed and staged each one. I see why they have the power they do.

Kidsbiographer: What’s the most gratifying feedback you’ve received from young readers about the book?

Mary Losure: The most gratifying response I’ve gotten by far was one night in a bookstore when an eight-year-old girl brought her copy of The Fairy Ring for me to sign. Her mother asked her “Do you want to tell her how many times you’ve read it?”  The girl nodded and said, very softly, “Four.”

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

Mary Losure: But of course! Thanks for asking!

My next book is about a wild boy found in France in 1797, just after the French revolution. He’s an amazing twelve-year-old hero, and (like Elsie and Frances) he left a great paper trail behind him.  I went to France to research his life in archives and to retrace his journey from the wilderness to Paris. No fairies are involved, so I’m hoping that this time around, it won’t be so hard to convince people I didn’t make anything up.

The book is called WILD BOY: THE REAL LIFE OF THE SAVAGE OF AVEYRON. It’s due out from Candlewick in March of 2013. It will be illustrated by Timothy Basil Ering.

Under and Around the Sun


I, Galileo
Written and Illustrated by Bonnie Christensen
(Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2012)

In seventeenth century Italy, Galileo Galilei published a radical astronomical theory: the planets rotate around the sun. Although this theory was based on observable fact, his writings contradicted the Catholic Church’s vision of an earth-centered universe. The pope placed Galileo, who had spent decades studying physics, astronomy, and biology, who had invented a telescope and a microscope, under house arrest for the remainder of his life.

I Galileo, Bonnie Christensen’s picture-book biography of the astronomer, skillfully blends science, early modern history, and poignancy. Her first-person account of the scientist’s life transports readers from his happy boyhood as a music teacher’s son to his career as a scholar and inventor to his final, solitary years under house arrest. The voice Christensen gives Galileo is lyrical and confident and conveys his sense of wonder about the universe. Meanwhile, her illustrations also capture the beauty of science. The bit of night sky with the stars and moon atop many of I, Galileo’s spreads suggests that magic and science may not be so far apart after all. Her illustrations also allow readers to glimpse the enormous and tiny worlds Galileo revealed through two of his inventions: the telescope and the microscope.

I, Galileo is a trifle text-heavy for the youngest readers and listeners: with its descriptions of various scientific concepts and experiments, it often reads more like a middle-grade picture book. Still, it is possible to enjoy this picture-book biography on many levels, including that of one person’s intense commitment to the truth in the face of threats, punishment, and suppression. But suppression doesn’t last forever. As Christensen’s Galileo says, “The truth has a way of escaping into the light.”

Dorothy A. Dahm