Month: August 2013

Meet the Biographer: Roberta Baxter

profilepicRoberta Baxter has written books about chemistry and biographies of scientists for young people as well as children’s  books about American and British history . Recently, she published John Dalton and the Development of Atomic Theory, a young adult biography of English scientist John Dalton. This week, she chatted with Kidsbiographer about John Dalton’s humility and the challenges of seeing science through the lens of an earlier era.

Kidsbiographer: What sort of research did you do to write about John Dalton’s life and work?

Roberta Baxter: I read any biographies of him that I could find, including an early one written in 1895. Through interlibrary loans, I got copies of his books. There is a wealth of information about him on the University of Manchester’s website and on websites about the history of chemistry. I also read chemistry textbooks to see how his Atomic Theory is presented.

Kidsbiographer: What was the most surprising fact or anecdote you uncovered during your research?

Roberta Baxter: There are two incidents that surprised me and I always like to add those to a book because they might surprise others. Both of these relate to the fact that Dalton was colorblind. No one knew what that meant until he studied and identified the condition. It started when he bought his Quaker mother a pair of stockings for her birthday. Quakers do not wear bright colors, so she was amazed that he bought bright red ones. He told her that to him they were blue. His brother also saw them as blue, so Dalton’s curiosity was aroused. He designed an experiment to find out if others saw colors as he did and eventually found that many boys and men had the same vision. He concluded that his vision was different and he wondered if his eye had a different liquid in it that made him see that way. So he asked that after his death, his eyes would be examined. He would never know the result of the experiment, but it might help other scientists determine what caused colorblindness. His eyes were examined and looked normal, but it was years before scientists knew about rods and cones in the eye that impact how we see colors.

Kidsbiographer: Much of John Dalton and the Development of Atomic Theory concerns Dalton’s forays into meteorology, chemistry, and other sciences. You present his experiments and resulting theories with current information about each topic. What was the most challenging aspect of writing about science in this way for this book in particular and young adults in general?

Roberta Baxter: The biggest challenge is putting yourself into the level of understanding of your subject. For example, we take the idea of atoms and how they combine into molecules in distinct ratios for granted. With scanning tunneling microscopes, we can even “see” atoms. But in Dalton’s time, that was not understood. Scientists thought that some undefined matter changed into each known substance. Through Dalton’s thinking and experimenting, he began to think of atoms in a concrete way, and his work convinced others. To him, atoms were so real that he asked a friend to make some wooden ball models which he used in classes. One of his biographers wrote, “Atoms are round bits of wood invented by Mr. Dalton.”

Kidsbiographer: You’ve penned young adult biographies of other scientific pioneers. What is your background in science, and how did you come to write about scientific history for young people?

Roberta Baxter: I have a degree in chemistry and learned about some of these people and their theories in my classes. I was always intrigued by Dalton and so I proposed a biography about him to Morgan Reynolds because they specialize in biographies. As it turned out, the book about Dalton was the fifth book I wrote for them because we started with scientists who lived before him. My favorite topics to write about are science and history, so biographies of scientists fit both passions.

Kidsbiographer: What do you hope readers will take away from John Dalton and the Development of Atomic Theory?

Roberta Baxter: John Dalton faced great challenges, but accomplished great work. He was not rich or powerful enough to attend the best schools, so he taught himself. His great curiosity led him to explore so many topics—color blindness, aurora borealis, atoms, weather, etc. He spent his entire career as a teacher, doing his weather observations and science experiments on his own time. Even after he became famous, he was humble enough to see himself as a teacher. As the start of my book shows, a Frenchman came looking for the famous Mr. Dalton and thought he would find him surrounded by important people. Instead he found Dalton with one small boy. When the man asked to speak to him, Dalton said yes, once he set the boy right with his arithmetic.

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

Roberta Baxter: Another science biography, Ernest Rutherford and the Birth of the Atomic Age, came out from Morgan Reynolds at the same time as the Dalton book. They also will publish one I wrote about Linus Pauling sometime next year. I don’t have any other biographies in the works right now although there are other scientists who would be great subjects. In a departure from my usual projects, I have recently written two books that combine two of my favorite things—science and mysteries. The Vicious Case of the Viral Vaccine and The Harrowing Case of the Hackensack Hacker are published by Tumblehome Learning, and they include short biographies of scientists who are visited by the main characters as they travel through time solving a mystery.

Meet the Biographer: Marc Tyler Nobleman

photoMarc Tyler Nobleman is the author of over seventy books, including Boys of Steel, a picture-book biography of Superman’s co-creators, which was recently released in paperback to commemorate the 75th’s anniversary of Superman’s debut. This week, Nobleman chatted with Kidsbiographer about his own lifelong enthusiasm for the Man of Steel and the lessons Superman’s creators can teach young readers.

Kidsbiographer:  How did you decide to write a picture-book biography of Superman’s creators?

MTN: Being a lifelong Superman fan who turned into an author of nonfiction children’s books made it almost inevitable. But I would not have gotten far if the story lacked drama. The fact that no one else had written a stand-alone biography (in any format!) of writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster also appealed to me.

Kidsbiographer: What sort of research did you do to write Boys of Steel, and what was the most surprising fact or anecdote you uncovered during that process?

MTN: Jerry and Joe both passed away in the 1990s, so I could not speak with either directly. Jerry’s family does not talk to press or writers of any kind due to ongoing litigation with DC Comics. So I relied heavily on the various interviews Jerry and Joe gave, plus did original research. Perhaps the most surprising fact I uncovered is that Jerry’s father was not murdered during a store robbery as had been previously reported; he DID die during a robbery, but due to heart failure. Here is how I found out:

Kidsbiographer: In some ways, Boys of Steel is an all-American success story: both Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster experienced difficult childhoods – the loss of a parent, poverty, ostracization at school –before launching their creation to great heights. What do you hope kids will take away from that aspect of the biography?

MTN: Be persistent! The alternative is worse. I’d much rather go through some rejection to get to success than to always wonder what would have happened if I only tried…

Kidsbiographer: However, in your afterword, you describe Siegel and Shuster’s battles to gain recognition for creating Superman as well as appropriate compensation for their work. What do you hope this part of their story will convey to readers?

MTN: The same! And also claim ownership of your work, with pride.

Kidsbiographer:  In Boys of Steel, Superman begins to seem like an alter ego for Siegel and Shuster: he has the physical strength they lack, and he could prevent some of the terrible things that occurred in their own lives – including Siegel’s father’s death following a robbery in his store. How did you decide to develop this theme in their story?

MTN: The boys themselves laid this out for me, so to speak. They modeled Clark Kent on their own meek demeanor, figuring that would be the best disguise for a superhuman. And it just hit me to use a metaphor referencing Superman’s famous nickname, even more famous after the latest Superman movie, “the Man of Steel.” The boys did not feel strong in their lives till they created a character who was strong…and wildly successful.

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

MTN: Always! The one I am hoping to have news on soon is another true story that fills a gap in history…and involves a flying man. Only this time, he flew in a plane, not with a cape. He was a Japanese WWII pilot who did something no one before—or since—has done, and like Boys of Steel, the story explores what makes a hero. Here’s more:

Meet the Biographers: Paul Brewer and Kathleen Krull

untitledEarlier this year, husband and wife writing team Kathleen Krull and Paul Brewer published The Beatles Were Fab (and They Were Funny), a picture book about the Beatles’ early career. This week, they chatted candidly with Kidsbiographer about their lifelong love for the band, the Fab Four’s legendary wit, and the joys of collaborating on a manuscript.

Kidsbiographer: In your author biographies, you describe your early experiences as Beatles fans. To write The Beatles Were Fab (and They Were Funny), you must have done a great deal of research about the band and the sixties. Can you discuss how your own experience with Beatlemania informed your research and your work on this book?

PB: Being a life-long Beatle fan since the beginning of Beatlemania made me quite passionate about doing this book in the first place.  I had also read numerous books on the Beatles and the sixties, so I was pretty well informed before I even started my research.  I love music and especially like reading rock and roll biographies.  This book was a real labor of love.

KK: When the lads appeared on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964, I was the exact right age to become a devout Beatlemaniac.  My fave was George, though I later switched to John. My parents bought me the latest records and some of the merchandise, including tiny squares of the sheets they slept on in their Chicago hotel.  I used to have a ton of Beatle memorabilia, all dispersed over the years, alas.  It was exciting to recall that Beatle-love and try to make it mean something to today’s kids. The Beatles will live forever and really don’t need our assistance, but I like to think we’re helping to extend their popularity into yet another generation.

Kidsbiographer: The Beatles Were Fab (and They Were Funny) emphasizes the Fab Four’s playfulness – with language, reporters, and the music itself. How did you decide to pursue this angle for the picture-book biography?

PB: Our last book with Harcourt was Lincoln Tells a Joke, which was all about Abe’s keen sense of humor.  We wanted to come up with another book idea centered around a famous person’s sense of humor.  During one of our “power breakfasts,” I brought up the Beatles and their collective wit, especially during their press corps interviews when they toured the US.  The book idea was born, and we sold it to Harcourt in record time!

KK: We like to laugh.

Kidsbiographer: During your research, you must have stumbled upon countless hilarious anecdotes about the Beatles’ early career. What was the funniest story or quote you didn’t include in the book?

KK: We scoured every Beatle book and interview for quotes that would work. We looked for stories that were still funny after all these years, but not too adult or too British or requiring too much background to understand.

PB: There was so much funny stuff that did not make it into the book, mainly because it was too adult for a children’s book—like this:

Q: “What about the gifts? I notice more and more you’ve been getting more and more gifts from fans. What was the most unusual gift you’ve ever received? I know there’s so many – Is there one that sticks out in your mind?”

John: (laughs) “I once received a bra…”

Q: (laughs) “You did?”

JOHN: “…with ‘I Love John’ embroidered on it. I thought it was pretty original. I didn’t keep it, mind you –  It didn’t fit.”

Kidsbiographer: Collaborating on a book is always challenging; I would imagine that writing a picture book with another person is even more difficult. Every word counts, so you have to be very selective about phrasing and diction. What were the greatest challenges – and joys – of writing The Beatles Were Fab together?

PB: On this particular project, I was in charge of finding all the funny quotes that the four made, mainly coming from all the press interviews.  We then made the decisions about what we’d put in the book and in what order.  Kathy wrote the final text with critiques from me and our editor, Jeannette Larson.

KK: Paul is being modest, as we both wrote the text.  He tends to work at night, while I work during the day, so we work alone, but keep passing the manuscript back and forth, over and over until we reach a stage where every word seems right.

Kidsbiographer: What do you hope kids will take away from The Beatles Were Fab (and They Were Funny)?

PB: I think it would be great if those who read this book to children would put on some Beatles music while they read it.  It’d be a great way to set the mood.  The Beatles changed the direction music was going at that time, and so many groups since then have mentioned the Beatles as a major influence on their music.  Letting kids know that these four great musicians were also very funny makes our book a bit more intriguing, I think.

KK: Besides a basic Beatle-intro, I hope kids will realize the power of music – any music they like – in their lives.  Music is a recurring theme in my books, out of a desire to encourage kids’ love for it, especially as it’s now getting cut out of so many school budgets.

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

KK: I have two more books this year, neither of them musical or particularly funny, but lots of fun to work on – Lives of the Scientists: Experiments, Explosions (and What the Neighbors Thought), the eighth book in this series from Harcourt, and Benjamin Franklin in the “Giants of Science” series (Viking).

PB: Last year Kathy and I worked on some school textbooks for Heinemann.  We co-wrote a book about the theremin, a very strange sounding electronic instrument that you don’t have to touch to play.  We wrote another one about robots that are used in space travel.  And we also came up with a humorous idea and wrote one that’s all about the history of April Fool’s Day.  The three untitled books will be out this year and next.  We have other book ideas in the works, but it’s too early to talk about them right now.

Music’s Peter Pan

Bernstein 1945Earlier this year, Catherine Reef published Leonard Bernstein and American Music, a young adult biography, of the composer and conductor. In this essay, she describes her personal admiration for Bernstein and her experiences as a lifelong fan of his work.

By Catherine Reef

Leonard Bernstein captured the public’s attention in 1943, at twenty-five, when he hopped onto the podium at Carnegie Hall to masterfully conduct the New York Philharmonic, and he never lost it. In the years ahead, he was to enjoy a long tenure as the Philharmonic’s music director, and he would conduct many of the world’s leading orchestras. His performances could be electrifying, whether he was conducting or playing the piano, and his interpretations revealed a meticulous study of musical scores. He also distinguished himself as a composer of works for the orchestra and the theater, of pieces as diverse as his Jeremiah Symphony and the musical West Side Story. He wrote an opera, Trouble in Tahiti, decrying the alienation of suburbia, in 1952. He faithfully maintained an affiliation with the Berkshire Music Center, the summer music school known popularly as Tanglewood, and he even became an award-winning television personality. He did it all with a young man’s verve, prompting music critic Harold C. Schomberg to dub him the “Peter Pan of Music.”

It was only natural that a feature article in the New York Times of August 26, 1968, bore a title that echoed the disbelief of many fans: “Can He Really Be 50?” Apparently he could. At fifty Bernstein was as busy as ever. He was collaborating with Jerome Robbins on a project that would prove to be a false start, a Broadway musical based on a one-act play by Bertolt Brecht. He had a full conducting schedule, and he was raising three children with his wife, Felicia. “At 50, he’s looking toward 70 and racing his engine,” writer Thomas Cole observed.

Bernstein would soon retire as musical director of the New York Philharmonic, but for him this retirement offered the chance to take on ambitious new projects. His much-talked-about Mass debuted in 1971, at the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in Washington, D.C. He became active in the anti-war movement, and in 1973 he was back in the nation’s capital to conduct a Concert for Peace at the National Cathedral. He also weathered a rare flop: the musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which he wrote with Alan Jay Lerner to commemorate the U.S. Bicentennial, closed after seven performances in New York.

There were more concerts to conduct, including one celebrating the inauguration of President Jimmy Carter in 1977, and then all too soon it was August 1978, and the Miami Herald was profiling ”Bernstein at 60.” The sixty-year-old Leonard Bernstein was recently widowed and feeling the pressure of the passing years. “I don’t mind that I’m aged, that there are lines in my face,” he told reporter James Roos. “What I mind is the terrible sense that there isn’t much time.”

Even if he feared that his personal clock was running down, he felt at home among the young, and his energy flowed steadily. He worked with Stephen Wadsworth, then a budding writer, on a sequel to Trouble in Tahiti. A Quiet Place revisits the characters in the 1952 opera as they face tragedy, learn to communicate, and make peace with one another. Bernstein was too optimistic for anything but a hopeful resolution. The collaboration, for Bernstein, was an opportunity to convey wisdom to an emerging artist. He was “the great mentor figure in my life,” said Wadsworth, who today directs opera studies at the Juilliard School. “Lenny told me to go forth and do whatever it is I had to do, and without apologizing for it ever. That was just one of many useful things I learned from him, and it’s one I pass on to my students all the time.”

In the summer of 1985, Bernstein embarked on an international tour with the European Community Youth Orchestra that included performances in Hiroshima, Japan, to mark the fortieth anniversary of the atomic-bomb attack on that city. The concerts were part of his lifelong mission to promote peace through music, which had a profound impact on fourteen-year-old Midori, who was there as featured soloist in a performance of a Mozart violin concerto. Bernstein “was taking action and doing something about a cause that he strongly believed in,” she recalled. “For me it was learning by experiencing what was really going on.”

Then it was August 1988, and the New York Times visited “America’s Musician at 70.” Strange but true, “Leonard Bernstein, the perennial wonder boy of American music, is a white-maned eminence,” wrote Donal Henahan. It was as unlikely a scenario as Peter Pan growing old. At seventy Bernstein had become a revered figure. “His exhorting glances and dramatic gestures” were seen as “the necessary eruptions of an overpoweringly musical nature,” noted Henahan.

Bernstein never gestured more dramatically or triumphantly than on December 23, 1989, when he conducted two performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the “Ode to Joy,” one in East Berlin and the other in West Berlin, to celebrate the destruction of the Berlin Wall. For the German word Freude, meaning joy, in the symphony’s final, choral movement, he substituted Freiheit, meaning freedom. It was a great moment for people everywhere. But less than a year later, on October 9, 1990, Bernstein surprised the world by announcing his retirement from conducting. He planned to use the time he had left to compose and teach, he said. The concert he conducted at Tanglewood on August 19 had been his last.

I saw that concert in 1990, when it was broadcast on television. As I watched the maestro labor to lead the Boston Symphony Orchestra through Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, I remarked to my family, “He doesn’t look well.” This was an understatement. Bernstein, a lifelong smoker, was dying. On October 14, five days after announcing his retirement, he left us, although he was far too young. There would be no “Bernstein at 80.”

Leonard Bernstein touched me and countless others with his music and his unfailing optimism. “Good must triumph,” he said in 1966, after leading a concert dedicated to the horrors of war. This was the belief that motivated him, and it is one that all of us who do creative work should take to heart. What reason do we have to compose music or make paintings or write biographies unless we hold the conviction that our work can contribute to the good? What other doctrine will keep us young?