Month: February 2014

Kidsbiographer in Boston

bcityimageKidsbiographer is coming to Boston this spring! I’ll be a member of a panel about young adult biography at the Compleat Biographer, Biographers International Organization’s (BIO) annual conference, which will take place on May 16-18th at UMass-Boston’s campus. Fellow panelists include acclaimed YA biographers Mary Martin Cowan and Kem Knapp Sawyer, both of whose books I’ve reviewed for this site; our moderator is award-winning biographer Catherine Reef. I have had the pleasure of interviewing her on a few occasions, and she has also contributed to Kidsbiographer as a guest blogger. We’ll be discussing current trends in the genre as well as the elements that make a strong YA biography. We’re eager to hear from children’s biographers, aspiring biographers, and all those interested in children’s biography.

The conference promises other delights to those interested in biography: panels on research, writing, and publishing, masterclasses on interviewing and self-publishing, and  a keynote address by  Stacy Schiff, best known for her Cleopatra: A Life, which topped the New York Times (NYT)’ bestseller list in 2010 and made the newspaper’s Top Ten Books of 2010 list.

Hope to see you in Boston this may!

-Dorothy Dahm



Meet the Biographer: Eve Bunting

Eve BuEve Buntingnting has published over two hundred picture books. Last year, she wrote The Cart that Carried Martin, a poignant account of Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral for young readers. Recently, she discussed her reasons for writing the book and her own memories of Dr. King’s death with Kidsbiographer.

Kidsbiographer: How did you decide to write The Cart that Carried Martin?

Eve Bunting: Since coming from Ireland to California, I have become aware of racial prejudice, one kind of problem we didn’t have in the Ireland of that time.  Soon I heard of Martin Luther King, his importance and the legacy of his life.  I began to read about him and the more I read the more I admired him.   In 2008 I came upon an article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution written by journalist Jim Auchmutey. He told about the cart that carried his body to his funeral, of the two mules that drew the cart and of the crowds that came to mourn and say their farewells. A humble funeral for a humble man. That article was the spark that set me thinking about writing a book for children.  Did children know this story?  If not, could I tell them how it was, and how it still is?

I did research, then more and more research. Soon I was filled not only with facts, but with emotion. I was ready to write.

Kidsbiographer: The Cart that Carried Martin is written in a very simple style; I can imagine parents reading it aloud to very young children. And yet, despite the simple prose, the text is poignant and powerful. Tell me how you crafted this moving, accessible narrative.

Eve Bunting: More than anything I wanted to reach young children.  I had found that there were many books for an older audience about Dr. King. Not so many for younger readers. I like to write for that age level and have done many, many books for kindergartners and first and second graders.  I can’t tell you exactly how I pull up that childlike voice.  It comes easily, especially when I have something that I believe needs to be told, words that they can read for themselves or that they can understand when they are “read to.”

Kidsbiographer: Can you describe your own memories of Martin Luther King, Jr. and your emotions when you learned of his death?

Eve Bunting: I never did see or hear Dr.  King in person, but I loved what I heard him say on television and in books. On the day he was assassinated, I was in my front garden when a neighbor drove by in a car, rolled down her window and shouted out to me, “They’ve killed Martin Luther King.”  She was crying.  I ran to her car.  She was so disturbed that the car didn’t come to a full stop, but ran on, slowly, and bumped into a lamppost. She was not injured. The mark of that day is still there, on that lamppost, right outside my door.

Kidsbiographer: What do you hope young readers and listeners will take away from The Cart that Carried Martin?

Eve Bunting: I hope young readers will come away from reading my picture book with a new understanding of Dr.  King’s greatness, his humility, the love that his followers had for him, his vision of peace.That they will want to know more about him.  If that happens, then I will have honored him in the way I wanted to when I wrote The Cart that Carried Martin.


Meet the Illustrator: Don Tate


TateMug662-300x376Don Tate has illustrated numerous children’s books; he is also the author of It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw, which was an Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Honor Book in 2013. Last year, he illustrated The Cart that Carried Martin, a picture book about Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral. Earlier this week, Tate discussed his work on The Cart that Carried Martin with Kidsbiographer.

Kidsbiographer: What sort of research did you do to illustrate The Cart that Carried Martin?

Don Tate: For research, I plowed through thousands of online photos. The Atlanta History Center has a wonderful photo archive, and there are several others. I also read the book Burial for a King, written by Rebecca Burns, which filled in more details about the day.

The cart itself presented a challenge. During the procession, thousands of people flanked around it and followed. I could not see its details in photos, so I visited the Martin Luther King Jr. National Site and took pictures and sketched.

Kidsbiographer: One of my favorite aspects of The Cart that Carried Martin is how many of the spreads – the ones that depict mourners on the street and in church – are group portraits. Although all the faces show sadness, the people express their sorrow differently. Thus, the paintings convey how their grief at King’s death was both collective and personal. How did you compose these detailed group portraits?

Don Tate: Many of the scenes are of crowds. That became a source of anxiety for me. There was no main character to depict. It’s easier to depict emotion through the face of a person or an anthropomorphized animal. But how does one depict emotion with an inanimate object like a wooden cart? Tougher yet, a crowd of tens of thousands of people? To solve the problem, again, I studied photographs, zeroing in on individual people. I studied their faces, their hair styles, glasses, the patterns of their clothes. I saw them as individuals the same as me. What would I have been doing were I in that crowd? I’d have been hugging my wife or consoling my children. I’d have been holding a camera high over the crowd, trying to get a picture of the cart. I acted out many of the scenes and took photos of myself and my expressions.

Kidsbiographer: A particularly powerful illustration depicts the funeral procession at Morehouse College. You adopt a bird’s eye view and paint the mourners in an almost pointillist style to convey the vastness of the crowd. How did you compose this painting?

Don Tate: My goal was to communicate the enormity of the crowd. On pages immediately preceding the Morehouse scene, I pictured the crowd at street level as it passed the Georgia State Capitol. On the next spread, I pulled out a bit more, picturing the cart, the coffin and the family from above. The crowd is large, but that page does not fully illustrate the overwhelming vastness of the crowd. With the Morehouse scene, I pulled back even more. The reader now fully sees the huge size of the crowd. It’s a quiet scene, and hopefully an emotional one along with Eve’s words: “Bells pealed. More people sang. The second service ended.”

Again, photographs informed my painting. The challenge here was to depict an enormous crowd of people.

Kidsbiographer: What were your favorite – and the most challenging – aspects of illustrating The Cart that Carried Martin?

Don Tate: Again, one of the most challenging aspect of illustrating the book was the crowd scenes. I’d never illustrated crowds. But even more of a challenge was getting past my own fear of the subject matter. This would be a Dr. Martin Luther King book. I’d better not mess it up.

My favorite part of illustrating this book was freeing myself to use a looser painting style. Realism would be too heavy for the subject matter. One reviewer on Goodreads described my art for The Cart as childlike. He meant that in a good way; it was an ultimate compliment as that’s what I was going for, something more naive.

Kidsbiographer: What do you hope young readers – and listeners – will take away from the book?

Don Tate: There are a lot of books about the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. There aren’t any books about how his death affected the people who loved him — that I know of. The outpouring of love shown at his funeral was a testament to who Dr. King was. That’s what I want readers to walk away with. Hopefully, The Cart will lead them to other books about King.

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

Don Tate:I have a lot in the works. I illustrated a book written by Chris Barton. It is the story of John Roy Lynch, a man who in ten years went from teenage field slave to Reconstruction-era Congressman. It will publish in 2015. Next I will illustrate a book that I wrote. It’s the story of George Horton, an enslaved poet who became the first African American to be published in the south before the Civil War (his poetry protested slavery). And I’m under contract to illustrate two more books, one of which I wrote as well.


Behind the Statue

9781585368198Philip Reid Saves the Statue of Freedom
By Steven Lapham and Eugene Walton
Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
(Sleeping Bear Press, 2014, Ann Arbor, Michigan, $16.99)

The Statue of Freedom that tops the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. owes its existence in large part to an enslaved African-American, an irony lost on those who commissioned the statue. Assistant to a famous sculptor and a skilled craftsman in his own right, Philip Reid was the only person able to disassemble the plaster model of the statue so that it could be transported to a local foundry and set in bronze. During the casting process, Reid worked seven days a week at the foundry, monitoring its fires. By 1863, when workers mounted the statue to the Capitol Dome, Reid was a free man.

In Philip Reid Saves the Statue of Freedom, Steven Sellers Lapham and Eugene Walton tell Reid’s remarkable story. Although historians know little of Reid’s early life, Lapham and Walton imagine his childhood based on their knowledge of plantation life. Readers see Reid separated from his mother and sold to a sculptor. Despite the enormity of this loss, the authors do not dwell on the sorrows and injustices Reid suffered – or the absurdity of his involvement in the Statue of Freedom. Instead, they matter-of-factly relate his development as a craftsman, a journey that culminates in his work on the famous statue.

R. Gregory Christie’s illustrations convey the pain of slavery and the wonders of Reid’s work. In one spread, an elderly man shows the young Reid skills he learned during his West African childhood; his eyes are moist with memory. Another illustration shows workers pouring liquid bronze at the foundry; it glows red in the dark room. Readers will see why Reid’s craft entranced him despite his enslaved status.

The front and back inside cover of Philip Reid Saves the Statue of Freedom shows the petition Reid’s owner used to request compensation for him from the US government after the District of Columbia emancipated all slaves in 1862. Seeing human beings described in monetary worth should chill adults and older children even while the picture-book biography illuminates a little-known irony in our country’s history.

-Dorothy A. Dahm