Month: March 2014

On Writing an Unauthorized Biography

bookdonpicLast year, freelance writer and editor Katherine Don published Real Courage, a young adult biography of Harper Lee, the intensely private author of To Kill a Mockingbird. In this post, she discusses the joys and challenges of researching the much admired, much sought-after writer’s life.

“On Writing an Unauthorized Biography”

By Katherine Don

When Morgan Reynolds asked me to write a YA biography of Harper Lee, I did some quick research before accepting the gig and discovered that she was a literary enigma of sorts: a woman who wrote a book, won the Pulitzer Prize, and then stepped away from public life and never wrote a book again. How was I supposed to write a biography of a woman who stopped giving interviews in 1964? But then I realized the flip side. Fantastic! From a research perspective, I couldn’t think of anything easier.

This turned out to not be the case. Researching a biography with so little source material is its own kind of challenge. When there’s so little available, any curious researcher will treat the breadcrumbs that are out there like little cryptograms that might provide some previously unrecognized insight. And so I found myself scrutinizing the transcript of a speech that Harper Lee gave in 1983 as if it were a map to the Staff of Ra. Herein is the key to her soul! But, in the end, it was just a speech.

After Mockingbird was published in 1960, Harper Lee published precisely three essays (two in 1961, one in 1965), gave one speech (the previously mentioned one in 1983), and published a short letter to Oprah Winfrey in O, The Oprah Magazine in 2006. That’s it.

The impulse of writers and journalists has been to travel to Monroeville, Alabama, Lee’s hometown where she lived most of her adult life (she also had an apartment in New York), and essentially stalk her. Marja Mills, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, moved into a house next door to Lee and her sister Alice in 2004. Her subsequent effort to write a book about Lee was delayed for years as Harper Lee denied having authorized Mills to write a biography. This coming July, Mills’ book will be published by Penguin Press, but it won’t be a biography of Lee; it will be a “memoir” of Mills’ experience with her.

The most fruitful effort to date to reconstruct the life of Harper Lee was the research of Charles Shields for his 2006 unauthorized biography, A Portrait of Harper Lee. Shields put on his journalist hat and uncovered new information by interviewing Lee’s grammar school, high school, and university classmates. He also combed the letters of past Lee friends and acquaintances for correspondence with Lee. Unfortunately, letters from Lee were conspicuously absent from Truman Capote’s papers.

Shields’ book had so much raw information to present that it didn’t focus as much on deciphering Lee’s personality. For my own book, I hoped to emerge with some sort of new insight, and so I perused the academic scholarship on To Kill A Mockingbird, hoping the book would reveal the woman behind it. Several academic writers have focused on Lee’s ambiguous sexuality and the portrayal of gender in Mockingbird, which is certainly interesting, but difficult to write about in the complete absence of Lee’s own insight on the topic—she has never spoken about her sexuality or the conspicuous absence of romantic ties in her life.

For me, the most interesting aspect of Lee was her love for the South and for small-town life. This is something that rarely gets discussed because Mockingbird is often seen as a critique of the South. But in truth, Lee is somewhat of a Luddite (and I mean that in a positive way) with a romantic notion for older, simpler ways of life. In order to explore that, I needed to delve into the historical context of Alabama in the 1930s, when Lee grew up and when Mockingbird takes place, and also the ’60s, when Mockingbird was published. This was a perfect research angle because historical context is so important for a YA book geared toward junior high and high school students.

And so much of my research ended up being about historical topics such as the decline of the agricultural economy during the Great Depression and the events that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Weaving the historical topics with Lee’s life allowed the history to come alive and allowed Lee to be a moving, breathing person in context.


A Tale of Two Countries

9780544050501_hresGrandfather’s Journey: 20th Anniversary Edition
Written and Illustrated by Allen Say
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013, Boston, $17.99)

Every immigrant knows the sorrow of leaving home; the lucky ones also experience the excitement of discovering a new land. The most fortunate find themselves with a foot in two worlds. However, although they have two homes, neither feels complete: a part of them is always in another land. In Grandfather’s Journey, writer and illustrator Allen Say conveys the joys and lingering wistfulness of migration as he relates how his grandfather divided his life between the U.S. and Japan. The picture-book biography has an arresting structure: each page contains a painting that, like a photograph, captures a single moment in the life of Say’s grandfather. Below each illustration lie a few lines of text that act as a caption. Say’s illustrations convey the beauty of both countries, his grandfather’s youthful excitement, his pride in his growing family, the horrors of war, and the poignancy of homesickness. With Say’s understated prose and graceful illustrations, this twentieth anniversary edition of Grandfather’s Journey should move adults and children of all ages.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Meet the Biographer: Katherine Don

bookdonpicA freelance writer, editor, and researcher, Katherine Don has contributed to nonfiction books and to such publications as Salon and the Huffington Post. Last year, she published her first book for young adults, Real Courage, a biography of Harper Lee. This week, she chatted with Kidsbiographer about her own connection to To Kill a Mockingbird and the joys and challenges of bringing Lee’s world to life.

Kidsbiographer: Your dedication reads: “ For my late grandfather Ronald B. Gilbert, a true Atticus of our time, who fought for civil rights, followed his compass, and kept his eye upon the donut.” If you’re comfortable sharing this with readers, can you tell me how your grandfather inspired you and how he reminded you of Atticus Finch?

Katherine Don: Absolutely! My grandfather, who passed away a few years ago, was a huge presence in my life. He was a dentist by vocation, but a community volunteer and poet at heart. His tombstone reads: “dentist and poet.” Just as Atticus spent a lot of one-on-one time with little Scout and her brother Jem, teaching them how to be good people in this crazy world, my grandfather always seized upon those “teachable moments” that pop up in life to show me and my brother how to deal with the ugly things while fighting for the beautiful. I took his lessons very seriously and still try to apply them to my life today. The donut referred to in my dedication comes from one of my grandpa’s favorite quotes: “As you travel through life, whatever be your goal, keep your eye upon the donut, and not upon the hole.” Also like Atticus, my grandpa was a highly educated, well-read man who stood unwaveringly by his strict moral principles and could sometimes comes off as a bit stern or intimidating, but was truly kind and soft at heart.

Kidsbiographer: What sort of research did you do to write Real Courage?

Katherine Don: This project was fascinating from a research perspective because there’s so little information out there about Nelle Harper Lee. She stopped giving interviews way back in the ‘60s, she published only a handful of essays after Mockingbird, and her family and friends have only rarely spoken publically about her. In fact, it wasn’t until Charles Shields’ 2006 unauthorized biography, A Portrait of Harper Lee, that a book like mine became possible to write. Shields did tons of on-the-ground reporting and interviews with old high school and college classmates. I would say that a good 30% of my material was derived, in one way or another, from Shields’ work. All future Lee scholars owe him a great debt. In addition to practically memorizing Shields’ biography, I read the surprisingly scant scholarly research done on Lee and Mockingbird, primary source documents about relevant events like the Scottsboro trial transcripts (which are fascinating), newspaper and magazine coverage of Lee from over the decades, and Truman Capote’s letters.

: In the biography’s opening chapter, you describe how Harper Lee’s father, A.C. Lee, protects a local man from bullying by the Ku Klux Klan. This remarkable chapter shows readers so much about the places and people who inspired To Kill a Mockingbird: the sleepy Southern town, the local characters, Atticus Finch’s quiet strength. How did you compose it?

Katherine Don: I love this question! I had a great time composing that passage. Since the story is so heavy with meaning, it was important for me to present it as an ongoing narrative rather than a dry historical account. I essentially re-wrote and re-imagined the account of this event from Truman Capote’s cousin, Jennings Faulk Carter, who was Capote and Lee’s childhood friend. Carter’s account of the night that A.C. Lee confronted the Klansmen is, frankly, probably an exaggeration, which is understandable since it’s an account of something he witnessed as a child. A less fantastical account of A.C. confronting the Klan was reported in the Monroe Journal  in 1934.

My personal conjecture is that Jennings’ version, which was published in a book he wrote about his childhood, was a conglomeration of several events—in his version, the Klan confrontation occurs amidst a big party, and Sonny Boleware, the young man who Boo Radley is based on, was involved. Now that I think of it, in many ways there is more truth to Jennings’ inflated version than to the newspaper version. The indulgent caprices of recovered childhood memories add some flavor and texture to an event that was really quite fantastic.

Kidsbiographer: What was the most challenging aspect of writing about Harper Lee’s life for this age group?

Katherine Don: In some cases, I wasn’t sure if the material was age-appropriate. I was particularly concerned about my discussion of the rape trial from To Kill A Mockingbird. In the book, a black man is falsely accused of raping a white woman. In re-reading Mockingbird, I was a little startled at the excessively negative portrayal of Mayella Ewell, the young woman who leveled the false accusation. Mayella had been sexually abused by her father and made her accusation under duress—although Lee is a bit vague on this count—and I was surprised at how little sympathy the book showed toward Mayella.

In my own book, I wanted to use historical information to show that white women sometimes made these accusations under duress. I also wanted to show that another situation—the widespread rape of black women by white men—was a huge, huge problem in that era that shows itself very rarely in American literature and scholarship. I was able to discuss some of these issues in my biography, but I struggled with how to present them in an age-appropriate manner.

Kidsbiographer: What do you hope young adults will take away from Real Courage?

Katherine Don: I’d like for them to gain some insight into the artistic process and see that goodness begets goodness. My book focuses a lot more on historical context than do the other YA biographies of Lee on the market, and as a result, I think young readers will have a unique insight into how writers’ culture and surroundings combine with their upbringings and personalities to create that one-of-a-kind lens through which an individual views the world.

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

Katherine Don: At the moment, I’m not working on any YA as a writer, but I’m working with several YA authors as an editor through my freelance book editing business, The Book Don. One of my authors has a YA paranormal manuscript that I’m enamored with. As for my own writing, I’m working on shorter journalism projects rather than book projects although I’d welcome the opportunity to write another YA book.

Meet the Biographer: Steven Lapham and Eugene Walton

9781585368198In December, Steven Lapham and Eugene Walton published Philip Reid Saves the Statue of Freedom, a picture-book biography of the enslaved craftsman behind the famous landmark. This week, the co-authors tell the story behind the book.

Kidsbiographer:   How did you decided to write Philip Reid’s story?

Walton: While reading some speeches by Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., I met the Philip Reid story for the first time. I was fascinated to encounter this history, but embarrassed that it was new to me. I had just retired from the federal service and was in the market for new projects. I “adopted” Philip Reid and set out to make his recognition by the American public a long-term goal.

Lapham: I’m an editor at the National Council for the Social Studies in Silver Spring, Maryland, just north of the northern tip of Washington, DC. One day in 2005, Dr. Walton walked into our offices and told me the Philip Reid story. We published a lesson plan in Middle Level Learning about Reid, and then Dr. Walton said, “This ought to be a picture book.” He was right, and he and I began working on it as our own project. After eight years and eight letters of rejection from various publishers, Sleeping Bear Press accepted the manuscript and found a wonderful illustrator, R. Gregory Christie.

Kidsbiographer: What sort of research did you do to write Philip Reid Saves the Statue of Freedom?

Walton:  I interviewed Bill Allen, then Architectural Historian of the Capitol, and made a video, Philip Reid and the Slaves Who Built the Capitol (28 min., distributed by CustomFlix, 2004).  Dr.  Allen’s remarks are illustrated by photographs that I found in the photo collections of the Library of Congress. That was the start.

Lapham: We acknowledge some of the excellent historical sources, as well as the help we got from reviewers, on the opening page of our book. Both the Architect of the Capitol, the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, and the National Archives host excellent webpages about Philip Reid and his role. That plaster model of Freedom is the centerpiece at the Capitol Visitor Center in Washington, D.C. As you walk up a grand staircase, you can see it up close from all sides, and you can almost touch it! Philip Reid’s participation at various points in its construction is summarized on plaques at the base of the statue.

Kidsbiographer: Although the picture-book biography contains some moments that convey the horror of slavery, the book emphasizes Reid’s development as a craftsmen. Its matter-of-fact tone actually makes the passages that refer to slavery all the more poignant. For example, when a craftsman purchases young Reid to be his assistant, we learn “When Philip left with Mr. Mills, Philip’s mother sadly sang him a farewell song.” How did you decide to use this approach?

Lapham: At the back of the book, a note explains to our readers that – to bring history to life for young readers – we did invent scenes and dialogue based on what we know about the life of slaves at that time. I’ve visited Washington’s Mt. Vernon, Jefferson’s Monticello, and Middleton Place, a historic plantation near Charleston. All of these living museums have excellent exhibits about slave life. Curators explain the history to you. There are many other sources for our book. For example, I attended a workshop at Oberlin College by the Nigerian musician Olatunji (“Drums of Passion” LP, 1960) back in the 1970s, and that gave me the idea of Philip’s mother singing him a farewell song. The Africans who were shipped to this continent in chains brought with them a living culture of oral history, music, dance, worship, and artisan skills. In our book, we had to convey that message using very few words.

Kidsbiographer:  How did you create Reid’s character, and what role, if any, did historical research play in your development of him?

Walton:  With the exception of Congressman Powell’s positive views of Philip Reid as a human being who’s entitled to have his contributions recognized, there wasn’t much in the official records about Philip Reid as person with individual character.

Lapham: A fascinating document from the April 16, 1863 Emancipation in Washington, D.C states that Philip Reid was “smart in mind.” It’s reproduced on the inside cover-pages of the book, front and back. Children and their parents can work together, searching through the hand-written passages line by line. Philip Reid’s name appears three times. I felt sad as I first read that amazing document. In one section, there’s a dollar “value” listed after Reid’s name.  But then I felt grateful that we’ve preserved this window into the past. And it marks a joyful moment in U.S. history – the Emancipation of 3,100 human beings in the City of D.C.

Kidsbiographer: What do you hope young readers will take away from Philip Reid Saves the Statue of Freedom?

Walton: I hope today’s young readers will not be surprised, in their adulthood, by information on the contributions of slaves in the creation and development of much of this country’s infrastructure.  I hope they, unlike the generations that have gone before them, will know the truth, and I hope the truth will make them free.

Lapham: Dr. Walton is right. Knowing stories from the past gives us more choices and the courage to try some things we might not otherwise have attempted. Kids want to be recognized for the good work they do and for the things they create. There is justice in the fact that Philip Reid – and through him all the unknown black men and women who did so much – begins to be recognized.

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

Last year I completed a short e-Book titled Philip Reid After Slavery. It is not a children’s book, but a book for their parents. This historical fiction focuses on the problems faced by former slaves immediately after the end of slavery, and Philip Reid is challenged to make a new life in Washington, D.C.  While the book imagines his experiences, it is also about the experiences of all Freemen during this period of our nation’s history.

Reading Is Fundamental (RIF) chose our book to be in its 2013-14 collection. With illustrator R. Gregory Christie, I spoke to third and fourth grade students at an RIF event recently. I asked the kids, “How many of you keep a notebook? Not one for school, but one that you jot down ideas in?” More than half of the little hands shot up. I said, “Keep it by your bed and write down your story ideas, jokes you make up, cartoon sketches, words that rhyme, anything. That notebook is your source of projects. Not everything becomes a big project. But that’s where you go for ideas. You can use the rough ideas in there to make holiday cards and funny signs around the house. You can write your own radio drama. You can write your own song and sing it as you walk. You can get some blank paper and a stapler and make your own book today.”

Meet the Biographer: Ronald Lankford

Lankford, RonnieMusic scholar Ronald D. Lankford has penned books about Christmas carols, female singer-songwriters of the nineties, and American folk music. Earlier this year, he published Proud, a young-adult biography of James Brown. This week, he chatted with Kidsbiographer about discovering Brown’s music, presenting the icon’s complex political views, and writing for young adults.

Kidsbiographer: Can you discuss your own relationship with James Brown’s music? When did you first become a fan – or, at least, aware of his influence on
American music?

R. Lankford: I came to Brown’s music much later in life.  I grew up listening to classic rock, and unfortunately, AOR stations included few black artists. Jimi Hendrix may have been the exception.  Sure, I knew Brown’s hits, but I’d never dug deeper. I believe I traced Brown backwards, starting with  Funkadelic in the ‘70s and then going back to Brown’s classic ‘60s work.

I came to love Brown’s music for a couple of reasons. First, the sheer energy he pours into it makes lots of other music sound milquetoast. He sounds like a man who’s given everything he’s got  . . .  and then some! The other thing is the high quality of the songs and the musicians backing Brown. Altogether, these factors created a highly authentic music.

Kidsbiographer:  What was the most interesting fact or anecdote you uncovered while researching Proud?

R. Lanford: It amazed me that Brown was recording Live at the Apollo—that these live shows were taking place at the Apollo—in the midst of the Cuban missile crisis (October 1962). Some historians say that the crisis is the closest we’ve ever come to nuclear war. People dealt with it in different ways, including blowing off steam at a James Brown concert.

Some folks must have realized—This could be it!  I’m sure that a lot of the power poured into Live at the Apollo—from Brown and from the audience—came from fear and nervous energy.  

Kidsbiographer: In Proud, you integrate an account of Brown’s life and career with contextual information about American and musical history. What was the most challenging aspect of combining these elements?

R. Lankford: Probably looking at the ‘60s with all the political discontent and trying to understand where Brown—his music and his politics—fit in.  He was slow to get involved in politics, ignoring much of the civil rights movement, and when he did get involved, he was often—among African-American liberals—controversial.

For instance, most black activists were highly critical of the established leaders of the time. Brown, on the other hand, worked with Vice President Hubert Humphrey. What really got Brown in hot water, though, was his trip to Vietnam. For him, he was helping out by delivering real soul music to blacks and whites serving in Vietnam. To many activists, however, Brown was seen as supporting a war that drafted a disproportionate number of black soldiers to do the government’s dirty work.

When I described Brown and his music in the ‘60s, I had to keep my eye on two or three things at once: he was of his own time, but he was always his own man.

Kidsbiographer: In the past, you’ve published scholarly books about musical history. Now you’ve made the leap into YA biography! How did it feel to write for a younger, less specialized audience?

R. Lankford: This is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Sometimes, when writing for a specialized audience, you’re in danger of losing the bigger picture. For instance, if I had been writing as an academic, I might have taken four or five pages to analyze a song like “I Feel Good.”

Writing for a young adult audience, it’s less a matter of hitting the high points of Brown’s life than touching on central questions: why was Brown’s music so revolutionary during the ‘60s? How did he influence the development of funk and rap? Why is his legacy still so important to us?

Kidsbiographer: What do you hope young adults will take away from Proud?

R. Lankford: The easy answer here would be to say that we could learn a few dos and don’ts from Brown’s behavior. He had incredible drive and talent, but also a self-destructive streak. For anyone wishing to achieve anything, Brown offers both inspiration and a warning.

What I really want young adults to take away is an appreciation of Brown’s music. I think that we, in America, often pay so much attention to whatever’s new, we only manage to remember older songs if they make it onto an oldies program. Brown’s music is too revolutionary and too much fun to fade into the past. I want young adults to read the book and then go out and download a bunch of classic Brown tracks.

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

R. Lankford: I’ve been writing about Christmas music in America (Sleigh Rides, Jingle Bells, & Silent Nights) and I’ve got two holiday ideas that I’m hoping to develop. One is a cultural history of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer; the other, a book about the cultural impact of Elvis’ Christmas Album in 1957. Both should be lots of fun!

Quiet Strength

ImageReal Courage: The Story of Harper Lee
By Katherine Don
(Morgan Reynolds, 2013, Greensboro, North Carolina, $ 28.95  )

Harper Lee has only published one novel in her lifetime, but that book has influenced countless Americans, especially schoolchildren, since its 1960 publication. In Real Courage, Katherine Don tells the story of the woman who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. Don explores the novel’s historical contexts, weaving her account of Lee’s life with discussion of the era’s political and artistic currents. The young adult biography also considers the people and places who inspired Mockingbird: in a gripping opening chapter, readers enter the sleepy Alabama town where Lee grew up and meet her father A.C. Lee, a local lawyer. In a scene worthy of the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, Mr. Lee quietly defends a vulnerable man from bullies. This chapter is an ideal introduction to Lee’s convictions, just as Don’s nuanced biography is a thoughtful introduction to the woman herself.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Racing Scientists

9780547815497_hresChasing Cheetahs: The Race to Save Africa’s Fastest Cats
By Sy Montgomery
Photographed by Nic Bishop
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014, Boston, $18.99)

Behind many of the great wildlife conservation movements of the last thirty years lies a strong scientist-advocate. In the world of cheetah conservation, that figure is Laurie Marker. The founder of the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), Marker oversees a variety of programs to promote species’ survival: genetics research, school visits, a veterinary clinic, outreach to farmers, and a visitors’ center in Namibia that allows people to interact with cheetahs who cannot be released into the wild.

In Chasing Cheetahs, Sy Montgomery and photographer Nic Bishop transport middle-grade readers to the Namibian bush, where Marker, her large staff, and volunteers work tirelessly to save these elegant cats from extinction. The book includes a short biography of Marker, whose love of animals surfaced in childhood. Montgomery never condescends to her audience, educating them about such complex topics as DNA structure and the importance of predators to ecosystems. She also never shields them from difficult truths: she matter-of-factly explains how farmers kill many cheetahs to protect their livestock and how CCF is working to change that by providing farmers with large dogs to guard their animals. Although some younger readers may find the scientific information overwhelming, those interested in animals will devour Chasing Cheetahs.

Bishop’s photos capture the beauty of the African plains and the animals to whom Marker has devoted her life. Cheetahs race, recline, stretch, and leap over the book’s pages; some stare regally at or through readers, their amber eyes fixed on some distant point. Other photos feature the other animals, both wild and domestic, who call the Center and the surrounding reserve home. These compelling images should linger with readers long after they finish Chasing Cheetahs, ensuring the swift, spotted cats a permanent home in their hearts.

-Dorothy A. Dahm