Guest Blog Posts

Choosing Subjects

authorpicAward-winning author Susanna Reich  has written about such varied figures as Julia Child, George Catlin, and Clara Schumann for young readers. Recently, she published Fab Four Friends: The Boys Who Became the Beatles. This week, she is on a blog tour, and she paused in her cyber travels to tell Kidsbiographer how she chooses her subjects.

Choosing Subjects
By Susanna Reich

I’m often asked how I choose my subjects. Do you want to know a secret? (Doo-da-doo….) I start by asking myself several questions:


Did this person do something significant and original?

It helps if a subject is well-known, but whatever their field of endeavor—politics, science, the arts—a lack of fame doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is unworthy of a biography. Not many people had heard of Wilson Bentley before Jacqueline Briggs Martin and Mary Azarian created the Caldecott-winning Snowflake Bentley.


Is there sufficient research material?

What primary and secondary source materials are available? Biographies, memoirs, diaries, letters, archival newspaper and magazine articles, films, audio recordings, art and artifacts? Quality, not quantity, is the deciding factor here. There aren’t that many books about Julia Child, but all of them are good, and her memoir provided wonderful anecdotes for Minette’s Feast. With Fab Four Friends, the challenge was the opposite. Which of the hundreds of books about the Beatles was worth reading? I concentrated on those that were authoritative, original and well-researched. And I listened not just to their songs, but to the musicians who influenced them.


Will this be a cradle-to-grave biography, or will it focus on an important period in the life of the subject? If the former, I’ll need a narrative thread that runs through a person’s life. For the latter, a theme or event that reveals something essential. Fab Four Friends focuses just on the Beatles’ early years and explores how four ordinary kids from Liverpool became the bestselling band in history.


Did this person have an interesting childhood?

For a cradle-to-grave bio, I’ll probably write more about that person’s childhood than an adult biographer would. I want young readers to feel a personal connection to the subject, and I want them to see how childhood shapes who we become.


How can I write about this person in a way that will be interesting to kids?   

Lively language, suspenseful narrative, fully-realized characters, evocative settings—all the hallmarks of good fiction come into play in writing a kid’s biography. These elements get fleshed out over the course of many revisions. I also look for universal themes. José! Born to Dance goes beyond dance to tell an immigration story. Painting the Wild Frontier isn’t just about a painter; it’s an adventure story. Fab Four Friends is a rock and roll book, but also tells of hopes and dreams, friendship and hard work.


Have other children’s books on this subject been published, and are they still in print?

Ultimately, I want an editor to buy my book and consumers to purchase it, so the marketplace is always a consideration. If there’s a competing title, I’ll need to write something different and unique.


Do I have a passion for this subject?

This is perhaps the most important question. Researching, writing, revising and publishing a book takes a long time. I’m going to live with this subject for the rest of my life (or at least as long as the book’s in print). So I have to be really, really interested in the subject, with enough patience and commitment to carry me through. Otherwise I’m just the fool on the hill….


Tomorrow, read more about Susanna’s creative process on the next stop on her blog tour:




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.


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?

When the Subject is a Poet

By Catherine Reef

In May 1846, in England, a small green book appeared without fanfare. Poems, by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, received a couple of promising reviews; one critic called the book “a ray of sunshine,” and its sixty-one poems “good, wholesome, refreshing, vigorous poetry.” But the poets proved more interesting to their contemporaries than their work. Who were the Bells? Were they brothers? No one guessed that they were sisters, a clergyman’s daughters living in a godforsaken village on the Yorkshire moors. Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë had hidden behind masculine pseudonyms because Victorian society frowned on women writers.

The world remembers the Brontës as novelists, as it should. Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and even Agnes Grey are classics, books that have remained in print for well over a century. They continue to be read, studied, and treasured. Yet the world ought to remember, too, that the Brontës were poets first.

Part of my task in writing The Brontë Sisters was to introduce young readers to my subjects’ poetry. Carefully chosen excerpts show, for example, how Charlotte understood passion, an emotion that would guide her in literature and in life:

Some have won a wild delight,

            By daring wilder sorrow;

Could I gain thy love to-night,

            I’d hazard death to-morrow.

Other extracts convey Emily’s bold, musical style:

Come, the wind may never again

Blow as it now blows for us

And the stars may never again, shine as they now shine…

 And quotations from Anne’s poetry communicate her strong reliance on faith:

If life must be so full of care,

            Then call me soon to Thee…

I have written biographies of other poets, of Walt Whitman, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and E. E. Cummings. As with the Brontës, in each case I wanted to give my readers a foundation for exploring the poetry on their own. This meant explaining how and why the poems were innovative and suggesting what to look and listen for while reading. It meant providing carefully chosen extracts from major and lesser-known works to illustrate the points I made in the text, and to give readers the flavor of the poetry.

In the nineteenth century, Whitman embraced “democratic America” and its people. He celebrated westward expansion and recorded the suffering and sorrow of the Civil War. So among the many lines I quoted from his work were these from the magnificent, all-encompassing “Song of Myself”:

And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,

And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers…

 And these from the exuberant “Passage to India”:

I hear the locomotives rushing and roaring, and the shrill steam-whistle,

I hear the echoes reverberate through the grandest scenery in the world…

I also chose these lines from “The Wound-Dresser,” Whitman’s heartbreaking description of his duties as a wartime nurse:

The neck of the cavalry-man with the bullet through and through I examine,

Hard the breathing rattles, quite glazed already the eye, yet life struggles hard…

 Whitman made sure that “the real war” – the ugly, bloody truth of battle – made it into books. He also gave voice to the nation’s sorrow following the death of Abraham Lincoln in the great poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”:

O how shall I warble myself for the dead one there I loved?

And how shall I deck my song for the large sweet soul that has gone?

 Whitman broke free from the careful rhymes and rhythms that had governed the work of earlier poets, including the Brontës, and wrote long, chanting, beautiful lines of free verse like these from “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”:

I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,

Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,

Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd…

Poetry was forever changed.

Paul Laurence Dunbar was born in 1872, seventeen years after Whitman published the first edition of his sprawling Leaves of Grass, but he wrote in traditional forms, preferring regular rhymes and meters to Whitman’s rolling cadences. The first African American to earn his living with his pen, Dunbar wrote powerfully about what it meant to be black in the predominantly white society of his time, as some of the verses I include in my biography illustrate. These are from “We Wear the Mask”:

We wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,–

This debt we pay to human guile;

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile…

 Dunbar often wrote in standard English, but he also composed many poems in dialect, and this caused him to fall out of favor in the late twentieth century. So much dialect poetry by white poets had deliberately presented African Americans as uneducated and perhaps comical in their ignorance that readers tended to label all dialect poetry offensive. Yet Dunbar had written his verses with affection, faithfully capturing the accents, and the humanity, of people he knew and loved. His dialect poetry deserves to be read and appreciated, so I presented my readers with excerpts, among them this one, which depicts a warm scene of family life:

Little brown baby wif spa’klin’ eyes,

            Come to yo’ pappy an’ set on his knee.

What you been doin’, suh–makin’ san’ pies?

            Look at dat bib–you’s ez du’ty ez me…

 Most readers know E. E. Cummings as the poet who eschewed capital letters. This was not quite true of Cummings, however. He used capitalization (or its absence), punctuation, and the spaces between words and lines to add meaning to his poetry, to force his words to communicate more. Capital letters indicated emphasis, and parentheses allowed two images to be considered at once. Space showed readers when to pause, whereas the lack of it meant that words ran together quickly. It all makes sense when lines such as these are read aloud:

pigeons fly ingand

whee(:are,SpRiN,kLiNg an in-stant with sun-Light


ing all go BlacK…

 Can’t you just see these pigeons in flight, momentarily catching sunlight on their iridescent feathers?

Through careful use of capitalization, Cummings reminded us how beautiful words can sound. He especially loved the musical letter O:

mOOn Over tOwns mOOn…


less creature huge grO


And what other poet could make letters hop around–“r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r,” “PPEGORHRASS,” “gRrEaPsPhOs”–to describe the action of the insect whose name they spell: grasshopper.

I hope the examples I provided in this book have enabled readers to find meaning and joy even in Cummings’s most abstract poems. I hope, too, that my readers will value poetry by Cummings and others throughout their lives and share their favorite poems with others.

Sharing a poem is like giving a gift. In Paul Laurence Dunbar: Portrait of a Poet I shared with readers with the complete text of Dunbar’s aching, powerful “Sympathy.” Today I give it to you:

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!

    When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;   

When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,   

And the river flows like a stream of glass;

    When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,   

And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—

I know what the caged bird feels!


I know why the caged bird beats his wing

    Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;   

For he must fly back to his perch and cling   

When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;

    And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars   

And they pulse again with a keener sting—

I know why he beats his wing!


I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,

    When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—

When he beats his bars and he would be free;

It is not a carol of joy or glee,

    But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,   

But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—

I know why the caged bird sings!

Finding my Subjects

By Catherine Reef

A few years ago I felt ready to write a new biography, but I had no idea who my subject would be. I wanted to select a woman – so many of my books had been about men—yet it seemed that every woman who interested me was too obscure to appeal to publishers or had been written about again and again. Of course, I needed only to open my eyes, because when I did, I saw my ideal subject everywhere: on television, in movies, and in passengers’ hands on the Washington Metro. The result was my most recent biography, Jane Austen: A Life Revealed.

Ideas are everywhere, inside us and all around us. I learned this lesson in the 1990s, while reading about nineteenth-century America. Whether my research took me to the slave markets of New Orleans, the hospitals of Civil War Washington, or the mountain railroad passes of the West, I kept bumping into the same bearded, dreamy-eyed fellow. Walt Whitman would be there to meet me, chronicling his century in exquisite free verse. I grew curious about this “Good Gray Poet.” And when I discovered, to my great surprise, that a young adult biography of Whitman had yet to be written, I had the idea for a book. Whitman was so conscious of his future readers that I felt his presence constantly as I studied his life and work. He remains one of my favorite writers long after Walt Whitman was published, in 1995.

I have always had favorites, though, because I have always read. Recalling myself as a young reader led me to write two biographies, John Steinbeck and E. E. Cummings: A Poet’s Life. Steinbeck was the first author I read when I felt ready to tackle novels written for adults. He appeals to adolescents and teens because he never lost his youthful idealism – he never sold out. And fortunately for me as a writer, Steinbeck’s story is entwined with history, so telling it let me present the Great Depression from a unique viewpoint.

Cummings first called to me when I was a little older, in high school. Like my literary-minded friends, I wrote poems in the Cummings style, as teenage poets still do. Cummings’s work embodies playfulness, irreverence, and rebellion – all youthful qualities – perhaps because he never really grew up. I knew next to nothing about Cummings the man when I began his biography, so plunging in was a great adventure. Luckily for me, his life was an eventful one that included imprisonment in France during World War I and a daughter resulting from an adulterous affair. I had a singular story to tell.

By fall 2005 I had finished my work on Cummings and wanted to write another literary biography. I had yet to settle on a subject when I received a telephone call from an education specialist at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, inviting me to speak on a panel there. In the course of our conversation the specialist mentioned that the library houses the Hemingway Collection – Ernest Hemingway’s many letters, manuscripts, photographs, and miscellaneous papers. Such a wonderful resource was impossible to resist, so I wrote next about Hemingway. I knew that presenting his suicide to young readers would be a challenge, but challenges force writers to grow. Hemingway proved to be a fascinating, complex subject, although his story is a sad one in which death is a constant presence, so once Ernest Hemingway: A Writer’s Life was written, I looked for an antidote.

I found it in Leonard Bernstein, a man who joyfully embraced life. Bernstein was one of the fortunate ones among us who know what they want to do from an early age. He was born to make music and to share his love of music with the world. He was dynamic, enthusiastic, and charismatic, and although he never managed to channel his enormous talent in any one direction, he made lasting contributions to classical and popular music. Bernstein had his low moments, of course, but he was great company for a biographer. Also, writing about Bernstein offered the challenge of writing about music. Nothing is more elusive than music, so how does a writer capture it in words? Readers can see my approach when Leonard Bernstein and American Music is published later this year.

Finally, travel can lead biographers to their subjects. In 2003 I visited Chile, and in the curious port of Valparaiso, I toured La Sebastiana, an eccentric house built into a hillside that had been home to poet Pablo Neruda, who died in 1973. Neruda was a born collector who had filled the house with curios and clocks, colored glass, a ship’s bell, and a carousel horse. More marvelous than the house, though, is the way Chileans from all walks of life revere Neruda for his breathtaking contribution to poetry as well as for his tireless humanitarian work. He represented the poorest Chileans in the national senate, rescued thousands of refugees from the Spanish Civil War, and became a defender of freedom when it was threatened in Chile. Neruda seemed an ideal subject for a young adult biography, but several years would pass until I felt ready to write one – until I had the confidence needed, I guess, to immerse myself in Latin American poetry and to plunge into source materials available only in Spanish. But what an honor it was to write Poetry Came in Search of Me: The Story of Pablo Neruda, another book that will be published in 2012.

Those of us who write biographies for children and young adults need to keep in mind such practical matters as curriculum tie-ins and marketability when choosing our subjects. But we also must trust our curiosity. It leads in unexpected directions!

Choosing Voices

By Margarita Engle

When I write a historical YA novel in verse, I tend to use multiple voices.  Hoping to portray a historical figure from more than one point of view, I allow secondary voices to flow, reacting to the main character’s influence on various lives.  This is especially true if I have been able to find first person accounts from the era.  Diaries and letters help take the guesswork out of research.  I am especially happy whenever I have access to a firsthand description of emotions.  Since my poetry focuses on the personal aspects of historical events rather than the political, I feel free to omit most of the facts and figures.  I do need to understand all the background aspects myself, but I don’t want to clutter the poems.  I try to present un-crowded pages that will look inviting to readers, even the reluctant ones.  

In general, I find it most satisfying to imagine the voices of people I admire. I am attracted to the biographies of people who made hopeful choices during times that must have felt hopeless.  The voices of villains are much harder to write, but sometimes it’s necessary.  For instance, in The Poet Slave of Cuba, I based the voice of Lieutenant Death on the cold, calculating, brutal diary of a real slave-hunter.  In The Surrender Tree, the voice of Weyler the Butcher comes from documented information about Spain’s military leader, who invented concentration camps during the Spanish American War.  In Hurricane Dancers, both the pirate and the conquistador are based on sixteenth century historical accounts. 

My next young adult novel in verse is The Wild Book (Harcourt, March, 2012), inspired by stories my grandmother told me about her childhood struggle with dyslexia.  While this can be thought of as a biographical novel, there was no research at all.  It was a unique experience to imagine the youth of someone I knew and loved when she was old. 

In the case of picture books, one voice is enough.  In order to write Summer Birds, I read everything I could find about Merian’s life, and then I imagined her thoughts.  Whether the voice in a biographical poem or story is imagined or documented, it must sound natural, so I tried to imagine the way a young girl would think about scientific observations.  I tried to step out of my adult life, and recall my own fascination with butterflies when I was little.

Margarita Engle is the Cuban-American author of The Surrender Tree, which received the first Newbery Honor ever awarded to a book by a Latino writer.  Her other award-winning novels in verse include The Poet Slave of Cuba, Tropical Secrets, and The Firefly Letters. Her most recent books are Hurricane Dancers (Holt, 2011) and The Wild Book (Harcourt, 2012).

Kids’ Biography: Finding the Hook

By Barb Rosenstock          

Cradle-to-grave kids’ biographies are pretty much dead. There are few compelling reasons to chronicle dates, places, and events of well-known people when children can find that information in seconds online, whether the subject is Beethoven or Bieber. Currently, writing picture-book biographies is more about transmitting knowledge than information. To do that, kids’ biographers often look for a single event, object, or feeling that gives a reader a new angle through which to view a subject’s life. The more famous the person, the harder an original thematic detail or hook can be to find. At a writer’s conference, an editor said, “Don’t send me any books on Abraham Lincoln, not about his dogs, not about his hat, not about his kids. No more Abe, not ever!”  Children now know so many details about the Founding Fathers that it’s difficult to find a new angle that adds to their knowledge rather than repeats the same tired facts.

And yet…I’ve been fascinated by Thomas Jefferson since my 8th grade trip to Washington, D.C.   On the way home, we stopped at Monticello. The house literally glowed among the trees. Intelligence and affection lived there – I guess you could say (as corny as it sounds) I felt Jefferson’s spirit. Years later, I couldn’t get the idea of writing a picture-book biography of Jefferson out of my mind, no matter how often I told myself I’d find nothing new to say.

I was overwhelmed with the sheer volume of published information about Jefferson: over 10,000 biographical books, 2 million search threads. The most acclaimed adult biography of the man is American Sphinx. Why did I want to write for kids about a man who’s famous for being contradictory, private, and, therefore, unknowable? A freedom-loving slave owner. A women-hating lover.  A shy politician. Was there a way to express to children the intelligent spirit that I’d felt so many years ago, flaws and all?

I read books about Jefferson while running through endless ideas on how to give kids a hook to understand his life. Was it his daughters? His inventions? The Declaration? Horses? A piece of clothing? Slavery? Exploration? Rivers? Dogs ? (Turns out he pretty much hated dogs.) I kept reading: articles, biographies, dissertations, and Jefferson’s letters (18,000 existing letters! No, I never got through them all…) One day I noticed that Jefferson was constantly writing about reading.  A quick search for “Thomas Jefferson’s books” revealed some good academic sources, an extensive online exhibit from Monticello, and one great new fact: Jefferson sold his personal library to the U.S . to replace the Library of Congress after the British burned it during the War of 1812.  Our Library of Congress is Jefferson’s library! Those facts started months of research that wound up including expert help from librarians at the Library of Congress and Monticello, where his spirit really does live.

Tom Jefferson was a reader, and the kids who read picture-book biographies are learning to be readers, too. I found the hook. I wrote the book.

Barb Rosenstock loves true stories best. Her 2010 biography of race driver Louise Smith titled FEARLESS was named to the Top Ten of the Amelia Bloomer Book List. The Camping Trip that Changed America, a historical fiction picture book about Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir, illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein will be released in January, 2012. More upcoming biographies include: William’s Windmill and Vasya’s Noisy Paintbox, published by Knopf and of course, Tom Jefferson, Reader, which will be published by Calkins Creek. Find out more at