Monday, September 27, 2010

Not Your Mother's Picture Book Bio

Many years ago, I checked Jonah Winter's Diego out of the library for my young children. The book begins

"Deep in the mountains of Mexico there was a town called Guanajuato. And in Guanajuato there were two happy parents. They were happy because they had twin sons, Diego and Carlos."

Diego falls ill and is taken to an Indian healer, who has "magical things" in her small hut. What a delight it was to discover, a few pages later, that this simple text reminiscent of folktales was in fact a biography of Diego Rivera.

Diego was published in 1991 (and it inspired me to write my first p.b. bio, Dreamer from the Village: The Story of Marc Chagall). Since then, more and more authors have been bending the genre.

Consider the range of approaches and tones in the openings of following picture book biographies:

"You gotta be kidding! You never heard of Sandy Koufax? He was only the greatest lefty who ever pitched in the game of baseball. Well, for six years he was, anyway. From 1961 to 1966, almost no one could hit the guy. The mighty Mickey Mantle, one of the greatest power hitters of all time:whiff! After the Mick struck out one day, he turned to the catcher and said, "what the heck was THAT?"
-You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?! by Jonah Winter and Andre Carrilho

The narrator of the book is an anonymous veteran teammate. Note his lively, period language, and how he involves the reader/listener (as did Laurie Halse Andersen, earlier, in Thank You, Sarah.)

Carole B
oston Weatherford's biography of Jesse Owens, written in the second person, puts the reader in the position of addressing (and rooting for) the athlete:

"Go from cotton fields to city sidewalks/from sickly child to keen competitor/ from second class citizen to first place finisher/Go, Jesse, go. Trounce Jim Crow/ Run as fast as your feet can fly/ As far as your dreams will reach." - Jesse Owens: Fastest Man Alive

An unusual and impassioned way of telling the dramatic story of the African American who captured four medals at Hitler's 1936 Berlin Olympics.

M.T. Anderson begins his story of Erik Satie with poetry and mystery:

"Erik Satie/was born by the sea/ in the village of Honfleur/on the coast of France./ It was 1866. "I was born/very young/ in a very old world," said Satie once. / And he never grew up/but was always a child/ with an old man's smile."

Anderson's rhythmic language, full of quirky imagery, captures the essence of this eccentric musician.

Expressive language can lend poignancy to bios written in the traditional format. This lyrical passage introduces us to a devoted, little known nature painter:

"There was once a man whose love of nature was as wide as the world. There was once an artist who needed to paint as much as he needed to breathe. There was once an islander who lived in a cottage at the edge of Mississippi, where the sea meets the earth and the sky. His name is Walter Anderson. He may be the most famous American artist you've never heard of."-The Secret World of Walter Anderson by Hester Bass.

Authors of picture book biographies have more choices than ever. They can experiment with innovative storytelling techniques-invented narrators, interactivity, or unconventional formats. They can entertain young readers with humor, or touch their hearts with poetry.

As I begin writing my upcoming bio, I'll ask myself what tone, what approach, what "voice" best conveys the story I want to tell. How can I snare the young reader?

I also need to decide when to begin and end my story. But more on that next time. For more posts on the subject, check the labels to the right.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Poetry of Picture Book Biographies

Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart

This is as true with picture book biographies as it is for fiction. Effective writing is all about summoning and expressing emotion. Especially when it comes to capturing the zeal and commitment of the man or woman you are portraying.

Enjoy the vigorous prose from these picture book biographies:

"His eyes move up and down, back and forth. With light steps, he follows the sweep of his brush. He stops and a pool of paint pauses. Paint, paint and more paint, dripping, pouring, flinging. "The painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through." Jan Greenberg & Sandra Jordan's Action Jackson.

Note the upbeat rhythms. Feel the movement of the up/down/back/forth. Repetition creates emphasis. Hear those explosive p's as the paint hits the canvas.

"Colors came to life like actors on a stage! One color stepped away. Another popped forward. Colors became softer and louder...Colors even disappeared! Josef kept making painting after painting of squares...With each painting he proved that colors don't stand alone-they interact! 'I can kill the most brilliant red by putting it with violet,' he said." Natasha Wing's An Eye for Color: The Story of Josef Albers.

Metaphors create imagery. Repetition for emphasis. Varying sentence length creates interest- and short sentences are more energetic. Note the contrast: "colors don't do stand alone-they interact!

"When the billboard came into view that afternoon, what the brothers saw astonished them. From more than a mile away, it looked like the billboard was on fire! When they got up close, the Switzers didn't find any flames. Instead they discovered something even more exciting. It was just like those silk samples Bob has seen in his backyard in Berkeley: even without the ultraviolet light on, the billboard was glowing-glowing bright orange in the setting sun." Chris Barton's The Day Glo Brothers

The power of simile, and emphatic words/phrases like "astonished" "from more than a mile away" and "even more exciting." Repetition. Contrast between sentences 3 and 4.

Poetic language enhances the drama of the story's climax.

As I continue to research my subject, I'll be looking for actions that reveal his ardor for his work. Did it start in his childhood? What were his inspirations? What lengths did he go to accomplish his goals? What obstacles did he have to overcome? Did he ever describe his love for his work?

Once you feel a deep emotional connection to the person you're writing about, once your imagination is truly engaged, the evocative language will pour forth. Capturing your subject's passion is one of the greatest challenges- and rewards- of writing a picture book biography.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

In celebration of Darcy Pattison's Random Acts of Publicity Week, I recommend The Rooster Prince of Breslov by Ann Redisch Stampler, illustrated by Eugene Yelchin.

The book is a feast for the eye and ears- a blend of witty, lucid storytelling:

"In Breslov, there lived a prince who had more than he wanted. When he was hungry for a slice of bread, he got a slice of cake dripping with honey. When he asked for a raisin, he was given a silver bowl of candied plums. When his eyes rested on a pony or a strudel or a bird's nest or a golden bowl, it was bundled up and brought to him before he even blinked."

and satirical, eye-popping illustrations.

Ann offers a fresh take on this well-known Yiddish parable, about a pampered prince who starts behaving like a rooster til he spends several days with a wise old man. (The sage acts like a rooster to gain the boy's trust.) Though children will be amused by the antics of the strutting, clucking pair, the folktale is much more than that. Ann has impressively re-visioned it as a coming of age story. The prince has a fit of roosterism- an extended, paralyzing tantrum- because he's been spoiled rotten. Only through acts of compassion- through the boy's concerns for the old man's comfort- is he able to grow and mature. A relevant story in this era of so many coddled, over-programmed kids....and a thought-provoking read for the upcoming Jewish holidays.

Today I have the pleasure of sharing an interview with Ann.

Why did you choose to retell this folktale?

I only retell stories that I truly love, and I have always loved the story of The Rooster Prince. It’s a hilarious, over the top slapstick tale with a wonderful message. The story has special relevance for me as a parent since not only is it a coming of age story that addresses what it means to become a good person, but it also deals with the way a parent or teacher can help raise a child to be adult who honors the values of compassion and kindness.

Broadly, how is your version different than the original? What elements did you flesh out or reinterpret?

The original original of this story, to the best of my knowledge, is attributed to Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. His is a very spare story that is interpreted as showing that a teacher of religion must meet the student at the student’s level – even if that is a very low level – in order to help the student climb to spiritual heights.

But of course, with the oral tradition, things change! And my grandmother’s version was, to my mind, very much a down to earth, immigrant’s story in reaction to the material riches available to American children, about how a child having “more than he wanted” does not necessarily lead either to happiness or to desirable, humane values.

And while the bones of the story belong to Rabbi Nachman and my grandmother, the imagery, rhythms, and the particular way the message is woven through, are mine.

What kind of research, if any, did you do for this book?

I read a lot of folklore and have studied the culture from which this story comes. But I think that, really, to write these stories well, the connection has to go beyond research. Even the best researched story in the world won’t come alive on the page unless the writer has a real emotional and with some stories spiritual connection to the tale.

You've retold several folktales. What are the rewards and challenges of writing in this genre?

Writers who retell folktales with their own spin face a bit of a paradox. Folktales come from an oral tradition that maintains its vibrancy, at least in part, as a result of the flexibility available to the teller in presenting a new and different version of the tale every time he or she tells it. Yet when we present the stories as books, we pin them down and trap them in a single, unchangeable form.

The writer’s job is to get the story right in a way that honors its roots and its cultural context but that also reflects the writer’s own creativity and values. When you get it right, there is a sense of having preserved a lively and important bit of the culture that produced the story. And because, in the case of The Rooster Prince, the culture in question is my own heritage, this is particularly gratifying.

If you were to interview the Rooster Prince, what questions might you ask him?

Well, if he were still a child, in the rooster state he’s in throughout much of the book, the only question to which I might expect a response would be something like, “So, uh, cock-a-doodle-doo? Buck buck buck, cluck cluck?” But if I were to meet him as the man he is on the last page, I might ask him if somewhere deep in his heart, there is a special place for the rooster he once was.

To learn more about Ann and her books, visit her website at

Monday, September 6, 2010

Children's Books For Labor Day

Honor Labor.

There's no shortage of picture books about firefighters, zookeepers, bakers, and other high interest jobs. Plenty of books too about teachers and librarians- since they play such a vital role in the daily lives of children. It's rare to find a title, however, that points out the ways workers are connected or mutually dependent on each other.

"Who comes to the rescue when the fishermen run aground at 5 a.m.?" is a question posed in Jessica Hartland's Night Shift (2007).

The book describes the work of donut makers, late night djs, bridge painters, window dressers and ten other evening workers-each of them related in some way. (The donut maker sells a donut to the fisherman, who is later rescued by the tugboat captain). At the end of their shift the workers gather at an all night cafe- and it's nearly morning. Hartland's book has much to offer- it celebrates workers and "community", it's interactive, and the illustrations are lively and cheerful.

And now, for older readers. I was recently astonished to come across the title, You Wouldn't Want to Be a Victorian Mill Worker!
one of a British series published in the states by Franklin Watts (2007).

Author John Malam engages the reader and supplies plenty of detail:

"Gray smoke covers the town like a dirty blanket and blocks out the sunlight. You've moved in with an Irish family that lives in the district called Little Ireland- a rat-infested slum along the banks of the River Medlock. There are 4000 poor people here, and your landlady and her family live in the cellar of one of the houses. ...Welcome to your new home!"

It's grim but dramatic stuff- and though the colorful cartoonish illustrations (complete with scowling mill managers) may seem at odds with the subject matter- they'll attract and keep the attention of the target audience. (The book does end on an upbeat note- a couple of years after a strike, a government factory inspector's report leads to new restrictive child labor laws...) This title, paired with a traditional photo illustrated book about child labor (such as Russell Freedman's Immigrant Kids), would be an excellent resource for teaching history and social responsibility.

Also in the series: You Wouldn't Want to be a Pyramid Builder, You Wouldn't Want To Work on The Railroads, and many more.

Other recommended books about work: Margaret King Mitchell's Uncle Jed's Barber Shop, Gary Paulsen's Work Song and The Tortilla Factory, Deborah Hopkinson's Sky Boys.

On a personal note: Melissa Sweet is currently in the preliminary stages of illustrating my book on Clara Lemlich, the firebrand who led the groundbreaking Shirtwaist Maker's Strike of 1909. I'm grateful to her, to my editors, and to everyone at Balzer & Bray who will be involved in the publication of my book in 2012!

Happy Labor Day